Fatherland: On Héctor Abad Faciolince
Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Colombia became one of the most strife-ridden regions on the planet. In the heat of the cold war, numerous guerrilla groups fought for the right to make revolution against governments they believed to be imperialist or illegitimate; most prominent were the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), formed in the mid-1960s and still active, as well as the Nineteenth of April Movement (M-19), launched in 1970 and demobilized in the 1990s.
During the presidency of Julio César Turbay Ayala (1978–82), the Colombian state embarked on a strategy of frontal assault against the guerrillas. Nevertheless, the formation of the paramilitary group called Death to Kidnappers (MAS), at the beginning of 1982, plunged the country into an unprecedented spiral of violence, alternately unleashed by various guerrilla organizations and by groups clandestinely supported by the government. Composed of small industrialists and ranchers, members of the Medellín cartel, former soldiers and private security forces, MAS proposed to use every means at its disposal to put an end to the kidnappings carried out by the guerrillas. A year after its creation, its death squads had already been judged responsible for 240 killings, mainly of peasants, community leaders and left-wing activists.
In 1982, a new organization, the Association of Middle Magdalena Ranchers and Farmers (ACDEGAM), was established to provide a legal front for the paramilitaries. After an initial stage in which it created institutions charged with promoting national values and anticommunism, it later began to concentrate its resources on supporting the activities of MAS. When, following peace talks initiated by President Belisario Betancur (1982–86), former members of the FARC and communist militants together created the Patriotic Union party, the ACDEGAM and MAS made every effort to eliminate its leaders and supporters, beginning with Jaime Pardo, one of the new party’s driving forces, who was assassinated by a gunman in La Mesa on October 11, 1987.
In the Antioquia region outside Medellín, paramilitary organizations largely owed their existence to the rise of the Castaño family. Fidel and Carlos Castaño, sons of a rancher kidnapped and assassinated by the FARC, organized a network of shock troops for the purpose of combating the guerrillas in the area; they are accused of drug trafficking, political assassinations and violent massacres. In order to professionalize his operation, Carlos Castaño, alias “El Pelao,” traveled to Israel and later studied with Yair (or Jair) Klein, a former soldier who, under cover of his security firm, Spearhead, advised the paramilitaries in guerrilla tactics for some years.
It was around this time that Héctor Abad Gómez was assassinated in Medellín by a pair of gunmen. Abad Gómez had been a professor at the University of Antioquia Medical School, founder of the School of Public Health and a consultant for the World Health Organization. Retired from his academic work, he became a tireless activist who over the years had come to sympathize increasingly with the left, though he never stopped identifying himself as a democrat: for all his leftist sympathies, Abad Gómez still believed political change could come only through debate and the ballot box, not through protest or revolt. When the clashes between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries grew bloodier, he created (along with a couple of friends) the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights of Antioquia. Though the legal investigation never cleared up the facts, his death seemed consistent with the paramilitaries’ tactic of eliminating anyone opposed to their interests.
Almost twenty years after Abad Gómez’s death, his son, novelist Héctor Abad Faciolince, chose to tell his father’s story in Oblivion. The strength of this intimate portrait of the murdered doctor lies in the sincerity and force with which a son re-creates the life of one of the many innocent victims claimed over the past few decades by the Colombian conflict.
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Since the various nations of Latin America achieved independence, the region has been the scene of an endless series of conflicts, inevitably reflected in its literature. Civil wars and foreign invasions, uprisings and attempted coups, revolutions and counterrevolutions followed one after the other on its soil until the final decades of the twentieth century, spawning a prodigious list of novels and stories. On this tumultuous stage, Colombia lived through a long period of instability that—uniquely on the continent—has yet to draw to a close. It’s no coincidence that, in describing the bloody battles between the Liberal and Conservative parties in the 1940s and ’50s, Colombians coined the term “La Violencia,” nor that the culminating work of Colombian literature and of Latin American literature overall, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), should be a fantastical retelling of the succession of social explosions that the country has endured.
Since the middle of the past century, Colombia has lived through a new “perfect storm” of violence (though now absent the moniker); in addition to the surge of different Marxist-inspired guerrilla movements came the rise of the drug trade—with emblematic figures like Pablo Escobar and José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha (“El Mexicano”)—and the rise of the paramilitaries. The combined activity of these groups, in tandem with the low quality of life in cities like Medellín and Cali, accounts for the emergence of the sicarios: kids from the poorer neighborhoods of these cities who are hired by rival gangs to commit their crimes. (Sicarios is a surprisingly elegant term derived from sica, the Latin word for “dagger.”)
