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Insurgency Overview

The 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril), M-19, was a guerilla movement in Colombia active during the 1970s and 80s before demobilising in 1990 and transitioning into a political party, the ‘M-19 Democratic Alliance’ (Alianza Democrática M-19), or AD/M-19.  The movement’s name is a reference to the date (April 19th, 1970) when ex-military dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla of the National Popular Alliance (Alianza Nacional Popular), ANAPO, was allegedly denied electoral victory by the National Front, a coalition of power-sharing liberal and conservative establishment leaders.  The National Front subsequently imprisoned Pinilla and declared martial law, which inspired the founders of the M-19 to take up arms. (1).  The M-19 declared itself to be an urban armed protest movement for the people of Colombia. While most Colombian guerilla movements identified with Marxist ideology, the M-19 “advocated a nationalist, Bolívarian, anti-imperialist, anti-oligarchic model and argued for ‘Socialism Colombian-style.’” (2)

The movement began in the early 1970s as a clandestine group of urban cells operating in Bogotá and other major cities across Colombia.  By the 80s, the movement had succeeded in building a military-political apparatus with mobile units on multiple fronts and became the second largest and most popular guerrilla movement in the country. (1) They funded their operations by kidnapping landowners, drug traffickers, politicians, and oligarchs (including their family members) and holding them ransom for large sums of money. (2) Their weapons were either imported from overseas and smuggled into the country or stolen from military installations or local individuals. (2,3,4) Their strategy of armed propaganda and ‘Robin Hood-like actions’ made them very popular and garnered public support.  On the flip side, they also attracted negative attention from the military and paramilitary units, like the MAS (Muerte a Secuestradores, ‘Death to Kidnappers’) and AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, ‘United Self-Defenders of Colombia), whose ‘dirty war’ led to the imprisonment, torture, and murder of guerrillas and anyone alleged to sympathize or support the movement. (2)

Significant actions by the M-19 include the theft of Simón Bolívar’s Sword, the siege of the Embassy of the Dominican Republic, and the siege of the Palace of Justice.  M-19’s military operations were largely seen as political failures, but after a decade of failed peace negotiations, the M-19 successfully negotiated a ceasefire and peace agreement with the government. (2) In 1990, the group demilitarised in return for full amnesty and a path towards electoral politics. (1) The newly formed AD/M-19 played a significant role in the creation of Colombia’s modern 1991 constitution and paved the way for future peace negotiations between the Colombian government and other guerrilla organisations.  While the AD/M-19 initially had popular support, the movement began to decline due to poor political strategy and decisions regarding unpopular economic and social policies.  Many former members left to join other more successful leftist political groups, such as the Independent Democratic Pole (Polo Democrático Independiente, PDI). (2) In 2022, Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerilla, won Colombia’s presidential elections and became the first leftist president in the nation’s history.


Colombia has a long history of armed violence.  The current civil war has roots in a time of conflict known as La Violencia.  The decade-long civil war followed the 1948 assassination of Liberal party candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.  Following a riot known as the Bogotázo, military, police, and conservative political leaders encouraged conservative-supporting peasants to seize agricultural land from liberal-supporting peasants.  This led to mass displacement and the deaths of over 200,000 Colombians. (5)  During this time, rural self-defence groups formed and eventually evolved into the guerilla movements of the 60s.  These first-generation guerilla organisations include the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacion Nacional, ELN), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL). (2) In 1953, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla mounted a coup d’état and ruled the country as a military dictator.  He imposed martial law and implemented populist leftist policies.  The coup put an end to the conflict, but Pinilla’s policies conflicted with those of the oligarchic establishment.  Therefore, the Liberal and Conservative parties formed a power-swapping coalition known as the National Front and deposed Pinilla.  In opposition, Pinilla formed the ANAPO political party. (5)

On April 19th, 1970, Pinilla was allegedly denied the presidency by the National Front, in a case of electoral fraud.  Pinilla was then imprisoned, and perpetual martial law went into effect which gave the state forces unconstitutional powers to search and seize.  For many, this reinforced their belief that Colombia’s government was not a true democracy. (1)

