‘All that is left of a person is their name,’ Olivia Mostacilla told me during my month in Colombia, the first time I’d been back in two years. She wasn’t referring to the paramilitary massacres, which have stopped in the past few months because of the on-going ‘demobilisation’ of the paras organised by President Uribe’s government, but to the craze for plastic surgery, especially the variety known as lipo-escultura or ‘fat sculpture’.
Actually, it’s called aesthetic surgery, not plastic, and it’s ‘the fastest growing industry in Colombia’, she assured me, especially in Cali and Medellín. Even though there is a desperate need for health services, not least to deal with sexually transmitted illness among the young and poor, there is no shortage of breast implants, liposuction and hymen restoration costing upwards of US $400, in a society where the basic wage is around $160 a month. Of course, as with back-alley abortions, there are aesthetic surgeons who work for as little as $100 a treatment – as described in Gustavo Bolívar Moreno’s novel Sin tetas no hay paraíso (Without Tits, No Paradise). Dedicated to his mother, and now in its sixth edition, it has recently been adapted as a telenovela. Meanwhile, Uribe’s Bush-friendly government, enamoured of free-market economics, shreds the health service. ‘The Ministry of Health basically does not exist,’ a British journalist long resident in Colombia tells me as he pulls a long revolver from his coat before examining a young girl in the clinic for street children he helped set up in the slums of a major city. Why the gun? The police have a contract out on him for daring to denounce police killing of children on the streets.
‘Any defect can be eliminated,’ Olivia said. ‘Any defect whatsoever.’ She wasn’t referring to the limpieza five years ago in this town outside Cali, limpieza as in ‘cleaning’: cleansing a house of witchcraft or bad spirits; or the cleaning up of a town, by assassinating petty thieves, crack addicts and homicidal youth gangs.
Yet it was hard to resist making these connections between beauty and death, as Olivia and her neighbour went on to detail the dangers of aesthetic surgery. Olivia’s niece, a nurse in a clinic in Cali, had recently had her nose altered by a doctor there. Like many Afro-Colombian women she disliked her nariz chata, as it’s called. ‘A few days before he went on holiday the doctor accosted her, saying: “Oh! I have to fix your nose quickly before I leave!” But the operation went badly. Months later she went to another surgeon for a second operation. Now she breathes like a cat. You know how a cat breathes? You can hear her breathing several feet away.’
A friend of this niece had her breasts enlarged, but infection set in and she had to have a double mastectomy. Other women have had their eyes enlarged and now can’t close them. ‘Imagine!’ a neighbour chimed in. ‘Imagine trying to sleep!’ Fathers give liposuction as a present to their daughters on their 15th birthday. Both women and men return for multiple liposuctions. Diego Maradona came to Colombia to have eight stone removed. ‘People fly in from the USA, and Colombia now leads Brazil in this field,’ Olivia told me as she prepared lunch in her stifling concrete brick house at the end of the town, while I watched an advertisement for a ‘vibrating corset’ designed to eliminate fat through electronic massage. ‘People have died,’ she said. ‘From perforated intestines.’
Yet the demand is insatiable. ‘Beauty opens doors.’ The women in Congress, including the president of the Senate and the new minister of foreign affairs, are stunningly beautiful. And when the wonderfully progressive mayor of Medellín replaced the annual beauty queen contest with one for women of talent, they too were all stunning. One can only imagine what it takes to be a humble secretary, let alone the courtesan of a narco. ‘It was like . . . like heaven’s gate!’ a burly young American alone in first class was telling the male steward as I flew out of Bogotá. He could well have been a US helicopter pilot or one of the 500 military advisers in this country where the US is reported to have more than 2500 personnel.
‘We stayed in the north . . . can’t remember the name. And the girls!’
‘Like they popped out of a magazine,’ the steward responded.
‘Even if you end up with the worst, she’s amazing!’
Gloria Ollave lives a few blocks from Olivia. With her trio she makes the equivalent of $14 a concert, singing at birthdays at five in the morning outside the person’s house. Her husband is a devout member of a new Protestant temple – many now flourish here – whose ecstatic singing and clapping can be heard every night overwhelming the beleaguered Catholic Mass with its pitifully small flock. ‘Saved our marriage,’ she tells me, but she is bitter about the 10 per cent of their income going to the pastor, who seems to be fabulously wealthy. When she was training to be a nurse five years ago (a course never completed for lack of money), Gloria saw liposuction performed by cutting a long incision down the sides of the back, scraping away the fat with a scalpel. Now it’s done by many tiny incisions through which the fat leaks for a day or more. The famous torture of the classic Colombian violencia of the late 1940s involved slits being cut in the skin of the victim so that he slowly bled to death. It was called bocachica after the fish of that name, which is slit along the sides before being fried in boiling fat.
