A version of this essay, titled “Among the Drug Dealers, Criminals, Rapists: A Reporting Life in Latin America,” was delivered as the Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library on December 4, 2018.
I sense some obligation to explain the title of this talk. The flimflam man currently occupying the White House has provoked such an increase in the amount of hate circulating in the world that sometimes it makes me dizzy, as if I were about to lose my balance and fall. He uses hatred and latent violence every time he feels the need to run from the taxman or the prosecutor. The three years since the last presidential campaign have been so filled with outrage and insult, it’s hard to remember that from the first day he stood on that escalator in his very own tower, there has been no group he has vilified more consistently than Latin Americans. You can see his logic: unlike African-Americans, Jews, or even Latinos—established migrants from Latin America living in the United States, or US citizens descended from Latin immigrants—desperate Latin Americans fleeing desperate conditions back home can be called rapists, thieves, and murderers with impunity: they do not file lawsuits, do not live here, do not vote, and by definition have no representation within the United States.
The thing is, though, that in order to stick, every Big Lie has to have an element of truth. In the case of this lie, the truth is that, for years now, Latin America has had the highest homicide rate of any region in the world. In El Salvador last year, for example, for every 100,000 citizens, some fifty people were murdered. Most, but not all, were men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-eight. About one fifth were young women, a growing trend.
The figures fluctuate according to time and place, but they’ve been at least that high at different moments in Honduras, El Salvador, Caracas, parts of Mexico, certain cities in Brazil, some regions of Colombia. In the twelve years since Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s most reckless president, involved the army in his country’s drug wars, at least 150,000 of his fellow citizens have died violent, often atrocious, deaths. And this figure does not reflect the total damage—the maimed, the traumatized, the orphaned, or the increasing number of families in which poor and often unskilled women struggle to bring up hard-working, God-fearing children, often by risking everything in order to bring them to safety in this country. These numbers are part of the reason I’ve spent a good portion of the last twenty-five years talking to the rapists, thieves, killers, and drug traffickers of the world I come from, trying to understand.
In November 1988 I was living in Bogotá when news broke that a terrible massacre had occurred in a small mining town miles away from just about everywhere, but reachable by plane from the city of Medellín. The story of the massacre in this town, called Segovia, took hours to travel to the capital, but then it burst all over the national news. We learned that in just an hour and a half of carnage, dozens of people had been murdered that long weekend. For days after the killings, the newspapers ran entire pages of photographs of mourners in the pouring rain, grieving over rows of coffins. But for all the scandal and commotion that week, I couldn’t find an account in the Bogotá media of what had actually taken place.
I was appalled by the story, like everyone else, and fascinated, too: the little town hidden somewhere in the crags and valleys of Colombia’s rough geography; the fact that entire towns, and stories, and huge crimes could remain so out of view in the capital; the historical inability of highly civilized presidents and ministers to take control of their country; the mythical quality of Colombia’s history, so steeped in blood. And then there was the horror of the massacre itself, which reportedly was perpetrated by a couple of dozen men, none of whom the security forces could manage to identify.
Of course I had to go. I made my first trip to Segovia in March—and even then, months after the event, a claustrophobic atmosphere of terror came down on you like a kidnapper’s blanket from the moment you left the airport and drove some ten miles into town. It felt like there was no oxygen in that hot air, and even though I was visiting under the pretext of writing a story about a local British gold mine, and was met by the manager, and toured the mine, the skin all up and down my spine crawled with apprehension every minute of that trip.
I did a few interviews at the mine for a story I eventually wrote for The Guardian, and then I went into town—lawless, Wild West territory. In Segovia, people whispered to me that the organizer of the massacre was a man by the name of Fidel Castaño: a cattle rancher, diamond smuggler, gambler, small-time drug trafficker, and owner of the local cantina. A decade before that, people said, his father had been kidnapped by one of the many guerrilla organizations that plagued Colombia back then. The Castaño family had paid a sizable ransom—which the guerrillas accepted, even though the father had already died of a heart attack while in captivity, so that what Fidel Castaño and his family received in exchange for their money was a corpse. And so, the massacre.
On the night of November 11, while the commander of the local army battalion and his troops slept peacefully—or so they later claimed—masked killers went up and down Segovia’s main street checking names off a list, and when they finished their work forty-six people had been murdered. I assume that most of the victims were suspected by Fidel Castaño and his siblings of collaborating with the guerrillas who had abducted their father.