In 1973, Jaime Bateman, a FARC separatist, and Carlos Toledo, a physician and ANAPO representative in Congress, founded the M-19 intending to build a popular urban armed protest movement capable of challenging the oligarchy and established order. (1) They began establishing clandestine cells in urban centres across the country.  Their first major operation occurred in 1974 when a clandestine cell stole Simón Bolívar’s sword from the Quinta de Bolívar in Bogotá.  The symbolic action grabbed the attention of the public in the form of armed propaganda that encouraged others to take up arms and join the movement. (2)

In 1976, the M-19 kidnapped and executed union leader, Jose Mercado.  Mercado had been accused of “being a traitor to the interest of the working class.”  The next year the group took hostage the manager of an agro-industrial African Palm company.  In this action, they were able to work out a peaceful negotiation that led to better working conditions for the employees while sparing the life of the manager.  It was during this time that M-19 began to adopt a political-military organisational structure that oriented itself towards comprehensive political and military actions. (4,6)

In 1978, the group smuggled more than 5,700 weapons from a military arms cache by digging a tunnel into an army weapons depot.  The arms provided the movement with the means to develop mobile units capable of large-scale actions across multiple fronts.  In response, the military raided, arrested, and tortured many suspected M-19 guerrillas, including alleged “sympathisers.” (2)

One year later, M-19’s Jorge Marcos Zambrano commando unit laid siege to the Dominican Republic embassy in Bogotá.  The main objective of the operation was to force the release of their political prisoners.  The incident received international attention.  After 61 days of negotiation, a non-violent solution was reached with President Turbay’s administration.  The prisoners were not freed, but the action did open a dialogue between the government and M-19 regarding amnesty and peace negotiations. (2)

In 1981, the group kidnapped Martha Nieves Ochoa, the sister of the Ochoa brothers, founders of the Medellín Cartel.  In response, the narco-traffickers funded a paramilitary group known as “Death to Kidnappers” (Muerte a Seceustradores, MAS) to destroy the M-19 and other guerrilla groups in revenge for the kidnapping of their families.  They carried out assassinations against M-19 leaders and tortured/killed those perceived to “support” the guerillas. (2)

In the early 1980s, a series of military actions were waged to promote a peace proposal that called for the “ending of the state of emergency, the derogation of the Security State, [and] an unconditional general amnesty along with a national dialogue.” (2) In 1983, general commander Jaime Bateman was killed in a plane crash while travelling to Panama for peace talks with then-President Belisario Betancur. (1) The next year, President Betancur and M-19’s then-general commander Álvaro Fayad signed an agreement of truce and national dialogue.  However, the dialogue lacked support from the rest of the government, including hostile sectors within the military. (2) In fact, during this period one of the largest battles between the Army and M-19 occurred in Yarumales.  After the assassination of M-19 co-founder Carlos Toledo and a nearly fatal attack on commander Antonio Navarro, Commander Fayad declared an end to the truce. (4)

In 1985, M-19’s Ivan Marino Ospina company, a special forces unit consisting of 35 guerrillas, laid siege to the Palace of Justice in Bogotá to protest President Betancur’s failure to comply with the peace agreements. (4) President Betancur refused to negotiate with the guerrillas and allowed the state forces to run an aggressive counter-siege operation.  The counter-siege was led by tanks, helicopters, and troops with machine guns, grenades, and rocket launchers; it led to the destruction of the Palace of Justice and the deaths of over 100 people, including the entire guerilla unit and half the nation’s supreme court. (7) The failed operation was a national tragedy and cost the movement a considerable amount of support.  Following the operation, Commander Fayad was murdered in a police raid. (2)

After the Palace of Justice, the movement was unable to continue the armed struggle due to loss of public support and political isolation.  In 1988, then-general commander Carlos Pizarro called for a truce with the military and initiated a peace process with the government.  In 1990, the M-19 officially demilitarised and transitioned into politics.  The success of the peace process paved the way for other guerrilla movements like the EPL, PRT (Partido Revolucionario de Trabajadores de Colombia), and Quintín Lame to follow in their footsteps toward peace agreements. (2)

