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The Desterrados of Colombia

They are Not Collateral Damage

by RON JACOBS

Burlington, Vermont

“Everybody knew but nobody wanted to know.”

While this quote can’t describe the approach every resident of the United States has when it comes to their government’s foreign policy, I think I can truthfully state that it is how most of the US’s conscious residents deal with the exploitation, dehumanization, and murder that goes on in their name.

The quote is a line from one of the testimonials provided in Daniel Bland’s English translation of Colombian journalist’s Alfredo Molano’s The Dispossessed: Chronicles of the Desterrados of Colombia (Haymarket, 2005). The person giving this particular testimony is a young man who is relating the story of his boyhood to Molano. The boy Tonito tells a story of domestic tranquility interrupted by murder and war—most of the murders perpetrated by the Colombian army and police with the aid of the paracos—the paramilitaries who often work with and for the government. That government works for the US multinationals and their interests. When the paracos aren’t working on the same side as the army, they are working to expand their control of the drug trade—a business whose ties to legitimate organs of government and capital are known in a general way but not detailed.

Molano’s book is informed by his own exile. After a series of threats to his life because of his stories in Colombian newspapers, he left Colombia for Spain, where he received refuge. However, he could not leave the displaced people of Colombia behind. So, he continues to tell their story in the hope that the stories themselves will move people to end the misery and bloodshed.
Underlying the testimonials within is the understanding that displacement in Colombia is not a side effect of the war in that country. The displaced are not what the Pentagon calls collateral damage. As Mabel Gonzales Bustelo writes in the first appendix to this translation, displacements in Colombia “are a weapon of war and part of a strategy to accumulate economic gains.” One of the women in the book remembers the oil bubbling up through the earth and, looking back, makes the connection between its appearance in her village and the appearance of the army and the paracos. Almost all of the stories include a mention of someone being killed after being accused of providing food and drink for the guerrillas—knowingly or not. If one reads these well-written tales of desperation and death with this in mind, the murderous inhumanity of the army and the paracos becomes both easier and more difficult to comprehend.

The people telling their stories in these pages are for the most part just regular country people. If they have any connection to the armed actors in the Colombian civil war, it is through a relative or friend. This is what makes their plight even more compelling. They are victims of violence only because they are attempting to live their lives—feed their children, shelter themselves and their loved ones, and put food on the table. Sometimes that means working on a banana plantation and sometimes that means growing coca or marijuana for the drug trade that the US government insists on keeping illegal (and consequently quite profitable for almost everyone involved).

Although Molano makes the point that the guerrilla forces in Colombia are responsible for some of the violence against the civilian population, he cites figures that contend that the vast majority of the murders and displacements are committed by the government forces and the paracos. While this is not news to those in the north who have followed the developments in Colombia, it is certainly worth emphasizing, especially since the US government tries to spin the story in the opposite way, blaming the guerrillas for an equal amount of the violence if not the majority of it.

The Dispossessed is more than a collection of stories about people whose lives are not in their hands. It is a book about US trade policy and the evil that policy demands. It is told in a poetic prose whose beauty defies the ugliness and brutality it describes. The lives portrayed herein are lives lived against the odds. They are the lives so many people in the northern hemisphere could never survive because of the hardship and despair that permeates the daily fiber of Los Desterrados. They are also lives that the governments and corporations of the north (especially those of the United States) do not want their citizens and customers to know about. This is why Molano’s book is so important. If well-meaning North Americans knew of the evil perpetrated in their name, some of them would act. They would see through the lies about Washington’s “war on terrorism” and its “war on drugs” and understand that the only war being fought in Latin America is a war on those who would get in the way of corporate profits, legal and otherwise. This is why this book is important. It was a bestseller in Colombia. It should be one in the US as well.

RON JACOBS can be reached at: cobs@uvm.edu