Immortal combat

Welcome to Colombia, where the war on drugs meets the war on terror.

Apr 2, 2003 at 12:00 am
What happens when paranoia reaches its perfect pitch? Here's how Robin Kirk describes it: "Contact was contamination and contamination was death. Had a store owner bought from or sold to a guerrilla? Death. Had a telephone exchange operator placed a call for a paramilitary? Death. Had a teenage girl danced with a teenage boy who happened to be an army recruit? Death."

Welcome to Colombia, where the War on Drugs meets the War on Terror — and where drugs and terror win every time, as Kirk vividly demonstrates in More Terrible Than Death.

With all eyes fixed on the Middle East and the Korean peninsula, it might seem an odd time to pick up a new book on a country that, for many Americans, is little more than the punch line to a coke joke. But poor, tortured Colombia — now in the sixth decade of a civil war involving leftist guerrillas, right-wing death squads, and an increasing number of U.S. military advisers — may be more relevant to world events than we realize.

Not that Kirk herself dabbles in such global speculation. Instead, More Terrible Than Death plunges readers into the gruesome specifics of life and death in Colombia, a country with the highest murder rate on Earth, a nation where, as the author explains, "no law but gravity holds true."

Indeed, some will fault More Terrible Than Death for being too specific, too episodic. Kirk is a human-rights investigator who spent a decade in Colombia, and she wrote this book because she had a head full of stories to tell. Part memoir, part analysis, part cry of frustration, More Terrible Than Death mixes Kirk's personal experiences with thumbnail accounts of important personalities, trends, and events. As the author herself admits, her slim volume can't possibly tell the full story of this half-century-old conflict. But she does pick out important threads and hold them up for our scrutiny. And she does it in a highly accessible, almost novelistic, manner.

Personality sketches are the book's greatest strength. Kirk introduces us to army officers, paramilitary killers, guerrilla leaders, a priest corrupted by narcotics, and teenaged assassins who boil up from the Medellín slums to kill on command. Of course, it's easy to wring exciting copy out of such cinematic characters. But Kirk does something harder: She makes them human, understandable, even sympathetic.

Many ordinary Colombians also appear here, including the immensely tragic Josué, the beleaguered human-rights lawyer who gave Kirk the title for this book when he told her that giving up on his country would be worse than death. "Although it may be hard for American news consumers to believe it," Kirk writes, "most Colombians are more like Josué than they are like Pablo Escobar, a better-known figure."

Unfortunately, more than a few of Kirk's people turn up later as corpses. That's only to be expected in a conflict in which all sides increasingly regard human rights and the rules of warfare as luxuries they can't afford. "Of the bodies found in Colombia, 90 percent show signs of torture," Kirk notes.

Yet More Terrible Than Death is far more than a catalog of atrocities. Kirk is more observer and investigator than analyst. But she does suggest reasons why this conflict is so bloody and intractable. And it's here that she will provoke outrage in some quarters.

As the book's subtitle suggests, substantial blame goes to the United States. Kirk carefully notes that America did not start this fire. What we have done is pour gasoline on the flames, in part by shooting, snorting, and smoking an estimated $36 billion worth of cocaine every year. Much of that money gets turned into bombs and bullets by the Colombian paramilitaries and guerrillas who increasingly control the drug trade.

But our government also fuels the conflict by pouring money and weapons and training into the Colombian military, with ever fewer restrictions on how these resources are used. Though U.S. aid to Colombia is often justified by the need to curtail the supply of illegal drugs, that rationale gets more threadbare every year. Our money and men help seize product, smash cartels, and hose down vast coca fields with dangerously potent herbicides. "Yet in 2002," Kirk writes, "the CIA reported that there was more land planted in coca than ever before in Colombia's history."

Moreover, we don't even really know where our money and guns end up, since, as Kirk convincingly demonstrates, Colombian army units and right-wing paramilitaries often work as partners in the bloody business of kidnapping, torturing, and killing suspected subversives. Indeed, this gruesome twosome has helped make an El Salvador-style negotiated solution to this conflict almost unimaginable through an utter disregard for truces and noncombatants. The guerrillas — themselves no strangers to murder and deal-breaking — understand that surrender equals death.

What does all this mean to a world currently fixated on al Qaida and Saddam Hussein? Kirk desperately wants us to care about Colombia for its own sake. But if we can't do that, perhaps we should at least see the country as an object lesson, an example of the worst possible outcome of waging a ruthless war against irregular combatants — whether they are Marxist guerrillas or Islamic terrorists. If war without rules is the wave of the future, she suggests, we may all wind up living in Colombia.

Patrick Sullivan writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].