At a dance earlier this month in the village of Umbria in the southern Colombian department of Putumayo, an 18-year-old former FARC conscript named Milber attributed his lack of adeptness at the cumbia to the fact that he had spent the past four years holding a gun in the jungle. My traveling partner Amelia and I sipped Poker beer and nodded, having heard similar excuses from veterans of the Lebanese civil war, who substituted locally applicable environmental qualifications and dance forms.
Aside from Milber’s refusal to dance, other contemporary manifestations of civil conflict in Umbria included fliers disseminated by supposedly demobilized paramilitary formations threatening to kill prostitutes and other elements of society who emerged from their homes after 10 PM. Seated in a corner of the dance pavilion, located just across the river from the center of town, Milber announced that his mother had burned her copy of the flier along with a collection of items that reminded her of the FARC.
After hearing that Amelia and I intermittently resided in the United States, Milber asked whether US recruits for the war in Iraq were also coaxed away from their families at gunpoint. Having failed to internationalize this particular aspect of his juvenile experience, he set about drawing parallels between coca plants and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, in which fear of proliferation of both served to mask endeavors by authorities to extract resources from the earth.
Amelia and I had witnessed the effects of coca proliferation the previous day, when we had located the following items within walking distance of the farm we were staying at outside of Umbria:
a coca plant growing in the garden of a woman who used the leaves to treat her son’s medical condition.
a coca field interspersed with chontaduro palms and horses.
a recently destroyed cocaine laboratory in the jungle, which we were led to after badgering the farm caretaker’s son for several consecutive days.
an assortment of farmers whose banana and corn crops had been fumigated over the years, along with the occasional cow, water supply, and child.
Milber reminded us that, like coca cultivations and processing labs, guerrillas could be easily relocated, and that military solutions to the Colombian conflict—as advocated by president Álvaro Uribe Vélez—would prove less effective than negotiations with the FARC. Nicolas Sarkozy had advanced a similar viewpoint during his attempts to secure the release from guerrilla captivity of dual French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt, only to be outdone by Colombian special forces backed by US surveillance satellites. As a prelude to the Betancourt rescue, FARC number two Raul Reyes was obliterated in Ecuador, thus ending prospects that he might negotiate.
France had also proved lethargic when it came to other rogue regimes and violations of national sovereignty, as exemplified by its argument in 2003 that an increase in UN weapons inspectors would suffice in the face of the looming threat of global destruction by Iraqi WMD. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had responded to the French position by advocating the replacement of France with India on the UN Security Council, due to lower levels of Indian silliness and less fixation with feeling unique; he had gone on to decree that, if world wars had been left up to the French, most Europeans would now be speaking German or Russian, and that “France, as they say in kindergarten, does not play well with others.” Potential implications of such claims included that:
the French would come to regret their past demeanor when they were forced to adopt the Arabic language.
kindergarteners should be encouraged to form coalitions of the willing against class outcasts based on fabricated charges.
I had noted lack of French seriousness when it came to combating terror on my flight from New York to a study abroad program in Rome shortly after September 11, when Air France flight attendants failed to inform a Muslim passenger that it was not permissible to perform prayer routines in the aisle during takeoff. Milber professed his own ambitions to study abroad and listed other potential obstacles to the plan aside from suicide bombers, such as Schengen visa applications.
Milber’s education over the past four years had consisted of two confrontations with the Colombian army and a great deal of time spent sitting very still. He was now attending school on Saturdays in the town of Villa Garzón, approximately an hour away from Umbria by car and considerably longer when hitchhiking in a dump truck, as Amelia and I were to find out. Disappearing briefly from the table and returning with another round of Poker beer, Milber explained that the Saturday program was designed for the children of families of modest means, and that his family’s means had become even more modest in November 2008 with the government crackdown on Colombian pirámides financieras (pyramid investment schemes).
The collapse of the pirámides had resulted in several million swindled Colombians, who had invested money in one or more of some 240 distinct businesses promising returns of up to 300 percent. Milber’s parents had rounded up funds to invest by selling their livestock, while his neighbors sold their houses and land; according to Milber, the pirámides had produced a lull in regional coca cultivation based on the fact that people were too busy selling things to worry about tending to crops.
Milber’s version of the post-collapse sequence of events was as follows:
David Murcia Guzmán, 28-year old proprietor of Grupo DMG—standing for David Murcia Guzmán and accountable for a large percentage of the Colombian swindling cases—is detained in Panama and extradited to Colombia, where he continues to deny DMG’s illegitimacy as well as allegations from various sides that he is laundering money for narcotraficantes/paramilitaries/guerrillas.
Milber’s parents purchase chontaduro palms to cultivate but find that the market for fruit has diminished along with investment returns from pirámides.
Milber’s parents purchase small coca plot.
Milber reiterated that the aim of the war on drugs was not to eradicate drugs, and wondered if the estado de emergencia social declared by Uribe in the wake of the collapse of the pirámides was in fact declared in order to create a state of emergencia social—an emergency that appeared to intensify when David Murcia Guzmán announced from jail that DMG had contributed several million dollars to the campaign for a referendum that would permit Uribe’s second reelection.
BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ is currently completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the 2-month hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that she and Amelia Opaliska conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org