Prior to moving to Colombia I spent many hours reading through various online Facebook groups to get a better understanding of what sort of issues people had trouble coping with, a sense of the various communities (locals and ex-pats) perspective on issues, prices of goods and services, places and situations to be wary of, etc. Below are the links to the groups that have been the most useful in orienting myself to life in Medellín
Groups For All of Colombia
Music That’s Playing in Medellin / Música que Juega en Medellín
This is by no means any sort of scientific attempt to curate the music scene in Medellin. This is just a short playlist of some of the songs that I’ve listened too in various places I’ve voyaged to in Medellin over the past two weeks.
The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads by Alvo Civico is an engaging and at times haunting account of the armed conflict between various groups that has shaped Colombia’s political economy over the past forty years. The books anthropologically oriented methodology combines first person interviews with cocaine kingpins, leaders of para-military forces as well as the regulars, victims of paramilitary violence, as well as supporters of the paramilitary along with a historical account that contextualizes the events described in the interviewees stories. Through these accounts, Colombia’s rural interior comes to be seen as a space where actors project their desires for wealth and personally engage or organize horrific behavior in order to obtain it.
While it appears late in Para-State’s chapters, despo-capitalism is the term that Civio uses to describes the socio-economic dynamics of Colombia. It is a “threshold where the repressive forces of the despot combine with the liberating forces of capitalism” (140). His theoretical model for understanding the dynamics of despo-capitalism is decidedly Marxian with deference to Deleuze and a dash of Zizek. He states repeatedly, in fact, that the role of the AUC is what is described as a War Machine in the book A Thousand Plateaus. To bolster this positions, he includes a brief comparative political account based on interviews with an Italian prosecutor that illustrates the similarity of development of the Sicilian Mafia to the Colombian para-militaries.
Paisas Son Un Gente Muy Amable y Acogedoras
If you consume enough of the marketing content that encourages travel and investment in Colombia or various polls, you’ll soon notice that one of the recurring themes is of how wonderful and welcoming the people are here. While as of writing this I’ve only spent time in Antioquia, this combined with the many others I met from this region while living in South Florida makes me feel that this is a general truism. The irony, of course, is the happiness that they feel despite there being a longest standing civil war throughout any Latin American country.
The reason for the Civil War is long, and stems in part to the violence between Liberal and Conservative Parties before that. Each operated with tenuous. After a number of periods of sectarian killings, including La Violencia, the political elite united around the Frente Nacional (1959), which is incredibly similar to Venezuela’s Pact of Punto Fijo (1958). This specifically lead to the establishment of the FARC and would later open up the conditions for the death squads the books describes. Unable to get enough civilian support in regions rich with fecund land and extractable primary goods, the para-militaries became a means for the elite to establish control.
Limpiezas were right wing paramilitary that went throughout the rural and urban areas and liquidated those that they considered FARC sympathizers (real and imagined) as well as desechables, gamines, and those in combos. There were a large number of such groups, such as the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU), that came to be united in name but not always in orientation under the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Regional groups were funded by either the upper classes with financial interests in a region or workers being under their total control or cocaine producers and distributors.
Death By BananasDespite what the above meme suggests, getting murdered because you don’t want to pick bananas for the wages offered is not something relegated to the not so distant past. In the period when the bi-lateral trade agreement between Colombia and the United States was being debated by the Legislative branches of government, the American trade unions pointed to the wave of over 450 assassinations of civil rights leaders, trade unionists and community leaders that was then going on. Chiquita Banana, may still face trial for its support of the AUC after the State Department deemed it a terrorist group.
The informant network created by the AUC deemed all such people as “collaborators to the FARC’s cause,” even if there was no such material support evidence. The mere belief that workers had a right to collectively bargain was considered cause for getting kidnapped, shot, dismembered by chainsaw and the remains left somewhere in the forest for animals to consume.
In regions with fecund soil that inhabitants had adopted a subsistence model of reproduction, market relations were either forced on them by paracos or they were dispossessed. In regions where wage-labor for agricultural production was pre-existent but drives for higher wages occurred, paracos enforced at gunpoint the continuation of work. In a word, the feudalistic model for enforcing labor participation for capitalist production was the norm.
