“The objective of memory is to highlight both the struggle of the dead
and the nature of the powers that silenced them.”
—Luis Carlos Restrepo
As part of my pre-visit area studies and research for Unraveling, I picked up Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia by Michael Taussig prior to going to Medellin. A first person account told in a diary format over two weeks, Taussig recounts the dynamics, shares the stories of others and contextualizes the history of the region to explain the murders that once made Colombia the world’s murder capital. While conditions and the murder rates have drastically changed since then, it’s still a place where massacres of campesinos over access to land still occurs to this day.
Taussig’s journal describes in at times uncomfortable details a number of large-scale public killings, referred to as limpiezas in Spanish, as well as the backgrounds of the actors and the historical context in which they occur. Besides this, Taussig also reflects on the role of memory and accountability from a personal in reflections on the process of writing a journal as well as in the political sense, ie – through which means hegemony is formed.
Indigenes, Viciosas, Delincuentes, Traficantes, Paras, Sicarios, Guerrillas, Policia y la Ejercito Oh My!
While many of the participants in the conflict are prone to describing things in terms of good or evil, what is really going on is conflict over modes of production and access to fertile and resource rich lands. Though the quote from Karl Marx’s work Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations is one that opens Michael Taussig’s other book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, I think it a good one for quickly that describes the primary driver for conflict here as well.
Thus the ancient conception in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production.
While not nearly as knowledgeable as Taussig about Colombia’s past or collective psyche, my experience with various social strata in Medellin and Jerico, a pueblo in Antioquia, provided me a similar view. Those that primarily outside the capitalist mode of exchange for supplying their daily needs seemed more peaceful, calm and happy then those that depended on it.
In a long passage discussing the transformation of Cali’s agricultural lands in the 1950s and 1960s, Taussig describes how the thousands of peasants, who were outside the capitalist mode of production as the variety of plants they would grow and rotate provided them with all they needed were forcibly dispossessed so that a foreign born family could grow and export sugar. These instances of rapid proletarianization helped contribute to the problems faced within the cities – people without capital or many skills flocking to them – and were accelerated once cocaine became the crop of choice for those wanting to live beyond subsistence means.
When You Don’t Want Your Haters To Know Your Name
The immensity of the cocaine market drove traffickers to form paramilitary organizations to seize land and routes with high use value from the FARC and other large scale farmers. Unable to effectively contest such a well-financed group and still keep their scruples, the FARC got into the protection and trafficking rackets so that they could survive as an organization. Armed conflict over this left many frightened and dead , however this was not the full extent of the new dynamics influencing Colombia’s political economy. Large nuber of addicts too cropped along with a profound incentivization for “bad behavior” as la vida facil – or the drug-dealing/trafficking life – was known to be sweet, but short.
Planfleto Amenzas, or warning pamphlets, like the one above along with the graffiti signs of paras scrawled around the community are the first indication that the paramilitaries are soon coming in for a cleansing of such mala gente. Translating the above picture, it says the following:
“We will be killing all rat bastard sons of bitches, leftist communists, defenders of human rights and the process of peace and restitution of the land, student communist groups, unionists and guerillas.”
Then continues to name the people that will be killed following by the ominous entre otros, or “among others” and a warning that caught or informed upon for helping these people will also be receive lead.
Sometimes warnings are not so explicit and people must rely upon word of mouth news networks or wait until AUC graffiti was painted someplace public to know where and when the AUC was.
The Massive Scope of the Conflict
At the time of this book’s publication in 2002, Michael Taussig states that he’s been visiting Colombia to do fieldwork for 30 years. While the intensity of the civil war has halted, there are still multiple bad effects that stem from the narco-trafficking. There are neighborhoods that require thousands of police in Bogota to clear out the open air drug markets made by vendors and addicts and anyone visiting the area around El Centro in Medellin has seen the improvised encampments filled with bazuco addicts.
Taussig describes in details various encampments and characters he encounters in such places in a way the bring much needed levity to the stories he’s sharing. Behind those moment of levity, however, is the underlying fear. Fear of being seen with the wrong person. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of your name showing up on a computer provided to the paras by the military. In numerous anecdotes the absolute terror felt by those in towns undergoing a cleaning is clear. Just as who is behind these, the local power elites.
¡No Tiene Sentido!
One of the recurring themes in my readings thus far on Colombia which is again reinforced here, is how distorted the reporting of the events are in Colombia. Many journalists fear intimidation, harassment, assault or death as reporting a story in the wrong way would could mean various armed groups would target them, so often they distort reporting in favor of the government or the paras or do not report on important events at all. The result of this is a collective unreality on all sides.
Threats of violence aren’t the only reasons why mass delusions as to the acts of the government, the paras and the guerillas are reported in a manner that later is corrected in the evidentiary findings of human rights NGOs.
Besides the stick, there is the carrot. Writing about the paradoxical viewpoint that many Colombians have, Taussig points out on page 76 the following commonplace hypocrisy of many Colombian political commentators:
“How is it that while the pandillas, or gangs of the young preoccupy everybody to the point of collective hysteria, while the bandas of the local upper class rarely get talked about? Is it because the bandas have for so long been a part of reality and that many people, or at least many influential people, get fat on them?”
The corruption in the country is notoriously endemic. In fact when asking one taxi drive in Medellin what he thought about the President Santos he want on a long rant about how all the politicians were corrupt – Liberals and Conservatives alike – and that stated that there’s no party that represents the poor and the campesinos except for the FARC, who would never come to power given so many people disliked them for the reason I said above. As a result, leading to million and billions of dollars of state money going to development projects. Maybe a few dollars goes in the pocket of a reporter, or maybe the ownerships of the new outlet gets some money out of it so exercises editorial control, or maybe a company that purchases advertising threatens to pull money if certain things are said. Either way, there are are lot of incentives to sow confusion in community by incomplete or false reporting.