As Alonso Salazar J. wrote in No nacimos pa’ semilla: La cultura de las bandas juveniles de Medellín (We Weren’t Born to Be Seeds: The Culture of Youth Gangs in Medellín), published in 1990:
the country is in the grips of a surprising phenomenon: young people who are prepared to die, like Islamic fundamentalists or Japanese kamikazes. With the significant difference that these prospective suicide victims are not motivated by any clear political, ideological, or religious ideal.
Not only are they prepared to die in dramatic acts; their daily lives are suffused with death. When a young person attaches himself to a sicariato, he knows that his life will be short. Many provide advance instructions for their own funerals. The truth is that they fear prison more than death.
Beginning in the 1980s, Colombian novelists became increasingly interested in the subculture of narcos and sicarios. A pioneering work, Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal’s El Divino (1985), was joined by two important novels: Laura Restrepo’s Leopard in the Sun (1993) and, above all, Fernando Vallejo’s Our Lady of the Assassins (1994). Focusing on the bleak lives of the young gunmen of Medellín, Vallejo’s novel pointed the way for subsequent generations of writers, who came to favor characters motivated only by resentment or inertia; the reproduction—or, as in this case, the reinvention—of the speech of criminals; and a style of such terseness and remove that it accentuates the meaninglessness of the characters’ lives. Soon afterward, Jorge Franco rounded out the conventions of the genre in his novel Rosario Tijeras (1999) by bringing a female figure into a world until then ruled by men. Both novels were made into movies: Our Lady of the Assassins by the Franco-Swiss director Barbet Schroeder in 2000, and Rosario Tijeras by the Mexican director Emilio Maillé in 2005.
As the violence of the drug trade spread to other Latin American cities, local writers were keen to absorb its telltale characteristics into their fiction. In an age dominated by a distrust of politics, an almost mythical aura came to surround powerful outlaw forces: the poor adolescents recruited by gangs; the beautiful girls used as tokens of exchange; the gunmen at war with each other, driven solely by existential emptiness; the pathetic heroes and villains, often interchangeable; a universe ruled by danger, unpredictability and death; clueless, underpaid policemen, always corrupt; and, of course, a few multimillionaire crime bosses capable of the worst atrocities.
All these elements gave rise to new novels of chivalry that blend the thriller and the soap opera, in which no one can say why he fights; in which, as the song goes, “life is worth nothing,” and acts of heroism are few and far between, and surviving past 40 is a victory in itself. This fledgling epic of narco life, with roots in the western and film noir and nods to everything from The Godfather to Pulp Fiction, has become an authentic subgenre in Colombia and Mexico and has already influenced writers in the international mainstream, like Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who portrayed a female drug boss in The Queen of the South (2002), or American novelist Don Winslow, who covered three decades of the drug war in Mexico in The Power of the Dog (2005).
In the view of some critics, the preeminence of the narco has supplanted magic realism as Latin American literature’s most striking feature at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Just when many writers thought they had broken free of the exoticism of children with actual pig’s tails and flying women à la García Márquez, the outlandish world of crime bosses and sicarios engulfed Latin America’s imagination, overshadowing other developments—such as the triumph of the left in a number of South American countries—that have nothing to do with it. Even so, it’s possible to single out a few works that avoid cliché and attempt to approach the phenomenon from a different perspective: The Armies (2009), El ruido de las cosas al caer (2011) and 35 muertos (2011) by, respectively, the Colombian writers Evelio Rosero, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Sergio Álvarez; or Kingdom Cons (2004) and The Black Minutes (2006) by, respectively, the Mexican writers Yuri Herrera and Martín Solares.
Because it is a memoir, and because of the seriousness and restraint of its tone, Oblivion can’t be considered a work of narco-literature. But when it was published in 2006, in a culture brimming with news articles about the violent crimes of the day, it was perceived as a necessary alternative—so much so that, since its release, it has become a bestselling work for its Colombian publisher, Planeta. At a moment when nearly every work of fiction turned its gaze on the brutal and crazed universe of the killers, Héctor Abad Faciolince’s paean to his father returned the victims to center stage.
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