Latin America’s Longest War

Latin America’s Longest War

In May, Jan Egeland, the United Nations Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, called a news conference in New York to declare publicly what he had been warning people about for some time: that


In May, Jan Egeland, the United Nations Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, called a news conference in New York to declare publicly what he had been warning people about for some time: that the nation of Colombia had become “by far the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the Western Hemisphere.”

Chronic and intractable warfare among paramilitaries, the army, cocaine traffickers and leftist guerrillas has so wreaked havoc on the countryside that, Egeland pointed out, 2 million of its 36 million inhabitants had become refugees. This made Colombia the country with the largest number of displaced people after only Congo and Sudan. Many of the displaced, he went on to say, had fled to shantytowns on the outskirts of Colombia’s cities, thereby joining a larger Third World flight of the rural dispossessed into poverty and despair on the edges of cities. In Colombia, refugees have settled in shantytowns like one outside Cartagena, where, Egeland noted, 10,000 people are “floating in a sea of sewage and garbage.” With few prospects for either jobs or education, the young and the unemployed in these slums had turned to crime or become easy recruits as gunmen for left-wing guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries.

Colombia’s problems are of long standing and are deeply tied into the country’s tortured and violent history. They do not appear to be amenable to quick fixes–especially military ones. Colombia is already awash in guns. More and bigger guns aren’t likely to bring the country’s warring parties any closer to a peace accord. But over the past few years, while the world’s attention has been transfixed by events in Iraq, the United States has become deeply involved in a military buildup in Colombia and is rapidly becoming more so. At present, the United States has some 400 military personnel in Colombia as well as another 400 of the increasingly ubiquitous civilian contractors. And in March the Bush Administration announced its intention to request authority from Congress to double the number of military personnel to 800 and raise the number of civilian contractors to 600. This is part of the Administration’s effort to renew, in 2006, “Plan Colombia,” a program under which the United States has already spent some $3 billion (more than 75 percent of it on military aid). On the eve of the Iraq war, Colombia was the third-largest recipient of American aid after only Israel and Egypt.

The goal of Plan Colombia is to stem the nearly $40 billion-a-year flow of cocaine to the United States, 80 percent of which comes from Colombia. In the aftermath of 9/11, glib analogies were made in Washington between cocaine, terrorism and Osama bin Laden. Colin Powell declared Colombian insurgents “terrorists with a global reach” and said they posed a threat to US interests. What had been strictly an antidrug campaign was thus, by a deft use of the terrorism trump card, transformed into a counterinsurgency campaign. But nothing is easy about cocaine in Colombia, and eradicating–even slowing–cocaine growth there is a formidable task. Indeed, if cocaine remains pervasive in Colombia, it’s arguably because of the failure of American drug policies elsewhere in Latin America. Until the early 1980s, coca growing was largely confined to the Andean countries of Peru and Bolivia, where it is indigenous (and where its leaves are chewed to ward off hunger and exhaustion). But US-led eradication efforts in those countries led to the spread of coca production in Colombia, where it fuels several insurgencies that have grown to the point where they now control large swaths of Colombian territory.

In her eloquent and insightful book, More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs, and America’s War in Colombia, Robin Kirk, Human Rights Watch’s former Colombia researcher, notes that in Colombia, cocaine is a “marvelous, terrible thing. It defeats ideology, the United States, moral concerns, reason. It is a money-making whirlwind that simply anyone can ride.” Certainly cocaine has been successfully ridden by FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), a peasant-based and largely peasant-led Marxist insurgency that is the hemisphere’s oldest and most powerful revolutionary group. FARC’s strength derives not from trafficking cocaine (although there are reports that it traffics to a small degree) but by taking a 10 percent protection fee from peasant supporters who grow coca. This adds up to a not inconsiderable amount of money. No one really knows how much, but there are reports that it approaches $500 million a year. This has allowed FARC to field a well-armed military force of up to 20,000 that, by the 1990s, had grown strong enough to fight pitched battles against, and sometimes defeat, the Colombian Army.

Arrayed against FARC is a loose consortium of paramilitaries known as Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC. The paramilitaries, sometimes referred to as the “armed wing of the middle class,” initially arose in response to FARC’s other major revenue stream–kidnapping. Before long, however, they developed close, unacknowledged ties to Colombia’s military. Kirk quotes a Colombian officer who coyly likens the relationship between the army and the paramilitaries to that between a married man and his mistress: “One has one but doesn’t bring her home to meet your family.” But there is nothing light-hearted about the AUC, which during the 1990s waged a vicious war against real and imagined FARC sympathizers, often colluding with the army to cordon off towns and then committing gruesome, high-profile massacres of suspected FARC sympathizers using, in addition to the usual arms, chainsaws, axes and hammers. By most reports, the paramilitaries have become so involved in cocaine trafficking that they and the traffickers are essentially one and the same.

