Homicide in Colombia

Malcolm Deas

Around 1890 Colombia was governed by Dr Rafael Nuñez. This ravaged old intellectual, a late convert from the fleshpots of Liverpool – he had been Consul there – and liberalism, exerted his influence from a breezy summer-house on the beach near Cartagena, and left the day-to-day business of government in Bogota to the ultramontane grammarian, schoolteacher, Virgil-translator and polymath Miguel Antonio Caro, who in the course of a long life, legend has it, not only never bothered to see the sea, which was then many days distant, but even drew the line at going to see the River Magdalena, close enough for someone of even the feeblest geographical curiosity.

Under the waving palm-trees Nuñez read the Nineteenth Century, the Economist, the Revue des Deux Mondes and that sort of thing (he was an early enthusiast for Freud’s paper on coca, too): for all the world, with a couple of changes in the journals he subscribed to, like any Colombian ex-President these days in the Islas del Rosario. He was a poet too, and one day he was seized with enthusiasm for the rising star of the first Latin American literary boom, the young Nicaraguan genius Ruben Dario, and decided to make him Colombian Consul in Buenos Aires. Caro was telegraphed, and left off ‘violating the muses and persecuting the Liberals’ to telegraph Dario, who responded with gratitude, expressed in an appalling sonnet that begins: ‘Colombia is a land of lions.’

There aren’t any lions in Colombia. Dario knew little about the country, but it would do for a compliment, though neither Nuñez nor Caro was particularly lion-like. What little he did know must have been puzzling: how was it that this vast and warlike tropical republic was governed by two landless literati with hardly a peso between them? ‘Land of Lions’ was suitably vague: it would cover literary lions.

Much has happened, to Colombia and to the drug Nuñez read about, since Dario was helped on his way with that consulate, but to most people it might still plausibly be a land of lions. The rest of the world hears of Colombia mostly through drugs and killings, but the country has a complicated history, and its politics are not what you might expect.

Last time I was in Colombia I carried Robert Dahl’s Democracy and its Critics: a great help in listing questions about this old and battered democracy, if democracy is what the answers to his questions prove it to be.[*] ‘Old’? Competitive elections have been held in Colombia, on and off, at least since the 1820s, and not always on a restricted suffrage: the province of Velez gave votes to women in the late 1850s. Colombia is an old polity. Whatever it is, it is not undergoing one of those ‘transitions to democracy’ which attract attention elsewhere in Latin America.

Professor Dahl, I was glad to read, does show a passing interest in the place, though his information is incomplete and out-of-date. I think he would conclude that, according to his criteria, Colombia is a democracy, though parts of it are clearly more democratic than others – he does not look for perfection. The spectacle its politics offer is nonetheless confusing. Many of the inhabitants are confused. Additions to the local political vocabulary, like architectural styles, are adopted with no fear of modernity or post-modernity. ‘Participation’, ‘dialogue’, ‘primary constitution’, ‘movement’, ‘civic movement’, ‘civil society’ – all these in the last decade have entered into common use as if it was perfectly clear what they mean, and clear, too, that what they signify is thoroughly desirable. Though in 1986 the resilient and much adapted Constitution celebrated its centenary, the air has been thick with talk of constitutional reform. For all the wealth of diagnosis and cure, it is not easy to grasp what the political system is.

Power in Colombia is fragmented. The fragments make a long list. Most of them have their legitimate and their illegitimate side. The country is not run by an oligarchy. I doubt that it ever was – Dr Nuñez and Dr Caro don’t quite fit, for a start – but it certainly has not been so ruled for some time. The conviction that an oligarchy did exist derives from a long tradition in the political rhetoric practised by both the traditional parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives (they now call themselves Social Conservatives but I can’t get into the habit), who have dominated Colombia’s political history, and still dominate it. The denunciation of oligarchy reached a peak of intensity in the speeches of the Liberal Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, who was assassinated in 1948. He gathered great crowds, and struck chords and mobilised the humble, but he was not a dispassionate analyst of politics or of society, and 1948 is a long time ago. ‘Oligarch’ is now no more than a loose social designation, like ‘upper class’ or ‘old money’. It does not help much in locating political power, though a number of ‘oligarchs’ are active in politics.

