Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia New edition
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Taussig also invites us to think about the very sense of writing a diary, which of course also means the sense of being "there", an anthropologist going back to a country where he worked during decades. Old friends are met, and some of them can not be met anymore or have taken other roads. Two weeks, embedded in a historical depth that helps to understand certain aspects of the today's terror.
I certainly recomend this book (as all the books of the author) not only to anthropologists and persons interested in Latin America, but anyone eager to understand the intimate relationship of local grinding poverty and violence, and global decision making.
In Taussig's town, they move into El Cupido, a love hotel downtown, with computer lists helpfully provided by military intelligence and go about the work of cleansing the town of its delincuentes--"undesirables," a few at a time. Their victims include not so much leftists or even political activists but street people: kids who've had "problems with the law," beggars, a madwoman, prostitutes not affiliated with El Cupido and a young man who, drunk in the middle of town one evening, makes the mistake of yelling at the paras: Que salgan hijeputas--"get out of here, you sons of whores!" He's killed for his outburst and his body lies on the street all night because people are afraid to move it. In neighboring towns other paramilitaries ban long hair or earrings on men, miniskirts on women, baseball hats worn backward and a gay beauty contest. Life under the paramilitaries doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun.
Taussig's book is based on a diary he kept during two weeks he spent in the town in May of 2001 during the fourth month of its paramilitary reign. His most interesting discovery is the support the paramilitaries have in town. One of his informants tells him that eight of ten of the townspeople are for them. There's a reason for this. Until the 1950s Taussig's part of the Cauca River Valley was dominated by small peasant farms. In their river-valley plots, the peasants (descendants of former African slaves) grew cacao trees, plantain trees, banana trees, coffee trees, orange trees, lemon trees, avocado trees, papaya trees, guava trees and many other trees besides. The peasants thereby created a mixed harvest that mimicked the tropical rain forest, required no store-bought fertilizers, no pesticides, little labor, little capital and, perhaps most important, created a continuous, year-round income.
But, sometime in the 1950s, the sugar industry arrived. The peasant farms were plowed under and everyone went to work on the new plantations (for the ultimate benefit, as Taussig points out, of a few white-skinned families in Cali). At first there was plenty of need for labor, but then, as Taussig puts it, "chemicals and machines made the workers idle." By the time the paramilitaries arrived, a shantytown of the unemployed had grown at one end of town, a slum that became so unruly that the police were afraid to enter. With no prospects for education or work, the kids formed gangs and turned to crime. Gradually, the town fell victim to a youth-gang-based crime wave that it would apparently do anything to solve. Taussig happens upon a gang funeral and witnesses the anarchic violence, the fights, the boombox hip-hop, the weird (for provincial Colombia) fashion, and the weird (for provincial Colombia) hair-dos. He notes one of the kids wearing an English-language T-shirt that says: Death Is Nature's Way of Saying Slow Down.
In Taussig's town, he notes that the paramilitaries have also been recruited out of the ranks of the unemployed. Former soldiers unable to find other jobs dominate their ranks. The murder of the street kids--the children of other unemployed Colombians--is bad enough, but beneath this obvious terror, Taussig perceives a deeper kind of terror. What he sees is an economic "culture of terror" that afflicts everybody in the neoliberal world of his town. The principal arm of this culture of terror is unemployment. Neoliberalism is supposed to generate jobs and solve unemployment, but that's an act of faith, really, and not enough attention has been given to the possibility that it might just be the problem cruelly masquerading as the solution. Although each town in Colombia has its own logic, Taussig makes a convincing case that in this new Colombia, "like the plants that went under, like the forest that disappeared, human nature as much as nature is facing a brave new world for which there is no history or pre-history."
This book is like no other written on Colombia. Taussig does not borrow from the research of legendary historical graybeards like Vernon Lee Fluharty, Richard E. Sharpless, Orlando Fals Borda or German Archiniegas. He does not use academic journals, newspapers or magazines to prove a point. Instead he presents a lyrical diary of his extensive fieldwork. In doing so, the author provides a raw and unnerving documentation of Colombia's long tradition of violence.
Taussig's work is easy reading for students of Colombian - American affairs and Latin American specialists. However, this book will be a tough road for those unfamiliar with Colombia's culture of denial. For instance, Taussig condemns the government. His work is a glaring spotlight on the government's paramilitary utilization of "limpieza" or "social cleansing" of the bottom dwellers of Colombian society (desechables or throwaways). The author does not rely on Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or even the U.S. State Department's repeated annual reports on the government's feeble human rights record. Taussig lives with the relatives and friends of victims and dumps eyewitness accounts on the reader instead.
The author laments how a handful of wealthy families underhandedly bought and then destroyed an enormously fertile valley for thousands of families...in order to establish the
Cali sugar industry and institutionalize poverty for the same families as cane workers. He also reports how Colombia's Army & Police intelligence officials create "lists" of people that are handed to paramilitary leaders for execution. Union leaders, teachers, priests and other defenders of the poor often make the lists. Taussig does not defend the guerrillas...he knows they are not angels. This book is more about how the poor are caught in a violent sandwich with no hope in sight.
This book discloses a simple fact of life in Colombia. That the ruthless paramilitary death squads are a part of the State strategy...particularly today. The leaders of the paramilitary death squads employ terror and this book is an honest chronicle of regular public assassinations in broad daylight. Yes, it is indeed tragic, that in Colombia the Army will stand aside and allow poor unarmed civilians to get cut to pieces because powerful members of society think this is how you protect democracy. Highly recommended.