Plan Colombia was originally conceived in 1999 as a peace initiative on the part of then-Colombian president Andres Pastrana. In her concise, well-informed, and sharp-edged primer, Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy and War, Grace Livingstone describes how Pastrana’s Plan Colombia was hijacked by the United States and transformed into the military program it has since become. This process was facilitated by the spectacular collapse of the Pastrana administration’s larger peace initiative. As part of that plan, Pastrana granted FARC what was often referred to as a “Switzerland-sized” autonomous zone in the southern part of the country, a zone that had been largely controlled by the guerrillas anyway and soon came to be known as “Farclandia.” The creation of Farclandia was supposed to impress the guerrillas with the seriousness of the government’s desire for peace, but FARC somehow remained unimpressed, and the collapse of negotiations between FARC and Pastrana is usually attributed to uncooperative behavior on FARC’s part. FARC representatives repeatedly failed to show up for negotiation sessions and, over the course of the peace process, killed the attorney general’s wife (who also had a career as a popular folk singer), kidnapped a diplomat traveling in a UN vehicle and captured and executed the chair of the Colombian House of Representatives Peace Commission while he was on his way to negotiate with the guerrillas. FARC has a long history of political obstructionism, a tendency that may reflect what Alma Guillermoprieto described in the New York Review of Books as “the cocoon of isolation and paranoia that clandestinity generates.”

But FARC’s seeming political ineptness can also be attributed to an understandable skepticism about the Colombian government’s intentions. Colombia has a long history of duplicity and betrayal toward FARC, the most dramatic example of which is described by Steven Dudley in Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia. Dudley’s book tells the sad chronicle of the Unión Patriótica during the late 1980s and early ’90s. The UP was FARC’s attempt at a legal political party. Despite its candidates’ considerable appeal, the government was unable or unwilling to protect them, and paramilitary death squads ruthlessly picked them off–even assassinating the party’s popular presidential candidate in broad daylight at the Bogotá airport. This series of assassinations not only crushed the UP as a party but, by eliminating FARC leaders who might have had the flexibility to negotiate with the government, strengthened the militaristic and even Stalinist tendencies in FARC.

Since the mid-1960s, FARC has been led by a tough, wily, countryman named Manuel Marulanda, known as “Tirofijo,” or “Sureshot.” Tirofijo has long survived by force of arms and does not appear to have been unduly troubled by the massacre of the UP’s leadership. But Tirofijo is well into his 70s, and there are published reports that he is suffering from prostate cancer. Despite this, FARC’s militaristic tendencies are likely to prevail for the foreseeable future. Tirofijo’s heir apparent is Jorge Briceño Suarez, known affectionately as “Mono Jojoy,” a rotund, fair-skinned man who is said to be a military genius with little or no interest in politics. According to Kirk, he once explained to a journalist that “I was nothing when I was a civilian. I was created by weapons.”

Throughout Pastrana’s term in office, the paramilitaries grew enormously. Under the leadership of Carlos Castaño, a charismatic psychopath who never finished high school, the paramilitaries wrested control of the cocaine trade from the cartels and, like FARC, seized control of large sections of the countryside, particularly in the north. The zone of undisputed government control was reduced, in many ways, to the area around Bogotá, and FARC correctly perceived that whatever peaceful intentions the government might profess, its ability to restrain the paramilitaries was another matter. Such was the dissipation of the government’s power by the end of Pastrana’s term, writes Kirk, that a joke circulated around Bogotá that Pastrana was the best president Colombia ever had because “he was given one country and made it into three!”

In many ways, the ascendancy of the paramilitaries reached its logical conclusion with the election for a four-year term, in May of 2002, of the current president, Álvaro Uribe. Uribe is from a prominent ranching family and had been governor of Antioquia, a state at the very nexus of Colombia’s cocaine trade. He was the undeclared candidate of the paramilitaries. His father had been killed by FARC and FARC twice tried to assassinate him during his campaign. For his promise of a military solution to Colombia’s problems, Uribe came to be known as “Colombia’s Ariel Sharon.” He has been unreservedly supportive of every aspect of Plan Colombia, from strengthening the country’s military to–especially–reducing the growth of coca.

