issue 256 - June 1994
No Pablo, no story
Colombia equals drugs equals violence.
Don’t you believe it, warns Sarah Stewart.
News media create markets for certain kinds of stories featuring certain kinds of people, determined by race, gender, class, nationality or other identities. If the same sorts of stories are always told about the same sorts of people, they themselves will start to ‘mean’ that story in the eyes of the reader or viewer. A symbolic trigger is created and prejudices are reinforced. It then becomes very difficult to tell any other story about those people or that place. The stereotype story then acts as a smokescreen that blocks out other important realities – be they good or bad.
In 1990 the death lists appeared on the main roads of the university town. ‘My name was there, too,’ says Jorge, sitting with Amelia, his young, heavily-pregnant wife and two-year-old son in the windswept Bogotá shantytown of Ciudad Bolívar.
‘Then the threats began – telephone calls all the time. We left the city but they put a bounty on my head. I was accused of being a guerrilla. They arrested my eight-year-old nephew. Finally Amelia, my wife, was put in prison for “rebellion”.
Fear permeates the life of this young couple, as it does the lives of most political and human-rights activists. Colombia’s political death toll is now reaching 11 a day, reflecting a human-rights crisis which ranks as the most grave in Latin America and one of the worst in the world. Each year more people die for political reasons than in the entire 17-year reign of General Pinochet in Chile.
Jorge fears he is still being pursued despite the lack of any evidence of wrongdoing. He and his wife have told no-one of their past – not even the other family with whom they live. And they never get involved in politics.
They are so alone here, I think. If they were to be tracked down and killed no-one would even realize why. Their bodies, like so many others, would just turn up in the ravines on the mountainous outskirts of Ciudad Bolívar. It they were never identified their bodies would be picked up, loaded onto lorries and trucked to the cemetery for the NNs – ningun nombre, or ‘no name’ – for the anonymous dead.
There, three times a week, the lorries drive up, bearing their grisly loads: the street children, the rubbish collectors who recycle paper and glass, the drug addicts and other unknowns. Holding his handkerchief to his face to block the stench, the graveyard worker says hundreds are buried in the vast, open pits of unmarked mass graves.
I think of Amelia and Jorge’s story two days later when I am sitting in a lovely restaurant on the outskirts of Bogotá chatting with some journalists. ‘There’s no story here any more,’ one of them says, fidgeting with his steak. The others nod in agreement over their lunches. ‘No Pablo, no story.’
For years the mythical figure of drug baron Pablo Escobar has defined Colombia. His death last December, gunned down as he ran barefoot over the rooftops in a middle-class Medellín suburb, has changed the focus somewhat. But Colombia is still the original single-issue country: drugs and the drug barons.
There are good reasons for international concern about the drug trade. From inner-city London to Detroit or Cali, lives around the world are being destroyed by it. But within Colombia there’s another war, far more pressing than the war on drugs. No matter where you turn, there are stories of pain and bloodshed: from the telephone call saying that the peasant leader you met the day before has just been gunned down in a restaurant by unknown assassins, to the Medellín architect who says calmly that he and his wife discuss with their young children what to do in the event that they are kidnapped.
But somehow these are not ‘stories’.
What does it take to make human rights a story, I wonder? I go to visit the Colombian Government’s office of the Presidential Adviser on Human Rights. But again I find myself talking about drugs.
‘No other country in the world has had to fight the narcos, or drug traffickers,’ says Mauricio Hernandez, adviser to the Presidential Human Rights Counsellor. ‘I’m sure this would thwart the best police force in the world.’
No question, the Government’s position is not enviable. The murder rate is 28,000 a year – more than in the US whose population is eight times the size. An estimated five million arms are circulating illegally.
But the insistence on drugs as the key is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. Despite Mr Hernandez’s words, drugs have almost nothing to do with human-rights violations. In 1992, fewer than two per cent of all political deaths were committed by narcos. In the first nine months of 1993, none was ascribed to drugs.
