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.

Colombians were remarkably successful in creating a democratic culture, however. By 1853, all adult Colombian males, regardless of race, property-holding or literacy, were citizens, and had the right to vote; while in the supposed wellsprings of democracy, racial restrictions were the norm in the US and strict property requirements limited democracy in Britain. More important, people of all classes were involved in this democratic culture. Liberal ‘Democratic Societies’ flourished throughout the country, and acted as a place where rulers and ruled could come into contact, the poor using the clubs’ gatherings to communicate their wishes and demands to the state. The societies offered literacy classes, public readings of newspapers, and lectures on the constitution, the nature of democracy and the rights of citizens. And the working class took these lessons to heart. During a strike in 1878 Afro-Colombian river workers demanded to be treated as ‘citizens of a republic and not like the slaves of a sultan’. Peasants, miners and artisans, whether of indigenous, African or European descent, wrote petitions demanding their rights, voted in elections and volunteered in civil wars. These wars – fought to decide which party would control the state – also involved issues such as the role of the Catholic Church and, most important, who would be a citizen and what citizenship would mean. Colombia was not a particularly violent place in the 19th century, its civil wars paling in comparison to the civil war in the United States, and without the large-scale peasant jacqueries, millenarian movements, or slave and indigenous rebellions seen in much of Latin America.

The embrace of democracy by the working class and their success in claiming citizenship inspired a violent reaction on the part of the Colombian elite, which in the 1880s came to the conclusion that political modernity was not creating economic modernity as planned; on the contrary, democracy, they said, was hindering economic development, because workers made too many demands and enjoyed too many rights. To obtain the order perceived as necessary for economic progress, the commitment to political modernity was abandoned, in a process known as the Regeneration. In 1886 a new constitution limited freedom of association and the press, reinstituted the death penalty, and enacted new property and literacy requirements for full citizenship. ‘There is much work to be done in order to make the masses understand what real and true liberty and democracy are,’ the politician Juan Ulloa wrote, thereby anticipating the concerns of the 20th-century state. The real problem was that the masses did know what democracy meant to them. Eliseo Payán, a future vice-president, went further than Ulloa, arguing that dictatorship was a ‘way to obtain order’. He would not be the last politician to see rights and order as incompatible.

Forrest Hylton’s Evil Hour in Colombia sees this cycle – struggle for popular democracy followed by repression by the state and the oligarchs – as central to Colombia’s history. The Regeneration was followed by other attempts by the powerful to protect their property, racial privilege and monopolies from the threat of redistribution or the imposition of equal rights. The sectarian violence of La Violencia closed down a second moment of popular ferment stirred up by Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in the 1940s. Gaitanismo was an important cross-class and multiracial movement, bridging urban and rural areas and creating an early liberal/ left coalition. The peace process started in 1982 by Belisario Betancur created a third moment when a large electoral left linked to guerrilla insurgency emerged. The largest insurgent group, the FARC, decided to test electoral politics, forming the Unión Patriótica (UP). The UP was part of a broad movement, most of it not connected to the FARC, that aimed to open up Colombia’s political system after a 16-year (1958-74) power-sharing arrangement between Liberals and Conservatives known as the National Front, during which the two parties had alternated in the presidency. The oligarchs responded with a dirty war carried out by regional and local paramilitary networks that were given de facto immunity by subsequent administrations despite murdering hundreds, if not thousands, of UP activists and candidates, including the UP presidential candidates Jaime Pardo Leal and Bernardo Jaramillo. The FARC, much of whose leadership had seen the UP simply as a way to gain legitimacy, thereafter used the assassinations to explain why they refused to lay down their arms.

By the 1990s, the FARC and the second-largest guerrilla movement, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), had lost whatever popular support they still enjoyed thanks to their increasing reliance on kidnapping, extortion and assassination – and an involvement in the drug trade that went some way beyond the traditional taxing of coca crops. Kidnapping became the ELN’s biggest source of income and the FARC’s largest after drugs. The population’s disgust helped pave the way for the victory of Alvaro Uribe Vélez. Promising a ‘mano firme’ and an end to negotiations with the guerrillas, Uribe instead opened negotiations with the paramilitaries, including the AUC, in spite of the massacres it had carried out, and admitted to, and its close links to drug-trafficking. Uribe’s Justice and Peace Law has allowed many paramilitaries and drug lords to take advantage of the law to re-enter civil society cleansed of their past crimes after minimal punishment. AUC candidates have begun to stand in local elections, and to win them by forcing the other candidates to withdraw or else risk assassination. Voters can only protest by casting blank ballots – which in quite a few cases have outnumbered the votes for the AUC candidate who was running unopposed.

