1 | 2 | 3
vivimos en paz cuando estamos peleando' (We're only at peace when
As heard on Medellin radio.)
by Frank Bajak '79 / Illustration by Cecilia Malachowska
/ Photos by Ariana Cubillos
days are numbered," Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo said with a
half-smile, a look of contented resignation on his square mestizo
sat across a thick wooden conference table in his spartan third-floor
law office in downtown Medellin, a Colombian city known to the world
mostly for drug gangs and a seeming innate proclivity toward violence.
the open window we heard the bustle of midday commerce on the street
below. A train glided by two blocks away on Medellin's modern, elevated
"I've had a good life," Valle intoned gently, smiling
with the ease of a man whose soul was at peace. "Fifty years
and a few on top of that."
head of a Medellin human rights group whose two previous leaders
had been gunned down in the 1980s, Valle was one of those rare Colombians
unafraid to publicly speak their minds. Valle had accused army generals
and powerful politiciansincluding the provincial governor
at the time, Álvaro Uribe Velezof colluding with right-wing
death squads in a murderous campaign against civilians deemed sympathetic
to leftist rebels in towns north of the city, including Ituango,
where Valle had been a councilman.
Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo left no wife or children. He'd decided
years before not to marry; said he didn't want to cause anyone
anguish when his day came.
the past three years, during the rule of Dr. Álvaro Uribe,
the rivers have been so bathed in blood that we don't know how many
dead there are in the country,"the lawyer said.
did not offer any evidence implicating Uribe. But enough cases of
complicity by security forces in death squad activity had come to
light, including in investigations that I, as Associated Press bureau
chief for Colombia, had conducted or overseen, that his compassionate
rhetoric did not stir incredulity.
the time, Uribe was an outspoken supporter of citizen self-defense
units, several of which were involved in murderous excess and collusion
with right-wing paramilitary forces. Uribe's office helped coordinate
citizen militia activities in Antioquia state, at once the country's
most economically productive and most turbulent.
was five years ago. Uribe is now Colombia's president, inaugurated
Aug. 7, 2002, after being elected on a promise to vigorously prosecute
the war against leftist rebels. He seeks, for one, to double the
army's combat troops to 100,000, with U.S. help.
Colombia is now the No. 3 beneficiary of U.S. military aid behind
Israel and Egypt and Congress has now unshackled direct support
for its armed forces from stipulations that had required recipient
units to be explicitly involved in anti-narcotic efforts.
I met Valle in October 1997, I was a trustworthy foreigner referred
by a mutual acquaintance. It was our first encounter, and Valle
was providing me with the docket on members of an urban militia,
including ex-cops, accused of systematically murdering petty criminals
and drug addicts.
we got down to business, Valle had me switch off my tape recorder
and foretold his own violent death. Sure enough, five months later,
two men and a woman would march up the stairs to Valle's office,
tie up and gag a colleague and Valle's sister, who served as his
secretary, in a cramped anteroom.
accepted death without a struggle. The assassins forced the lawyer
to his knees and shot him in the head.
Maria Valle Jaramillo left no wife or children. He'd decided years
before not to marry; said he didn't want to cause anyone anguish
when his day came.
It might seem surreal, this portent of imminent deathoff the
pages of a novel by Valle's compatriot Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But
this sort of thing happens all the time in Colombia, where death
doesn't lurk in shadows. It shouts in your face, permeates your
has happened again and again in forsaken villages with names like
Mapiripan, Puerto Alvira, or Chengue, typically meriting only brief
mention on the inside pages of U.S. newpapers. The story is so repetitive
as to seem banal: authorities ignore warnings of imminent massacres,
then they occur.
Marquez once told me that his fiction, so steeped in brutality,
superstition, and febrile hallucination, is not fantasy's child.
It is grounded in the sinews of fact, in the history of a chaotic
land thin on tolerance where violence is the hardest currency, where
living by one's convictions tends to invite death. Law governs little
in Colombia, passion more. The social contract pales. Informal compacts
sealed with a handshake prevail. Colombia is a land of constantly
shifting regional alliances and tropical Machiavellians. As I traveled
the country for more than four years at the close of the 20th century,
meeting its saints and scoundrels, innocents and cheats, I shed
layers of inbred North American optimism, naivete if you like.
learned the Colombian creed: Scruples are a liability. Best to reserve
your trust. The late cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, I was told,
considered that humanity boils down to two subspecies: "el
vivo y el bobo"the con artist and the dimwit. If you're
not taking advantage, you're being had.
is a geophysical masterwork and biodiversity gem that remains the
global leader in the production and export of processed cocaine.
It is also the hemisphere's number-one source of counterfeit U.S.
those traits only hint at a deeper malaise.
many Colombians will tell you, this nation is unluckily cursed by
geography, situated as it is where South America funnels into the
Panamanian isthmus, a centuries-old smugglers' crossroads. If it's
not outbound cocaine and heroin, it's inbound AK-47s, contraband
Marlboros, and Johnny Walker Red.
fractured geography has always made it a challenge to govern. Yet
the essence of the malady is wholly sprung from the species, Colombian
intellectuals will tell you. It arises from nearly two centuries
of a history in which any serious challenge to the commercial and
political axes of power is routinely answered with a corporeal piercing
about any time a popular leader comes along who might redeem Colombian
democracy, somebody who had something to lose was willing to kill
for it. Luis Carlos Galan most famously paid with his life in a
1989 shower of bullets after challenging the Medellin cocaine cartel.
Valle I met a man whose courage made me wonder: Could I possibly
have the guts to knowingly write my own death warrant?
has to keep going and find his way out of the tunnel. It's the only
way," Valle answered when I asked how he could so deliberately
curtail his own mortality.
And that was Colombia for me: A nation that couldn't
seem to live with itself: a dark labyrinth poisoned with peril and
deception, yet lit occasionally by wisps of kindness, courage, and
Page 1 | 2 | 3