Originally inhabited by tribal groups dominated by the Chibchas, Colombia was first visited by Spanish sailors as early as 1500. Yet, the first permanent European settlement was not established until 1525. Declared a Spanish colony in 1549, Colombia was organized into the vice-royalty of New Granada in 1717, along with what are now Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. Under the tutelage of South America's liberator, Simón Bolívar, the country began its quest for independence. With the defeat of the Spanish army in 1819, the Republic of Gran Colombia was formed as an independent state comprising the territory of the former vice-royalty. Two further wars created the autonomous states of Venezuela and Ecuador (1830) and Panama (1903).
The political history of Colombia has been dominated since independence by two opposing groups, eventually organized as the Liberal Party (PL, Partido Liberal) and the Conservative Party (PSC, Partido Conservador), which is historically linked to the followers of Simón Bolívar, Colombia's liberator and first president. The PSC helped to create a strong centralized government. The PL contributed a separation of church and state and universal suffrage to the political landscape.
Colombian politics is marked by extraordinary violence. Citizens resort to arms to resolve political differences to a degree unmatched on the continent. Three presidential candidates were assassinated during the 1990 campaign, and others had attempts made on their lives. The election of Cesar Gaviria in 1990 brought an opportunity for political peace. A new Constitution was written in 1991, and several guerrilla groups entered the political arena after being demobilized. By that time, drug lords had come to replace guerrilla leaders as the main threat to political and social stability. Pablo Escobar, the leader of the powerful Medellín drug cartel, was imprisoned but eventually managed to escape. At that point, Gaviria declared war on drug cartels and was killed in a 1993 confrontation.
Demand for drugs in the United States remained high, and despite government efforts to eradicate coca leaf plantations, the influence of drug lords contaminated the country. The 1994 presidential elections showed the extent to which drugs had invaded every aspect of the nation's life. Liberal candidate Ernesto Samper won the election, but accusations of drug-related campaign financing almost toppled his government months after his inauguration. In the 1998 presidential election, Conservative candidate Andrés Pastrana ran on a peace platform, promising to reduce conflicts with guerrilla groups and drug cartels. Four years later, crime and violence had increased and the influence of cartels had grown. The United States developed a strategy (known as Plan Colombia ) with the Pastrana government to aid the Colombian military to combat the illegal production of cocaine. Implementation of the multiyear plan began in 2001, but critics claimed that it would lead to a civil war and to the occupation of Colombia by U.S. troops. The 2002 presidential elections were primarily about strategies to put an end to violence and to effectively combat the growing influence of drug cartels in Colombian society.