‘Any defect can be eliminated,’ Olivia Mostacilla had said. As in this town in 2001, when so-called paramilitaries were hired by the owner of the lottery to assassinate wayward youths (offenders under 18 receive extremely light sentences, even for murder). Nobody was clear who these killers were, whether they ‘officially’ belonged to the 18,000-strong army or armies of Carlos Castaño’s AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), or were a far less organised bunch of thugs. But kill they certainly could and barely a week went by without a murder as they rode high and free on their motorbikes shooting from the pillion in broad daylight. Then strangely, after ten months or so, the army came and arrested some of them, whereupon the owner of the lottery was himself assassinated, then his wife and son as well. Nobody came forward to denounce the paramilitaries, and they were eventually released.
Now the youth gangs are again rampant. One is called Sin Futuro (‘Without a Future’), another the Dandys. Children of nine or ten act as scouts and carry the weapons, Gloria tells me, and under no circumstances can I walk more than three blocks from the central plaza to visit her family, who live by El Escape, a crossroads notorious for theft and murder. The children of the poor and the peasantry are more like small adults than the children of First World or local middle-class people. Small wonder the guerrilla recruits children throughout Colombia. (Marta, aged four, is busy sweeping the floor as I write.) This agro-industrial town of fifty thousand people has one of the highest recorded homicide rates in the world (three or four murders a month), largely the result of gang members killing each other.
In the Catholic cemetery (I couldn’t go to the cementerio laico because it was in the danger zone) gang members parade on top of the six-foot-high wall at funerals chanting vengeance. Clutching three cell-phones, a young woman in black is tending the fresh grave of her husband; incised into the stone is his photograph and the red badge of Ciudad de Cali, the football club he supported. He was killed by guerrilla while driving a bus for a sugar plantation. Nearby is an open casket in the wall, with a shining skull and a dirty green bag. A sign of witchcraft? Lower down is the niche of a famous gang leader, with a faded photograph of himself in a cowboy hat and three drawings of dogs – illegal dog fights were his passion. I pass the niche of Alberto Mezú, a former M-19 guerrillero who dedicated himself to helping drug-addicted children, and was murdered by paras. Beneath him lies a 70-year-old man, dead from cerebral thrombosis due to an overdose of Viagra: the girl he was on top of said he was complaining of a headache. Viagra is commonly taken here by young men too, along with uppers, to maintain an erection for hours.
The fear is suffocating. Olivia, whom I have known for 35 years, refuses point blank to leave the front door open even though it is hot and airless. She rents the house from a godchild who now, like so many people from here, works in Spain. Without the safety valve of emigration, and the money from cocaine (messengers carrying it to Cali, an hour away, are paid $80 a trip), this town would suffer from the worst poverty imaginable. Unable to pay the rent in a more central location, Olivia feels vulnerable, although she talks of the advantages of the ‘countryside’ – while noting an eerie absence of visitors. She disapproves when I open the window to my room during the day, and when I leave she covers it with two layers of curtains and a large sheet of cardboard for good measure. She insists I return before dark. There is no night school any longer because people fear the dark.
Utopia and dystopia mix miserably as they do throughout this physically beautiful country. Two boys crack their whips and cry out all day, keeping a small herd of cattle on the move as their owner takes advantage of free pasture in the no-man’s-land between town and country. The herders see that the cows don’t eat the plastic bags scattered everywhere, which would strangle their intestines. I once saw young Gabriel fighting with a cow for the plastic bag halfway down its throat. Yet what puzzled me most was that the cattle weren’t allowed to rest for more than a few minutes. People deposit their garbage here, by the edge of the river; dogs come and go; kids sneak by to smoke dope and dream dreams of freedom hidden in the wild cane lining the banks. The blue of the cordillera vibrates in the distance at the edge of the plain, a bucolic scene complete with the white spirits of whirling plastic bags and the spasmodic craziness of driven cattle.
Black wisps of ash float down as the sugar plantations, the dominant force in the valley, owned by a tiny handful of whites, insist now on burning some of the crop before harvest (which takes place all year round) in order to reduce the number of cane cutters – invariably of African descent – they need. Our water for bathing and laundry has to be covered over with yellowing plastic and the house has to be swept several times a day. I once dreamed these wisps of ash were the Clark Gable moustache of a recent president of Colombia, Andrés Pastrana, who looks like a tailor’s dummy and belongs to the elite, who float like ash over the poor, going from well-paid jobs with the diplomatic corps in Washington to the UN or the OAS – until, who knows, they too will be swept away.
