Out of the Jungle

Colombia's capital, Bogotá, long seemed exempt from the lawlessness and violence of that country's chronic civil war. Not anymore.

Also contributing to the guerrilla-mafia image are persistent allegations, leveled by the U.S. drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, that the guerrillas are engaging in drug trafficking. The issue has been treated cautiously by Colombia's President, Andrés Pastrana, who has made generous concessions to the rebels in order to coax them into peace talks. McCaffrey's frequent use of the word "narcoguerrilla" is seen as counterproductive by those involved with the negotiations, because it casts the guerrillas as criminals, not legitimate political actors. Yet analysts who know the groups well say it is true that FARC especially has long acted as a labor organizer in the coca fields, keeping the price of a bushel up while taking a hefty percentage from the farmers. Whether the practice is motivated by greed or by ideology may be beside the point: the result, a steady flow of cash, has given the rebels more than ample resources to carry on against the government. By some accounts, they are the best-outfitted insurgents in the long history of Latin America's guerrilla wars.

ON the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, which is the traditional start of the Christmas season, Bogotanos were jittery: it was a ripe moment for the guerrillas to make a statement. For several nights in a row the head of the national police had been on television trying simultaneously to raise the city's guard against bombings and to forestall a wave of panic. At one point he guaranteed a terrorism-free holiday—a promise that largely was kept. But on the night of December 8, when the city put on a fireworks display and held free concerts, the streets were mostly empty.

A decade ago bombings in Bogotá were routine, as the drug cartels sought to pressure the government into dropping its policy of extraditing high-level criminals to the United States. During the 1990s, however, the government dismantled the largest cartels, which have been replaced by smaller, more discrete groups—cartelitos.Nowadays explosions in restaurants and shopping malls are less common, and when they occur, it is not always clear who set them off. For example, in November an exceptionally large bomb blew up a block in northern Bogotá; the list of suspects initially included the cartelitos,remnants of the Cali cartel, FARC, and the ELN. Conspicuously absent from the list of suspects was a man named Carlos Castano, who may now be Latin America's most feared warlord.

Castano symbolizes what has gone wrong with Colombia. He commands the Colombian United Self-Defense (AUC) unit, a deceptively bland name for what are in fact death squads: gangs of mercenaries and hit men who try to terrify the population—everyone from peasants in Juradó to professors at the Universidad Nacional—into shunning the guerrillas. The hallmark of the AUC is "the list": a roster of suspected collaborators who are dragged into public places and executed. Castano says he is only fighting a guerrilla war with guerrilla tactics. The government says he was responsible for more than 1,500 deaths in 1999 alone.

Like so many who get their hands dirty, Castano is driven by the most personal of politics: his father and, it is claimed, nine of his eleven siblings were killed by the guerrillas. But what makes him a symbol goes deeper than vengefulness. An ugly truth of the Colombian civil war is that the army relies on Castano's death squads to fight its most difficult battles—skirmishes deep in the jungle or in guerrilla-held mountain ranges. It has traditionally been a weak, clumsy organization, and the AUC is one of the few effective tools it has. In short, the army not only tolerates the death squads but needs them.

Other institutions are no better than the army at doing their jobs. According to their own statistics, the police fail to solve 95 percent of crimes, and fail even to investigate most murders. When a justice system loses credibility to this extent, victims stop reporting crimes and vigilante groups—nascent death squads—begin to appear. In Medellín, whose murder rate—the highest in the hemisphere—is five times Bogotá's, the outlaw justice system is entrenched, and gangs with names such as Death to Car Thieves and Robocop have taken over from the police.

One of the few institutions that have not fallen apart completely is the Bank of the Republic, which flips the switches of monetary policy from a high-rise in downtown Bogotá. Along a quiet and dusty corridor on the sixth floor sits the office of Salomón Kalmanovitz, one of the bank's directors. Kalmanovitz has spoken publicly about the dire need to strengthen the state, and owing to his position, it would seem that he could get the attention of the elite if anyone could. When I interviewed him, though, Kalmanovitz seemed already defeated. "The reality," he said, "is that a weak system of justice can benefit the upper class as well." For many of them the war means the freedom to avoid paying taxes, to misuse public funds, and to dip into the rivers of drug-related cash flowing through the Colombian economy.

I left the bank and walked south into the neighborhood that houses the main offices of the central government. Outside the gate of the presidential palace two men approached me and identified themselves as narcotics agents. "You're in a dangerous neighborhood," the first man said. "Care to sit down with us?" We moved to a quiet corner. A few minutes later they emptied my wallet at gunpoint and fled.

Within a block of where this happened, I later counted more than twenty soldiers guarding the entrance to the palace.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In