The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death SquadsUniversity of California Press (2015), 264 pp., $65
On his first day as London’s Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in February 2005, Sir Ian Blair informed the press corps that “people are having dinner parties where they drink less wine and snort more cocaine.” But the new Commissioner had broader priorities besides just sniffing out drug dens and crimping socialites’ style in London’s clubs. “I’m not interested in what harm it is doing to them personally, but the price of that cocaine is misery on the streets of London’s estates and blood on the roads to Colombia and Afghanistan.” The Commissioner’s words echoed those of Nancy Reagan, who in 1988 warned that “if you’re a casual drug user, you’re an accomplice to murder.” Indeed, Sir Ian and Nancy Reagan’s sense of how First World drug use affects source countries like Colombia—by fueling, for example, the paramilitary groups that use violence and state weakness to get rich off of the cocaine trade—is worth serious consideration.Tracing cocaine’s “trail of blood” leads us back to Colombia’s sweltering Middle Magdalena region, which connects several key economic regions. During colonial times, the region’s massive navigable river, the Magdalena, connected the distant north coast with the remote capital of Bogotá. The area is so iconic that it became the setting of quintessential Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s exquisite No One Writes to the Colonel, which told the story of the ailing Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar’s final days in this forlorn region.Today, Middle Magdalena’s oil is exported abroad and its milk and beef feed the entire country. The region also happens to be the birthplace of one of Colombia’s most heinous legacies: paramilitaries. In Colombia, the term broadly applies to the motley assortment of landowners, cattle ranchers, political bosses, and, increasingly, drug barons who use military and political instruments to impose their own “law and order” often through the use or threat of horrible violence.Colombia’s violent dynamics can get complicated fast, so a bit of key history is warranted. The paramilitary phenomenon has its roots in the cruel era in the 1940s and 1950s known as La Violencia, during which hundreds of thousands of Colombians were killed. Enmities between country’s two hereditary parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, erupted into open violence; think Hatfields and McCoys, Colombia-style. The Middle Magdalena became a haven for Liberal activists who had been forcibly displaced from surrounding regions by Conservative forces. By the mid-1960s, many of these Liberal activists had morphed into the nascent communist guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) organizing in these Liberal strongholds. By the end of the 1970s, FARC guerrillas held dominion over the Middle Magdalena, selectively threatening and killing the often relatively moneyed residents like cattle ranchers.Tired of the FARC’s threats and the impunity granted them in the absence of significant police and military forces, landowners began to take the law into their own hands by forming “self-defense” groups. Yet, this being Colombia, the plot thickened. In the 1970s and 1980s, the emerging cocaine cartels in Medellín and Cali began using their windfall revenues from America’s Disco Fever cocaine habit to purchase massive tracts of land in places like the Middle Magdalena. Entirely uninterested in paying off or even negotiating with the extortionist guerrillas, the narco-landowners like Medellín’s Pablo Escobar helped organize and fund these same paramilitaries. Backed by Washington, in the 1990s, the Colombian government decapitated first the Medellín and then Cali cartels, leaving the paramilitary outfits orphaned.These newly ascendant paramilitary leaders wasted no time in getting themselves deep into the cocaine trade in places like the Middle Magdalena, where the lucrative illicit trade was active. Yet, as anthropologist Aldo Civico writes in his important new book, The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads, the paramilitaries were like venomous snakes hidden in the weeds in these vulnerable communities. This is where they establish a “perverse intimacy with their prey,” which they terrorize while getting in return “submission, respect, and a twisted form of envy.”El DoctorIn 2010, as part of his book research, Civico travelled to a ranch a few miles outside of the Magdalena River river-port town of Puerto Boyacá to interview one of the region’s notorious former drug lords and paramilitary pioneers, El Doctor. The FARC kidnapped El Doctor twice in the 1970s and forced him to pay ransom; in 1990, the guerrilla group bombed one of his farms. El Doctor was eager to explain to Civico the climate of FARC-driven terror that made landowners reluctant to travel away from their ranches. Driving to Bogota or Medellín—much less any other spot theoretically reachable by the Andean country’s sinuous roads—was unimaginable. “We felt caged,” El Doctor told Civico. “We couldn’t go to Bogotá by car because [the guerrillas] would catch us on the same road we came from the