On my afternoon in Segovia I had lunch with the mayor at a shaky wooden table in a makeshift beer and barbecue chicken joint. The mayor was a tough, inconceivably gutsy, twenty-six- or twenty-eight-year-old in blue jeans, a very striking young woman who had been elected a few weeks before as the candidate of the party affiliated with the guerrillas’ front organization. There were peace talks going on at the time between the government and the guerrillas, and one concession the government had made was to allow the guerrillas to set up a political party and run candidates for public office. The election of Segovia’s mayor was a result, but in less than five years nearly four thousand militants of the new party were assassinated, effectively putting an end to the political movement.
One version I heard of why the massacre had taken place so long after the Castaños’ father’s kidnapping is that it had actually been sparked by the election of the mayor, and by the guerrillas’ rustling of an entire truckload of cattle headed for market a few weeks earlier. I talked to the mayor, who was understandably taciturn, and later at some length to her much more simpatico, loquacious bodyguard, got out of town the next morning, then went back a second, even creepier time days afterward, and got out faster.
A few weeks later two colleagues from a major Bogotá newspaper went to do the same story; on their way into town from the airport they were forced out of their taxi, made to kneel in the road, and executed. So I never returned. But nine months after the Segovia killings I found out that a handful of men had been arrested and accused of perpetrating the massacre. I learned the name of one of the prisoners and made a visit to a not particularly secure jail on the outskirts of Medellín where he was being held.
I won’t mention his name here: perhaps he’s out now, trying to lead a normal life. Perhaps, as he told me, he wasn’t involved in the crimes he was accused of. Perhaps he’s dead, or he got out and is still taking odd jobs as a hit man. I told him who I was and what I was doing, but I’m not sure how much he understood. His vocabulary was limited, and he seemed a little dim—but live-wire nervous, too, nervous not like someone about to fire a gun at you in a sudden rage but like someone who expects to have the living daylights beaten out of him at any moment. This anxiety made him eager to talk—not about the murders, which he denied any involvement with—but about his life. He was twenty-six years old, fair-haired, as I recall, and muscular, but slight, and he sweated and jiggled throughout our conversation.
Néstor, let’s call him. He worked as a freelance gold miner, he told me, which meant that, with a partner, he would go up a likely-looking hill and pick at the ground with a pickaxe. If they struck pay dirt, he and his partner would take turns guarding it. On a decent day, the vein would produce a fistful of gold chips that could be exchanged for maybe a week’s food and supplies. In this case, Néstor’s partner was one of his brothers. One day after they struck gold, six men came up the hill and killed his brother, while Néstor hid behind a rock, praying for his life.
There was another, younger brother, whom Néstor always referred to as his hermanito. This hermanito was a junkie, and he hustled small amounts of basuco, or crack cocaine, to pay for his habit. At some point—I was trying back then to make sense of Néstor’s circling account, and I’ve been trying now to make sense of my own notes from that long-ago interview—the hermanito was blinded by rivals who took his eyes out with a machete. Néstor thought that this hermanito had started selling drugs in an area he didn’t know was controlled by a different guerrilla group from the one that killed Fidel Castaño’s father. Whether that was the motive or not, one day the guerrillas dragged the hermanito off a suburban bus and shot him to death in front of all the other passengers. Or maybe it was two different hermanitos, one blinded and the other shot to death, plus the one killed at the mine, who knows. When my allotted hour was up and I closed my notebook, I was so full of Néstor’s mumbling despair that I couldn’t really think.
But now I can see how Néstor, if someone had come up to him and handed him a machine gun and said, “Let’s go shoot some terrorists and here’s a little cash,” might have said, “Sure, when do we start?” And I can see something also about the man who probably hired him, the small-time trafficker Fidel Castaño, who founded a paramilitary group at this time that, in collusion with much of the army and police, terrorized the countryside and was responsible for a good part of the hundreds of thousands of murders that took place in Colombia between 1988 and 2001. It’s this: Colombia was historically an isolated and poor country, and also tremendously elitist. Unlike many other Latin American countries, it had never had a revolution or major social reform, and its economy was too small to propel it into true modern-day capitalism, with its accompanying benefits of opportunity and social mobility.