All night I hear the throb of the pump hauling water for the plantations from the stream that passes through the town. Once a proud river taking paddle steamers from Cali, it is now a trickle of polluted waste, diverted upstream for the plantations of the wealthy and the paper factory (the largest in South America) that uses the stalks of squeezed cane. The industry is unstoppable now that fuel for cars is made from sugar cane. Yet until 1960 this was an area of highly efficient peasant farms. Today an 18-year-old girl, a descendant of peasants displaced by the plantations, has to choose between becoming a prostitute (with tetas), a live-in servant in the city (half a day off every two weeks), or a factory worker for a labour contractor in the newly established ‘tax free’ zone, sticking labels on bottles of medicine from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. six days a week for $6 a day. Under the current government it is easy for employers to avoid social security payments. ‘Worse than slavery,’ says her mother, whose son, William, an African dancer, is a political refugee in Sweden. At least with slavery you got food.
Even ten years ago there was vigorous public debate in the municipal council about these abuses, but today the voices of protest are quiet. Virtually no legal opposition is possible in Colombia, only the armed opposition of the guerrilla – now called ‘terrorists’ by the president. The last attempt to create a legal opposition produced the UP party in the 1980s. All its members were assassinated within a few years.
The small businessmen by the marketplace are organising a new limpieza. ‘If they don’t rob you in the morning they rob you in the afternoon,’ one of them says, and they are finalising a deal with an ‘office’ in Cali which, for a fixed monthly sum, will eliminate the problem by killing the offenders. Such an office is usually connected to the local police, it’s said, and gets photographs from the state (photo IDs are mandatory in Colombia) or from the round-ups the police conduct – which is when the photographs are taken. Otherwise, the police are noted for their absence. On their pathetic salaries they are in no hurry to expose themselves to danger.
But there is progress. At the entrance to the town, battered, barely mobile, cars serving as taxis are parked two abreast. When I first arrived three decades ago there were barely any. And to the marble statues and fleets of high-powered all-terrain vehicles belonging to the narcotraficantes, add the 19 million cellphones currently in use, double last year’s number. In Santa Barbara, a small town of some six thousand people in the isolated rainforest of the Pacific coast, now reeling under the impact of coca cultivation forced westward over the Andes by US-instigated aerial fumigation, sixty teenage boys were circling the plaza dressed in glaring orange vests marked minuto. If you feel like making a call from this jungle enclave, just whistle up one of these handsome boys for ten cents a minute. One told me he sold on average 400 minutes a day. Not a bad deal but not nearly as good as getting over a billion dollars from the US to spray the coca fields so as to maintain the price on the streets of New York.
‘Any defect can be eliminated,’ Olivia had said, although the Spanish word translates literally as ‘arranged’. ‘Arranged’ is good; it sounds more like Colombian reality these days, suggesting a sleight of hand covering over one reality with another, fictitious one, so that finally you can’t tell what is ‘real’ and what isn’t.
As with the people in Olivia’s town, Colombians as a whole seem relatively sanguine about having a bunch of thugs and killers maintain order throughout the nation. Of course they are protected by people’s self-censorship, by the killing of journalists (historically, in this respect, Colombia ranks highest or second highest in the world), and the endless confusion of rumour such an anxious society produces, with the encouragement of the media and the government. It is an open secret that occult paramilitary forces, protected both by the president and by the armed forces, maintain the status quo. They work with the police and the army, although this can never ever be said out loud, and they rely largely on the drug trade for money. Yet their coca fields are never fumigated. The whole of the US-Colombian eradication programme is directed at the south of the country, where the bulk of the guerrilla are, far from the areas to the north, where the paras exert dominion and from where they have expelled the majority of Colombia’s three million displaced people.
As I travel through the country, especially in Medellín, I hear how Uribe’s government is perfecting a peace agreement with his old friends, the paras. Nobody can quite believe it. It was like a scene out of Hitchcock or Under Western Eyes as I stood with an ex-guerrillero – a National Liberation Army (ELN) militiaman – on the Medellín mountainside as the cable-cars pass smoothly overhead. Nobody could overhear us as he pointed to the highways far below leading to Bogotá and the Caribbean coast which the ELN had taken over from the youth gangs, controlled for almost a decade, then lost to the paras, who now, as smooth as the cable-cars, run the barrios all the way up to the mountain-tops. He should know: his cousin is the para who controls the barrio. On the surface the state is in control, but, as he says with a smile, ‘Cara y contra cara’ – mask and reality.
