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.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.

The multiplication of guerrilla movements was a sign of frustration. Given the Colombian people’s social ferment and the potential for armed struggle, why did the social revolution seem so remote? However, if the guerrillas posed no real threat to the system—General Rojas’s short-lived mobilization of the urban masses had been much more dangerous—neither could they be eliminated by the (surprisingly small) Colombian army of about 60,000. They seemed a permanent part of a landscape into which groups of armed men belong just as naturally as rivers. But while army and guerrillas fought each other to a sort of draw in various rural zones, the social and political problems of which guerrillas were one symptom became steadily more explosive. The only explosion envisaged by both guerrillas and army (cheered on by the US Army which had trained so many of its officers) was a communist revolution. But, as other Colombians know better than anyone else, there are more dangerous—because unfocused and negative—forms of social explosion.

Belisario Betancur, president between 1982 and 1986, was the first president to recognize that the solution of Colombia’s problems required major changes in Colombian affairs, and, as a precondition, an end to the endemic and pointless state of sub–civil war. He set out to achieve this against military resistance from both sides. A civilized Catholic intellectual, a maverick Conservative appealing deliberately to the growing body of his countrymen who no longer identify by blood with one of the two parties, he set out to open a new era in Colombian history. He achieved a peak of public success in 1984 when he fired a military minister and was thus able to sign a truce with all major guerrilla groups except the ultras of the ELN. By the end of his presidency, however, most of his initiatives seemed to be crumbling and his administration to be foundering in blood.

All the guerrillas (except the FARC) were once again fighting; the US had wrecked the possibilities for peace in Central America; the Cartagena Front of the Latin American debtor states—another of Betancur’s favorite initiatives—proved to be only a brief headline story, while the drug mafia killed his minister of justice (one of fifty-seven judges assassinated during his term of office). The M-19’s seizure of the supreme court, a publicity coup gone wrong, ended in the massacre of a hundred people, mostly judges and other civilians, discrediting army, guerrillas, and the president himself.

Nevertheless, Betancur may still have opened a new era in colombia. The country, long the most solid and loyal backer of US world policy, has shifted into nonalignment for the first time. Virgilio Barco, the new president, is a Liberal who overwhelmed an ultrarightwing Conservative contender. He deliberately maintains Betancur’s policies, even though the Conservatives are now a noncooperating opposition. The FARC still maintains the truce and has turned from guns to votes with more success than expected, through the new left-wing party it formed, the Patriotic Union (UP). Paradoxically for a movement sponsored by the party of the proletariat, its strength is overwhelmingly rural. It is probably the first peasant party in Colombian history. (Conversely, its strength in the big cities is absurdly low, though larger than in the past: 44,000 among the 4 million residents of Bogotá, 34,000 among the 2.5 million of Medellín.) President Barco is entirely committed to recognizing the new political pluralism, and especially the right of the Patriotic Union to state and municipal office. Under a quiet but explosive piece of democratic reform, mayors—who are now appointed by the regional governors—are soon to be actually elected. This and other recent reforms are undramatic but really quite major changes in Colombian politics.

These changes and the uncertainties about the future, not to mention the period of transition between presidencies, have produced a mood of tension, fear, and dark expectations, stimulated by a sharp rise in political homicide and, more worrying because more novel, in “dis-appearances.” It is impossible to say whether nonpolitical killings, poorly covered by the press, are increasing, but there is no reason to suppose that the cocaine industry, which has got past the stage of (literal) cutthroat competition, has need of much murder, except of judges who might apply the 1979 extradition treaty with the US. Wild frontiers of free competition such as illicit emerald mining are more lethal—some three hundred corpses so far in 1986—but they always are.9 The real growth sector is right-wing terror.

This takes the form of threats against and murders of labor leaders and activists of the UP, who during September 1986 were falling at the rate of about one a day—an apparent rise in the rate of attacks on the left, which is said to have lost about three hundred during the last two years of the Betancur era. Even more sinister are “unknown” death squads which, in defense of morality and social order, have taken to making weekend forays through cities like Cali and Medellín, killing “antisocial” elements such as petty criminals, homosexuals, prostitutes, or just plain beggars and bums indiscriminately. The 1986 figures for these massacres in Cali (Colombia’s third largest city) speak for themselves: 80 dead in January, 82 in February, 84 in March, 91 in April, 98 in May, 114 in June, 100 in July, 102 in August, and 79 in the first eighteen days of September. (The total for 1985 was 763.)10

The systematic nationwide campaign of assassination against left-wing leaders, especially those elected to office, suggests some coordination, but nobody has been able to come up with hard evidence of this. On the other hand nobody doubts that local army commanders and police forces are in close touch with paramilitary forces and death squads, which enjoy the enthusiastic support of local land-owners (who include many ex-officers) and industrialists, not to mention the sort of radical right that draws no sharp lines between muggers, gay bars, union organizers, and the communist world conspiracy. It is also claimed, mainly in army quarters, that ultraleft guerrillas are responsible for such attacks.

