The Courage to Uncover the Politics and Lies Behind the Carnage in Colombia

A member of FARC's Sixth Front on guard with his weapon in a demobilization camp in the final days before they hand in their arms back to the government on December 28, 2016, in Miranda, Colombia. (Photo: Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images)A member of FARC’s Sixth Front on guard with his weapon in a demobilization camp in the final days before they hand in their arms back to the government on December 28, 2016, in Miranda, Colombia. (Photo: Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images)

Amidst the horror of the internal Colombian war, Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno finds that individuals can have an impact on exposing the toxic truth of gruesome massacres and torturous deprivation. In There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia, Sánchez-Moreno singles out three people whose heroic efforts made a difference in a brutal time. The following excerpt is about one of those persons, investigative journalist Ricardo Calderón.

“Have you ever seen someone be eaten alive by ants?” The question took investigative journalist Ricardo Calderón aback, but the man beside him kept talking, matter-of-factly pointing at an anthill surrounded by four stakes with chains attached to them. “They tie up informants and guerrillas there and coat them with panela [a form of cane sugar]. They last about three days while the ants eat them.” The lawyer was giving Calderón a tour in early 2006 of a vast ranch on a mountaintop near the Magdalena River owned by his client, a paramilitary leader known as “The Eagle.” The Eagle’s lawyer had invited Calderón several times to visit the ranch and talk to his boss. In addition to the anthill, Calderón noticed a large board to which the paramilitaries tied their victims before doing target practice on them, a swimming pool shaped like a guitar, with a bar and jukebox next to it, and a massive house. Farther out, the lawyer had told Calderón, The Eagle had several cocaine-processing labs. On his fairly short drive from Bogotá to the ranch, Calderón had also noticed several large plaster statues of eagles perched along the road, as well as a couple of wrecked Toyota and Ford pickup trucks — The Eagle’s son, the lawyer said, enjoyed drinking and crashing vehicles, then leaving them by the side of the road. His father always replaced them.

The son of a policeman, the scrawny, prematurely balding, chain-smoking Calderón had grown up during the heyday of the Medellín cartel. He had attended a school in Bogotá for the children of police officers, so, ever since he was a small child, he had heard macabre stories about drug lords and police raids. He had attended many funerals for fathers of his classmates, including the one for Colonel Jaime Ramírez, who in 1984 had discovered Pablo Escobar’s cocaine-processing lab, Tranquilandia, and was then gunned down by assassins. Calderón also developed a sense of which kids’ fathers might be on the take, based on how much money the children could spend on going out for ice cream or to play pinball.

He had always been intrigued by that world. He had even thought of becoming a policeman himself, but his father warned him away from it: “You’re very lazy, you don’t like getting up early, and you don’t like cold water.” Lazy may not have been the best description for Calderón, who had worked every summer since he was fourteen, packing glass and crystal cups for a local company, or stretching lengths of chain out on the city’s streets, to take measurements for the official transit agency. But it was true that he hated waking up early, and couldn’t stand cold water, and, sure enough, Calderón found out that if he joined the police, he would have to get up at 4 a.m. and take very short, cold showers. So he decided to go to college instead. He started out studying biology, but did very poorly. When a family friend offered to find him a spot at a new college that was opening on a beautiful campus in Bogotá, he jumped at the chance to transfer. The only catch was that the new school only offered two majors: engineering and journalism. Calderón was bad at numbers, so, to his father’s dismay — at the time, journalism was known as the career of choice of Colombian beauty queens, and his father viewed it as a frivolous profession — Calderón picked journalism. He was, he claimed later, a terrible student, though one of his classmates, Mónica, who would one day become his wife, disagreed, remembering that even in college the shy, quiet Calderón would throw himself into his journalism projects, usually working alone, with passion.

