All Quiet on the Southern Front?

“The Beast and the Whore rule without control.”
William Blake (1798)

During the past year or so, I’ve tried to describe the nature of the Beast in Bolivia, and in previous articles I’ve mentioned its hunger for a credible “terrorist” threat, which comes in the unlikely shape of a diminutive, fortyish man with a reedy, nasal voice, named Francisco “Pacho” Cortés. Pacho led peasant and human rights struggles on the agrarian frontier in eastern Colombia for over twenty years until fleeing paramilitary persecution in April 2003. Arrested four days after arriving in Bolivia (where he had hoped to settle his family), according to District Attorney René Arzabe, Pacho Cortés is the leader of the Colombian ELN’s southern front, which has yet to appear either in action or words, but, the theory has it, that is merely testament to expert police work on the part of Bolivian authorities.

The absence of evidence, in other words, does not suggest the evidence of absence. Piece by piece, Bolivian poilice and intelligence operatives, undoubtedly aided by their colleagues in the US Embassy, have revealed an international terrorist conspiracy of daunting proportions: last week, another twelve were added to a list that keeps getting longer. Although it’s unlikely that Arzabe reads the independent press in English or Spanish, he most certainly looks over the visitor’s list at Chonchocoro Maximum Security Prison and San Pedro Minimum Security Prison. Last Wednesday, May 5, he declared to the Bolivian press that as members of the Colombian ELN, Pacho’s “foreign” visitors were part of the larger plot.

We knew who he was talking about, René and I. He wasn’t talking about a compañero who teaches at L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He visited Pacho a couple times with us last year. So did my professor at NYU, but Arzabe wasn’t talking about him, either. Nor was he talking about a compañero, now retired from the UNAM, who was a political prisoner for six years in Lecumberri, Mexico. He came to Bolivia en route to his native Argentina, visited Pacho at Chonchocoro, and wrote about it in a mass-circulation daily when he got home to Mexico City.

So René must have been talking about us. My compañera, who’s Colombian. A compañero who’s Mexican. And me. (Plus the Colombian lawyers and human rights activists who’ve visited.) René said they’d arrest us if we tried to visit Pacho at San Pedro, which, as the authorities know, is right next to our neighborhood, Sopocachi.

Why us? And why now? It appears that through constant pressure—and, I imagine, threats—Arzabe convinced the two coca growers and MAS activists arreststed with Pacho to turn state’s evidence on him.* They would get off, he would get 30 years. No burden of proof for the DA’s office; the connection between MAS and “narcoterrorism” would be established once and for all. A done deal, then, unless pesky Lefty types who support Pacho—connected in varying degrees to MAS Senator Filemón Escobar and the Spanish IU (United Left) delegation within the European Parliament—get word of it, call a press conference, and expose the DA for the mafioso he is. Which, as Arzabe knows, is what we would normally do. But not this time. We’ve been warned. Pacho will be isolated from his supporters y punto. As anyone who’s dealt with mafiosos knows, it’s always best to heed the threats, even if they turn out to be idle.

In the current “world-historical” conjuncture, this should not surprise. Preventive measures that are violent, aggressive, and uncalled for are taken all the time, and led by people like Rumsfeld, or Ariel Sharon; people who know the drill. No distinction between combatants and civilians in a climate of total planetary war. Human rights activists in prisons? Might get in the way of guards—or District Attorneys—doing their job. Without going into the issues of racism, torture, and sadism in the US military, staying closer to home, in September 2003, speaking to the Colombian military, President Álvaro Uribe said human rights activists were working “in service” of terrorism. (Which may be what paramilitary killers thought about the seventeen human rights activists they murdered in Colombia in 2002.) Before former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada fell in October 2003, he said that sympathizers of indigenous and coca growers’ movements were either “foreign ingénues” used by the “narco-terrorists” to generate funds, or “foreign terrorists”—Colombians, Peruvians: either or both would do—arrived in Bolivia to overthrow the government, destroy state institutions, and replace them with a “narcosyndicalist dictatorship” under the leadership of Evo Morales and MAS. ¿Se murió el Che? ¡Que viva el Che! ¡Que viva!

Another irony is that MAS is betting on the municipal elections in December 2004 and the presidency in 2007. Influenced by developments in Brazil and Venezuela, Evo Morales and his party believe in the parliamentary road to socialism—or state administration—as much as anyone in Latin America today. The people who led and sustained last October’s insurrection, relying on extra-parliamentary forms of struggle, have no use for would-be armed vanguards, either. Perhaps that explains the need to invent them or exagerrate their reach, since they’re easily crushed by state violence and lawlessness, whereas Bolivia’s social movements, now parliamentary, now insurrectionary, are not. Thus two MAS activists and coca growers might well, in accordance with the DA’s theory, confess that, while they were involved in the clandestine organization of armed peasant struggle, which appears to have been infiltrated from day one, Pacho was the mastermind. Pacho and the Peruvians (MRTA? Sendero? Does it matter?). Now Arzabe has threatened to throw another Colombian, a Mexican, and even a gringo into the mix, just for good measure. International terrorism and so forth.

Since we plan to keep quiet for now, I’m sure we’ll be fine, but am less certain about Pacho and the future of peasant and human rights activism in South America, where, as many readers know, progressive resistance to neoliberalism runs deeper than anywhere else in the world. If the Beast can halt the forward momentum of movements for social change here, in Bolivia and South America, the planet will become that much darker. The stakes, so to speak, is high.

*The supposition is based on discussions with prisoners in Chonchocoro Maximum Security Prison and with the lawyers involved in the case. Though it may prove to be to erroneous, in which case I will gladly apologize to Pacho’s compañeros for spreading unsubstantiated rumors, evidence to support the assumption has increased rather than diminished over time.

FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia. He can be reached at


Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.