Juan Roa Sierra (born November 4, 1927 in Bogotá—died April 9, 1948 in Bogotá) was a Colombian known for assassinating Colombian Liberal leader and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948. After he shot Gaitán three times, mortally wounding him, a mob chased him down and killed him. The assassination of Gaitan triggered El Bogotazo, riots that partially destroyed Bogota and led to the La Violencia, a period of violence that lasted until approximately 1958.
Roa was 20 years old at the time of the Gaitán assassination and his own subsequent death. He was the son of Encarnación Sierra and Rafael Roa. According to a memoir by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, His mother was a Gaitán follower, and was home preparing her grieving dress, when she heard on the radio that her son was the assassin. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book, Vivir para contarla, expressed doubts about Roa's guilt.
Days before the assassination
The last visit to Gerat occurred on April 7, two days before the assassination. Gerat declared that Roa had had a dream about a treasure in two indigenous towns not too far from Bogota and that he felt destiny was going to give him something important. Gerat suggested that he not go alone, but Roa rejected this. On this same date Roa purchased the weapon and the next day he bought the ammunition.
Two witnesses said they had heard Roa say he was going to serve as bodyguard for two foreigners who were going on a trip to a desolated land. One foreigner, Rafael del Pino was known to have been in contact with Roa ninety minutes before the assasination, according to police reports.
Del Pino was traveling with another Cuban that the police felt also deserved a "well-grounded suspicion" for this assassination, Fidel Castro, who was also observed in the immediate vicinity of the assassination.(Weyl 1960, p. 34-35) These two Cubans immediately fled to the Cuban Legation just in time to avoid arrest.(Weyl 1960, p. 34-35).
According to the assistant of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, Cecilia de González, Roa went several times to the office two months before the assassination, but she never gave him the opportunity to see him.
The day of the assassination Roa visited the office at 9:30 AM. Gaitan had arrived a little before 8 AM even though he had been awake until late because he attended the trial of Lieutenant Jesús María Córtez Poveda, his client. The building security guard saw him with another person (later identified as César Bernal Ordóñez) but Roa solicited the interview alone.
The angry mob grew in front of the drug store where the police had taken him for refuge, finally the situation was so menacing that the iron shutters of the drugstore were opened. Roa's was then kicked and stabbed by a massive mob until he was "an almost shapeless corpse"; then his body was left in front of the Presidential Palace.(Weyl 1960, p. 17-19, 34-35)
Other versions of the story
According to a translation made by the United States embassy of an article published on April 16, 1948 by Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Roa was 25 years old at the time of his death. He was baptized in the church of the Egipto Neighborhood in Bogotá and was the youngest of 6 brothers. He lived for some time in the Ricaurte Neighborhood also in Bogota more exactly in the address Calle 17-S No.16-52 and was working as a paintor. Roa then began to suffer from Schizophrenia and was interned in a clinic in Sibaté.
According to a Scotland Yard report dated July 20, 1948, Roa said he was one of 14 children of the same mother, and that his father had passed away. He said he had not married, but had had an affair with a married woman named María de Jesús Forero with whom he had had a child.
Apparently the woman denied Roa's affirmations, and after a psychological chiromancy test in front of a mirror, Roa began to act as if he were the 19th century Colombian military and political figure, Francisco de Paula Santander. Apparently, Roa ended the relationship with the woman a years before the assassination.
Four months later his mother noticed he had become more quite and weird. Scotland Yard affirmed he was the 13th of the 14 siblings. Scotland Yard also mentioned that Roa admired Gaitan but this admiration may had changed after a commentary made by the candidate.
In the book "Vivir para contarla" (2002) Gabriel García Márquez has some issues with the Scotland Yard report with the number of siblings and mentions that in the documents found in Roa's pocket, his address was located on Calle 8 No. 30-73 differing from that of El Tiempo newspaper.
Scotland yard report also said that Roa had illusions of being mighty, egocentric and was usually spaced out. His behavior might have changed after getting involved with the Rosicrucianism, which was introduced to him by a German named Umland Gerat 18 months before the assassination of Gaitan. Apparently Roa's mother noticed this and went to speak to Gerat about his son's issues and told him her son believed he himself was Jiménez de Quesada, the founder of Bogotá. She also mentioned that Roa was at Gaitan's office applying for a job.
