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Murderous Colombia

Human Rights in Colombia as President Barco Begins

An Americas Watch Report
68 pp., $7.00 (paper)

Los años del tropel: Relatos de la violencia

by Alfredo Molano
Fondo Editorial CEREC-CINEP (Bogotá), 292 pp.

Estado y subversión en Colombia: La violencia en el Quindío Años 50

by Carlos Miguel Ortiz Sarmiento
Fondo Editorial CEREC (Bogotá), 463 pp.

Pasado y presente de la Violencia en Colombia

edited by Gonzalo Sanchez, edited by Ricardo Peñaranda
Fondo Editorial CEREC (Bogotá), 413 pp.

La paz, la violencia: testigos de excepción. Hechos ye testimonios sobre 40 años de violencia y paz que vuelven a ser hoy de palpitante actualidad

by Arturo Alape
Planeta (Bogotá), 620 pp.

Cese el fuego: Una historia politica de las FARC

by Jacobo Arenas
Oveja Negra (Bogotá), 172 pp.

Colonización, coca y guerrilla

by Jaime Jaramillo, by Leonidas Mora, by Fernando Cubides
Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Bogotá), 239 pp.

Bandoleros, gamonales y campesinos: el caso de la Violencia en Colombia

by Gonzalo Sanchez, by Donny Meertens
El Ancora (Bogotá), 262 pp.

La Guerra por la paz

by Enrique Santos Calderon, prologue by Gabriel García Márquez
Fondo Editorial CEREC (Bogotá), 324 pp.

Historia de una traición

by Laura Restrepo, with the assistance of Camilo Gonzalez
Plaza & Janes Editores (Bogotá), 255 pp.

Narcotrafico imperio de la cocaina

by Mario Arango, by Jorge Child
Editorial Percepción (Medellín), 318 pp.

The Fruit Palace

by Charles Nicholl
St. Martin’s, 307 pp., $16.95

About the only thing that most non-Colombians know about the third largest country in Latin America, and virtually the least known, is that it supplies cocaine and the novels of Gabriel García Márquez. García Márquez is indeed a marvelous guide to his extraordinary country, but not a good introduction to it. Only those who have been there know how much of what reads like fantasy is actually close to Colombian reality. The drug traffic is also, unfortunately, an important element in it, though one that authoritative Colombians are not anxious to discuss much. It must also be admitted that they are a good deal more relaxed about it than their North American opposite numbers. This is probably because, authoritative or not, Colombians today are chiefly worried about the rising tide of murder.

The country has long been known for an altogether exceptional proclivity to homicide. The excellent Americas Watch report of September 1986 on human rights there points out that homicide was the leading cause of death for males between the ages of fifteen and forty-four, and the fourth-ranking cause of death for all ages. Violent death is not simply one way in which life can end in this country. It is, to quote a superb and chilling recent exercise in oral history, “an omnipresent personage.”1 But what Colombians fear is not simply death, but a renewed drift into one of those pandemics of violence that have occasionally flooded across the country, most notably during the twenty years from 1946 to 1966, which are known simply as La Violencia. This grim era has recently been seriously studied by an excellent group of younger local historians, among whom Carlos Ortiz’s study of the coffee region of the Quindío is remarkable for showing what can be achieved by a combination of archival research, oral history, and local knowledge. Among systematic attempts to link the Violencia years with the present, the books edited or compiled by Gonzalo Sanchez and Ricardo Peñaranda, and Arturo Alape’s important La Paz, la violencia, should be mentioned.