So crime became a principal means, perhaps the principal means, of social ascent. Fidel Castaño was a gambler, a cantina owner, and a smuggler, which gave him start-up capital. And then he became a killer and that gave him power, and he took that small allotment of power—his inheritance and investment capital, you could say—and ran with it. First, in collusion with local ranchers, he started a paramilitary group for the state of Antioquia, and established a pioneering working relationship with the local army garrison. Then he took that model and reproduced it all over northeastern Colombia, until under his brother, Carlos, this paramilitary movement became an army as powerful as the guerrilla force it waged war against.
The Segovia massacre was one of the largest of dozens of paramilitary massacres that were to follow over the next quarter-century, and though I somehow understood its significance, my story about it never ran. It would have been my first for The New Yorker, but I never managed to write it properly, despite the efforts of the heroic staff. Now I think that’s because I was never able to work out what the story was about, why it was important, and whom I was writing it for.
I write at length, so this is a different set of questions from the basic who, what, where, when, and how of daily journalism. At the start of every day of reporting, and at the end of that day, when my reporting has inched forward a little bit, I have to sit down to go over what I’ve learned. Then comes a difficult conversation with myself about how what I’ve learned is shaping the story differently from where I thought it was going yesterday, and if, in light of the difference, the story is still worth doing. Why should I ask someone else to spend valuable time reading it? Who is that someone I’m going to ask? What kind of reader am I talking to? In most cases the readers are you, or people like you, and that’s already very strange. What is your relationship to a row of coffins in the rain, in a small town hidden away in a country you’ll probably never visit? Why should I be telling you about them? In most cases, that’s a discouraging question that I try to keep far, far in the back of my mind. But still, it has to be asked.
In the case of Segovia, a younger me must have imagined that this was a story about evil murderers pitted against innocent civilians, and there were certainly plenty of evil men involved: the army and police commanders, Fidel Castaño, guerrilla leaders, drug lords. Still, the most interesting and difficult part of the story was how victims and murderers were locked into one another’s fates—the father killed by guerrillas, the father’s son murdering other fathers of other sons—until the protagonists of this endless story became like those figures carved on Chinese ivory spheres, rolling about in an endless struggle with no escape and no winners. But I never managed to untangle that structure.
I saw a different kind of violence in Rio de Janeiro when I started visiting the carnival parading organization called the Estação Primeira de Mangueira, in the favela on the hill of Mangueira, which was for years the first stop (“estação primeira”) on the suburban train ferrying workers to and from central Rio. The inhabitants of Mangueira believed in carnival, dreamed about it every day, saved all year long for a costume so they could parade in the Sambadrome on Fat Tuesday. Because this was a world so different from anywhere I’d ever been, I decided to write a book about it.
My second visit to Mangueira took place on a rehearsal night. It was shortly after midnight and we were all dancing and getting ready to vote on which of several sambas the organization would sing on parade day when people started shouting and running in every direction, some weeping, some in panic. News flew around the dance hall that Carlinhos Dória, the unpleasant Mangueira president, was dead. I’d seen him leave the dance not twenty minutes earlier, and then he was shot to death, apparently as he was pulling into the driveway of his house. The dance hall emptied out. Stone-faced men with heavy weapons moved in and took defensive positions along the walls and on the balcony, and none of them would answer my questions.
Over the course of the months I spent there, I realized that everyone I met—without exception, everyone I talked to, everybody—was the son, or daughter, or cousin, or brother, or relative, or friend of someone who had been murdered. Until eventually someone I knew and considered a friend was murdered too.
In Mangueira people lived what on the surface looked like chaotic, undisciplined lives. They lived insistently in the present, because, with the death rate and the lack of jobs, it was hard to imagine a future different from the right now.
You might conclude that Brazil is very different from Colombia. But the similarities are interesting. Although Mangueira, unlike Segovia, was not far from the center of power—it was right there in Rio de Janeiro—it might as well have been a thousand miles away, for all the attention it received from the government. So on Mangueira hill, in the absence of any official authority, the traffickers played the same part that guerrillas and paramilitaries played in the most isolated regions of Colombia, and created their own justice systems, based on extreme violence.