The theory that Roa did not assasinate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán
Nathaniel Weyl documents the assasination claims then made by Rafael Azula Barrera and the President of Colombia Mariano Ospina Pérez that Gaitán was assasinated as part of a Cold War conspiracy led by the USSR to increase Soviet influence in the Caribbean. The violent disruption of the 1948 Inter-American Conference and the violent deaths of a thousand people was alleged to also have been part of a Cold War conspiracy by agents of the USSR that allegedly included the then low-level Soviet agent Fidel Castro.
According to police records Fidel Castro was suspected of personally of assasinating Gaitán, as his Cuban travelling companion, Rafael del Pino was seen with the fascist former mental patient, Juan Roa, an hour and a half before the assasination.
Castro had attempted to recruit Gaitán earlier to his cause, but Gaitán had repeatedly declined and was assasinated because he was too politically influential and would have countered the Cold War objectives of the USSR in the Caribbean.
Weyl documents the claim by the Colombian President Mariano Ospina Pérez and others, that Roa was influenced by others and perhaps did not commit any crime at all. He discusses the questions of Milton Bracker of the New York Times and U.S. Ambassador Willard L. Beaulac if Roa had acted on his own. Ambasador Beaulac then speculated that Roa was simply used to cover the identity of the real assasins.
The President of Colombia Mariano Ospina Pérez and the Columbian General Secretary Rafael Azula Barrera considered the evidence that the revolver Roa had carried was incapable of accurate fire, that Roa was not thought to have any firearms training, the assasination had been committed at some distance, and that no eyewitness saw Roa anywhere near the assasination, that he was first seen between two policemen. From this evidence the government of Colombia concluded that the improverished Roa with his diminished mental capacities had been paid to stand near the event with a recently fired revolver.(Weyl 1960, p. 23-24)
Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (January 23, 1903 – April 9, 1948) was a politician, a leader of a populist movement in Colombia, a former Education Minister (1940) and Labor Minister (1943-1944), mayor of Bogotá (1936) and chief of the Colombian Liberal Party (1947-1948).
He was assassinated during his second presidential campaign in 1948, setting off the Bogotazo and leading to a violent period of political unrest in Colombian history known as La Violencia (approx. 1948 to 1958).
Early life and education
Gaitán's family was from a poor background and their son entered formal education when he was eleven years old. He later had to face social tensions in the Colegio Simón Araújo school, considered as an institution for wealthier members of the Colombian Liberal Party. Gaitán ended his primary studies at the Colegio Martín Restrepo Mejía in 1920.
He attained a degree in law (1924) and later became a professor in the National University of Colombia. In 1926 he completed a doctorate in jurisprudence in Italy at the Royal University of Rome.
Early Political Career
Gaitán was active in local politics as early as 1919, when he was part of a protest movement against president Marco Fidel Suárez.
Gaitán increased his nationwide popularity following a banana workers' strike in Magdalena in 1928, in which strikers were fired upon by the army (United Fruit Historical Society) on the orders of the United Fruit Company, resulting in numerous deaths. Gaitán used his skills as a lawyer and as an emerging politician in order to defend workers' rights and called for accountability to those involved in the Santa Marta Massacre.(United Fruit Historical Society) Public support soon shifted toward Gaitán, Gaitán's Liberal Party won the 1930 presidential election.(United Fruit Historical Society)
In 1933 he created the "Unión Izquierdista Revolucionaria" ("Leftist Revolutionary Union"), or UNIR, as his own dissident political movement after breaking with the Liberal Party.
It is said that Gaitán's main political asset was his profound and vibrant oratory, often classified as populist by contemporaries and by later analysts, which attracted hundreds of thousands of union members and low-income Colombians at the time.(Wolf) When he was a student in Rome he was influenced by Benito Mussolini's techniques for arousing the people.(Encyclopædia Britannica Online)(United Fruit Historical Society)
Bernstein considered that the promises that he made to the people were as important to his appeal as were is impressive delivery skills, promises that Bernstein felt verged upon his being a demagogue and compared him with Juan Peron of Argentina.(Bernstein 1960:138)
In particular, he repeatedly divided the country into the oligarchy and the people, calling the former corrupt and the latter admirable, worthy, and deserving of Colombia's moral restoration. He stirred the audience's emotions by aggressively denouncing social, moral and economical evils stemming both from the Liberal and Conservative political parties, promising his supporters that a better future was possible if they all worked together against such evils.
In 1946, Gaitán referred to the difference between what he called the "political country" and the "national country". Accordingly, the "political country" was controlled by the interests of the oligarchy and its internal struggles, therefore it did not properly respond to the real demands of the "national country"; that is, the country made up of citizens in need of better socioeconomic conditions and greater sociopolitical freedom.
