Death and Drugs in Colombia

Y refundaron la patria...: De cómo mafiosos y políticos reconfiguraron el Estado colombiano [And They Refounded the Nation...: How Mafiosi and Politicians Reconfigured the Colombian State]

edited by Claudia López Hernández
Bogotá: Random House Mondadori, 524 pp., COL $49,000.00
Stephen Ferry
Downtown Medellín viewed through bullet-punctured glass, with a billboard reproduction of a painting by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero at lower left, February 2004


In February 2003, the mayor of a small town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast stood up at a nationally televised meeting with then President Álvaro Uribe and announced his own murder. “Señor Presidente, I am the mayor of El Roble,” Tito Díaz said as he walked toward the stage where Uribe sat with several cabinet ministers and officials from the state of Sucre, where the meeting was held. Pacing back and forth before the President, Díaz delivered what was probably the first public denunciation of a web of violence and corruption involving politicians and paramilitary groups—what he called a “macabre alliance”—that would eventually become an explosive national scandal. Singling out several local officials, including the governor, Salvador Arana, seated at the President’s side, Díaz declared: “And now they’re going to kill me.”

President Uribe listened impassively for several minutes, then cut the mayor off midsentence: “Mr. Mayor, we have allowed this disorder because of the gravity of the matter, but we also ask that you be considerate of our time.” Uribe is a small, tidy man, with a bland face that is boyish yet stern. When he addresses the public, it is with the commanding tone of the wealthy cattle rancher and the intensity of a man on a mission. “With utmost pleasure,” Uribe then assured Díaz that he would order an investigation, “for transparency cannot have exceptions, and security is for all Colombians.”

Within weeks, the national police stripped Díaz of his bodyguards. On April 5, 2003, he disappeared. On April 10 his corpse appeared on the edge of Sucre’s main highway. He had been tortured, shot, and left in a crucifix position—feet crossed, arms extended, palms upturned—with his mayoral certification card perched on his forehead. A note, found later at his house, told his family he was setting out for a “dangerous meeting” with Arana. “If anything happens to me,” it said, they should flee.

The mayor’s then-twenty-three-year-old son, Juan David Díaz, left Sucre. But he did not abandon his father’s case. Instead he joined a small, disparate group of Colombians—mostly journalists, justice officials, and other victims’ families—who were seeking accountability for paramilitary crimes. Until then, attempts to investigate such cases had rarely produced results, other than the death of those who pursued them. Yet remarkably, over the next several years, their efforts would bring about what few had imagined possible in 2003: investigations—like the one Uribe had promised Tito Díaz—that would uncover a “macabre alliance” far more extensive and sinister than what the murdered mayor had denounced on TV.


Uribe, who was succeeded last summer by his former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, may have been the most popular president Colombia has ever had. He took office in…

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