Coca reduction is close to the heart of Plan Colombia. The United States has been involved in heavy, Vietnam-like aerial spraying of Colombia’s coca fields. Guarded by a small fleet of Black Hawk and Huey helicopters, crop-dusting planes have sprayed hundreds of thousands of gallons of the herbicide Roundup Ultra (which has the EPA’s highest toxicity rating), combined with a Colombian surfactant of unknown toxicity called Cosmoflux. The planes are piloted by independent contractors, eleven of whom have been killed and three of whom are being held captive by FARC. A few months ago, in connection with the campaign to renew Plan Colombia, the Bush Administration announced that in the year 2003 alone, spraying in Colombia had reduced the number of coca fields by 20 percent–this on top of a 14 percent reduction the previous year. Peasants in the spray zones have complained of respiratory problems, temporary blindness, the destruction of non-cocaine crops and the death of their farm animals, but no one seems much concerned. The spraying continues.

One of the reasons there has been so little outcry is that many of the fields being sprayed belong to Colombia’s poorest peasantry and, not coincidentally, are effectively controlled by FARC. In the midst of the post-9/11 hysteria, the Bush Administration requested and received authorization from Congress to declare FARC a terrorist threat. It was thus able to extend the mandate of Plan Colombia to allow the United States to use its drug funds and helicopters in anti-FARC operations. Under Plan Colombia, moreover, the United States has set up an intensive intelligence-gathering operation on FARC and sought to both professionalize Colombia’s army and get it out of the barracks, where it had traditionally spent most of its time. There’s little question that FARC has taken a knock with all this. Some of its coca-growing territory has been wrested away by paramilitaries, and the paramilitaries have used some of this land to move in a significant way into growing coca. FARC’s income base has clearly been affected. In January, moreover–with the help of American intelligence–its financial chief, a former banker from an aristocratic family named Ricardo Palmera, was captured in Ecuador, where he had gone to obtain medical treatment. There are reports that American intelligence has also succeeded in disrupting FARC’s supply lines. Despite these setbacks, FARC is far from being defeated, and many people argue that, if anything, it has simply retreated into the rain forests to wait out the end of Uribe’s term. The Colombian congress is currently considering a constitutional amendment that would allow a second Uribe term, but, barring this, the expectation is that his successor will follow the usual Colombian model and, as Robin Kirk puts it, “prove easier to intimidate.”

Amid the same post-9/11 hysteria that allowed the Bush Administration to declare FARC a terrorist threat, however, human rights groups achieved a significant victory by having Colombia’s paramilitaries similarly tagged. Since many of the paramilitary leaders are known cocaine traffickers–Castaño himself is under indictment and the United States is actively seeking his extradition–this was not a stretch legally. But what has been surprising is the degree to which Uribe has proven more complex than his pre-election characterization and has demonstrated a willingness to move against not just the guerrillas but also the paramilitaries. His approach to the paramilitaries, however, has been cautious. Uribe has offered an amnesty for those willing to serve a brief period of confinement, turn in their arms and pay cash fines. He has also, however, at the insistence of the United States, trained a special antiparamilitary brigade with the express mission of hunting down paramilitaries who persist in egregious human rights violations. To a certain degree this has resulted in kinder, gentler paramilitaries. There has been a discernible decline in paramilitary murders in Colombia–although this may be only the result of their having prevailed in many contested areas.

In the meantime, however, the paramilitaries have become deeply entrenched in the country’s power structure. By some arguments they control 30 percent or more of the seats in Congress as well as a number of governorships. Some observers have even argued that Castaño could have been elected president had he not gone into hiding after being indicted by the United States. Given this kind of power, Uribe’s amnesty offer has produced violent conflicts between those who effectively want to go straight and those who are reluctant to give up what Colombians call la vida facil–“the high life.” In April, Castaño himself was ambushed by a group of his own lieutenants who apparently feared he was going to rat them out to the Americans. According to various reports, Castaño was either killed or somehow managed to flee into a US witness-protection program (which US authorities deny). In either case, he has disappeared, leaving the field free to his rival, Diego Fernando Murillo, known as Don Berna, a man who once took a giant step up the slippery cocaine slope by betraying his boss, Pablo Escobar. Don Berna (who was recently indicted by the United States for drug trafficking) has raised strong objections to Uribe’s amnesty terms, insisting he will not accept extradition or spend a day in jail–a move that could sink Uribe’s plans. Not long after Castaño’s disappearance, Carlos Mauricio García, an AUC leader openly critical of Don Berna, posed a question to a New York Times journalist: “What could happen to me, that they kill me with a bigger bullet…or that they kill me several times?” Shortly afterward he was fatally shot while strolling on the beachfront in Santa Marta.