Is this not finessing? Is the country in some fundamental sense not run even now by the high bourgeoisie? The term clase dirigente, ‘directing class’, tends to replace ‘oligarchy’ and to bear the brunt of criticism for shortsightedness, ineptitude, lack of patriotism and general failure to rise to the occasion. Here is a characteristic of the republic’s political life: a tendency to put the blame on some faceless abstraction, as well as an echo of the old Gaitanista saying: ‘the people are superior to their rulers.’ It is not clear what exactly is meant by the ‘directing class’, and it is rare to find agreement about who should figure in it, or anyone who will confess to membership.

If one takes the term as referring to managers, entrepreneurs, executives in large businesses, then they do not direct the country. With varying degrees of success, they defend their own interests, and treat the governments on which many of them depend as at best unreliable allies and at worst antagonists. Though they seek to influence it, they do not dominate economic policy, and, like their counterparts elsewhere, on many aspects of government they appear to have no ideas at all. The modern executive mentality is not particularly political. At times representatives of this class can also be spectacularly confused. A recent head of the Industrialists’ Association, involved in one of the peace dialogues with guerrillas that are now a permanent feature of Colombian politics, was happy to sign a denunciation of ruthless enterprises dedicated to extracting the surplus value of the Colombian people as if it could not possibly refer to any members of his association.

What was he doing parlaying with the guerrillas? One should not underestimate the force of curiosity and the lure of adventure, but the yen for what is locally called protagonismo, for acting a prominent role, is remarkable. Nobody wants to be left out of anything. Nearly two years ago the M-19, a subversive group which might be said to represent magical realism in politics, kidnapped the Conservative politician Alvaro Gomez. The action was conceived as a blow against the ‘oligarchy’ which would somehow result in the fusion of the guerrillas and the Armed Forces and the people. Of course it achieved nothing of the kind, though it did give the M-19 what it desires most of all – publicity. (After fifteen years of clandestine activity, it has now decided that what it really wants is seats in Congress.) Gomez was released, his popularity much enhanced. A meeting followed, called together by a monseñor. Senators from the Conservative Party (with the Party’s blessing), from the ruling Liberal Party (without the Party’s blessing), representatives of the trade unions and the head of the Colombian Association of Plastic Manufacturers, representing the other associations, met representatives of the M-19, with a little help from General Noriega. All joined in prayer in a suburban seminary. The Barco Government, which has tried to introduce some order into dealings with subversion after the febrile improvisations of the preceeding Betancur Administration, rightly stayed away, as it was far from clear who was going to discuss what with whom, and with what authority.

Here again what struck me was the eagerness of so many not to be left out, even on such an unpromising occasion. Here were a plastic manufacturer not content with being that, senators not content to be in the Senate, a monseñor not content with being a monseñor, as well as guerrillas not content with being guerrillas. All this probably did little or no harm, and was a pardonable relaxation after the strain of the Gomez kidnapping. But why, one wondered, did these senators see nothing incongruous in behaving as if no normal political channels and institutions existed?

As Alvaro Gomez himself has observed, the normal institutions of Colombian democracy have lost their ‘sovereign vocation’. To an ‘oligarchy’ which still in a sense exists but does not rule – the notion should not be too difficult for the English reader – to a clase dirigente which defends its interests but does not direct, one must now add another element, commonly referred to as the clase politica, a political class widely criticised for its limited sense of politics. This political class is seen as made up of senators, members of the Chamber of Representatives, politicians at all levels engaged in the mill of elections and patronage: members of the Liberal and Conservative Parties chiefly, who have their being in these ceaseless political labours, who bear the weight and opprobrium of getting out the vote, and who reap the rewards, sometimes rich, sometimes tenuous, sometimes bitter.