The ‘peace process’ is likely to do little more than legalise this state of affairs, allowing the chiefs of the paras to keep their immense fortunes, maintain their control over Congress and the presidency, and hang onto the huge supermarkets, bus routes, taxi companies and other protection rackets that they have accumulated over the years, making them the virtual infrastructure of many Colombian ports and cities, including the sinister underground forces of law and order. Not one para has been extradited to the US. Not one. But this is what they most fear.
In Fritz Lang’s M, the state, unable to find a kidnapped child, recruits the criminal underworld to help out. They turn out to be far more effective. They foreshadow the Third Reich which, like the current Colombian government, was voted in by a majority of fearful people. The guerrilla are Uribe’s best ally, after George W. Bush, since they provide him with the ‘terrorists’ he needs, so that, like an aesthetic surgeon, he can nip and tuck his way to a nation with the perfect body.
It was bad enough granting these ogres virtual amnesty. (The latest bulletin, dated 4 August, states they will serve their sentences – four or five years at most – in ‘agricultural colonies’.) And just in case they are forced to surrender some of their stolen estates, there are now reports of their burning state archives and killing functionaries responsible for land deeds in Valledupar, Cali and Sincelejo. ‘We do what the regular army can’t,’ an ex-para told me. ‘We do the dirty work. We sow terror. You hack a couple of people to pieces with power saws and leave them hanging on a barbed-wire fence. That’s more effective than killing large numbers.’ He was a charming guy, 34 years old, lithe and handsome, with a four-year-old son called Steve who scampered all over the barrio with us.
‘What do the guerrilla want?’ I ask.
‘They want power. They want to be like Fidel Castro. And they want control of the narcotráfico.’
Born and raised in the countryside, he left the regular army after four years of fighting in the burning heat of the Magdalena Medio to join the paras, who at that time led the army in the drive to exterminate the guerrilla. When he left his unit ten years later, as part of the current demobilisation, he was a comandante in charge of 42 soldiers. Now he wants to tailor clothes. It’s almost inevitable: fashion, along with plastic surgery and the free expression of sex, has become a major preoccupation in Colombia. The Church may rant against abortion and women’s scanty clothing, but in bookshops such beguiling works as The Kama Sutra for Lesbians are on prominent display, while next door Italian sneakers might be on sale for $290.
Like all the other barrios in Medellín – and quite unlike Olivia’s town – we could walk freely and unafraid. Behind the façade of the current peace process and the rule of law, the paras ensured ‘tranquillity’. The media might show dramatic images of soldiers in floppy green hats and machine-guns defending the streets of Medellín with the new cable-cars in the background, but it is the paramilitary commander in the barrio built on a gigantic garbage dump by the river who now, with his mask on, as president of the Junta de Acción Comunal, calls the shots.
The president of the junta followed us into the class that 13 demobilising paras had to attend weekly so as to get their pay-out from the government (using funds largely supplied by the US): $140 a month for two years plus free education and health services (the peasants they have displaced receive $36 per family for three months only). There are some five thousand demobilising paras in Medellín, many of whom are attending classes such as this one to help ‘rehabilitate’ them – classes designed with the benefit of much experience with youth gangs. Some of these paras are thought to be ring-ins, while others seem too burnt out to fight any more.
A bull of a man aged around forty with a strident voice, a big silver wristwatch and rings on his fingers, the president of the junta separates himself from the demobilising paras, asserting his authority by sitting next to the pretty young psychology graduate who very capably spends the hour discussing impulsiveness. She begins by handing out a questionnaire: ‘Do you have explosions of bad temper?’ ‘Do you get violent when you drink?’ ‘Do you sometimes think the best way to deal with a person is to kill them?’ ‘Do you adequately control your sexuality?’ The ensuing discussion is lively, indeed scarily so. Meanwhile, the man with the silver watch plays with his keys on the desk top, fills out his questionnaire before anyone else, whistles, coughs loudly, pulls out a rubber stamp, plays with that too, and once or twice squeals like a stuck pig when the psychologist makes the point that violence leads to more violence and that violence has its roots in the family.
How she maintains her ease in this cacophony of hoary males is beyond me. Later, I ask her if she thinks the whole exercise is a farce, a madhouse for acting out, or for real? ‘All of the above,’ she replies. Which, I guess, is the most accurate appraisal of the current peace process. But I think back to the aesthetic surgery: what happens when you can’t close your eyes any longer?