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Jasmine Hristov on Blood, Blood, and Blood in Colombia


Dead bodies as far as the eye can see.


Jasmine Hristov has written probably the most gruesome book you are likely to read that would still count as social science. It is called Blood and Capital: the Paramilitarization of Colombia (Toronto, Between the Lines, 2009). It is the story of exactly what paramilitaries are doing in Colombia.


Paramilitaries are death squads. They are private armies hired by the authorities to do the dirty work that the police or the army should not be doing. The members may be present-day or former policemen. The members may be present-day or former soldiers. The members may be present-day or former gang members or narcotraffickers. The groups may or may not receive training or arms from the government. The groups may or may not receive training or arms from the United States. Those transfers could be overt. Those transfers could be covert. Technically, what the paramilitaries are doing is illegal. Practically, no court in the country is going to touch them. If some district attorney were to go after the paramilitaries, it is not clear how long the witnesses or the district attorney would live. When show convictions do occur, and show convictions are very rare, it is typically because some individual is on the outs with his leader or employer and has been turned in to provide good media coverage for a local politician.


What work do the paramilitaries do?


If land has to be cleared of local peasants or residents for a new plantation or a mine, you first go in and offer to buy out the local farmers. Anyone who doesn’t want to sell at the price being offered receives a warning from the paramilitaries. If the warning doesn’t do the job, then the paramilitaries pay a visit. Those members of the village who are still alive get the message about the importance of leaving.


Paramilitaries get rid of union leaders.


Paramilitaries get rid of ecological activists and organizers for Indian rights.


Paramilitaries get rid of students whose politics are too leftist. The same goes for their professors.


Paramilitaries get rid of people making trouble for the local drug trade.


Mostly however, paramilitaries clear land for economic development. Economic development is a very lucrative business. Colombia is actually one of the star developers in Latin America. The value of the gas deposits or the flower export business or the coca operation that will be created on the new terrain will be enormous. It will more than pay for the physical force that will be needed to clear uncooperative residents out of the way. The locals may lose their farm. The locals may lose their food supply. The locals may lose the place they have lived all their lives and all of their family memories. The compensation may be far less than the value of the food supply alone. From the standpoint of the developers and the paramilitaries, that’s the price of progress.


*  *  *


Blood and Capital is a terrific book. However, it does start slowly. Non-Marxist readers are not going to like the first chapter of the book. Hristov, in her other work, notably in Paramilitarism and Neoliberalism: Violent System of Accumulation in Colombia and Beyond, provides extensive evidence linking paramilitaries to economic development. She glosses over that here, and provides lots of rhetoric showing how “neoliberal” policies (Marxist jargon for conservative policies) have hurt the poor in Colombia. The data both in her book and larger literature support her; but few neutral readers seeing these ideas presented for the first time will be especially convinced.


Few readers will like the second chapter either. In order to lay out the structure of paramilitaries in Colombia, she does have to review the structure of the legitimate organs of coercion, the police and the armed forces. Readers who are not aware of what is coming are likely to be put to sleep.


But then the blood starts to pour out of the walls and it just keeps coming and coming and coming.


In Chapter 3, she lays out the very detailed structure of each of the major paramilitary forces in Colombia. Note that is the equivalent of laying out the structure of each of the drug gangs in Colombia. Paramilitaries are secret organizations. You do not just walk into the office of the Comandante and ask for an organizational chart and a membership list. The paramilitaries kill people who interfere with their operations. Hristov’s own book has a long list of human rights activists in Colombia who have been tortured and killed. The informants who gave Hristov information on the internal operations of the paramilitaries put themselves and their families at very substantial risk. The chapter lists not only the paramilitary groups but who the leaders are, who supports them politically, who trains them and who funds them. Both the Colombian government and the U.S. government figure prominently in these accounts, with many, many, specific examples. The territorial coverage of the paramilitary groups is laid out along with a description of their primary activities. It is amazing that anyone was able to obtain this data, let alone on a systematic basis.


Chapter 4 lays out the human rights abuses. Expect very long, very graphic lists of torture techniques. Expect very long, very detailed lists of particular victims, including what was done to each victim before they died. The lists go on for pages and pages and pages. And if long lists of raids, assassinations and mutilations are not enough to move you, she also provides tidy statistical tables of victims by type.


The next chapter describes how the paramilitaries get away with it. Expect a long list of court cases that didn’t happen, witnesses that disappeared, anti-paramilitary laws that didn’t reduce the rate of paramilitary activity, and lame rhetoric from representatives of the American government which were of course shocked about what was going on.


Hristov finishes with accounts of an Indian group trying to resist the paramilitaries and a grand general theory of it all. But, if you are like me, you will already be stunned and dismayed by the huge tableau of sadism and human suffering that you have seen. Nice sociological theories don’t seem that interesting if you have just seen “Friday the 13th” parts I, II, III, and XXXVIII all in one sitting.

*  *  *

Note that Colombia is particularly violent, with distinctively heavy use of paramilitaries. It however, is not alone. Many other nations have paramilitaries too. They are widespread in Central America. Brazil has its milicias, gangs run by the police themselves. President Javier Bolsonaro has long-standing indirect ties to these organizations. India has many such groups, notably in the east of the country where there is also a long-standing leftist insurrection (the Naxalites). The American mass media pays little attention to these groups which generally concentrate their efforts in rural areas with little Western journalism or in urban slums which Westerners avoid. But just because Americans aren’t paying attention to the bloodshed does not mean the bloodshed is not real.


Hristov raises some fundamental questions about development. Increasing GDP is always good. Raising standards of living is always good. But sometimes one has to look at the human costs of how growth occurs. Economic growth that occurs on the basis of murder, torture and forced expulsion is not necessarily a good thing.


And the people who flee the paramilitaries by coming to the United States do not necessarily get the warmest reception when they arrive.

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