Colombia: When the State Collaborates to Terrorize a Nation

What happens when a merciless leftist army squares off against equally brutal paramilitary groups and both are involved in drug trafficking? As Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno describes in There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia, this, along with government complicity, is the recent deplorable story of what transpired in Colombia.

Mark Karlin: What role did the paramilitary organizations play in the violence that afflicted Colombia in the ’90s and this century?

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: The paramilitaries were responsible for some of the worst atrocities we’ve seen in the last few decades in Colombia, including widespread and gruesome massacres meant to terrorize communities into submission; and killings, forced disappearances, rapes, and torture of activists, trade union members, and community leaders who got in their way. The paramilitaries’ brutality led hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, to flee their land and homes, becoming internally displaced.

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno.
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno.

The paramilitaries’ leaders were major drug traffickers who had once been a part of the Medellin cartel, and who in the early 1990s turned on Pablo Escobar, joining the PEPES, which hunted Escobar down along with law enforcement. They later took over the drug business in Medellin and beyond. So, even though they claimed to be fighting to protect Colombians from the also terrible abuses by the left-wing guerrillas, in fact they were often just killing to seize control of territory that was valuable to their drug business, or to further the personal interests of their cronies.

But most people outside of Colombia know relatively little about the paramilitaries, or about Colombia’s internal conflict, beyond the stories of kidnappings by the FARC guerrillas or the now three-decades-old stories about Escobar. That’s one reason I chose to tell a story that shed light on this critical part of the country’s recent history.

How were the paramilitaries connected to powerful people in the government?

From the beginning, the paramilitaries had strong ties to powerful people in the Colombian military, police, and elsewhere in local, state and national government. They also had the backing of wealthy and influential landowners. Because they portrayed themselves as a counterinsurgency force that was trying to support the military, it was easy for many people in government to look away from or to downplay their abuses. Few people dared to investigate or challenge them — to do so meant risking your life.

Sectors of the military collaborated closely with the paramilitaries: There are countless stories of situations in the late 1990s in which paramilitaries passed right in front of military garrisons on their way to a massacre, or even used military bases and equipment to carry out their crimes.

As the paramilitaries expanded throughout much of the country, their political influence also grew. They developed the power to install cronies in state and local government, and they ended up colluding with about a third of the Colombian Congress to rig elections in their favor.

What role did drugs play on the FARC side and the government side of the bloody Colombian conflict?

Colombia’s internal war technically started in the 1960s; it involved left-wing guerrillas (of which the most prominent have been the FARC) fighting against government forces. Paramilitaries also existed in various forms throughout much of the conflict. But Colombia’s war was dramatically distorted in the 1970s and especially the ’80s, when the country became a major coca production and trafficking hub.

The enormous wealth available through the drug trade fueled the armed groups, both on the right and left, giving them significant resources. In turn, the profits from the drug trade eventually became a goal in itself, rather than a means to an end, turning a war that might have had ideological roots into something much murkier. The FARC was known to “tax” coca growers and traffickers in the territory it occupied, and over time various factions seem to have become directly involved in trafficking themselves. And the paramilitaries were among the country’s biggest drug traffickers.

Meanwhile, much of the government became incredibly corrupt. When the alternatives are to work with organized crime and become wealthy and powerful, or do your job right and risk your life, a lot of people are going to look the other way from criminal activity and abuse. That would be true anywhere; but in a place like Colombia, where you already had weak democratic institutions and tremendous inequality, the drug trade had a devastating effect.

You focus on three men who exhibited extraordinary courage to ferret out the truth and create a civil society in Colombia. How did you come to choose them?

I got to know one of the three characters, Ivan Velasquez, when I was covering Colombia for Human Rights Watch between 2004 and 2010. I was deeply impressed by his courage and commitment at the time, because he almost single-handedly led a series of investigations by Colombia’s Supreme Court into paramilitaries’ collusion with members of congress. As his investigations progressed, he also became the target of a vicious smear campaign by the extremely popular then-president Alvaro Uribe. But Ivan continued his work, and ultimately, revealed important truths about what was happening in the country.

In talking to Velasquez, however, it became clear that his story was part of a larger one, and that it was intertwined with that of my two other characters. At one point, Velasquez shared with me a copy of a speech he gave after receiving a human rights award from the International Bar Association. In it, he read a quote from Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which a character, José Arcadio Segundo, witnesses a terrible massacre of thousands of people. He goes to his hometown of Macondo and tells people about the massacre, but people say, “That’s not possible, there are no dead here.” Velasquez then dedicated the award to all the José Arcadio Segundos who tried to tell the truth about what was happening in the country but were ignored. In particular, he said, Velasquez wanted to honor a friend of his, Jesús María Valle, who told the truth and was killed for doing so.