What are these elections like? Nineteenth-century civil wars and 19th-century elections involved most localities in a pattern of loyalties, enmities and apprehensions, and 20th-century elections have confirmed and stabilised the pattern. Voting goes back a long way. Like most democracies – few are suddenly born in candle-lit squares – Colombian democracy has its roots in the rotten old compost of notables, caciques, influences, patronages, fraud, coercion and official machinery. Some quaint relics of old times are still enshrined in electoral legislation: voting has to take place out of doors, and stops at 5 p.m. Not many contemporary voters are aware of it, but these regulations were made years ago when it could be taken for granted that an enclosed space was an incitement to fraud, even a guarantee of it, and when it was felt that votes should be counted in the remaining hour of daylight after 5 p.m.: counting by candlelight would make it too easy to burn selected papelitos. Colombia is in no sense politically virgin territory.

Fraud has for some time been of negligible importance. (The one exception is what one might term the patriotic fraud in the Presidential election of 1970, but that is all quite forgotten now anyway.) The electoral map of the country is remarkably stable. In descending order of magnitude, Liberal, Conservative and Left areas of ascendancy are well defined – there are excellent maps and charts in Patricia Pinzon de Lewin’s Pueblos, Regiones y Partidos.[†] There is a high rate of abstention, the voting age is 18, and there is no obligation to vote. Though the electorate is unadventurous – surveys show it to be concerned with employment, the cost of living, and to favour candidates who offer a sound and practical return – it is not rigid, and there is enough volatility to make results difficult to predict. Hard political work is essential.

Much of this work is nowadays denigrated as clientelismo – the distribution of favours and jobs in return for votes – and the belief that clientelismo is what counts for victory undoubtedly saps the moral authority of politicians. These practices are much more criticised than studied or understood, however: and there is nothing uniquely Colombian about them. No Colombian machine matches the hermetic perfection attained by the bosses of Naples or Palermo. Colombian versions of clientelism, for all their waste and inefficiency, at least provide some flow of benefits, and ensure a great deal of contact between politicians and voters. Urban government, which in the last decades has had to face the problems of migration from the countryside, could certainly be a great deal worse. Clientelism, like the buying of votes (which still goes on here and there, though the purchasers complain of higher prices and an increased propensity to cheat, which makes managing the whole business much more expensive), is not exactly unpopular, and it is not irrational: buying a lottery ticket is in some circumstances rational, and casting a benefit-induced vote is much more rational than that. Though patronage alone does not guarantee success on the larger stage of national politics, and clientelism is much less all-pervading than some critics think, no part of the political spectrum can exist without it.

It generates votes, but not much legitimate authority. Those caught up in its endless and demanding intricacies have little time or inclination for ideas or policies. If they are Liberals or Conservatives, they are occasionally prone to fits of self-denigration and lament, in which they admit that the clase politica, like the clase dirigente, has failed, that the traditional parties are ideologically-barren disasters, that their multi-class composition is a fatal inhibition, that it would be better to read more Gramsci and embark on a frank struggle for a new hegemony ... All easier said than done: in election after election, the combined factions of Liberals and Conservatives, like the Republicans and Democrats in a larger republic to the north, receive over 90 per cent of the votes, and the clase politica fills the Congress, and goes on oiling its machines.