Whoever they are, whoever organizes them, and whatever exactly the number of the “disappeared” to date—850 appear to have been reported11—the central fact about death squads and paramilitaries is that nobody, least of all persons associated with the armed forces, has been arrested, prosecuted, let alone convicted. 12 As a well-informed journalist put it to me: “The only national coordination which has been clearly established consists in the decision not to do anything about these killings.” The extreme caution with which even brave politicians in a country with a long tradition of civilian supremacy treat the armed establishment is much the most worrying symptom of Colombia’s present state.

Why should there be a wild rightist backlash? On its face, the immediate situation hardly calls for hysteria. The economy is expected to grow. The poor are no poorer than usual, and take as much pride as ever in being able to stand anything, having recently discovered the kind of popular heroes whose characteristic is toughness to the limits of the unendurable, namely mountain cyclists. Colombians, thanks to their heroes’ participation in the Tour de France, now know more Alpine than Andean geography.

On any reckoning, the guerrilla situation is better. The six thousand or so in arms under the FARC doggedly maintain the truce against considerable provocation. They freely invite journalists to their remote headquarters, with excellent results for the image of their hard-bitten elderly chieftain, the legendary Manuel Marulanda, surrounded by equally tough men whose very noms de guerre are a reminder of the hopes of their youth: Timochenko, Ivan, Fidel Labrador.13 The right complains that public media like television should not give publicity to rebels, but rational politicians must welcome this exchange of ambushes for photo opportunities. In any case the most likely future for UP, as for the pre-1914 socialist parties in European parliamentary countries, is not the revolutionary seizure of power, but a radical farmer-labor party with a solid base in the frontier territories, which gives it the chance to negotiate deals with the Liberals or, with luck, to hold a political balance in their favor.

As for the one thousand or so guerrillas—no estimate runs as high as two thousand—who are still or once again fighting, now united in the so-called National Guerrilla Coordination, their political bankruptcy has been underlined by the FARC’s success in seizing its political opportunities. Their strategic bankruptcy is shown by the fission of various groups, by the M-19’s loss of virtually all its top leaders in the desperate recent coups, and by the Cambodianstyle activities of the Ricardo Franco group, an antitruce student breakaway from the FARC, which massacred 160 of its own members—in fact, most of them—as traitors and police infiltrators.

It is hard to believe that in 1984 the guerrillas, according to (unpublished) opinion polls, enjoyed a 75 percent favorable rating, and the M-19 were the darlings of the middle class. The chief admirers are now found in the shantytowns and slums where brave children dream of becoming heroes. If there is any strategy behind the wild guerrilla lunges of recent months, it is probably to raise insurrection in these areas, which the military could only control by indiscriminate bombing. At bottom the M-19 calculations were always those of stimulating a potentially insurrectionary situation into actual revolution by some dramatic military operation.14 This is no more likely to happen now than when the army was fighting four times as many guerrillas. Militarily the guerrillas could not win then, and they can’t win now, however satisfactory it was for them to prove that the army couldn’t win either.

Why, then, the nervousness of the right? Perhaps it is because the distintegration of party system and state (except for the army) has once again shifted the center of gravity from the capital to the regions, where various tense local situations do not look any better because the national situation is calm; and because those who feel threatened today are not so much the old oligarchic families who have stood off worse challenges without losing their cool, or the really super rich, but medium-size estate owners, entrepreneurs, and politicos, on their way up. These people feel abandoned, as the guerrillas, fighting or nonfighting, remain in arms in the countryside, and as they themselves cross the red lights in their locked cars in the empty nighttime streets of Bogotá or Cali, for fear that their throats will be cut if they stop. The presidents of the Chamber of Commerce, of the Rotary Club, Kiwanis and Lions’ clubs, and Association of Accountants (to cite some of the signers of an embittered anti-FARC manifesto from an outlying department):15 for these the only good subversives and antisocials may well be dead ones; and in Colombia there are plenty of men and even a few women who can be hired to kill if the price is right.

Under the circumstances the most optimistic judgments one is likely to hear in Colombia are that nothing much is going to change. The more pessimistic range from an Argentinization of the country to its Salvadorization: military terror or civil war. Or perhaps the extension of what is already the case in Cali or Medellín, a three- or four-way chaos of violence by official forces, vigilante gangs, guerrilla supporters, and plain criminals. Probably the darker of these are too gloomy. Colombia has an encouragingly long record of violent immobility. But President Barco is taking over in a distinctly worried country.

