You could almost hear President Uribe fighting back tears during his speech when he spoke of what lies ahead for Colombia, after the Constitutional Court ruled 7-2 against a referendum that would have allowed him to run for a third term. “Dear compatriots, a vision inspires me: that our democracy may improve along the way, but that it must not lose its way,” he told a hushed audience after a health care forum in Barranquilla.
It was an emotional moment and a proud one both for Colombia’s democracy and Uribe’s legacy. But the “way” that he mentioned again and again in his speech is undoubtedly the way of his Democratic Security program, which, although it has inarguably brought huge advances for Colombia, still hasn’t cleansed the country of para-politicians, narco-trafficking thugs and money-laundering crooks. This led me to wonder whether anything or anyone can – regardless of whoever Uribe’s successor may be.
Why is Colombia fundamentally such a crime-ridden society? As Uribe pointed out in his speech, “the living generations from the 1940s have scarcely known a full day of peace.” “Walking Ghosts,” one of my favorite history books about the FARC, describes Colombia’s political culture as “the politics of anesthesia:” there have been (and continue to be) so many murders and kidnappings and massacres the only way to deal with it all is to go numb and start blotting it out. Would your ordinary Colombian Joe (or Juan, if you will) be able to explain the difference between the massacre of El Salado, or La Macarena, or Villa Sandra? How can anyone sane keep track?
The Constitutional Court’s Friday ruling proved that Colombia’s democracy remains relatively strong and independent, but such is the weird contradiction of Colombia. It is one of the oldest, most stable democracies of Latin America, but is embroiled in an apparently endless death struggle with guerrillas and drugs gangs, and there appears to be no out way out. The “way” for Colombia may in fact already be permanently lost. I believe there are three endemic reasons why Uribe’s successor will be hard pressed to bring about a much-longed for peace.
The first is geography, which may sound simplistic. But historically speaking, Colombia’s vast, difficult geography has made it extremely challenging for the central government in Bogota to extend control over its territory. This meant that well into the 20th century, the nation was more like a string of loosely associated villages than an integrated community with a strong sense of national identity. Regional and family loyalties trounced all.
As my Lonely Planet guidebook cheerfully notes about Medellin (I paraphrase), “the paisas are like the Texans of Colombia – they love their region far more than they love their country.” Such a description could apply to most of the heterogeneous communities that make up Colombia – the stoic social and political elites of chilly, Andean Bogota, the easy-going Caleños, the slow-paced Costeños. Colombian geography has made it difficult for the central government to extend state presence, allowing lawlessness to take hold in isolated outposts like Meta and Guaviare (where much of the coca trade is based). It also helped contribute to a sense that rules enforced by a distant, often absent central government were far less legitimate or important than the informal rules enforced by society.
The second reason why violence remains a fundamental part of Colombian life is the legacy of the “La Violencia.” 200,000 people died in a totally pointless conflict between the Liberals and the Conservatives (one is reminded of the scene in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in which Colonel Aureliano Buendia observes the main difference between the two parties is that the Liberals go the mass at five o´clock and the Conservatives at eight). “La Violencia” is a historical trauma that the country still has not properly dealt with. Thousands were displaced and migrated to cities, where hopelessness and lack of opportunity created a vicious cycle of gangs and crime. Campesinos also migrated to other rural areas even further away from state control. The power vacuum left after “La Violencia” allowed groups like the FARC and the ELN to rise to power. Ever since the 1940s you would be hard-pressed to find a Colombian who doesn’t have a family member who was killed, injured or traumatized. There is no doubt that the effects of “La Violencia” have created the social and political reality that Colombians live in today, even though thanks to the “politics of anesthesia,” such a historical trauma is barely present in the public consciousness.
The third reason for Colombia’s violence-ridden nature is that informal behavioral norms in Colombia encourage corruption and crime. There is a huge gap between what Colombia’s constitution and lawmakers pronounce, and the way that laws are actually enforced in practice. For the young men who make up the military and police force, this distinction between what is legal and what is culturally acceptable creates situations wherein it is more rewarding to break the law than follow it.
Just two weeks ago, a group of friends and I were stopped by a police checkpoint in the countryside and told that we had “too many passengers” in the taxi cab. But as the conversation continued, it became clear to all of us that we were expected to get out of the situation by paying a bribe (eventually my sister saved the day by claiming that we “worked for the Church” and “had no money”). Another friend of the family was detained by police once in Cauca and told that his car’s license plates belonged to “a stolen vehicle” – a very common method of collecting pay-offs in that area, I’ve been told.
Personal anecdotes aside, more serious incidents like the “false positives” scandal demonstrate how those meant to enforce the rule of law in Colombia often end up breaking it. Narco-trafficking gangs like “Los Rastrojos” and “Erpac” also undoubtedly draw part of their strength from corrupt police and military insiders. In part, you could say that the reason why in Colombia there is such ambivalence towards following legal norms is because for a long time, legal norms were imposed from above by a small group of social and political elites, without much care in enforcing them and without much input from the marginalized majority. Why then should the majority of the population respect the laws formally endorsed by the state?
As Uribe stood blinking at the podium, so much more hunched and grey-haired than I remember him being at the start of his first term, I truly believed he was sincere when he spoke of his love for his country. I’m probably just getting soft in my old age, but you can’t deny the last eight years have been a long, hard slog for everybody in Colombia. Ultimately, I doubt anything in Colombia will truly, permanently change until society transforms itself and the majority of people begin to respect the rule of law. Let’s hope that Uribe’s successor recognizes that even if crime, lawlessness and violence will always be present in Colombia, that doesn’t mean you should stop working for peace.