He was criticized by the more orthodox sectors of the Colombian Liberal Party (who considered him too unruly), most of the Colombian Conservative Party, the leadership of the Colombian Communist Party (who saw him as a competitor for the political affections of the masses)(1960:137) and by U.S. officials and its intelligence agencies (who, in the context of the Cold War, considered him dangerous, as reported in official documents). Gaitán was warned by U.S. Ambassador Beaulac on March 24, 1948 that Communists were planning a disruption of the impending conference and that his Liberal Party would likely be blamed.(Weyl 1960)
Gaitán's view of the 'people' has been considered as profoundly ambivalent by some later analysts. It is argued that, while he claimed to champion their cause, he did not see them as a social or political force capable of governing. There are instances in which he referred to the masses in explicitly medical term (as 'syphilitics' and 'alcoholics'), while in others he praised their virtues. This ambivalence, according to some analysts, could partly explain the extreme acts of savagery perpetrated by the peasantry during La Violencia.
The subject of future land reform was also prominent in some of his speeches.
Late Political Career
After formally rejoining the Liberal Party in 1935, he was selected as mayor of Bogotá in June 1936, a position he held for eight months. During his administration, he tried to implement a number of programs in areas such as education, health, urban development and housing. His attempted reforms were cut short by political pressure groups and conflicts due to some of his policies (for example, an attempt to provide uniforms to taxi and bus service drivers). In September 1937 his daughter Gloria Gaitán was born.
Gaitán was named Minister of Education in 1940 under the administration of the Liberal Party's Eduardo Santos (1938-1942), where he promoted an extensive literacy campaign as well as cultural activities.
At the conclusion of the Liberal Party's national convention in 1945 he was proclaimed as "the people's candidate" in a public square, an unusual setting under the political customs at the time.
The Liberal Party was defeated in the May 1946 elections by the Conservative's Mariano Ospina Perez (565,939 votes, president from 1946 to 1950) due to its own internal divisions, evidenced by its presenting two different candidates, Gaitán (358,957 votes) and Gabriel Turbay (441,199 votes), in that year's race.
Gaitán became chief of the Colombian Liberal Party in 1947, when his supporters gained the upper hand in the elections for seats in Congress. This would have allowed for the Liberal Party to present a single candidate for the 1950 elections.
An Unclear Assassination
It is widely speculated that Gaitán would likely have been elected President had he not been assassinated on April 9, 1948. (Weyl 1960:4,7)(United Fruit Historical Society) This assassination occurred immediately prior to the armed insurrection or Bogotazo.(Weyl 1960:4-21)(United Fruit Historical Society) Dr. Gaitán was then the leading opponent for the use of violence and had determined to pursue the strategy of electing a left-wing government, and he had repudiated the violent Communist revolutionary approach typical of the Cold War era. (Weyl 1960:15-36)
His assassination directly lead to a period of great violence between conservatives and liberals and also facilitated the rise of the nowadays existing Communist guerrillas.(United Fruit Historical Society) Over the next fifteen years as many as 200,000 people died due to the disorders that followed his assassination. (Bernsein 1965:138)
Dr. Gaitán's alleged murderer, Juan Roa Sierra, was killed by an enraged mob and his motivations were never known.(Weyl 1960:18) Many different entities and individuals have been held responsible as the alleged plotters, including his different critics, but so far no definite information has come forward and a number of theories persist. Among them, there are versions which, sometimes conflictingly, implicate the government of Mariano Ospina Pérez, sectors of the Liberal party, the USSR(Weyl 1960:24) the Colombian Communist Party, the CIA and others in the crime.
One of the persons supporting the theory of some sort of CIA involvement in Gaitán's murder is Gloria Gaitán, who was 11 years old when her father was murdered. According to one version of this theory, Juan Roa Sierra acted under the orders of CIA agents John Mepples Espirito (alias Georgio Ricco) and Tomás Elliot, as part of an anti-leftist plan supposedly called Operation Pantomime.
It is claimed that this would also have involved the complicity of the then Chief of Police, who would allegedly have ordered two police officers to abandon Juan Roa Sierra to be killed by the mob (a claim which conflicts with mainstream accounts of Roa Sierra's death).