Fear of a new high tide of murder—the last one killed some 200,000—is both political and social. (The figure of 300,000, quoted in the Americas Watch report, is not based on evidence, and is almost certainly too high.) Colombia was for most of its history, and still is to a surprising extent, a land for pioneer settlers (“the classic colono with his axe, gun and hunting dog,” to quote a description of the 1970s2 ). National government and law still make only occasional incursions into much of the countryside from the cities, which in turn are only vaguely under the control of the capital. Even the most ancient and powerful national institution has only a skeleton organization: There are no more than sixteen priests in the diocese of Valledupar, which covers one and a half of the country’s twenty-odd departments.3

It was, and still to some extent is, something like a combination of the Wild West, twentieth-century Latin American urbanization, and eighteenth-century England, in which a constitutional oligarchy of established rich families, divided into two rival parties (Liberals and Conservatives), constituted what government there was. Colombia had a national party system before it had a national state. The cohesion of this oligarchy and its genuine attachment to an electoral constitution have ensured that the country has practically never fallen victim to the usual Latin American dictatorships or military juntas, but the price has been endemic, and sometimes epidemic, bloodshed. For here arms are nobody’s monopoly, and, for reasons that have so far eluded historians, the common people at some time in the nineteenth century adopted the Liberal and Conservative parties as rival forms of grass-roots religion. As Alfredo Molano’s book demonstrates, nothing can be more lethal than that.

The history of the past sixty years of Colombian history is that of a society whose transformation has put the traditional social and political order under enormous strain, and has occasionally ruptured it. How effectively it continues to exist today is a very big and open question.

Initially the pressure came from below, as the urban and rural masses were mobilized for struggle against the oligarchy, most notably by the extraordinary populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, whose assassination on a street in Bogotá in 1948 set off, within hours, a spontaneous insurrection of the capital, joined by the police, and propagated in numerous provincial cities through equally spontaneous assumptions of power by local revolutionary committees. Whether Gaitán was killed by the oligarchy, as the common people automatically assumed, cannot be known. That they had reason to fear this man, who had captured the Liberal party and was about to become president, is certain. After all, single-handed he set off the only known nationwide revolution by spontaneous combustion.

As a particularly bloodthirsty and murderous Conservative killer in the Violencia that followed his death puts it: “Say what you like, Gaitán was above the parties…. He was the people…. We knew that Liberalism wasn’t the same as Gaitán, because he was against the oligarchy.”4

What should have been a social revolution ended as La Violencia because, perhaps for the last time, the oligarchical system managed to contain and take over the social insurrection by turning it into a party contest. But that battle escaped from control, and became an avalanche of blood, because the armed struggle of Liberals against Conservatives now carried an additional charge of social hatred and fear: the fear of Conservative oligarchs that their party would be a permanent minority against a Liberal party which looked like capturing the newly aroused masses; and poor men’s hatred of the other side not just as hereditary adversaries but as oppressors of the poor or as people who were better at making a little money.

The most murderous phase of the conflict (between 1948 and 1953) reconciled the establishment briefly to one of Colombia’s rare military dictatorships, under General Rojas Pinilla, between 1953 and 1957. However, after his fall, threatened with loss of control both from soldiers and from social revolution, the oligarchy decided to close ranks. Under the National Front—which in effect is only ending in 1986—the parties suspended their struggle, took turns to provide the presidency, and shared out the jobs equitably among themselves. The Violencia tailed off into politicized banditry, more or less liquidated in the mid-1960s, a phase analyzed with much perception in Gonzalo Sanchez and Donny Meertens’s Bandits, Bosses and Peasants. For a little while it looked as though the modern state might actually be coming to Colombia.

In fact, the pace and impetus of social change was, once again, too much for the social system; especially one ossified by a ruling class whose sense of the urgency of social reform has been atrophied by long success in killing off or driving out any undesirable elements. In the twenty-five years after 1950 Colombia changed from a two-thirds rural population to a 70 percent urban one, while the Violencia set off yet another major wave of men and women who, by force, fear, or choice, made tracks for one or other of the many places where a man and his wife could clear some ground and grow enough for their needs, far away from government and the powerful rich. New industry came to Colombia, which now makes French and Japanese cars, US trucks, and Soviet jeeps. New primary products came, notably marijuana and cocaine, and so did tourism. New kinds of wealth and influence undermined the old oligarchy. Since 1970 several men who were not born into the old dynasties have made it to the top in Colombian politics: Misael Pastrana, César Turbay, Belisario Betancur. The social tensions which once burst into spontaneous revolution are still as tense as ever.