In 1990, M-19’s political organisation, AD/M-19, was officially established.  Pizarro ran for presidency but was assassinated by the Medellín cartel before the elections could take place. (1) An estimated 160 ex-guerillas were killed after demobilization. (2) Despite the murders, the M-19 did not revert to taking up arms but continued the peace process.  The political party saw some early successes.  Antonio Navarro was elected as the Minister of Health and the AD/M-19 won a significant number of votes for the National Constitutional Assembly.  They played a key role in the forging of the Colombian Constitution of 1991. (1,2,4)

It didn’t take long for the AD/M-19 to lose momentum and face a massive decline in political support. The decline was due to a lack of political strategy including support for unpopular economic programs and several repressive pieces of legislation. Despite the failure of the party, many of its members went on to join the Independent Democratic Pole (Polo Democrático Independiente, PDI) coalition which later merged with the Alternative Democratic Pole (Polo Democrático Alternativo, PDA) coalition.  Current President and ex-M19 guerilla, Gustavo Petro, combined his party, Humane Colombia (Humana Colombia), with the PDA and other leftist and liberal political organisations to form the Historic Pact (Pacto Histórico) coalition.  During Gustavo Petro’s time in the M-19, he was jailed and tortured.  As the first leftist president in Colombian history, he has championed peace negotiations with the remaining guerrillas and continued to lead investigations into ties between paramilitaries and politicians.  For example, former president Álvaro Uribe faces allegations linking him to the AUC paramilitary organisation, human rights abuses, and drug trafficking. (8)

Objectives and Ideology

"I’m not a Marxist.  Being a Marxist in today’s world is being dogmatic.  I am not dogmatic." - M-19 Commander Jaime Bateman (1)

The M-19 considered itself the military arm of the ANAPO movement.  They advocated “a nationalist, Bolivarian, anti-imperialist, anti-oligarchic model of ‘Socialism Colombian-style’.  Their main objective was to open ‘true’ electoral democracy in Colombia through armed protest. (2)

M-19 saw itself as distinct from internationalist-oriented models, such as those of the ELN (Cuba-oriented), FARC (Soviet-oriented), and EPL (China-oriented).  They did not consider themselves Marxist-Leninist, which they saw as dogmatic.  Instead, the movement prided itself on its diversity of class, political orientation, and culture.  Their ranks were made up of mostly middle-class students/college graduates and working-class youth from popular urban sectors across the country. Women were allowed to participate as militants and serve as commanding officers. They claimed their movement was for the ‘common people’ united by Colombian identity, Latin American fraternity, and the revolutionary history of their ancestors.  There was a concern with building unity amongst various guerilla movements and political groups, despite the prevailing mood of extreme sectarianism. (2)

Revolutionary movements such as the Montoneros in Argentina and the Tupamaros in Uruguay inspired M-19 to build a political-military apparatus of mobile guerrilla units that could channel the will of the people to bring about revolutionary economic and social change.  They believed democracy would only prevail after these revolutionary changes took place through armed rebellion. (6)

Political and Military Capabilities

The M-19 started as a small group of clandestine cells in popular urban centres.  They established columns (units) in Colombia’s major cities.  Each column was organised into independent cells.  They financed operations mainly by kidnapping or ‘detaining’ hostages and demanding ransom for large sums of money. (1) Undercover guerillas ran safehouses to smuggle weapons and hostages.  Their main military objectives were to carry out commando-like actions in urban centres as a form of armed propaganda (i.e. stealing the sword of Bolívar) and building a large-scale rural army capable of challenging the state to meet their demands for democratic and social reform. (2) 