The information network of the AUC would later identify and assassinate over 450 unionists, community rights leaders, and other “sympathizers” or collaborators to the FARC’s cause. If this seems high, well, the number of civilians the AUC killed is drastically higher. When a valley needed to be cleared of occupiers so that a foreign national company could grow bananas, for instance, or a gold lode was discovered that initial seismic wave readings indicated could be worth billions – paracos would declare that town a pueblo guerillero for resisting such displacement. After they’d encircle it with hundreds of heavily armed people, they’d raid a number of people specifically identified as trouble and then publicly execute them and put their bodies on display in an area with high pedestrian and automobile traffic.
The Direction of Colombia’s Economic Development is the Heart of its Civil Conflict
These capital and labor intensive industries along with cocaine production and trafficking are at the heart of the Colombian political economy. The latter more so as cocaine itself is a totem that organizes the distribution of bodies, practices, objects, symbols and words. The class divide determine by one’s placement in the such a system of capital circulation is both implicit by social norms but also by the legal system which designates people according to a legal class (estrata). Those that are lower class are not given much, if any, assistance by the state – hence the antagonism to it, as those on the lower end see the benefits given to those at the top – and thus can best earn through trafficking or muscle. An additional element driving the conflict has to do with US investment in the region.
Cocaine and the Development of Medellin
The Para-State’s account of cocaine’s role in the geographical and demographic development of Medellin describes evolving dangers from sundry violent actors working in unison and against each other. With vast amounts of capital coming into the country through sales via Miami and other points, the traffickers soon became the largest land holders in the country. Not all wanting to live in highly guarded fincas outside of the city center, they invested in different neighborhoods in Medellin.
As a result of the the aforementioned dispossessions and high level of unemployment, combos formed in these area. The effects that these two converging factors in one region is described on page 158 by Civico as follows:
“Medellin has long been crossed by these invisible but powerful boundaries, and transgression could trigger a death sentence from a rival armed group. These lives have shifted constantly, and residents have learned which streets to travel on, which ones to avoid, and which boundaries to cross. Walking on the wrong side of a street can get you killed. In several of the city’s barrios, survival has been a matter of such cartographic knowledge.
Having spent a few weeks now in Medellin, it’s worth noting that even now, 20-30 years after the period described the dynamic remain the same – with the higher areas along the mountains being more “dangerous” while the center is safer. That this is a dynamic caused by wealth inequality from the hegemonic economic capitalist enterprises is clearly shown to be the case.
De-armament, Reintegration and Politicization of the Struggle
Even before the recent FARC demobilization, those once in the AUC were in the process of demobilizing. As Civico describes it, however, this is not an easy process. The job prospects for those once involved pay significantly lower, making them ripe for recruitment by narcos, their history of violence makes them apt to end up in jail or dead over minor disputes and others that aware of their crimes – be they family members of those they killed or rival groups – sometimes take justice in their own hands. One of the interviewees that Civico writes about, in fact, is taken by a group that he was on bad terms with and is never seen again.
The politicization of the armed struggle is certainly a step in the right direction for a united Colombia, however as this book shows there is a lot of bloody history that will continue to make such a transition difficult. While it’s not clear if this will work, Civico is clear that if the massive modernization projects which dislocates thousands continue, if the assassination of leftists continues, if the state continues to fail in its ability to speak for all but the elite, that this project will fail.
Desechables – Literally means “disposable people”. This meant people that were drug addicts, petty thieves, homosexuals, domestic abusers and could sometime include people that had long hair.
Intreccio –the inter-twinement of the state and the parastate. First used to describe the relationship between the Italian Mafia and state
Traquetos – the people engaged in cocaine trafficking who make a show of their wealth with thick gold chains around their necks, expansive cars and stunning young women
Pajeria – literally means “squad”. People who enacted organized political violence
Vacuna – protection money
Farras – parties to get drunk
Urbano – a paramilitary working in an urban area
Bonification – a bonus according to the number of people you killed
Paracos – paramilitaries
Bara – The dynamic wherein a commander likes your performance and gives you frequent opportunities and recommends you
Limpieza – social cleansing accomplished through spectacular violence
Raspachin – coca gatherer
Pueblo guerillero – a town associated with guerillas
Gamine – street kids
Vallenato – romantic Colombian music from the coastal region with lyrical content similar to African griots
Pillos – a Medellin specific term for gang-members and junkies
Culebras – literally poisonous snakes. A term for one’s enemies.
Combos – street corner gangs
“And the walls of my dream burning, toppling
Like a city collapsing in scream”
Aurelio Arturo, Dream City
Before I moved to Colombia I looked up online a number of lesser known than Gabo Colombian novelists and saw a number of positive reviews for Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s book The Sounds of Things Falling. After reading it and getting taken in by the compelling storytelling, tone and language often only found in those writers whose medium is the romantic languages.