Uribe, meanwhile, has designated the guerrillas terrorists, which means that the state doesn’t need to negotiate with them or respect their political and human rights. The victims of these policies have mostly been not the guerrillas themselves but their civilian supporters or neighbours. Uribe has made it clear that no one can remain neutral in this conflict: civilians are expected to become police informers, and refusing to do so brands one a terrorist. Paramilitaries can kill or forcibly displace anyone who doesn’t do as they ask, seizing the victims’ land for themselves. Colombia currently has more internal refugees than any country except Sudan, and paramilitaries control more than half its cultivable land. The present cycle of repression has once again mostly affected Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, which have seen their land and property stolen, or seized – violence is usually involved. In the late 1990s, the largely Afro-Colombian town of San José de Apartadó in the Urabá region in north-west Colombia declared itself a neutral community and demanded that all those with weapons, including the police, leave the town. The police refused and, by 2005, 152 residents had been massacred, 19 by the FARC and most of the rest by paramilitaries. Much of the land vacated in Urabá as the result of violence has been slated for African palm plantations: the paramilitaries are acting as the shock troops of neoliberalism.

Hylton’s assessment of Uribe, detailing the close links between the president’s political movement and the drug-traffickers and paramilitaries, is devastating. The accusation that Uribe had ties to the paramilitaries when he was a regional governor are more important though less good copy than his links to drug-traffickers, especially Pablo Escobar; Hylton reports that after being told of his father’s death, Uribe was taken to a family ranch by one of Escobar’s helicopters. Recent revelations have only confirmed Hylton’s grim portrait. Jailed paramilitaries have given details of the close links between Uribe, his supporters in Congress and the right-wing militias. In October, Senator Mario Uribe, the president’s second cousin and close ally, was forced to resign after the paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, a powerful commander in the AUC, admitted having meetings with the senator to plot how to transform the militias from a military force into a social and political movement, a process Evil Hour in Colombia describes very well. Fourteen congressmen have already been jailed for having ties to paramilitaries and many more, almost all allies of Uribe, are under investigation.

Associations with death squads might not bother Washington too much, but Uribe’s links with the drug mafia are another matter. A recent book by Virginia Vallejo, Escobar’s former mistress, claims not only that Uribe and Escobar were friends but that when Uribe was head of Colombia’s aviation authority, he secured landing rights for planes used in the Medellín Cartel’s booming export trade. This was vigorously denied by Uribe, but Vallejo’s account is backed by a 1991 US Defense Intelligence Agency report which noted that Uribe was a ‘close personal friend’ of Escobar. Needless to say, American officials have since disclaimed the 1991 report and Uribe openly attacks his critics. In October he accused a Supreme Court judge of bribing an arrested paramilitary leader to claim that the president had schemed with the militias, and denounced the journalist Gonzalo Guillén as the ghostwriter behind Vallejo’s book. After Uribe described Guillén’s reporting as full of lies, the journalist received more than twenty death threats and fled the country.

It isn’t clear whether Uribe’s promise of a functioning state that provides basic security outweighs the mounting allegations of corruption. The lawlessness of the Colombian countryside and the mafia’s penetration of cities such as Medellín, and increasingly Bogotá, has made strong government a priority for many. However, as Hylton emphasises, the state’s long history of repressing rather than including popular groups, and, perhaps more pressing, the infiltration of the state by paramilitaries and the drug mafia are bad signs. Uribe’s ‘democratic security’ has been successful to some extent, especially at reducing kidnappings – earlier repressive movements were also successful in securing short-term order – and Hylton underestimates the appeal of Uribe’s strongman rhetoric to all levels of the population. In a society that recently boasted the highest murder rate in the world, where in the 1990s, only blocks away from the Capitol and Presidential Palace, you could hear the pop-pop-pop of gunfire at night, and many Colombians avoided travelling by road because of the danger of kidnapping, the appeal of basic security is hard to overestimate. However, Hylton notes that the poor and the middle classes, as well as indigenous, Afro-Colombian, trade-union, feminist, peace and environmental activists, are rejecting Uribe’s promise of a firm hand in their push for social justice. Meanwhile, Colombia’s political class and the US diplomats who funnel so many millions into its anti-drug and anti-insurgency wars continue to argue that the nation is not ready for a democracy of rights, but only for Uribe’s ‘democratic security’, thus making the lack of an effective democracy seem a result of violence instead of its underlying cause.