night before. The guerrillas would show up there every day.”In classic scorched-earth counterinsurgency fashion, the (often narco-) landowners in Magdalena Medio struck back not by targeting the FARC but its suspected civilian sympathizers among the local leftist student, labor, and political organizations. The “paras”, as they are known, were the exterminators to fumigate and purify the Middle Magdalena. As one local newspaper column titled “The Truce” menacingly put it, “The [guerrilla] insurrection is like a cancer. It has to be eradicated at its root and not applying innocuous ointments to a malevolent tumor or else its spread is inevitable. The truce is a cancer treatment that is always lethal.” In 1997 like-minded paramilitary groups throughout out the country were united under the umbrella Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.) For the next several years, and at times with the tacit or explicit consent of the armed forces, the AUC was responsible for untold numbers of civilian massacres and displacement. Between 1997 and 1999 alone, AUC fighters killed an estimated 19,000 overwhelmingly non-combatant Colombians. In one massacre alone in February 2000, 300 AUC soldiers, guided by captured FARC guerrillas, killed about ninety suspected FARC sympathizers in the town of El Solado.Apart from its savagery, the paramilitary phenomenon was a public relations disaster for the Colombian state. Critics contended that the ostensibly illegal paras were just doing the military’s dirty work. Rightist President Álvaro Uribe was able to counter at least some of this criticism through an agreement with the AUC, which, by 2006, had “demobilized and reintegrated” the vast share of its 30,000-strong force. The problem, however, was that a number of middle-ranking commanders did not give up their weapons, even after seeing their commanders behind bars in Colombia or extradited to gringo prisons. Instead of abandoning the para lifestyle, it was now their turn to run the drug business. Compounding the problem, numerous AUC fighters “tasted the uncertainties of their future” and opted for the “certainties of life as cocaine mercenaries” and took up the fight again. New shadowy groups with exotic names like Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), the Rastrojos, and the Urabeños were operating in the exact areas theretofore under para rule. Unlike their predecessors they tend to shun publicity; like their predecessors they sow terror—killing prostitutes and petty crooks, imposing curfews—through their warped code of vigilante justice. Known collectively as “Bacrim” (the Spanish acronym for criminal bands) they also happen to hold dominion in the country’s strategic routes for drug trafficking. There is a running debate in Colombia as to whether the Bacrim were simply recycled AUC or represented (as the government in Bogotá contended, in order to bolster the credibility of the demobilization process) an entirely new phenomenon. Not wanting to pass up a lucrative business opportunity, the wily Bacrim regularly collaborate with the FARC in drug trafficking operations.The especially keen anthropologist Civico can be forgiven for being taken aback by El Doctor’s “charm and grace” when he visited the 2,000 hectare ranch. For El Doctor, everything began in the 1970s. Colombia had only recently discovered cocaine as a lucrative export product; no vast plantation-size fields of coca yet existed in the country, nor the clandestine processing labors, or chemists with the know-how to transmute cocaine into the “white power filling the nostrils of millions in the United States and around the world.” Pablo Escobar was still a minor-league thief in Medellín. It was small-time freelancers like El Doctor who traveled with cash to Bolivia and Peru to purchase semi-processed, dirt-cheap cocaine base and sold it back in Colombia. Within a decade, though, El Doctor’s dealings had turned him into one of the consigliere of the powerful North Valley cartel. When El Doctor granted Civico the interview, he had just finished serving a six-year drug trafficking conviction in a U.S. federal prison in Texas. Once back in his native country, Civico relays in his book, El Doctor spent his days dedicated to resurrecting his cattle business and spending time with his family, which had not been allowed to visit him in prison. Civico’s field notes during this remarkable interview are worth quoting at length, as they get at the heart of some of the tragic paradoxes at the heart of Colombian society:
Only when I sat in front of El Doctor, listening to his erudite narrative at the heart of his hacienda surrounded by workers to whom he related with heartfelt paternalism and tropical trees repelling mosquitoes, and imagining snakes hiding under leaves and crawling through grass, did I truly sense how Colombia was a phantasmagoria of images past and present and of fantasies about the future; how its reality was suspended between magic and modernity; and how magic was present in Colombia’s project of modernity. Colombia, both so premodern and so modern in its longing for progress, its shameless use of violence and its exclusion of peasants, the poor, the African Colombian population, the indigenous, and the different.
