(b. Amagá, Antioquia, Colombia, 4 Feb. 1923)
Colombian; President 1982–6 The second son of twenty-two children, sixteen of whom died as children, Betancur was born into an extremely poor family. He received secondary education in a seminary, but was later expelled for ‘lack of vocation’. He entered the University Pontifica Bolivariana in Medellín as a student of architecture, and had to sleep rough for two years before he obtained a scholarship. He later switched to law, and received a law degree. He worked as a journalist for a number of years.
As a young man he joined an extreme right-wing movement before joining the Conservative Party. In 1946 he was elected a deputy, and in 1950 was appointed to the Constituent Assembly. He was active in opposition to the dictator, General Rojas Pinilla, who jailed him several times. He supported the National Front Agreement between the Conservatives and Liberals. In the 1960s he served as Minister of Labour, and in 1979 he was appointed as ambassador to Spain. He tried three times for the presidency on the Conservative Party ticket, 1962, 1970, and 1978, but each time unsuccessfully.
Betancur was the leader of the progressive wing of the Conservative Party. In 1982 he was finally successful in his bid to become President of Colombia, thanks in part to divisions in the Liberal Party.
As President of Colombia, Betancur was active in trying to broker a peace with Colombia's many guerrilla movements. He also took an active interest in international affairs, helping form the Contadora peace process for Central America, trying to set up a regional debt cartel, establishing a rapprochement with Cuba. In 1982 Colombia joined the Non-Aligned Movement. And in 1983 Betancur's strong speech in support of developing countries at the United Nations won him much support.
However, the foreign policy successes were more difficult to repeat on the domestic front. In November 1982 Betancur offered an amnesty for guerrilla combatants, and some 2,000 guerrillas accepted. In 1984 Betancur and three main guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), linked to the Communist Party of Colombia, the 19th of April Movement (M-19), and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) signed a peace agreement. The other guerrilla groups refused to sign. And the powerful military establishment were not happy. As part of the agreement the government promised a number of social and political reforms such as an agrarian reform, the direct election of majors, and guarantees of equality for parties other than the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Liberals and Conservatives had shared power for twenty-five years under the National Front agreement.
However, the peace was short-lived. In December 1985 the M-19 seized the Palace of Justice. Betancur refused to negotiate, and after a siege, sent in the army. Over 100 people died, including many prominent judges. The M-19 and the ELP then declared the peace process over.
In addition to the guerrilla problem Betancur faced a growing problem with the cocaine traffickers. After years of ignoring the problem, US pressure persuaded Betancur to move against the drug barons, supporting the extradition treaty with the USA. They responded by assassinating his Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lars Bonilla, in 1984, and in effect declaring war against the Colombian state.