And in many ways, the hill was highly organized, more so than Segovia. For example, Mangueira worked like a Swiss watch when it came time to put carnival together—a task that filled up seven or eight months of the year. For everyday affairs Mangueirenses followed the rules imposed by their chieftains. Kids flew kites from rooftops, color-coded according to circumstance. Red might be for “cops are coming,” while white was for “all-clear,” and so on. Each time I walked to the house on the top of the hill where I was staying, I passed safehouses distributed up and down the hill, also guarded by children, holding machine guns.
The police were always extravagantly armed during their sporadic invasions of the hill. As a result, the traffickers, who escaped these attacks much more easily than the civilian population, were also extravagantly armed, thanks to the cutting-edge equipment they bought from corrupt police or acquired through the vast global market in illegal goods. And so, once again, as in Segovia, I could see that the principal, if not the only, means of social ascent available to talented young men who had learned nothing useful in their neighborhood public school was through the use of violence and the sale and distribution of drugs.
It’s been said a thousand times before: the drug war, created out of nowhere by Richard Nixon at a time when he needed a bogeyman, has rained down fire and blood on the poor of Latin America, West Africa, Eastern Europe, northern Spain, southern France, and the United States, to name just a few places. Drugs have brought violence for three reasons: because they feel good (if they didn’t feel so good they wouldn’t be so popular); because many are to a significant degree addictive (you have to keep taking them to get diminishing returns on that initial hit of pure pleasure); and because they are illegal. If marijuana were priced at what it costs to grow it, it would be cheaper than corn, and the same goes for coca leaves. It is the fact that marijuana and cocaine are illegal that generates those absurd, obscene profits.
Drug traffickers are portrayed on television as golden antiheroes. Think of them more as entry-level mafia types with big bellies who run trucking companies. They take goods from point A and deliver them to point Z. And as the revelations in the recent New York trial of Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán remind us, because the goods they ship are illegal, traffickers spread corruption and undermine society; they bribe poorly paid and trained cops, soldiers, customs officials, judges, prison guards, army generals, and politicians. At each one of these corruption points, A through Z, the danger to the trucker and the company increases, and so the operator of that route requires an additional margin of profit. That cost is passed on to the consumer. Because operating a drug run, despite the risks, is insanely profitable, people kill one another for control of each particular route. And because running an illegal transportation company is phenomenally dangerous, the only people who do it are those with nothing to lose and no investment in the future. So you have one of the biggest transnational businesses in the world being operated by nihilists.
People sometimes ask me why I like doing stories that are often violent and cruel, and the answer is that of course I don’t. This is not what I expected to do with my life. When I started out in journalism, reporting from Nicaragua, it was expected that Nicaragua would soon rid itself of a dreadful dictator. My colleagues and I who reported on the triumph of the Sandinista revolution never expected that forty years later we would be writing about how Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader who was president from 1985 to 1990 and has been president again since 2007, has become increasingly like Anastasio Somoza, the dictator he helped overthrow. Or about how his companion, Rosario Murillo, has acquired all the eccentricities of a dictator’s wife—the crappy poetry readings, the spiritual séances, the crazy makeup, the offering of her own daughter for her husband’s bed. And now the grotesque couple has officially sponsored the killing of more than three hundred students and other demonstrators by the Sandinista police and brand-new paramilitary forces since protests began in April 2018.
We couldn’t have foreseen that the peace treaty that ended El Salvador’s long internal war in 1992 would not end the violence but would lead to criminal gangs springing up two generations later, in large part made up of the ten thousand young men born in El Salvador but reared in the United States and then deported by the Obama administration to a country they barely remembered, if at all. Or that the US-financed contra war in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas would bring US military bases to peaceful backwater Honduras and leave behind prostitution, AIDS, drugs, and the seeds of uncontrollable violence.
But I couldn’t stop writing just because the stories that turned up weren’t the stories that I wanted to write. You can’t really jump ship like that. I’d picked up the thread of this story in Segovia, started to understand something about it, and no, it definitely wasn’t my intention to spend the past twenty-five years of my life watching expanding pools of adolescents murder one another—Adam Isacson at the Washington Office on Latin America puts the figure as at least one million killed by drug-related violence since 1974—and seeing how the drug trade is causing not only that disaster but the erosion of civic structures throughout the hemisphere. But what else was there to do? I had ended up with a career in journalism, and I was trying to understand.
Note: This article has been updated with a more accurate estimate of the number of students and other demonstrators killed since protests began in Nicaragua in April 2018.