That set me on the path of finding out all I could about Valle. And I quickly discovered that his was an extraordinarily powerful and moving story. Valle was a prominent and beloved human rights activist in Medellín who in the late 1990s began speaking out about how paramilitaries were moving into his home region of Ituango, a poor, rural area several hours from Medellín, and killing large numbers of people. He repeatedly pleaded with the military, the office of then-governor Álvaro Uribe, and others to intervene, to protect his people, but he got nowhere. He also spoke out about collusion between the military and the paramilitaries, which he said was evident in Ituango. In October 1997, paramilitaries entered the tiny town of El Aro, Ituango, and over the course of several days, killed 17 people, including a 14-year-old boy. They raped women and tortured some of their victims to death. Eventually, they burned the town down. Valle tried to get the military and others to stop the massacre, but they refused to do anything. Afterward, he began speaking about how witnesses had seen a military helicopter fly overhead during the slaughter, and he started speaking about a “tacit agreement” among the paramilitaries, the military and the governors’ office. Three months later, on February 27, 1998, he was assassinated in his office in downtown Medellín.

Valle had been a friend of Velasquez, who was then chief prosecutor for Antioquia (the state where Medellín is located). The activist’s death left a deep impression on Velasquez, who over the next year went on to conduct groundbreaking investigations that could have dealt a serious blow to the paramilitaries. Those investigations, however, ultimately failed, as paramilitaries murdered eleven of the investigators working with Velasquez, and senior officials in the attorney general’s office transferred the case to Bogota, where it ceased to move forward. It was only years later that, on the supreme court, Velasquez was able to once again go after the paramilitaries, through his investigations into their collusion with members of congress.

The third character in my book, Ricardo Calderón, was a journalist for Semana, Colombia’s most prominent newsmagazine. He’s a very quiet, modest person, who never signs the articles he published. But between 2004 and 2010, he wrote numerous stories that revealed other aspects of paramilitaries’ influence at some of the highest levels of government. In 2008, after President Uribe began attacking Velasquez,Calderónexposed how paramilitaries had been meeting with senior officials inside the presidential palace, offering to help the presidency collect material to attempt to incriminate Velasquez. Later on, he also revealed how the intelligence service had been illegally spying on the supreme court, and particularly on Velasquez, in an attempt to undermine his investigations. That work eventually led to the shuttering of the intelligence service.

Through the stories of Valle, Velasquez and Calderón, I was able to tell a bigger story about paramilitaries’ growth, about much of society’s denial of their atrocities, and about how the extent of their influence in government finally came to light.

What drew you to the story of heroes amidst a gruesome backdrop of violence and fear?

In my years working in Colombia, I got to know many people who had stood up to the brutality and corruption around them. Often, they were seemingly ordinary people: peasants, community activists, investigators, journalists, lawyers, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, displaced people. But what stood out about them was their courage and their commitment to truth, justice and basic human dignity. It would have been much easier for all of them to work with organized crime or armed groups, or to just look the other way. But they refused to do so.

Outside of Colombia, however, hardly anyone knew these stories. Portrayals of Colombia usually focus on the perpetrators of violence, like Escobar, or on the role of DEA agents or government officials. To me, it was very important to share with the world a different side of the country, and to bring some recognition to these extraordinary individuals. I also think that these stories should be a source of inspiration and hope for people elsewhere in the world — including in the United States. They show that even in the most challenging of times, if you stand up for what’s right, you can make change happen.

Your afterword is entitled, “Peace?” Is Colombia a different country now, after the peace treaty with FARC? Have the paramilitaries disbanded and FARC stopped its vicious violence? Is the government less corrupt?

I used the question mark in the title of the afterword deliberately: I think that it’s highly unlikely that Colombia will be at peace anytime soon. In theory, the paramilitaries disarmed around 2005 and 2006, pursuant to a peace deal with the Uribe administration. But that process was largely a sham; while some paramilitary troops laid down their arms, others remained active, and the core of their criminal operations remained intact. Their successors are still active and engaging in killings and threats in many parts of the country, though the government now calls them “criminal gangs” (“bandas criminales,” or BACRIM).

The peace process with the FARC may yield some important results, in that it may make it harder for any armed groups in Colombia to claim that they are still fighting for ideological reasons. It’s likely, however, that some FARC factions will remain active. More importantly, given that the illicit market in drugs remains a powerful force, other groups will try to step into the FARC’s shoes, seizing control of the territory that they occupied.

Ultimately, as several Latin American leaders have stated before, as long as the world’s main way of dealing with drugs is prohibition, the illicit market in drugs will continue enriching organized crime, fueling violence and corruption.

All that being said, I do think that the work of people like Valle, Velasquez, and Calderón has made a difference in Colombia. It’s now impossible for most Colombians to deny the truth about paramilitaries’ atrocities and their influence in government. And I think many Colombians have been emboldened to ask tough questions, and demand more from their government. It may not solve all of Colombia’s problems, but it’s a dramatic change from where the country was 15 years ago.