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 and Leonidas Mora and Fernando Cubides
Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Bogotá), 239 pp.

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

by Gonzalo Sanchez and 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 and Jorge Child
Editorial Percepción (Medellín), 318 pp.

The Fruit Palace

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

Virgilio Barco
Virgilio Barco; drawing by David Levine

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.

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