The University of Wisconsin Press

History / Latin American


The Assassination of Gaitán
Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia
Herbert Braun

On April 9, 1948, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, then a popular political leader likely to become the next president of Colombia, was shot and killed by a drifter whose motivations remain obscure. Gaitán's death touched off a spontaneous riot, known as the Bogotazo, and left hundreds dead, razed the center of Bogotá and had far reaching consequences.

Drawn in part from personal interviews with participants and witnesses, Herbert Braun's analysis of the riot's roots, its patterns and consequences, provides a dramatic account of this historic turning point and an illuminating look at the making of modern Colombia.

Braun's narrative begins in the year 1930 in Bogotá, Colombia, when a generation of Liberals and Conservatives came to power convinced they could keep the peace by being distant, dispassionate, and rational. One of these politicians, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was different. Seeking to bring about a society of merit, mass participation, and individualism, he exposed the private interests of the reigning politicians and engendered a passionate relationship with his followers. His assassination called forth urban crowds that sought to destroy every visible evidence of public authority of a society they felt no longer had the moral right to exist.

This is a book about behavior in public: how the actors—the political elite, Gaitán, and the crowds—explained and conducted themselves in public, what they said and felt, and what they sought to preserve or destroy, is the evidence on which Braun draws to explain the conflicts contained in Colombian history. The author demonstrates that the political culture that was emerging through these tensions offered the hope of a peaceful transition to a more open, participatory, and democratic society.

"Most Colombians regard Jorge Eliécer Gaitán as a pivotal figure in their nation's history, whose assassination on April 9, 1948, irrevocably changed the course of events in the twentieth century. . . . As biography, social history, and political analysis, Braun's book is a tour de force."—Jane M. Rausch, Hispanic American Historical Review

From the author's preface

"Year after year a story is told in Bogotá and throughout Colombia. It recounts the life of one man and the experiences of those who lived through the day of his death. So much has been added to and taken from the story that it now has a fictional, almost fantastic, character.

I have sought to recover an assassination in Bogotá for history, and present it as part of a secular process so that we may build upon the past.

Colombia is best known in the United States through the fantastic literature of Gabriel García Márquez as a distant world doomed to cyclical devastation. I hope that this story of civilian politics and urban violence will help to dispel some of the myths, and that the reader will come to appreciate the search for order, the love of laws, the depth of convictions, and the strength of collective purpose which characterize the conflicts that make for historical change in Colombia."

Herbert Braun is assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia. Born in Bogotá, Colombia, he has also taught at the Colegio de México in Mexico City.

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A recounting of violence in Columbia.

March 1986

LC: 85-040362 F
320 pp. 6 x 9
16 illus., 9 maps

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Paper $24.95 x
ISBN 978-0-299-10364-4
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