Latin America's Longest War | The Nation


Latin America's Longest War

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Michael Taussig offers a glimpse of the possibilities in his book Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia--limpieza being the term the paramilitaries use to refer to "cleansing" a region of its undesirable elements. Taussig, an anthropologist at the other Columbia (the one on the Upper West Side of New York City) has been doing fieldwork since 1969 in a small city in the Cauca River Valley, a few miles from Cali. Some time around the year 2000, a tax-free, free-trade industrial zone was established just outside town. In February of the following year, a group of paramilitaries move in, hired--Taussig's informants tell him--by the "town's business elite." In the 1990s, in other regions of Colombia, the style of the paramilitaries would have been to move into a town such as Taussig's, identify the supposed guerrilla sympathizers and massacre them all at once, thereby creating headlines and embarrassing human rights inquiries. But in the new millennium the paramilitaries operate in a more discreet fashion, and their enemies are no longer so much political as they are economic.

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Peter Canby
Peter Canby is a senior editor at The New Yorker and the author of The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya (...

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In Taussig's town, they move into El Cupido, a love hotel downtown, with computer lists helpfully provided by military intelligence and go about the work of cleansing the town of its delincuentes--"undesirables," a few at a time. Their victims include not so much leftists or even political activists but street people: kids who've had "problems with the law," beggars, a madwoman, prostitutes not affiliated with El Cupido and a young man who, drunk in the middle of town one evening, makes the mistake of yelling at the paras: Que salgan hijeputas--"get out of here, you sons of whores!" He's killed for his outburst and his body lies on the street all night because people are afraid to move it. In neighboring towns other paramilitaries ban long hair or earrings on men, miniskirts on women, baseball hats worn backward and a gay beauty contest. Life under the paramilitaries doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun.

Taussig's book is based on a diary he kept during two weeks he spent in the town in May of 2001 during the fourth month of its paramilitary reign. His most interesting discovery is the support the paramilitaries have in town. One of his informants tells him that eight of ten of the townspeople are for them. There's a reason for this. Until the 1950s Taussig's part of the Cauca River Valley was dominated by small peasant farms. In their river-valley plots, the peasants (descendants of former African slaves) grew cacao trees, plantain trees, banana trees, coffee trees, orange trees, lemon trees, avocado trees, papaya trees, guava trees and many other trees besides. The peasants thereby created a mixed harvest that mimicked the tropical rain forest, required no store-bought fertilizers, no pesticides, little labor, little capital and, perhaps most important, created a continuous, year-round income.

But, sometime in the 1950s, the sugar industry arrived. The peasant farms were plowed under and everyone went to work on the new plantations (for the ultimate benefit, as Taussig points out, of a few white-skinned families in Cali). At first there was plenty of need for labor, but then, as Taussig puts it, "chemicals and machines made the workers idle." By the time the paramilitaries arrived, a shantytown of the unemployed had grown at one end of town, a slum that became so unruly that the police were afraid to enter. With no prospects for education or work, the kids formed gangs and turned to crime. Gradually, the town fell victim to a youth-gang-based crime wave that it would apparently do anything to solve. Taussig happens upon a gang funeral and witnesses the anarchic violence, the fights, the boombox hip-hop, the weird (for provincial Colombia) fashion, and the weird (for provincial Colombia) hair-dos. He notes one of the kids wearing an English-language T-shirt that says: Death Is Nature's Way of Saying Slow Down.

In Taussig's town, he notes that the paramilitaries have also been recruited out of the ranks of the unemployed. Former soldiers unable to find other jobs dominate their ranks. The murder of the street kids--the children of other unemployed Colombians--is bad enough, but beneath this obvious terror, Taussig perceives a deeper kind of terror. What he sees is an economic "culture of terror" that afflicts everybody in the neoliberal world of his town. The principal arm of this culture of terror is unemployment. Neoliberalism is supposed to generate jobs and solve unemployment, but that's an act of faith, really, and not enough attention has been given to the possibility that it might just be the problem cruelly masquerading as the solution. Although each town in Colombia has its own logic, Taussig makes a convincing case that in this new Colombia, "like the plants that went under, like the forest that disappeared, human nature as much as nature is facing a brave new world for which there is no history or pre-history."

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