Where, in all this, do Colombians see the drug traffic? It depends from where you look at it. From the point of view of the frontier peasants, about whom much the most original book on the subject has been written by three unassuming researchers from the National University,16 coca is in the first place a speculative but uncertain crop that has no competition as a profit maker, or for the wages one can earn picking it. Costs rise, mainly because the soldiers who are there nominally to fight the FARC, which acts as the local government, keep raising their demands for payoffs to ever more Andean heights, and in the early Eighties the price slumped. Fortunately for the coca growers, the national government gave the narcotraffic a hard time after 1984, so prices are again high and stable. On the frontier the problem of a drug mafia does not exist, since anyone engaged in any business in those parts does so on terms acceptable to local authority. The real problem is that of the social disorganization which any backwoods bonanza brings—the children dropping out of school to earn unheard-of sums like five or ten dollars a day, the tough single men joining the coca rush from everywhere, for whose benefit townships of five hundred huts fill with four hundred prostitutes and the kinds of disorder familiar to every fictional sheriff. Perhaps most serious of all is the erosion of the simple pioneer values which both settlers and guerrillas lived by. Who will ever again believe that the good life is a patch of cleared land in the forest, a hunting dog, and a bit of yucca and bananas?

Seen from a higher observation post, the narcotraffic is considerably more alarming, though not—so far—because of addiction, about which Colombians remain cool. Nobody has made headlines of the fact that over the past six months the Bogotá police have seized precisely five hundred grams of cocaine (“as much as there is in this building right now, or in any other office of this size,” to quote an informant in Bogotá). The real worry is the universal corruption spread by an industry that now provides Colombia with more export earnings than coffee17 and, because the numbers of people involved are so small, produces by far the richest men in the country. (Since new money and new art go together, its purchases are also said to have transformed the local market for contemporary painting.) Corruption of the judges, faced with the choice of becoming rich or dead. Corruption of the army, up to the level of some generals, as honest officers will bitterly admit; for nothing is more useful to the narcotrafico than the armed forces’ system of road and air transportation. Corruption, obviously, of the police and, less obviously, of the guerrillas. Paradoxically, the only part of Colombian life that has refused to make room for the drug barons is politics. During the Turbay presidency there were signs that the drug barons, desperately keen to join the old establishment, were moving into national politics; but while candidates still take money where they find it, known representatives of the industry are kept out.

The national life is so permeated by this corruption that the legalization of the drug trade is widely and seriously suggested as the only way to eliminate the superprofits and the incentive to graft. While this approach should in theory appeal to Reaganomists, in practice it is based on a pervasive anti-Americanism, shared by the drug barons, who are as patriotic as any Colombian.

For, as they see it, cocaine is just one more crop in the history of tropical countries producing such crops, from sugar to tobacco through coffee. Exporting it is a business like any other, and in this instance one that exists simply because the US insists on snorting or smoking the stuff in ever more astronomic quantities. Left to themselves and the principles of Adam Smith, the consortia of Medellín investors would no more see themselves as criminals than did the Dutch or English venturers into the Indies trade (including opium), who organized their speculative cargoes in much the same way. The trade rightly resents being called a mafia. It is quite unlike the Italian or Italo-American mafias either structurally or sociologically.

It is basically an ordinary business that has been criminalized—as Colombians see it—by a US which cannot manage its own affairs. On two occasions during the past two years, the biggest names in the trade have offered to pay the country’s national debt and retire from cocaine in return for amnesty and legitimacy. Some of the biggest operators, in any case, are by now out of trading and into cargo insurance. And if cocaine were as legal as coffee, with which, by the way, drug traders have business connections, the next generation of operators would not make their pile as the first ones did. And in any case—it is a note often heard18—if the gringos were as serious about the drug danger as they claim, why don’t they dose the Mendocino County marijuana fields with paraquat as they do in Guajira and send troops through Georgia as they do in Bolivia? President Barco spoke for virtually all Colombians, including those solidly in favor of US foreign policy, when he announced that under no conceivable circumstances would US troops be allowed on Colombian soil.

However, drugs are not uppermost in most Colombians’ minds. They are quite prepared to leave the more lurid aspects of the subject to foreign bookmakers like the author of The Fruit Palace, an old-fashioned Fleet Street exposé pretending to be a Rolling Stone rhapsody. They have more troubling things to think about, as President Barco passes his first hundred days, than “an odyssey through Colombia’s cocaine underworld.” And if we were in their shoes, so would we.

This Issue

November 20, 1986