When he arrived in Medellín in the early 2000s to begin his field research, Civico assumed he would study the fascinating and often wrenching phenomenon of rural campesinos displaced by paramilitary or guerrilla violence, who were reinventing their lives in this provincial city. Listening to their tales of violence and desparation, Civico followed the narrative threads back to the tiny town where they had lived under the thumb of AUC and FARC power. He soon realized that the bigger story here was that of the paramilitaries themselves—and the military, landowners, politicians, and multinational corporations that facilitated their actions. Comparing the paras to sanitation departments that pick up the waste, Civico was surprised to discover that many local residents appreciated the “law and order” the paras provided.Over the course of the five years that he interacted with para commanders, drug traffickers, and ranchers like El Doctor sympathetic to the self-defense cause, Civico gained a keen sense for the phenomenon. In some cases, he spent days and weeks with these individuals, visiting their homes and meeting with their families. “I saw them crying, laughing, happy, and depressed. Seeing them as human beings, and not as the embodiment of perverse evil, made the endeavor all the more challenging and difficult. Seeing them as bloodthirsty and irreducible assassins probably would have eased my endeavor.” Civico describes the subtle air of menace pervading paramilitary-controlled towns:
At first, it was a ghostly presence, felt through a sense of constant surveillance and measured by the care of the worlds people uttered and the comfort they took in remaining silent. As I talked to more individuals, gaining their trust and traveling to more of these towns, I eventually learned how to recognize members of the paramilitaries, walking in civilian clothes among the regular people, sitting at cafes, or standing at street corners.
In the end, Civico contends that Colombia’s paramilitary scourge cannot be seen apart from Colombia’s star-crossed legacy of weak state presence in the country’s infinite mountain and jungle hinterlands like the Magdalena Medio. That is, how can the state remedy the paramilitary scourge when it is part and parcel of this illegality itself? Complicating matters more, Bogotá’s pending peace deal with the FARC means that a certain fraction of these fighters will, in AUC style, continue their illegal (and usually drug trafficking ways) under new banners. The Rastrojos and Urabeños and other Bacrim players will certainly be heavily recruiting their former sworn enemies.Ethnography of CocaineGreed for money knows no ideology, which explains why Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries alike are driven by the cultivation and sale of the lucrative crop of cocaine. On a sunny Saturday morning in July 2006, Civico left Medellín and headed north toward the town of Tarazá in Colombia’s Atlantic coast region of Bajo Cauca, passing myriad villages that, during the 16th century, rose up around the Spanish-run gold mines. In Civico’s time, these same sorts of itinerant pueblos grew up around the coca fields, where money is “frantically exchanged” and “miraculously multiplied by the apparently divine qualities of cocaine.”Civico was guided on his research trip by a 22-year-old former paramilitary, Jader, who had operated in this war-torn, predominantly Afro-Colombian coastal region. Civico first noticed Jader a few months earlier in a shelter for forcibly displaced persons in downtown Medellín. Jader had come there after his paramilitary unit has disbanded as part of a nationwide, 30,000-paramilitary fighter demobilization process from 2003 to 2006. Jader was deeply ambivalent about handing over his rifle and uniform, given that the paramilitary life was the only one he knew.Losing his surrogate grandfather early in life, Jader joined the paramilitaries at the tender age of 14. After a few months of training and the dream of becoming “someone” revived, Jader began his new life as a paramilitary. He was soon fighting the FARC in the mountains, summarily executing civilians, and escorting cocaine shipments across Colombia’s northwest border into Panama. He spent a few stints as a bodyguard and valet to several patrones—the bosses and owners of the assorted paramilitary groups. He eventually became the commander of a forty-man-strong battalion tasked with guarding coca fields and attached primitive processing laboratories.During