Colombia's Deep Divide
The town of Chia, about an hour outside of Bogotá, is controlled by paramilitaries who are known not only for keeping out the FARC but also for their social conservatism and anticrime campaigns of "social cleansing": no pot smoking, panhandling, public drunkenness or prostitution here.
In Chia I meet Maria, a technician who voted for Uribe in 2002 but this time around plans to vote for Polo candidate Carlos Gaviria. Maria worked for a state utility but lost her job when Uribe privatized the company. Now she survives by renting rooms in her home and from the wages of her sons--one a waiter, the other an actor and teacher.
"At first I supported social cleansing. There was a man who was released from prison and was murdering old people. The paras found him and just killed him," says Maria. "A boy raped a girl and they killed him and four of his friends. At first they were killing really bad people."
Freddy, a bohemian bar owner in the center of Chia, shares this view. "I don't approve of social cleansing, but I admit I appreciate it," he says with a regretful shrug.
This attitude--an apolitical acceptance of violence--allows Uribe to be seen as a useful politician. Because Uribe mixes up a war on street crime with his war on communist guerrillas and the democratic left, he has cast his repression as a technocratic campaign against disorder in general. "The country needed una mano dura," says Maria.
Santa Fe, Bogotá's main red-light district, is also locked down by paras, but not of the stuffy sort who run Chia. Here "demobilized" paras moved in under the guise of social cleansing, then took over and ramped up the flesh trade. These are Uribe's lawless spawn: the logical outcome of his pampering "peace process."
Mouse is a gaunt and haunted-looking 26-year-old former paramilitary foot soldier who now plays guitar, lives in a cheap Santa Fe hotel and claims to survive by "breathing the air, nothing more," though he also admits to a long history of crime. Mouse won't use his real name for fear of reprisal, but he agrees to tell me about his life in the paramilitaries when we meet in a small corner bar for some midday beers.
About four years ago Mouse was a para with the Bloque Central Centauros in the province of Meta, a hard-core war zone south of Bogotá. "I was a para, but I never committed human rights violations," begins the young man emphatically. "We fought the guerrillas. The army supported us with their Black Hawks [helicopters]. They would fire tracers into the guerrilla positions, and we would fire at the same spot," he explains.
"In the paras there are no drugs," says Mouse. "You pack and ship cocaine, and on leave you do whatever you want. But if you get caught doing drugs in the camp, the sentence is death!" He punches the air as if firing a pistol. "It's either death by hammer or death by chain saw. I had to kill a guy with a chain saw. The first time is hard, but you get used to it. Besides, if you don't, the physical violence is turned against you. So you adapt."
At one point in telling his life story Mouse stops: a corrido prohibido has rolled up on the jukebox and he needs to sing along. It's Uriel Henao's "El Guerrillero y el Paraco," a Colombian imitation of the Mexican genre norteño. In this song two strangers start drinking together, "their masks fall away" and they begin to confess.
"My patrón is Carlos Castaño, leader of the AUC," wails one of the drunks. The other announces, "I am loyal to Tirofijo, leader of the FARC, and I am a guerrilla." The song ends with a shootout and both protagonists dead.