The Ghostwriter’s Story
- 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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Vol. 30 No. 4 · 21 February 2008
I agree with James Sanders that the long Colombian democratic tradition does not deserve the easy dismissal it often gets, but I do not agree with much of his analysis of the current Uribe administration (LRB, 24 January). The Colombian government is not a third ‘warring faction’, to be equated with the paramilitaries and the guerrillas: that is just the sort of ‘Anglophone’ commentary that Sanders himself condemns when it comes from Charles Gould in Nostromo. Uribe’s Justice and Peace Law and the demobilising of the paramilitaries may be less than perfect, but since he took office paramilitary murders have been markedly reduced; so too, contrary to what Sanders writes, have paramilitary influence in politics and paramilitary land-grabbing, both of which reached a peak before Uribe was elected president. Uribe is not alone in calling the guerrillas terrorists: few Colombians would understand him not doing so. Sanders’s conclusion that this means not negotiating with guerrillas and ignoring their rights does not follow, and does not properly represent the government’s line or practice; it is currently negotiating with the ELN. Uribe is hardly alone among democratic politicians in attacking his critics. He has a short fuse, particularly with those who accuse him of paramilitary or narco associations in the past. In a country where no secret is kept for long, Uribe’s rivals and enemies have been trying to dig up dirt about him for more than a decade, and have come up with nothing damning. It should take more than the self-serving memoirs of Escobar’s former mistress and one dubious US intelligence report of 1991 to nail him as Escobar’s ‘close personal friend’.
Sanders is certainly right that ‘the appeal of basic security is hard to overestimate.’ It is also hard to overestimate the reluctance of the bien pensant left outside Colombia to give Uribe any credit at all for what he has achieved. The ‘democratic security’ policy is a serious and detailed statement of government aims and methods that deserves more than snide inverted commas. There was no parallel to it in Guatemala, or Argentina, or Peru, when those governments were faced with insurgencies – and remember, if you can, what happened there. Sanders is also wrong in ‘noting’ that ‘the poor and the middle classes’ are rejecting Uribe’s promises. Whether they like it or not, Uribe’s current approval rating after more than five years is 80 per cent, highest in the lower and upper strata of society, with a small dip in the middle. And no, Colombian surveys are not rigged: the politicians and newspapers that commission them do not pay to be fooled. A footnote: Elvia Cortés was not a rancher and she was probably not killed by the FARC.
St Antony’s College, Oxford
Vol. 30 No. 6 · 20 March 2008
There is a dizzying gap between the rosy picture of Alvaro Uribe’s administration painted by Malcolm Deas and the events of the past eighteen months in Colombia (Letters, 21 February). Colombian magistrates have uncovered evidence of intimate collaboration between right-wing death squads and officials at the highest levels of the Colombian state. Jorge Noguera, the head of Colombia’s intelligence services, was arrested last February and charged with compiling lists of trade-union members (complete with their security arrangements) to be passed on to the death squads. Noguera was a close ally of Uribe: he ran Uribe’s election campaign in the Magdalena province in 2002 and was appointed by him as intelligence chief. Four hundred trade unionists have been murdered since Uribe took office, with the vast majority of cases remaining unsolved. Uribe’s foreign minister was also forced to resign last year after her brother, a senator, was arrested on suspicion of paramilitary links.
Deas is rather coy when discussing the rhetoric of Colombia’s president, asserting that ‘Uribe is not alone in calling the guerrillas terrorists,’ without acknowledging the sinister generosity with which he doles out that label: Uribe once referred to human rights NGOs as ‘political adventurers ultimately in the service of terrorism’. This is more than a case of verbal excess: in Colombia, that kind of talk is the equivalent of pinning a target to someone’s back.
Claims that Uribe enjoys an approval rating of 80 per cent have been made repeatedly since he first came to power. The presidential elections of 2006 offer a more reliable barometer. While he was re-elected comfortably, 55 per cent of the electorate abstained. The supposedly demobilised paramilitaries made clear where their sympathies lay on the eve of the poll: ‘We are ready to fight to the death for the continuity of the presidential period of our legitimate leader. We will not permit a different result. If, on Sunday, the yellow shirts are in the majority, we will take care to dye them a different colour: blood red! This is our declaration of total war. All who do not accept the legitimacy of El Señor Presidente Alvaro Uribe Velez will be our next military target.’
I was saddened and surprised to see that Malcolm Deas has become a supporter of the Uribe regime in Colombia. Deas claims that I criticise Uribe for not respecting the rights of guerrillas such as the FARC. However, I simply noted that Uribe had branded the guerrillas terrorists; I rebuked Uribe’s administration for their treatment not of the guerrillas, but of civilians. I argued that Uribe’s administration equates the guerrillas with civilian bystanders, who bear the brunt of the violence. But Deas follows the administration’s ‘logic’: you are either with us or against us, and neutrality is proof of guilt. This produces a situation in which union activists and indigenous leaders accused of sympathising with the guerrillas are gunned down by paramilitaries.
Deas concentrates on defending the current Colombian administration against the claim that Uribe has ties to drug traffickers. However, the much more important claim, which he cannot reject, is that the Uribe government has close ties to the murderous paramilitaries. Deas airily derides a US intelligence report as unreliable – he doesn’t bother to explain why – and makes it seem as if I had referred to Uribe as Escobar’s ‘close personal friend’ when, in fact, those words are from the intelligence report. I am curious to know what excuse Deas would make for the growing number of congressmen allied with Uribe, including his cousin, who have been arrested or removed from office because of their ties to the paramilitaries.
Finally, Deas favourably compares Uribe’s repressive plan for ‘democratic security’ with those implemented by the brutal dictatorships during Argentina and Guatemala’s dirty wars. That sets a low standard for comparison. Even Uribe’s sternest critics wouldn’t compare the Colombian regime with that of the genocidal generals in Guatemala. It is precisely because we do remember ‘what happened there’ – the murder of thousands – that I and others of the ‘bien pensant left’ caution against Uribe’s ‘democratic security’; we have seen this play before and know where it ends.
Utah State University