Cultural Anesthesia in Colombia

Kristian Herbolzheimer

March, 2008

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

On February 4, 2008, millions of people in Colombia marched against violence; actually against one specific source of violence: the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, FARC. The communist insurgency has been trying to overthrow the government for more than four decades now. Over the years they have killed not only police and armed forces, but also civilians; they have displaced thousands of people and they have become the major agent of abduction in the world. This sinister activity became internationally more notorious after FARC kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in 2002, a woman with French-Colombian citizenship. Together with other politicians, members of security forces, and three US citizens, they constitute a group of "political abductees". The FARC want to force a "humanitarian" swap between these abductees and imprisoned rebels.

Colombian society has grown sick and tired of an armed conflict with no end in sight. Their last hope has been President Uribe. He won election in 2002, shortly after the last attempt to negotiate with the guerrillas failed, and has been fighting an all out war against the rebels ever since. Although his main achievements during his first term were limited to pulling guerrillas farther into the jungle and up into the mountains, he was re-elected in 2006 with recordbreaking support.

Nevertheless, the war in Colombia is complex. Violence has been present throughout the country's history, most often to support the privileged. In 100 Años de Soledad Nobel prize award winner Garcia Marquez portrays the mass-killing of workers by police forces in a strike against United Fruit Company in the 1920s. Although the absence of major military dictatorships gives the country an appearance of a solid democracy, Colombia is paradoxically one of the Latin American countries where social and political opposition has most systematically been targeted. Close to 2.000 indigenous people, more than 3.000 trade union workers, and some 5.000 members of Union Patriotica, a political party, have been killed in the last two decades. 350.000 people were forcibly displaced last year, lifting the number of displaced people in Colombia above the threshold of three million — among the worst figures in the World. FARC is responsible for part of these atrocities, but rightwing paramilitaries bear the core of the responsibility.

The organizers of the February marches did not have these victims in mind. The state has been successful in creating the perception that everything is to blame on the guerrillas.

Former paramilitary leaders who are seeking judicial benefits through telling the truth (in a process inspired by the South African Truth Commission) are confirming what has long been clear to human rights defendants: the state's collusion with paramilitary activity. So far 52 members of Congress (among them the President's cousin), 11 state governors, and 19 mayors have allegedly been involved in supporting these mass murderers.[1] None of these cases seem to shake the government's popularity. Terrorism is certainly an everyday reality in Colombia. Nevertheless, there is a one-sided perception of who is a terrorist. As Chomsky argues: "Terrorism is the weapon of those who are against 'us' whoever 'us' happens to be."[2] In Colombia "us" is predominantly the government.

Most victims of armed violence in Colombia are rural poor. They are socially and geographically very distant from the ruling elite, and from the urban environment that so strongly influences public opinion. It is a clear case of Feldman's description: "State, legal, and media rationality can erect a cordon sanitaire around "acceptable" or "reasonable" chronic violence to the same extent that they successfully infiltrate social perception to neuter collective trauma, substract or silence victims, and install public zones of perceptual amnesia (...)"[3]

In an effort to complement (the government argued it was to counter) the February marches, the Movement of Victims of State Crime convened new demonstrations on March 6. After condemning FARC violence in February, the Colombian society was urged to reject the even more brutal and widespread paramilitary violence that has plagued the country and has penetrated state institutions like a cancer. Not surprisingly, the response was far lower than the February march. Uribe has been more successful than Bush in his polarizing strategy. In Colombia most people feel that anybody who is not in favor of the government is against it.

A few days before the march, Colombian helicopters bombed a FARC camp and killed Raul Reyes, the second highest ranking rebel leader. It became the government's most successful military strike in years. Even the political opposition backed the President when he came under strong critique from neighboring countries, most notably Venezuela. As a political commentator admitted, his death "was received by many as a huge relief. One less", was a frequent expression.[4] Reyes' mutilated dead body was displayed in all media. The situation was similar to the detention by the Peruvian Fujimori regime of Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Maoist Shining Path movement, in the 1980s. The detention of a certainly murderous person became a political triumph for a President who is now prosecuted for State violence.

The same day Colombians celebrated the death of Reyes, nobody mentioned the case of 'Carlos Tijeras'. Newspapers that day reported that this paramilitary leader had admitted his responsibility in the killing of 400 people, often slaughtering and throwing them into the river.[5] His picture in the papers depicted a well-dressed person who spoke about having "principles," a sharp contrast with Reyes' mutilated body.

From the position of an outsider, it is difficult to understand why Colombians can't unite against all kinds of violence, no matter who exerts it. Why didn't they organize just one single massive demonstration that could unite Colombians instead of increasing polarization? Scheper-Hughes would label the polarization as a "warning sign" for increased mass killing. She argues for a "powerful social ethic to challenge the belief that certain despised or "alien" populations are better off dead or having never been born at all."[6] But so far, Colombians don't seem to be worried about this.

[1] "El Pais en dos informes", El Tiempo, March 13, 2008, p. 1-28.

[2] Chomsky, Noam. "The New War Against Terror", in Scheper-Hughes, N., Bourgois, Ph. (ed.), Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology. Blackwell, Malden, MA, USA; Oxford, UK; Carlton, Australia (2004): 219.

[3] Feldman, A. "On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King", in Scheper-Hughes, N., Bourgois, Ph. (ed.), Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology. Blackwell, Malden, MA, USA; Oxford, UK; Carlton, Australia (2004): 214.

[4] Duzan, Ma.J. "Somos el Israel de la region?", El Tiempo, March 3, 2008.

[5] "'Paras' usaron serpientes para matar a sus victimas", El Tiempo, March 3, 2008.

[6] Scheper-Hughes, N. "Violence Foretold: Reflections on 9/11", in Scheper-Hughes, N., Bourgois, Ph. (ed.) Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology. Blackwell, Malden, MA, USA; Oxford, UK; Carlton, Australia (2004): 225.