This part of the system, or sub-system, has its legitimate and its illegitimate side. On the first, a number of the survivors in this demanding competition are obviously politicians of formidable talent, though lately it has been less the habit of the ambitious to spend much time in Congress. Then, too, Congress is not as bad as the conversational classes think. It does a lot of humdrum work, it has some effective committees, it might even claim some of the credit for the relatively good management of the Colombian economy in recent years. Why, for example, was Colombia the only major Latin American republic not to fall for the blandishments of the bankers and borrow disastrously in the Seventies? Part of the answer may be that the country was a democracy, with a functioning Congress that had to approve all loans. I spoke of ‘relatively good management’. By what criteria? It is conservative, consistent, predictable. Its critics say that it is too parochial and too content with modest achievement. There is a lot to be said in favour of avoiding spectacular mistakes. In the Sixties Colombia was reputed to have an extremely unequal distribution of income, but the latest study shows that this has improved remarkably. By international standards there is nothing exceptional about it.

How corrupt is Colombia? This is an important question, but hard to answer. More or less corrupt than Japan, Argentina, Italy, Oklahoma, Austria, the GDR? Which bits of it are corrupt? It is hardly plausible, given the intensity of the current conflict, that it is all corrupt. It is obviously more corrupt than it used to be, but then it is a much richer country, and the old society, where everybody knew their neighbour’s business, has been swept away. More corruption may be a price worth paying. Politics cost money. Colombian elections are getting quite expensive, and there are no controls over expense and no official electoral funds, so politicians seeking election are particularly vulnerable and particularly liable to want to recoup afterwards. Private business is not generous. But it is not just conventional politicians who are corrupted. It can happen to the best people – to ‘oligarchs’, revolutionaries, soldiers, policemen, judges, doctors, even to journalists, even to academics. For obvious reasons there are no reliable studies of this subject, and few academics anywhere have got very far in thinking about it.

Just as Colombia’s formal politics are not all clientelistic, they are not all corrupt. Luis Carlos Galan, who was assassinated last August on the orders of the Medellin mafia, was the Presidential candidate most likely to succeed Virgilio Barco, and his opposition to clientelism and corruption was a fundamental part of his appeal. Which brings me to drugs, killing, cartels, guerrillas, human rights and the lack of them.

Colombia does not grow much coca, nor does the cocaine trade employ many Colombians, nor do cocaine earnings in any way dominate the Colombian economy – the trade has damaged the economy more than it has benefited it. Colombians have from the late Seventies controlled the processing and transportation of cocaine, elaborated from coca paste produced in Peru and Bolivia and chemicals produced in West Germany, Brazil and doubtless other less exotic places. The Colombian hold on the trade derives partly from geography, partly from traditions of violent entrepreneurship in emeralds, marijuana and the contraband import of Malboro cigarettes.

Colombia has a tradition of violence. The causes are complex, and tradition – lame explanation though it is – is part of any full explanation, as it is in Sicily or Corsica. But in the mid-Seventies the conventional figures – with numerous caveats about their reliability – showed Colombia to be less violent than, for example, Chile, Mexico or the GDR: from 51.5 homicides per 100,000 in 1957 the figure had fallen to 16.8 in 1975. (Cf. Chile, 1977, 45.7; Mexico, 1975, 44.7; GDR, 1975, 36.7. The comparable UK rate was 9.0.) The Colombian rate has risen to 62.8 in 1988. (Cf. El Salvador, 1980, 129.4; Guatemala, 1980, 63.) Most of this increase is drug-related, and most of the 15,000 murders a year – an informed estimate would be nine out of ten – are non-political. Proportional to its numbers, the political group which has suffered most is the Union Patriotica, the electoral Left, which originally emerged in 1985 from the FARC (Armed Forces of the Colombian Revolution) guerrillas and whose most dangerous enemies have been the ‘paramilitary’ groups supported by the narcotraficantes, particularly ‘the Mexican’, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, killed last December by the Police. Much of the geography of violent death matches the geography of the cocaine trade.

There are different varieties of narco – and only the Medellin cartel – Pablo Escobar, Rodriguez Gacha and the Ochoas – have directly confronted the Government. Their penchant for private armies, territorial fiefs, ‘dialogues’ and publicity, their feud with the FARC and the UP, their liaisons with elements in the Armed Forces and the Police, their assassinations of politicians, government officials, judges and police brought them notoriety. Their magnifico habits gave them a limited home-town popularity, consistently exaggerated by foreign journalists. They bought land, cattle, urban property, football teams, and some politicians, judges, policemen and soldiers. Society was at first amused, particularly by their zoological gardens. It was for long complacent.