In 1994, during one of his final years in college, a classmate told him about an opening at the newsweekly Semana, covering sports. Unlike many Colombians, Calderón had little interest in sports — soccer, to him, was just a group of men running around with a ball — but he jumped at the job and got by, at first by writing about the only sport he knew a bit about: Formula One car racing. It was a great opportunity. The magazine had a very small writing staff, so Calderón got to see how it put together an entire issue, and to see how politics, crime, and public order issues, which he found fascinating, got covered.

The following year, a massive political scandal began to unfold over what became known as “Proceso 8,000,” a wide-ranging criminal investigation started by the attorney general’s office into alleged ties between the Cali cartel and various prominent public figures, including several members of Congress, as well as Santiago Medina, the treasurer for President Ernesto Samper’s 1994 presidential campaign. (The unofficial name, which meant “Process 8,000,” referred to the case number.) After his arrest, Medina began testifying against other former campaign officials who were now in the Samper administration. The president himself soon came under investigation in Congress. Meanwhile, the accountant for the Cali cartel, Guillermo Pallomari, turned himself in to the US Drug Enforcement Administration and started to hand over evidence against Colombian politicians. Although Samper was eventually acquitted, the case would continue to present new twists. It dominated the news for years.

Semana’s political journalists poured themselves into coverage of the rapidly changing scandal over the Proceso 8,000, but that meant nobody was available to cover the ongoing war. So Calderón volunteered to start going to the country’s “red zones,” where the conflict was hot, even while he continued to cover sports. Soon, he was traveling to far-flung parts of the country and filing reports about FARC killings and — increasingly — paramilitary massacres, alongside his still-required stories about the local soccer team.

Throughout the decade, the paramilitary groups had slowly been gaining in strength, but now they were engaged in a coordinated and terrifying campaign to seize control of key regions of the country. Moving beyond Antioquia and Córdoba, where Carlos Castaño’s ACCU had first started its expansion in the 1990s, they were now spreading out over most of the country’s northern states, and even venturing into the center and south of the country. The ACCU had also joined forces with other paramilitary groups, organized under a single umbrella as the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), which had multiple “blocks,” each under separate leadership.

The areas that were hit the worst included the Middle Magdalena Valley and the oil port city of Barrancabermeja, a traditional ELN stronghold that Calderón visited repeatedly, and from which he wrote numerous articles about increasing paramilitary killings. In one, he described how, on May 16, 1998, around fifty paramilitaries had entered the northeastern section of the city, murdered eleven people, and kidnapped another twenty-five, labeling them “guerrilla sympathizers.” In a statement delivered to the government, ACCU leader Carlos Castaño later announced that the paramilitaries had summarily “tried” and executed the twenty-five before burning their bodies. The massacre was so brazen that it got national public attention, but it was far from unique. Across the region and much of the country, paramilitaries were growing fast. With the promise of high wages, which were easy to pay with their profits from cocaine, the AUC had enticed thousands of underemployed young men to join their ranks, and they were killing tens of thousands of people in grisly ways, including beheading, clubbing, or dismembering their victims, often in front of their families and neighbors. Calderón lost track of how many mass paramilitary killings he wrote about at the time. In the aftermath of massacres, remaining community members fled in terror, leaving behind ghost towns throughout much of the Middle Magdalena region, Antioquia, and the northern coast.

Meanwhile, the FARC and the ELN, too, were engaging in ever more ruthless tactics. They had taken people hostage for ransom or political gain for years, but now kidnappings were a daily occurrence. Travel by road throughout Colombia had become so hazardous that many people gave it up entirely. The guerrillas took advantage of the absence of law enforcement on many lonely roads to conduct pescas milagrosas (miraculous fishing), where they stopped drivers and kidnapped those they thought might be worth something. The kidnappings affected Colombians of all stripes and backgrounds, wealthy and poor alike, and by paralyzing travel, damaged the economy and frustrated city residents, for whom going to the countryside was a common pastime. To secure their territory, the guerrillas had also deployed antipersonnel landmines, which maimed not only soldiers, but also peasants, children, and animals that walked in the wrong place.

Copyright (2018) by Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno. Not to be reposted without permission of Nation Books, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group.