In the 1986 siege of the Palace of Justice, author Ann Carrigan writes, “[they had] boxes of hand grenades and some Claymore mines…two 50mm and 30mm Mack machine guns, ammunition for the 7.62mm Galil rifles, the 7.63 G-3 guns, the 5.56mm AR-15s, the Uzi 9mm submachine guns, the M-16s, the 9mm Browning revolvers—all piled up in sacks on the floor.” (2) Two successful operations reveal how the M-19 collected large caches of arms. In 1979, a guerilla unit stole 5,700 small arms by digging a tunnel into a military armoury in northern Bogotá.  In 1981, Jaime Guillot Lara, a Colombian drug and weapons smuggler, helped smuggle 1,000 Belgian FN FAL combat rifles and one million rounds of 7.62 x 51mm ammunition by ship from Libya to Colombia in a mission known as Operation Karina. (3) Part of the arms were trucked to a clandestine airstrip and flown via a hijacked plane to the Oreteguaza River in Caqueta.  The remaining arms were lost when the ship was sunk by a Colombian Naval vessel.  The drastic increase in firepower led to an increase in large-scale operations and helped establish the M-19’s military apparatus on multiple fronts. (2)  

Formations of mobile guerilla groups on multiple fronts began to take shape after 1978.  They received training at Cuban military schools and learned technical skills such as “engineering trenches, pits, and tunnels, vaults, etc.” as well as “tactical, operational, and strategic elements such as radio communications, camouflage for infiltration operations, and mining for active defence operations.”  In Argentina, the Montoneros taught them specialised skills like “jamming TV channels” and in Libya, they received training to develop a special forces unit capable of large-scale, complex operations, such as seizing the Palace of Justice. (2)

M-19 was at its height in the mid-1980s when active membership was estimated to have been between 1500-2000 militants.  They ran hit-and-run style tactics and used artillery to attack police and army outposts. In 1984, multiple rural fronts were in control of regional capitals and ‘freedom centres’ in rural towns, such as Yarumales. These mobile units could hold their defences against military attack.  For example, during the Battle of Yarumales, the M-19 were able to sustain a fight against the army for 22 days and push them away from their position. (2)  

The guerilla army was powered by popular support.  When the peace negotiations fell apart, the M-19’s legitimacy and popular support began to significantly decline.  The Palace of Justice siege was a desperate attempt to regain popularity and support but ultimately marked the group’s end as an effective military force. (2,4,7)

As a political organisation, AD/M-19 had early successes in municipal elections and the National Constituent Assembly.  They played a significant role in drafting the modern Colombian Constitution of 1991.  However, they quickly lost momentum and public support due to strategic mistakes and support for unpopular policies.  Despite the party’s failure, many leftist political movements in Colombia can trace their roots back to M-19, including President Gustavo and the Historic Pact coalition. (2,4)

Approach to Resistance

Since the days of La Violencia, violence has been a traditional political tool in Colombia.  The M-19 took up arms in protest because they believed the oligarchy would not take them seriously unless they were armed.  Their main objective was to create a military apparatus that would serve as a tool to channel social indignation and support the popular will.  The movement was able to grow and spread throughout the country using ‘armed propaganda.’ (2)

Armed propaganda is the action of carrying out specific objectives to serve as propaganda material for mass communications. (6) For example, when M-19 stole the sword of Simón Bolívar it gained mass media attention.  The sword carried historical, cultural, and revolutionary significance; its theft symbolised a ‘return to revolution’ and a ‘call to arms.’  The guerilla movement took over schools, towns, and work unions to spread propaganda.  They shared communiques through sympathetic journalists and took control of radio stations and newspapers to communicate their message to the masses.  Other actions of armed propaganda included bank robberies, ambushes, stealing weapons, rescuing prisoners, executing corrupt union leaders, kidnapping, hijacking planes, ships, and trains, and seizing embassies and the Palace of Justice. (2)

M-19’s more militarised approach was largely seen as a political failure.  Their targets (i.e. the military, drug traffickers, police, corrupt union leaders, politicians, and oligarchs) led to the imprisonment, torture, and murder of many guerrillas and their (perceived) ‘supporters’ and ‘sympathizers.’ People were tired of the conflict and opposition to the M-19 saw guerrilla violence as evidence to support their stance against the peace negotiations.  When the M-19 seized the Palace of Justice, popular support had already been on the decline.  They made many strategic mistakes, but the most obvious is the location.  When they seized the embassy of the Dominican Republic, they took ambassadors hostage and received international coverage.  The government was forced to act diplomatically.  In the case of the Palace of Justice, the military was able to act without impunity or oversight. (2,7)