The Barco Government, in the wake of the Galan assassination, has done this cartel severe, one hopes fatal, damage. Colombians are prone to believe that whereas the Government, the Armed Forces and the Police are irredeemably inept, the criminal classes, the guerrillas, the other side, are always capable of miracles of ingenuity, efficiency and discipline. But they are all part of the same culture, and levels of competence are not so different. In the long run the Government will win. It will not eradicate the drug trade from Colombia, but it will reduce it and it will change the behaviour of those engaged in it. It is unlikely that anyone now aspires to the role played by ‘the Mexican’. (There is a figure in Cali who goes by the unexciting name of ‘the Canadian’. He is more likely to survive.) The world’s press, which copies the Colombian press, which copies the world’s press, was too quick to judge what has been happening by the lack of instant success. The campaign against over-mighty narcos is by no means over. The price has been high, but unavoidable, and the campaign was in the making before Galan’s murder.

Any idea of an accord reached by negotiation has for a long time been an illusion: the famous debt-payment offer of 1984 made by the Medellin mafia from Panama came after they had assassinated the Minister of Justice. Some bargains can be contemplated: if the cartel were really to give up and cease to threaten Colombian justice – an unlikely prospect, but they do have their sentimental side and their prospects of survival do not look good – then it might be possible not to extradite their members to the United States. But unlike Miami and its easy ways, the Colombian system makes little allowance for plea-bargaining. In most past ‘dialogues’ certain realities have got left out, as they tend to be when intellectuals speak of drug legalisation as the great panacea. What stands in the way of legalisation is crack, the United States Congress and President Bush, just to start the long list of obstacles. What stands in the way of an agreement between the narcos and the Colombian Government, even forgetting the law, are obstacles such as the 170 innocent citizens killed by mafia bombs last December.

Although public opinion in general follows the Barco Government in showing no indulgence towards the Medellin cartel, there is much cynicism and indulgence about the trade, and an understanding attitude to the frontier narcocultivador making a precarious living in the eastern Cordillera or the Sierra de Macarena. Colombians are also, quite naturally, inclined to insist on the responsibilities of consumers. In the week that the Medellin cartel offered some sort of surrender, Mayor Barry was arrested for crack-buying in Washington. What will happen to him? He says he will still be there next year licking his paws. President Bush doubts the ‘credibility’ of the Medellin cartel. Colombians have doubts about the credibility of the American attack on consumption.

Most of Colombia’s guerrillas live among the frontier colonos. There are perhaps ten thousand in the country, of varying degrees of militancy – the total population is some twenty-eight million. The oldest organisation, the FARC, has its guerrilla origins in the late Forties and its political origins in rural movements which came under Communist influence even earlier. Its leadership is elderly, and though it makes grandiose plans and frequently multiplies its ‘fronts’, officially it has signed a truce with the Government. Its strength is its long history, and its leaders are no more likely to renounce the past and issue mea culpas than Liberals or Conservatives. Its organisation is solid, its resources from kidnapping and local taxation or extortion, and from coca and cocaine, are far from negligible. It recruits in much the same way as the Army and its discipline is severe, at times murderous. The FARC lacks mystique. Its high command types out plans – to raise another $49 million one way and another, to open another 36 fronts, if one is to believe the Army – but it no longer has a model for a future Colombia, if it ever did, and none is now available in the outside world. Historically, it was essentially a defensive organisation, often with much justification. As one Liberal commentator recently put it, ‘it has ceased to be the vanguard of the proletariat and has become the rearguard of the colono.’ It has little support outside its own areas, the most substantial of which are on the frontier, and on the frontier you find the politics of the past, not the future. Local conflicts, circumstances and opportunities – the Castroite ELN in the north has been brought alive again by a single oil pipe-line – may explain the presence of guerrillas, but they don’t give them a national appeal.

