Bogota, Colombia 1948: The assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán
WASHINGTON: My earliest childhood recollections are of the events of April 9, 1948. Why? It is the date of the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogota, Colombia. After all these years it is difficult to separate actually experienced events with those related to me by someone else. However, regardless of the source, they are a reality to me now.
I had been born less than four years before in the city of the events, Bogota, Colombia, South America.
Who was Juan Roa?
On that fateful day, Juan Roa, a misfit, out of work stone mason, house painter and probably mentally ill shot Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. He fired three times as the latter stepped out of a building where he had his office in downtown Bogota, killing him.
Roa, in turn, was lynched by a mob after his deed.
There are reports that Gaitán was to meet Fidel Castro later that day. Fidel was in town attending a young socialist conference in Bogota.
Fidel Castro on Bogata, Columbia
The conference that Castro was attending was a counterpoint to the 9th Conference of American States, the predecessor of the Organization of American States that was also meeting in Bogota.
For several years prior to his death, Gaitán was the largest political figure in Colombia. He was to be the next president of the country by all accounts. He was a socialist and a populist, in the best sense of the word.
He believed in a peaceful protest in the manner of Gandhi. Once he led a protest of hundreds of thousands through the streets of Bogota. Not one word was spoken by the protesters.
Needless to say, that the establishment was deadly afraid of him is an understatement.
The assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán
After almost 70 years since the assassination, there are still many that don’t believe the death of Gaitan to be the work of Roa’s or of him alone. Many theories have been espoused implicating the American CIA, the far right and the far left as well as both centrist parties in Colombia.
In this respect, his death was like that of John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Regardless of who was responsible for this dastardly act, the effects are still been felt in Colombia. Hundreds of thousands have died from the resulting guerrilla war known as “La Violencia”.
In the days that followed the assassination thousands of people died throughout Colombia. Some of the police force took the side of the rioters and opened their armories to them. Many buildings were burned with the resulting loss of property. Many accounts have been written about “El Bogotazo” and the reader is encouraged to read them as I have.
As a four-year-old child I have very little to contribute except for my very limited observations; like the proverbial person in a cave trying to discern reality from the shadows projected in the wall of the cave.
There is no evidence that Fidel Castro was anything more than a spectator to the events.
My recollections of this event are anchored in my mind from the fact that my youngest brother had been born the day before on April 8. That and the unusual actions of my father and one of his workers.
Picture a family living on the middle floors of a five-story building facing the main avenue, the Caracas Avenue at the height of 52 Street. The street mostly deserted with vehicles and persons only sporadically speeding or running while taking cover from gunfire.
A telling fact of the lack of control by the authorities was the absence of police or military vehicles and uniforms.
My father was the construction manager for a building belonging to a close friend. He had moved into the first apartment that was ready for habitation to be on top of the work being done. On this day the only person of this staff present was a giant of a man, probably over six feet tall, that we called “El Chato”, the snub nose one.
He was more of a personal protection person and he would be with our family for many years.
While the shootings, rioting and looting were going on, my father would pace around the apartment, stopping to check on my mother and newly born son. He would go to a bookcase frequently to check on a small revolver that he kept there. It was a small caliber, silver plated gun of the type a woman would carry in her purse.
I am not sure what would he have done if someone had entered the apartment with nefarious intentions. My guess is that he would have tried to talk himself out of the situation before taking any violent action. Heavy curtains covered the large windows that faced the avenue.
In the meantime, his trusted worker, El Chato, had decided that he did not want to just hunker down. He would go to one of many empty apartments and gesticulate and run around to attract the attention of the rioters. When and if they would respond with gunfire, he would duck and move to another location to repeat his act.
There is no telling what his motivation was, but it put everyone’s life in danger in the building. I was not a personal witness to these shenanigans.
However, the story is told and retold as part of the family’s folklore.
He was an odd duck. I remember him on other occasions, disguising himself to try to scare me or other members of the family. My take was that there was no malice in his actions and he just wanted to clown around.
Every body had to eat
In the days following April 9, while the city and most of the country was rioting close to a civil war, my father realized that while we were in relative safety and had enough to eat, others in the family didn’t. Our home was in the extreme northern part of the city and in a location that was not prime for the rioters and looters.
My father also owned a small farm about 15 miles from the city limits and taking a chance he drove there with El Chato. He was able to get staples there in addition to the produce from the farm. He then made several trips to supply all the family members that he could reach.
This was not the only time when my father did something altruistic, putting his life in danger to help others.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist has been lucky enough to live through very interesting times. He is in Twitter (@chibchrus), Google+. LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).