The novel begins with background the narrator, Antonio, who is a young, successful professor of law at the University of Bogota that is dating a former student, Aura, that he soon learns has become pregnant with their future daughter, Leticia. Antonio is shot on the street, not with intention but because he is a bystander of the successful assassination attempt of Richard Laverde. His recovery is not speedy and once the psychological fetters that makes him somewhat agoraphobic starts to wear off, he sets out determine as to what he can learn about the man that he played pool with for years, watched die in front of him and yet knew very little about.
Antonio recalls the few exchanges that he and Richard made and places them within a broad context of those that grew up in Bogota in the 1980s. As later in the novel conversations show, this generation grew up during the period in which Pablo Escobar was fighting the Colombian state apparatus that sought to either imprison him in Colombia or have him be extradited to the United States. At first the psychological difference between those born in 1970 and those born several years later is shown in the manner in which Antonio and Aura respond to the shooting that nearly kills Antonio – she being younger and thinking that it was such a “rare” act that he need not worry while he is now consumed by fear. Later, it’s shown in the discussion between Richard Laverne’s daughter, Maya, and Antonio and how it is that they are able to recall with perfect detail where they were on hearing certain people were assassinated or various places were bombed. However it is not the just the dead of years ago that weighs on the mind of the living. A tape, which we come to learn is the black box recording of a flight that recently crashed and caused the death of Richard’s wife, becomes like a fetish prodding those that listen to it to come to reconciliation with the violence and death of the past. Antonio doesn’t hear this tape, however, until nearly two years after the event. It’s effect on him is significant.
Shortly after Antonio hears this, the person who let him listen to it passes along his contact information to Richard Laverde’s daughter, Maya. She requests his presence to talk about her father, and he decides to go visit her in order to learn more about the “friend” of his that he really knew nothing about. Here the novel shifts perspectives and the story of Elaine Fritts and Richard Laverde is presented. Elaine was a Peace Corps volunteer who came into Colombia and fell in love with one of the men that she encountered during her classes in Bogota prior to assignment in the less developed regions.
While throughout the book there’s social criticism about attitudes, values and beliefs – such as Antonio’s resentment of the “vacuous courtesies always exchanged by Borodino’s, with no expectation of a sincere or considered response.” In this section, however, they take on a paternalistic form. As a result of the leadership role that Elaine is granted, she comes to feel that many of the ways that the rural community within which she operates is, in many ways, still suffering from what she calls a “colonial mentality.” Such behaviors that she mentions specifically include a deference to someone like herself (That is, a White Person, an Invader) to initiate and direct health, sanitation and economic cooperative projects; the role of bribes in making sure that government agents follow through on the assistance that they promise; the omnipresent role of alcohol in important discussions amongst all male community leaders, etc.
Laverde, who doesn’t come from campesino stock, is not like this and incrementally ratchets his aviation career from sundry medical and development supplies needed and people to marijuana to cocaine. Elaine Fritt’s lifestyle soon sees the results of his work and, at first, is not worried about where it comes from due to the new conveniences each stage of illegal drug transportation provides her and her new daughter. From horse, to truck, to large farm with a number of staff to support her, she’s shown simultaneously trusting totally her husband to recognizing, after an encounter with one of the American’s that helped him get involved in the business, that he won’t be returning as something terrible has happened.
The segue explaining how it is that Maya learned of the truth of her father’s still being alive, her mother’s plan to re-unite with him and leads to a conversation on the appeal that the cocaine traffickers had throughout wide swathes of society. A conversation on Hacienda Napoles, in fact, leads the two of them to go visit it in the jeep purchased by Richard 29 years ago from money made from transporting drugs to the United States. The two of them share a nostalgia destroying experience there, much of the once “amazing” statues and décor have fallen into disrepair and no longer appear as large, and at the former estate that Maya grew up on before her mother ran to the city with her.
With the problems previously described as existing between Antonio and Aura, I was not too surprised by the sexual relations that occur between Antonio and Maya on their return from the trip and like that it engenders a perpetuation of the traumatic dynamic that Maya previously went through – mother’s departure and the loss of father due. I thought it was a very clever way to not only wrap up the story but to evoke the causes of the social thought maladies that are mentioned throughout the text.
On a final reader’s note, I too want to thank Beatrice Monti della Corte and Suzanne Larenty for their assistance and patronage in helping this work to be written. I greatly enjoyed reading this and it is in no small part thanks to you that I’m able to do so.