If cocaine has such a hold on Colombia, it is in large part because of what Grace Livingstone politely calls the “exclusionary character of the state,” which has long been administered, both politically and financially, for the benefit of a wealthy minority. Colombian income inequality has only worsened over the past decade as Colombia, along with much of the rest of Latin America, has fallen for the folly of neoliberal economics. Today, almost 80 percent of Colombia’s rural population fall beneath the poverty line, and 46 percent fall beneath what Livingstone refers to as the “indigence line,” a line of extreme poverty beneath which “basic subsistence needs are not met.” For a peasant living in such conditions, coca farming has a natural appeal. As Robin Kirk points out, cocaine in Colombia has been a “small entrepreneur’s dream” and a great boon to peasants who have grown it, despite the havoc it has unleashed. Kirk argues that unlike gold, oil, rubber and other raw commodities that have historically been extracted from the region–the profits from which were often entirely retained by the wholesalers–cocaine has allowed peasants to hold on to some of the wealth they have created, just as tobacco has done for so many small farmers in the American South.

In Loyal Soldiers in the Cocaine Kingdom: Tales of Drugs, Mules, and Gunmen, the exiled Colombian writer Alfredo Molano makes a similar point. Molano’s book consists of a series of populist portraits of the little people in the cocaine business–people who for the most part have gambled and lost, the sort of folks whom, as he puts it, “our compatriots would be happy to bury so as not to cause embarrassment at embassy cocktail parties.” (Molano interviewed many of his subjects in prison.) Most are motivated by a desperate desire to escape the poverty that afflicts the vast majority of ordinary Colombians. In each case, cocaine offers the prospect of financial relief–of freedom, really, to use a word that President Bush seems to be unable to complete a sentence without. A man Molano refers to as Scuzzball, the son of peasants from the southern state of Putumayo, leaves home at the age of 13 because, as he puts it, “there’s no life where we were living and it was time to go looking for it.” Endowed with natural intelligence, Scuzzball becomes an artist at cocaine extraction and sets himself up as a chemist, hiring out his knowledge so that his fellow peasants can coax a little more product out of their coca bushes. Eventually, however, Scuzzball’s entrepreneurial instincts lead him into trafficking. He is betrayed, and by the time Molano meets Scuzzball, he is doing time in a Bolivian prison in Cochabamba. “In Colombia,” Scuzzball ruefully tells Molano, “it’s we nameless people who moved [into the cocaine trade]…until those with nice last names started to ask us for help and little by little we gave it to them, and eventually we take them as partners in the business.”

The situation is much the same for the poor of Colombia’s slums. “The Mule Driver,” another Molano character, describes the gamble taken by the “mules” who transport cocaine on airlines. The mules wrap the cocaine in condoms and swallow them. “If the rubber tears, you’ll live a few hours; if it doesn’t break but the police seize you, you’ll spend eight years of your life behind bars; if you carry it off, you’ve laid the first layer of bricks that goes towards building a wall between you and poverty.”

Molano doesn’t romanticize this impulse, which is both corrupting and fraught with moral ambiguity. Colombia’s legal products have never sold well enough either internally or in the United States to generate significant numbers of stable jobs. The few jobs that Colombia’s globalized neoliberal economy has kicked up are low-wage and nonglamorous–offering little more than what Kirk refers to as “the cheap seat at the world’s parade.” By contrast, the cocaine business offers fabulous riches and far sexier possibilities–what Kirk describes as “integration through crime.” Although for a person of few prospects it’s a tempting line of work, it has obvious drawbacks. The Mule Driver, for example, starts as a poor liquor-store delivery boy infatuated with a rich girl–the daughter of the owner of a whorehouse. After he loses his job as the result of this infatuation, his brother tells him that the job was beneath his dignity anyway and advises him to get into cocaine. “Why should I have a ‘job’ that has me stooping to work at the beck and call of a boss,” the Mule Driver argues to himself, “killing myself for a lousy salary that would never compensate me.” Although he makes good money for a while, he ultimately gets betrayed by the girlfriend and winds up doing twenty-two years in a Madrid prison.

The Colombian cocaine trade is so pervasive that it threatens to turn the country into a collection of narco-run feudal statelets. The central ambition of Uribe’s version of Plan Colombia may be to assert the primacy of the state in regions where it has seldom if ever been a factor. This depends on both defeating FARC and taming and integrating the paramilitaries.

But cocaine is a response to poverty, and it’s highly unlikely that Uribe will be able to wean his compatriots off what Colombians call “the little parakeet” without some program to address the country’s savage inequalities. Uribe has a plan of sorts–economic liberalization and a tight alliance with the United States. Unnoticed in the fuss surrounding the effort to renew Plan Colombia has been Uribe’s project to negotiate a bilateral free-trade agreement with the United States. This would reduce Colombia’s already small social-welfare programs and open the country up to more foreign investment. What would a country dependent on neoliberal economics and incorporating the new, more reasonable paramilitaries look like?

Michael Taussig offers a glimpse of the possibilities in his book Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombialimpieza 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.

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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