An eyewitness to the actual events, Guillermo Perez Sarmiento, Director of the United Press in Columbia, stated that upon his arrival Roa was already "between two policemen" and describes in detail the angry mob that kicked and "tore him to pieces" and does not suggest any police involvement.(Weyl 1960:16)
Nathaniel Weyl documents the assassination claims then made by Rafael Azula Barrera and the President of Columbia Mariano Ospina Pérez that Gaitán was assassinated as part of a Cold War conspiracy led by the USSR to increase Soviet influence in the Caribbean. The violent disruption of the 1948 Inter-American Conference and the violent deaths of a thousand people was alleged to also have been part of a Cold War conspiracy by agents of the USSR that allegedly included the then low-level Soviet agent Fidel Castro.
According to police records Fidel Castro was suspected of personally of assassinating Gaitán, as his Cuban travelling companion, Rafael del Pino was seen with the fascist former mental patient, Juan Roa, an hour and a half before the assassination.(Weyl 1960:13) Castro had attempted to recruit Gaitán earlier to his cause, but Gaitán had repeatedly declined and was assassinated because he was too politically influential and would have countered the Cold War objectives of the USSR in the Caribbean.(Weyl 1960:24).
Another theory states that Juan Roa simply got tired and disenchanted of lobbying Jorge Eliécer Gaitán to get a job. He had a history of job instability and considered that he could get a position worthy of his status as a reincarnation of Santander and Quesada. He had an initial conversation with Jorge Eliécer and was advised to write a letter to the President, which he did, but still did not get a job. After that, he had visited Jorge Eliécer Gaitán's office several times in the two months prior to the assassination. The revolver was purchased two days before the assassination and the ammunition the day before. It was only on his last visit, on April 9, when the secretary finally wrote his name to be considered by Jorge Eliécer.
Nathaniel Weyl documents an alternative claim by the Columbian President and others, that Roa was influenced by others and perhaps did not commit any crime at all. He discusses the questions of Milton Bracker of the New York Times and U.S. Ambassador Willard L. Beaulac if Roa had acted on his own. Ambasador Beaulac then speculated that Roa was simply used to cover the identity of the real assassins.(Beaulac 1951)
The President of Columbia Mariano Ospina Pérez and the Columbian General Secretary Rafael Azula Barrera considered the evidence that the revolver Roa had carried was incapable of accurate fire, that Roa was not thought to have any firearms training, and that no eyewitness saw Roa anywhere near the assassination, that he was first seen between two policemen. From this evidence the government of Columbia concluded that the impoverished Roa with his diminished mental capacities had been paid to stand near the event with a recently fired revolver.(Weyl 1960:23)(Rafael Azula Barrera 1956:372)
Other details which have interested historians and researchers include the fact that Gaitán was murdered in the middle of the 9th Pan-American Conference, which was being led by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, a meeting which led to a pledge by members to fight communism in the Americas, as well as the creation of the Organization of American States.
Another event in the country's capital Bogotá was taking place at the time: a Latin American Youth Congress, organized to protest the Pan American conference. This meeting was organized by a young Fidel Castro, and was funded by Perón. Castro had an appointment to meet Gaitán, whom he very much admired, later in the afternoon on the day of his murder, and had also met with Gaitán two days earlier. It appears that Gaitán was contemplating supporting this conference. Gaitán commanded large audiences when he spoke and was one of the most influential men in the country.
The assassination provoked a violent riot known as the Bogotazo (loose translation: the sack of Bogotá, or shaking of Bogotá), and a further ten years of violence during which at least 200,000 people died (a period known as La Violencia). Some writers say that this event influenced Castro's views about the viability of an electoral route for political change.
Also in the city that day was another young man who would become a giant of 20th century Latin-American history: Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. A young law student and short story writer at the time, García Márquez was eating lunch near the scene of the assassination. He arrived on the scene shortly after the shooting and witnessed the murder of Gaitán's presumed assassin at the hands of enraged bystanders. García Márquez discusses this day at vivid length in the first volume of his memoirs, Living to Tell the Tale. In his book, he describes a well-dressed man who eggs on the mob before fleeing in a luxurious car that arrived just as the presumed assassin was being dragged away.
Gaitán as a Popular Myth
popular story, perhaps
apocryphal, relates that
during a debate with the
for president, Gaitán
asked him how he made
his living. "From the
land," the other
"Ah, and how did you get this land?" asked Gaitán.
"I inherited it from my father!"
"And where did he get it from?"
"He inherited it from his father!"
The question is repeated once or twice more, and then the Conservative candidate concedes, "We took it from the Indians".
Gaitán's reply was, "Well, we want to do the opposite: we want to give the land back to the Indians". (Gaitán advocated land reform).