Times are hard for the unarmed Left as well. The Union Patriotica has tired of the official Communist Party theory of ‘the combination of all forms of struggle’, a game of ideological hopscotch in which adepts can find themselves defending the theory of ‘prolonged people’s war’ while demanding increased protection from the government against which the war is to be waged. At the same time, the movement cannot realistically dispense with the protection of the FARC in some of those areas of the electoral map which it hopes will turn out to be for ever painted in the UP colour – green. (Red is for Liberals, blue for Conservatives.) Nor is the Left in Colombia untouched by the general crisis of socialism, whose effects are none the less real for providing aid and comfort to those whose devotion to liberty and free enterprise is, to say the least, partial.

The most sinister innovation of the last few years has been the narco-financed ‘paramilitary’ organisations which were suspected of finding collaborators in military intelligence. Apart from corruption, the logic of this alliance was that certain narcotraficantes, particularly Rodriguez Gacha, shared with the Army a common desire to eliminate guerrillas, at least from certain areas and activities. Two factors will, I hope, reduce this threat. The first is the declining fortunes of the Medellin cartel. The second is President Barco’s persistent purge of the Armed Forces and the Police. For understandable reasons– ‘a Colonel is like the national flag’ – this receives little publicity, but the numbers involved are significant. To carry this through requires civil and military nerves and determination, as we continually find in Northern Ireland. Like a piece of indiarubber, any force employed against the drug trade in Colombia is bound to be worn away with corruption at the points of contact. It is a good reason, as President Bush may find out, for not using military forces except where absolutely necessary, and certainly a good reason for not urging the armies of Peru and Bolivia and Colombia into action.

The Colombian political system is extraordinarily resilient – few countries could have gone through what Colombia has gone through in the Eighties without suffering far more institutional instability. On the other hand, the country certainly needs more law and order, more ‘guarantees’ and above all more justice in the old-fashioned sense of that word. It is something that economists and planners, foreign and national, and most politicians have neglected. Before pursuing the delights of ‘civil society’, Colombia needs more of a state, in the right quarters, to become a better democracy. It needs a reformed judicial system, one in which better-paid, better-selected and properly-protected judges are capable of reaching and enforcing judgments – under the present set-up, most of them can do neither. Without that, not only will the level of homicide remain high but successive governments will continue to find it extraordinarily difficult to carry out their programmes in all spheres of national life.

A hundred years ago, Dr Nuñez was quoting Hippolyte Taine to his compatriots: however bad a government might be, the suppression of government was worse, as power then fell into the hands of ‘transitory groups that rise like whirlwinds from the human dust’. ‘Power is not easily exercised by the best men,’ Taine continued, ‘so imagine how it is exercised by improvised fractions.’ Dr Nuñez had no intention of letting that happen, and to the end of his life he held sway from that summer-house by Cartagena. Dr Barco, like the aged Nuñez, is an austere man, and far less communicative. Not only has he not fawned upon the people, he has not talked much either to former Presidents or to ‘oligarchs’, not to the clase dirigente or the clase politica, not to El Tiempo, El Espectador or El Siglo, not to monseñors or Fedeplasticos. In the meantime many whirlwinds have risen up, and criticism of his taciturn government has been more than usually severe.

Who governs Colombia? A hundred years ago it would not at first sight have looked as if it was Dr Nuñez. President Barco has not offered me a consulate, though he has agreed to write a prologue to a book of 19th-century watercolours. No sonnet was expected in return. But I will venture a bet: when he has left office, Colombians will eventually discover that, rather more than they noticed, he did govern the country for four years and left it in a slightly better posture, with its liberties more secure, than when he took over.

[*] Yale University Press, £22.50, 1989.

[†] Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, 1989.