The Ghostwriter’s Story

James Sanders

  • Evil Hour in Colombia by Forrest Hylton
    Verso, 174 pp, £12.99, September 2006, ISBN 1 84467 551 3

Between 1946 and 1964, a period known as La Violencia in Colombia, a proxy war between mostly peasant partisans of the Liberal and Conservative Parties resulted in so many deaths that, in order for terror to have any effect, ever more sadistic methods of torture had to be dreamed up. In the mountains and hot valleys west of Bogotá, new styles of mutilation entered the argot: the ‘necktie cut’ involved pulling the victim’s tongue through a slit in the throat, while in the ‘florist’s cut’ severed limbs were arranged in the open cavity of the neck following decapitation. Colombia’s current conflict – between the state, its unofficial paramilitary allies, leftist guerrillas, and the narcotics mafia that has ties to all three warring factions – is no less violent, although the methods employed have changed. In 1989, the Medellín Cartel put a bomb on an Avianca flight, intending to kill either the presidential candidate César Gaviria (who turned out not to be on the plane) or two police informers (who were), and in the process murdered 105 other passengers. In 2000, a rancher called Elvia Cortés died when the ‘necklace bomb’ that soldiers of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) had wired to her body exploded, killing in addition the bomb-squad agent desperately trying to defuse the device. But it is the paramilitaries (right-wing militias organised to combat the left insurgency) who have committed the greater number of these crimes. One example among many is the 1997 massacre in the village of Mapiripán, in which members of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) slaughtered civilians suspected of sympathising with the guerrillas, dumping their disembowelled bodies in the Guaviare River and, according to one witness, playing football with the heads. The familiar (because so often repeated) story of paramilitaries using skulls as footballs links this cycle of violence with La Violencia, when a Liberal guerrilla leader known as La Cucaracha sought to score goals with the heads of Conservative policemen she and her men had killed.

The publishers of one recent survey of modern Colombian history claimed that ‘Colombia has scarcely known one day of peace since its inception.’ However, as Forrest Hylton argues in Evil Hour in Colombia, the view that violence is inherent to Colombian society ignores both the country’s 19th-century history of democratic reform and the degree to which violence is employed by the powerful and the state to suppress democratic movements.

In 1857, Manuel María Mallarino, the president of Nueva Granada, as Colombia was then known, asserted that ‘the Granadan people, if not as prosperous and powerful as others whose existence measures centuries, are without a doubt as free as any in the Old and New Worlds.’ Anglophone commentators have mocked these declarations of republican modernity. ‘The words one knows so well have a nightmarish meaning in this country,’ Mr Gould, the English businessman in Nostromo, says of Costaguana, the country closely resembling Colombia in which the novel is set: ‘Liberty, democracy, patriotism, government – all of them have a flavour of folly and murder.’ In his celebration of the West, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), David Landes contemptuously describes 19th-century Latin American states as having ‘republican trappings’ that unsuccessfully disguised the reality of societies dominated by ‘a small group of rascals’ while ‘the masses squatted and scraped.’ Even specialists have tended to describe Colombia’s history in terms of the establishment of capitalism and the slow rise of state power – the marks of modernity – and so have dismissed 19th-century struggles as contributing little to the country’s development into a modern state.

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