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The Supply and Demand for Colombia’s Misery

Ana Carrigan

Robin Kirk’s thoughtful and provocative book about Colombia, More Terrible Than Death, raises long overdue questions about America’s shared responsibility for that country’s descent into chaos. Kirk, who has spent 10 years documenting Colombia’s catastrophic human rights situation for Human Rights Watch, does not argue that the United States is responsible for all Colombia’s ills. But her assertion that Washington’s “single-minded focus on eliminating drugs at the source” has fueled, expanded and exacerbated Colombia’s spiraling brutality is based on factual observations on the ground and intimate knowledge of the ways both governments—in Washington and Bogotá—give the runaround to human rights rules intended to protect civilians.

We know the facts about Colombia’s tragedy—or we think we do. We’ve been exposed to numbingly repetitive horror stories, inundated by statistics, debates and official statements that use words to say the opposite of what they mean. (How many times have we heard that the billions of dollars in U.S. military aid for the Colombian army are necessary to “preserve that country’s democracy and support human rights”?) By now, we believe we know who is responsible for Colombia’s mayhem: All the havoc is the fault of the FARC guerrillas; or the paramilitaries; or the elites; or the army; or the drug traffickers. It has nothing to do with us.

Yet the big picture, the beauty of the country, the diversity and richness of its culture, the intelligence of its people and their extraordinary capacity for recuperation, these elude us. It is hard to care about a place we don’t understand, particularly when our only images are the interminably familiar ones of destruction and death. Faced with a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale hitherto unknown on this continent, we retreat into catch-all myths: Colombia, we say, suffers from a “culture of violence; “Colombians are incapable, or unwilling, to staunch the blood-letting”; Colombian history, it seems, has been marooned interminably in a cyclical, tropical bloodbath. Unable to find any good guys to root for, we have long ago told ourselves that the complexities and contradictions of Colombia’s overlapping wars are too difficult to decipher. Convinced that Colombia is hopeless, we have ceased to care.

But Robin Kirk has mapped the connections that link Americans’ $46 billion- a-year spending spree on cocaine and heroin to the monumental fraud of Washington’s 20-year-old war on drugs, and to the cash that flows straight into guns and paychecks for the killers in Colombia. She challenges us to wake up and acknowledge our responsibility. “The point of this book,” she writes, “is to lay bare the context of what lies behind and within America’s war on drugs in Colombia and show how the United States, through its consumer habits and official policies, has provoked Colombia’s home-grown demons. … What looms in Colombia is more than a familiar tale of Latin corruption and savagery. … We watch as if it had nothing, really, to do with us. Yet it does, intimately. Our failed policy—dramatically failed, epically failed, and failing with a numbing, annual frequency—is largely responsible.”

Colombians, in other words, have not made the long journey into today’s bloody morass on their own. Tracing the origins of U.S. intervention in Colombia, she resurrects the history of Washington’s first involvement, triggered when an enraged Bogotá mob torched official buildings in the aftermath of the 1948 assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. All it took to draw Washington into the middle of the local rivalry between those whom Kirk describes as the “Capulets and Montagues of the Andes,” was for the Conservative president of the day to charge that “a movement of communist inspiration and practices” had inspired the rioters. Overnight, a chaotic and leaderless insurrection in Bogotá had morphed, in American eyes, into the latest sinister example of Russian ambitions to export world revolution. In the days that followed, the pattern of American military support for compliant Colombian leaders took shape.

Ancient history? Colombia’s leaders have been mining American security obsessions to gain Washington’s military largesse ever since. In 1990, when a 40-year-old insurgency was recast from the Cold War mold to the drug war, the fighting didn’t miss a beat. Suddenly, Kirk recalls, the word “narco-guerrilla” was everywhere, “a magic spell that would ease millions out of the American treasury.” In 55 years, only the language changes: “Marxist guerrilla,” “narco-guerrilla,” or “narco-terrorist,” it’s still the same FARC. “Without the American obsession,” Kirk asks, “would there have been a FARC? An Escobar? A Mapiripan?” The question is rhetorical, but it opens a creative space for some new thinking.


In her work for Human Rights Watch, Kirk’s meticulously factual human rights reports consistently provided a credible source of information for other writers and reporters. Now, Kirk has finally written about her own emotional and intellectual journey during those years. Set against the backdrop of recent Colombian history, she combines personal reflections with the profiles of friends and public figures whose lives reflect the larger issues of war, poverty and drugs that are tearing Colombian society apart. Kirk excels in these portraits. A case in point is her profile of the early career of the man she insists on calling by his real name—Pedro Marin. Marin is none other than the 70-year-old leader of the FARC, whom the world knows only by his nom de guerre, “Manuel Marulanda”—or, sometimes, “Tiro Fijo,” “Sure Shot.” Kirk has given Marin back his complexity and humanity; a rare achievement and an essential one if we ever hope to understand his country’s history.

It is the stories of Kirk’s anonymous colleagues and friends, however, that bring us closer to the fragility of life in a society teetering at the edge. These ordinary Colombian citizens, trying to live ordinary, everyday lives, in ordinary places, can never know at what moment an abyss will open at their feet. As we get to know their stories, woven into the larger narrative of their nation, we realize that they are trapped on a path that leads, unerringly, into fatal collision with the impact of U.S. drug policies on Colombian lives.

And then there is Josue.

Josue Giraldo Cardona is a provincial lawyer. He is married and he has two young daughters. Josue loves his family. He loves his life, and he lives it to the full. He loves his country. Though he has traveled and has influence and friends abroad, Josue cannot imagine living anywhere else on this planet. Josue is an idealist. He is an optimist. He believes change is possible in Colombia, and he will not stop trying to make that change happen. He cannot stop. Josue cannot live without hope. “Josue had his own opinions about why Colombians fight,” Kirk explains. “This was it: Colombians do not believe that another way is possible, that life can be different. It was a lack of imagination. It was the absence of faith. You had to believe, as Josue did, that something else was possible on the earth, at the precise place where he had been born and raised, which he believed to be the most beautiful spot life offered. If someone or many someones stand up and point to another path, and convince others, then perhaps change is possible.”

Josue is dead now. Like all the murders in Colombia, Josue’s was a death foretold. Death in Colombia is never senseless, nor random. There is always a reason, always logic, behind each death, and Josue knew he was going to die and why. Josue was killed because he was working for peace and justice, and because he never stopped believing that a new and different Colombia was possible. Josue knew what he would need to do to escape his death. Most of the time, when the death threats start, Colombians have time to leave the country and go into exile. Kirk tried to persuade Josue to take that route, but he would not. He had made his choice. He had decided that death was not the most terrible thing. Giving up, living without hope—that, Josue told Robin Kirk, frightened him more.

Josue’s spirit haunts Kirk’s writing. With his help, she has transcended the North-South, Anglo-Latino cultural barrier to come closer than any other American writer to Colombia’s complex, seductive and paradoxical reality. Kirk might be describing her own experience when she writes of an American colleague: “[He] had been infected by the passion that seizes many who visit, seduced by Colombia’s beauty, the intelligence of its people, and their sense of fun and life in the midst of so much death. Rumba and death, joy and the end of days.”

It is impossible to read this book and come away with one’s view of Colombia unchanged.

Ana Carrigan, author of The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy, is a frequent contributor to In These Times.
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