Far more to the point is the fact that the major culprits in human-rights violations are Government forces. According to the respected Andean Commission of Jurists, 56 per cent of the political killings (excluding combat) where the killer could be identified in the first nine months of 1993 were carried out by Government forces. Paramilitary groups, which are closely linked to the armed forces, were responsible for 18 per cent; guerrilla groups – involved in a 40-year war in which neither side is prepared to negotiate – for 25 per cent.
‘It is indisputable that the state is involved in human-rights violations – and this is frequent,’ says a senior member of the Catholic Church’s human-rights group. ‘They are carried out by both state civilian and military personnel, and documented by the Attorney General’s office and in the courts. Disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture – these are the main forms of repression,’ he adds.
For their part, the guerrillas also routinely violate the Geneva Convention and humanitarian accords on war. They assassinate civilians and politicians, execute captured soldiers, and plant landmines which cause mostly civilians to suffer – the 11-year-old boy whose photo featured on the front page of the newspapers during my visit, for instance. To fund their operations some guerrilla groups resort to kidnapping, extortion and levying taxes on drug exports – a form of corruption which effectively erases their legitimacy.
The war against the guerrillas, like the drug war, justifies most of the repression: peasants are run off their land, trade unionists imprisoned for ‘terrorism’ when they go on strike. Recent economic policies have caused poverty levels to rise sharply. But protesters are now faced with new public-order laws – ostensibly aimed at the guerrillas and narcos.
And yet Colombia is not a dictatorship. It is inconceivable that in this formal democracy deaths and disappearances would be planned by central government. Nonetheless, government forces routinely carry out crimes with impunity. Soldiers, officers and the police are tried by their peers. The results are predictable: almost no convictions. These crimes may not be ordered by the centre of government but the Government is nonetheless guilty in the sense that it is not bringing people to trial. It is guilt by omission.
In a new report, Amnesty International condemns the ‘largely ineffectual measures ostensibly designed to safeguard human rights, but which in reality have mainly served to protect the Government’s national and international image’. Pierre Sané, Amnesty’s Secretary General, is more blunt: the Government is marked, he says, by ‘hypocrisy and lies’.
In March and April 1988 paramilitary groups backed by military officers murdered 20 banana workers in the northern region of Uraba. Three officers involved were investigated – but instead of being disciplined they were promoted. One of them, Lieutenant Colonel Felipe Becerra, was sent to the US for training. Four years later he resurfaced. Late one night in October 1993, men under his command broke into the home of the Ladino family in Riofrio, tortured and murdered seven family members from 15 to 75 years old, then executed another five people. Apparently to back up the later accusation that all 13 were guerrillas, they forced several women into camouflage uniforms before executing them. Bercerra has not been charged or convicted of any crime.
I make a trip to the hamlet of Mesetas. It seems like the end of the world. The town plaza is empty, with weeds growing in the main square and the trees covered in dust. The sense of abandonment is overwhelming.
In this region a war is being waged between the FARC guerrilla group and the army and paramilitary groups in league with both the army and emerald magnate Victor Carranza. The political targets: anyone thought to be on the other side.
The guerrillas engage in selective assassination, gunning down alleged informants or individuals said to belong to paramilitary groups. For the army and the paramilitary groups, the targets are alleged guerrilla supporters: communities – such as Mesetas – which have voted for the legal left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) party. Nationwide, 1,500 leaders and members of the UP have been killed since it was founded in 1985 – a record which constitutes genocide.
José Julian Velez, a simple farmer and mayor of Mesetas, sits at his desk, his hat by his side. Five of his family, including a six-year-old son, lie in the cemetery off the dirt road leading into town.
He doesn’t really want to talk about the killings. ‘For me it’s too painful to remember the past,’ he says. He’s agreed to stay on as mayor because of what he calls the commitment to the people, but it is evident that he does not expect to survive either. Of the dozen or so towns in the area which once boasted UP governments, there are now only three.
One by one I meet people who are not likely to live out the year. One young man, involved in youth theatre, never leaves his house at night. ‘You can be gunned down at any point,’ he says.
Meanwhile the language of drugs and drug wars continues to provide the smokescreen for political murder. And the outside world carries on, oblivious.
Sarah Stewart is a journalist with Christian Aid specializing in Latin America.