In the countryside they account for the steady expansion until 1984 of the guerrilla movement, which began in the mid-1960s with a few armed communist self-defense groups, driven into remote and inaccessible areas, but which the army failed to liquidate. They formed the original nucleus of the major armed movement of the past twenty years, the Colombian Communist party’s Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) which, at the time of the 1984 armistice, had twenty-seven “fronts” or regional units. (The FARC’s chief political commissar, Jacobo Arenas, has now published Cese el fuego, “a political history” of the guerrilla force.) Basically it is a peasant movement of frontier settlers. For the essence of the “agrarian problem” in a country with any amount of land to spare is not land hunger. It is, to put it simply, the defense of squatter rights against landlords with equally vague or uncertain legal claims to the ownership of vast and underutilized territories, but with more political and (until the arrival of the guerrillas) military power.5

The FARC was long understimated by all except the army, because its members operated in the far hinterlands, and because city intellectuals didn’t take those “little peasants” (campesinitos) seriously. It never stopped growing, and numbered about three quarters of all the guerrillas.6 After 1965 they were joined by smaller rival and hostile groups. The Cuban-inspired National Liberation Army (ELN) was doomed by the lunacy of the Che Guevara–Régis Debray “foco” theory—of launching, from the outside, a guerrilla force in the hinterland—which it was to exemplify. The ELN attracted priests and students, but its pointlessness and lack of political objectives were soon evident. It has probably killed more of its own members and ex-members as “traitors” than it ever killed soldiers. Virtually ineradicable, like all Colombian guerrilla movements, it refuses to sign any truce, and has few supporters at present but, thanks to its shaking down international oil companies, a lot of money.

A middle-class breakaway from the CP also formed the Maoist Army of Popular Liberation (ELP). The last and most widely publicized guerrilla movement, the M-19, was formed in 1974, and purported to be a response to the stealing of the 1970 presidential election from General Rojas, the ex-dictator, who launched a successful comeback as a Colombian Perón, or rather neo-Gaitán, appealing to the vast urban marginal population on a radical populist program, and with enormous success. He undoubtedly won the 1970 election.7 But though the new guerrillas contained some former followers of Rojas, it was really formed by that characteristic Latin American phenomenon, the sons—and a few daughters—of good families for whom the Communist party is not revolutionary enough.8 Its chief leaders had been in the FARC. M-19 inhabited the social world of the Colombian upper middle classes and its leaders took the techniques of modern publicity for granted. In this world parents are neither surprised nor shocked that brave young men show the natural idealism of youth by revolutionary activity, and prove their manhood by what a local wit has called machismo-leninismo. They would find it natural that the guerrilla delegation negotiating the truce would set up headquarters at the Tequendama Hotel (which is as if the Weathermen had given a press conference at the Plaza Hotel in New York). Until it demonstrated its political bankruptcy between 1984 and 1986 the M-19 enjoyed enormous sympathies in these quarters.

  1. 1

    Alfredo Molano, Los Años del tropel, p. 33.

  2. 2

    Jaime Jaramillo, Leonidas Mora, Fernando Cubides, Colonizacion, coca y guerrilla, pp. 32,73.

  3. 3

    Documentos Zona-Cinep: La Colombia de Betancur, Year 4, no. 13 (July 1986), p. 7.

  4. 4

    Alfredo Molano, Los Años del tropel, pp. 229–230.

  5. 5

    The standard cause of peasant rebellion elsewhere, the fight to regain alienated common lands, is, in Colombia, confined to former or surviving Indian communities, which form a special case. The first Communist mayor legally appointed in the country (1986) administers Coyaima, a typical Indian “resguardo“—and one long politicized for this reason.

  6. 6

    Enrique Santos Calderon, La Guerra por la paz, p. 108.

  7. 7

    For his success in mobilizing citizens who refused to vote in any other election, see, e.g., the interviews with street people in Bogotá (by Patricia Lara, recently expelled from the US), “¿Donde está el Presidente?” El Tiempo (September 21, 1986). During the National Front voter participation in presidential elections sank to North American levels.

  8. 8

    However, during the brief period of the truce, in 1984 and 1985, M-19 recruited women in significant numbers—about 30 percent according to Laura Restrepo (Historia de una traición, p. 233).

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