Another strategic mistake was targeting the cartels.  For example, the kidnapping of Martha Ochoa led to the formation of the paramilitary organisation known as MAS. MAS and other paramilitaries targeted M-19 “sympathisers” and “supporters”. These paramilitaries tortured and murdered thousands of innocent civilians during what is known as the ‘dirty war.’ (5,8,9) The ‘dirty war’ effectively killed popular support for the movement. (9)

By the late 80s, people were tired of the war and wanted peace. The siege of the Palace of Justice was a catastrophic failure and the movement faced isolation. Internally, the group had lost support and the will to continue fighting.  Meanwhile, the government was overwhelmed by fighting on two fronts against the guerillas and drug traffickers.  This made then-President Barco’s administration more susceptible to negotiations. General Commander Pizzaro and Commander Navarro decided to commit to peace negotiations, demilitarisation, and transition into politics. They reached out to the military and were able to reach a truce.  They tried to reach out to the Medellín cartel but were ignored. (1,2,4,7) Many guerrillas continued to be killed by the cartel after demilitarisation, including commander Pizarro.  Despite the killings, the M-19 remained committed to the peace process. Their actions laid the foundation for other guerilla organisations to follow their own peace process’. As a result, leftist political power in Colombia can be traced back to the peace negotiations and early political actions of M-19. (2,9)

Relations and Alliances

The M-19 fostered relationships with many international socialist organisations.  For example, they received support from international revolutionary and socialist movements in Nicaragua and Cuba.  Cuba provided the M-19 with guerrilla military training. Libya provided the guerrillas with special forces training.  Logistical support came from Panama, Cuba, and Venezuela and political support came from Mexico and Costa Rica.  Argentina’s Montoneros influenced the M-19’s development of rural armed fronts (mobile guerilla units) and the formation of joint operations with other guerrilla organisations. (2)

M-19 promoted guerrilla unity through bilateral actions with guerrilla movements throughout Colombia and Latin America.  They created a joint force with EPL known as Fuerza Conjunta.  They also operated on joint campaigns with the ELN and Quintín Lame (an indigenous organisation). In fact, M-19 played a leading role in forming large, joint-led guerrilla movements such as the National Guerilla Coordinator (Coordinadora Nacional Guerrillera, CNG), the Simón Bolívar Coordinating Board (Coordinadora Guerrillera Simón Bolívar, CGSB), and the America Battalion (Batallón América). They even made attempts to establish a guerrilla front with members of Peru’s Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolutionario Tupac Amaru) and Ecuador’s Alfaro Lives, Damn It! (Alfaro Vive, Carajo!). However, the M-19 eventually grew disenchanted with trying to unite guerilla organisations when they realised ideological sectarianism proved stronger than guerilla unity. (2,4)

Works Cited

(1) - The Story of the M-19, Colombian History X, Educational Video, Published: 22 June 2019 

(2) - Durán, Mauricio Garcia,  Otty Patiño Hormaza and Vera Grabe Loewenherz M-19’s “Journey form Armed Struggle to Democratic Politics: Striving to Keep the Revolution Connected to the People”, Berghof Transition Series No. 1, Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management.  Published January 1st, 2008.

(3) - CIA. Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey. Implications for the United States of the Colombian Drug Trade, Special National Intelligence Estimate Volume II—Annex E, SNIE 8/88-83, Published: 28 June 1983, Approved For Release: 2009/04/01

(4) - Perdoma, María Eugenia Vásquez, My Life as a Colombian Revolutionary: Reflections of a Former Guerrillera, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2005

(5) - Murillo, Mario A., Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Destabilization (Open Media Series), Seven Stories Press, New York City, New York, September 2, 2003.

(6) - Marighella, Carlos, “Armed Propaganda”,

(7) - Carrigan, Ana, The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York City, New York, Published: October 1993.

(8) - “Former Columbian President Alvaro Uribe Blasts Impending Criminal Charges”, News: Crime,  Al Jazeera, Published: April 10, 2024.

(9) - O’Connor, Francis, “Clandestinity and insurgent consolidation: The M-19’s rebel governance in urban Colombia.” Political Geography, Available online: 3 July 2023

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