Colombia has been inhabited for about 12,000 years. Unlike the Inca to the south and the Maya to the north, who developed vast civilizations, the dozens of indigenous groups that inhabited Colombia formed relatively small hunter-gatherer societies. The most notable of these societies were the Muisca, who inhabited the inner Andean region in and around what is today Bogotá, and the Tayronas, who inhabited the Atlantic Coast.

The Spaniards were able to pacify the indigenous peoples of Colombia fairly easily. Alonso de Ojeda was the first European to set foot in Colombia, in 1499, followed in 1525 by Rodrigo de Bastidas. On the northern coast, he founded Santa Marta, Colombia's oldest city. The important port city of Cartagena was begun in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, a few years before Jiménez de Quesada founded the modern-day capital of Bogotá in 1538. Because Colombia never had a large number of indigenous peoples -- and many of them were wiped out by disease after the arrival of the Spaniards -- the slave trade began in the late 1500s. Millions of Africans arrived in Colombia via Cartagena, one of Latin America's most important slave-trading posts. For about the next 300 years, Spain ruled Colombia, which was then called the Presidencia del Nuevo Reino de Granada, an area that included modern-day Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama.

Colombia's struggle for independence officially began in 1781 with the Revolución Comunera in the small town of El Socorro. Independence hero Simón Bolívar began his struggle against Spain in 1812, but didn't gain Colombia's independence until the final battle of Boyacá, on August 7, 1819. Thus, Bolívar became Colombia's first president.

Unfortunately, Colombia's independence didn't mean the end of bloodshed. In 1849, the formation of the Liberal and Conservative parties laid the foundation for the conflict that would -- and still does -- continue to haunt the country. Between 1849 and 1948, nearly half a million Colombians were killed in various insurrections pitting Liberals against Conservatives.

But it wasn't until 1948 that things really got ugly, with La Violencia, a violent time of upheaval that claimed the lives of another 500,000 Colombians in a decade. For several years, there was a period of relative peace, but in 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was founded, pitting insurgent communists against the ruling elite. Although originally a political organization, the FARC, and later the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the M-19 guerilla groups, soon found their way into the Colombian cocaine trade, resulting in an even greater degree of violence and terrorism. Meanwhile, wealthy landowners, the military, and even government officials encouraged the organization of right-wing paramilitary units, armed groups whose aim was to fight the leftist guerillas. However, like the guerillas, the paramilitaries soon became involved in the drug trade, resulting in frequent, bloody battles between these two factions. Paramilitary power reached its pinnacle during the Pablo Escobar years (1980s and early 1990s), when Escobar and the paramilitaries more or less controlled Colombia through frequent bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations.

In 2002, conservative hard-liner Alvaro Uribe won the presidency, vowing to eliminate the guerillas and, through a peace accord, demobilize the paramilitaries.

Colombia Today -- True to his word, President Alvaro Uribe has restored much order in Colombia. In fact, an entire generation of Colombians is experiencing peace for the first time. Once holding the dubious title of being the most dangerous country in the world, President Uribe's government has reduced kidnapping and murder rates by more than 50%. Leftist guerillas have dramatically loosened their grip on Colombian politics and have been pushed out of the cities. (Two of the FARC's seven-member secretariat were killed in a single week in early 2008.) Once afraid to drive long distances because of kidnappings, Colombians are now taking to the road in record numbers as travel becomes safe again.

But it's not all good news: Support is down for President Uribe, and crime rates in major cities have begun to increase slightly. Like many Latin American countries, Colombia also continues to be a country divided by class and stuck in an almost feudal-like society in which the rich rarely interact with the poor and the poor have little chance of upward mobility. Forty percent of Colombians live in absolute poverty, many without life's basic necessities. A small minority of Colombians continue to control most of the country's wealth and resources.

It is unclear if Alvaro Uribe will run for a third term in office, as he already changed the constitution to allow for a second term. Anti-Uribistas say Uribe's government is corrupt and a third term will elevate him to a dictator-like level. Although the Uribe fervor that claimed the country several years ago has subsided substantially, it remains to be seen if any other candidate can maintain Colombia's relative peace.

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