their visit, Jader acknowledged the crucial role that cocaine plays in this region of his childhood: “In fact, if the [paramilitary] boss is sending [a shipment of] fifty tons [about 45,360 kilograms] of cocaine and it gets lost, we are left without uniforms, food, money—that is, with nothing. We are left naked, because money comes from cocaine. That’s how we eat. That’s how we can wear new uniforms. Without cocaine, there are no armed groups—no guerrillas, no paramilitaries, no nothing. In fact, the FARC and the self-defense groups would not fight over a banana plant or a yucca. No. They fight over coca plants, which here might not cost much, but in another place might be worth millions of dollars. That’s why they fight against each other.”Civico comes to believe that cocaine and the “desires, fantasies, and profits attached to it,” are the central organizing principles of towns like Tarazá. “Like a god, it possesses the powers of life and death over its residents,” he writes. “Cocaine is the substance that sustains their dreams of better lives, that fuels their desires and offers the illusion of someday fulfilling them.”Civico met another demobilized paramilitary named Luna, who also wound up in Medellín with an existential terror of what he should do in his postwar life. In Luna’s case, he soon returned to Bajo Cauca to begin a new life working directly in the cocaine trafficking business. “‘It’s a very nice town, with lots of opportunities. These people get jobs. There nobody lives on the street. [The patrón] provides houses where people can live. In other words, nobody has a bad life there, and there are lots of drugs. In this town, there is lots of cocaine. That’s why people have opportunities. They progress thanks to cocaine…. Where there are paramilitaries, there is money.’”Jader echoed Luna’s sense of the totality of cocaine in this paramilitary dominated region:
Here there are more paramilitaries than civilians…. Everyone in town lives off the cocaine industry. ‘Everyone’ means everyone. In fact, the farmer lives off cocaine. The collector lives off cocaine. The stores make a living out of cocaine. If I am a collector, I need to go to a shop and buy stuff. And where is the money [to buy] coming from? From cocaine.
In this tyrannical, profits-driven cocaine production system, the drug patrón is the local despot; paramilitaries serve as his private police, ensuring that the mercancía, or merchandise, as the cocaine is nicknamed, is not lost or stolen. Indeed, this localized but profound narco-trafficker monopoly “enforces with a violence that tolerates no competition or any form of cheating.” In the drug trafficker Luna’s words: “Here they don’t charge [you] the vacuna [“vaccination” or protection money]. The only thing that is demanded is that you sell the drug to the patrón; that is, drugs finance the group. You have to sell the drug, everything you do, and they buy it…. In the village, the [paramilitary] groups does not buy the drug directly. The patron, in order to give people jobs, has offices where buyers can get cocaine at a price fixed by the narcotrafficker. They buyers then sell it exclusively to the patrón at a different price. In these sweltering hinterlands of narco Colombia, the “law of the patrón has replaced the law of the state.” That is, the paramilitaries and their management of the cocaine trade are the real sheriffs in town. This narco-fueled regime has staggering consequences for local communities.Luna even reckoned that the police’s occasional seizure of a few tons of cocaine was only because the narcotrafficker handed the mercancía over to the authorities. The seized coke can be shown as a demonstration of their progress against drugs and thugs in Colombia. Meanwhile, another eighty or hundred tons, perhaps, had left the country with law enforcement’s blessing.As narcotraffickers transitioned from Civico’s so-called “Para-State,” where the state and prominent players in civil society supported the work of the paramilitaries, to their more recent incarnation as narcotics-driven Bacrim, the “trail of blood” following the supply chain of cocaine continues to turn an ever-deeper shade of red. Consumers of cocaine, high on ignorance as much as drugs, perpetuate the power and control that criminal traffickers have over regions like the Middle Magdalena. Like combatting an addiction, it will be difficult for Colombia to shed its overwhelming dependence on cocaine and the groups that got the country hooked.