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Colombia - Page 2
a Nation's Psyche
education into Colombian dysfunction began in earnest a few months
earlier at Bogota's elite Universidad de los Andes. Augusto Perez
Gomez, a sociologist, sat me down in a cool, wood-paneled classroom
under a fragrant stand of eucalyptus.
wanted to understand how Colombia had become the world's kidnapping
mecca. With more than 3,000 reported cases annually since the early
1990s, the country was a bazaar of human chattel. It starts with
a society that at least superficially is polite and warm, explained
Perez, who had just completed a study of kidnapper psychology drawing
from interviews with a diverse sampling of people imprisoned for
Manuel Marlanda (left) helped organize the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 1964 and in the years since
has managed to triple its size to at least 15,000 fighters.
Elected in 1998 on a peace platform, former President Andres
Pastrana (right) lacked the guile and maybe the guts to deliver
on his campaign promise.
we're all soul mates with all the world. But when someone truly
needs us we are not friends, we don't know each other and don't
care what happens to anyone else," said Perez.
felonious have succeeded in straitjacketing Colombian life, said
Perez. Criminal imaginations have bred such pervasive lawlessness
that it was only natural that outlaws with political agendas would
wholly embrace kidnapping and extortion. What better way to generate
income if you're unable to use politics as a route to personal enrichment,
two dominant leftist armies, rooted in the defense of disenfranchised
peasants in the 1950s, had lost by the end of the 20th century the
luster long associated with Latin American guerrillas as heroic
fighters for social justice in the tradition of Augusto Sandino
or Che Guevara.
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, already had little
mass appeal when then-U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey branded its
fighters "narcoguerrillas"in 1997. It wasn't the FARC's
deepening involvement in the cocaine trade that troubled most Colombians.
It was no secret that people of every political stripe were getting
a piece of that action: right-wing paramilitaries, members of Congress,
even the president elected in 1994, Ernesto Samper, who managed
to avoid impeachment though his campaign took in $6 million from
the Cali drug cartel.
FARC and the second most powerful leftist rebel band, the National
Liberation Army, or ELN, forfeited public sympathy by institutionalizing
kidnapping. Both do it mostly for revenue, patiently releasing victims
over months after extracting the optimal amount of cash.
near the Caribbean in the fertile southern foothills of the world's
highest coastal mountain range is Valledupar, a regional capital
known for its jaunty, accordion-driven Vallenato music. The people
are earthy, generous, quick to laugh. That might seem astounding,
considering that they've been afflicted for the better part of two
decades by a plague of almost biblical proportions.
a wan Valledupar sidestreet I find the address, get buzzed in at
a wrought-iron gate, and walk through a dusty courtyard and up two
flights of stairs badly in need of paint.
door opens a crack, it's chain-bolted, and a quavering man in his
20s answers. Rafael Lacouture asks for my identification and studies
my passport and press card without putting down his .38-caliber
April 1997 and I've come to see Rafael's mother, Beatrice. Beatrice
Lacouture's life is in ruins. Her family has been plagued by 43
kidnappings. Most of the victims are ranchers, like her husband
of 35 years, Fabio. Guerrillas surprised Fabio on the family ranch
outside Valledupar in March 1993. Workers found him decomposing
in the afternoon sun in the cab of his pickup, a bullet in his head,
his throat slit.
The rancher had been robbed of the cash in his pocket, equipment
in his truck, his shotgun, some cattle.
happens here is that the guerrilla pursues someone they have in
mind," says Beatrice. "It's like the tiger hunting its
prey until the quarry is caught. I don't know how the devil they
do it, but it's with frightening cleverness and agility."
anyone with any amount of wealth, Valledupar has become an odd sort
of prison. It's only safe to come and go by plane. Land prices are
severely depressed, ranching in ruins, the region's once rich cotton
I was there, a new style of kidnapping had come into vogue on the
main highways linking Bogota with the Caribbean coast. Rebels stopped
four to five cars at a time, grabbed one occupant from each and
sent everybody else for the ransom. The police and army, undermanned
and poorly equipped, could only occasionally frustrate the rebels.
In the years since, it's only gotten worse. And extortion, once
the nearly exclusive plague of ranchers, gold and silver miners
and oil roughnecks, has infected Bogota. One restaurateur I knew
was paying the FARC about $30,000 a year.
drags a woman's head through a graveyard. A splayed body, flesh
stretched in the shape of Colombia, is held taut by pegs like a
tanned hide. Hysterical women and children bend over corpses and
point accusingly at grim-faced helmeted soldiers. Human mutilation
is practiced in imaginative variation.
is Colombia's modern era on canvas, in sculptures and multimedia
at Bogota's Museum of Modern Art in a show Art and Violence in
Colombia since 1948 in which such unflinching creators
as Debora Arango and Alejandro Obregon etch indelible images in
wife and I saw it in 1999, about the time we began to seriously
discuss leaving the country a year earlier than planned. We had
three teenagers and were becoming more concerned for their safety,
though no ill had befallen us.
never had such a museum experience. In front of some canvasses,
people flinched. Hardly anyone even whispered.
was only a few blocks away, on April 9, 1948, that Jorge Eliecer
Gaitan, a charismatic Liberal Party populist widely expected to
be elected the next president, was shot and killed on the sidewalk,
touching off a frenzy of violence that degenerated into a decade
of political bloodletting.
became known as La Violencia would claim some 200,000 lives by conservative
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