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Explaining Colombia - Page 2

Disentangling a Nation's Psyche

My 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.

I 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 the crime.

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.

"Here 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.

The 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, they reasoned.

Colombia's 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Up 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.

On 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.

The 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 revolver.

It's 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.

"What 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."

For 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 crop decimated.

When 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.

A cat 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.

This 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 our psyches.

My 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.

I'd never had such a museum experience. In front of some canvasses, people flinched. Hardly anyone even whispered.

It 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.

What became known as La Violencia would claim some 200,000 lives by conservative estimates.

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