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Book Review | The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads

Published onJun 01, 2017
Book Review | The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads

Aldo Civico. The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads. University of California Press, 2016; 264 pp.; ISBN: 9780520288522.


On August, 24, 2016, the Colombian conflict returned to the spotlight. On this day the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the last active guerrilla group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaria de Colombia), had been signed after decades of discontinuous peace talks. Such discontinuity, along with other peculiarities, have long piqued the interest of scholars in this conflict; not only is it one of the longest civil wars in recent history—its origin dating back to the end of the 1950s—it has also shaped the political, economic, and cultural life of the country. Started as sectarian riots motivated by political ideals, enduring violence and a drug-based economy soon emerged and consolidated, while the civilian population remained caught in a cycle of murders, targeted killings, disappearances, and forced displacement. According to official statistics, between 1958 and 2012 over 200,000 people died, 81.5% of which were civilians, while more than 4.5 million people were internally displaced.null Yet a comprehensive study of both the conflict and the actors involved is still lacking.

In The Para-State, Aldo Civico acknowledges the need to provide a thorough insight into the Colombian conflict, and focuses on an understudied, yet crucial armed actor: the paramilitary combatants. The author aims to go beyond a plain account of the violence perpetrated by the paramilitaries to untangle the complexity of this social phenomenon and to understand how these groups have enjoyed solid and broad support from different layers of the Colombian society.

The book geographically covers the north-western Colombian region of Antioquia, a region that has seen the rise of guerrilla and paramilitary groups, social disorder, and the establishment of powerful drug cartels. Based on Civico’s fieldwork in Colombia between 2003 and 2008, The Para-State is the outcome of the author’s interest in the activities of the paramilitaries as well as in the vast power they wielded. Although the primary focus of Civico’s research was on the ways displaced civilians reinvent their lives, he first documented the spectacular violence carried out by paramilitary groups through the stories of its victims. The book, therefore, aims at enhancing the knowledge about the paramilitaries’ pivotal role in the Colombian conflict. By combining several ethnographic methods, Civico retraces the history of the war through the eyes and the experiences of paramilitary group members and challenges the traditional understanding of a weak State unable to foresee and stop a civil war. The book’s key assumption, indeed, is the intertwinement, that is, the complex project of gaining political and economic power  by the paramilitaries with the support of a large section of the Colombian state. In Civico’s words, “the source of paramilitaries’ power and legitimacy is external to them” (p. 144).

To substantiate his assumption, Civico proceeds in progressive steps to bring to the fore specific topics related to the Colombian conflict, such as the Limpieza,null cocaine production and sale, and the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration programme, garnered from the reported first-hand experience of former members of paramilitaries’ death squads and the historical reconstruction of the conflict.

The book opens with a powerful prologue, where a partial reproduction of Civico’s field notes describes his first meeting and the following interviews with Doble Cero, one of the most notorious paramilitary combatants and leader of the Bloque Metro group. While the pages rapidly turn, the readers share the expectations and revelations of the author as well as Doble Cero’s mindset. We follow Civico through military checkpoints and impervious roads, until he meets with the paramilitary commander and interviews him in the middle of the countryside. Although his reputation of cruelty precedes him and despite the ongoing war against rival paramilitary groups, Doble Cero appears as a charming and “caring father,” keen to explain his choice to join the paramilitaries and his refusal to disarm on the basis of ideological contrasts. The prologue contains in nuce all the aspects of the conflict that the author develops in the main body of the text: the justificatory framework of self-defense against the leftist army used by paramilitaries and their supporters, the disarmament and demobilisation programme, and the ties between drug cartels and the combatants.

The first two chapters address the “narratives of paramilitary combatants” (p. 9) through the voice of former members, in order to understand the reasons behind a person’s decision to join these groups and to accept  the logic of violence. In spite of the differences in ages, personal histories, and ranking in the paramilitaries, they have in common a life of violence, endured and enacted. Starting his career  with a  small stash of  cocaine  and a money exchange business near the Ecuadorian border in the 1970s,  El Doctor soon turned into a trusted leader of the North Valley Cartel and organised illegal shipments of cocaine, money laundering, kidnappings, extortion, and targeted killings, while he was also working as a mediator between different cartels. Due to his skills and connections, El Doctor eventually became one of the main strategists of the paramilitary, and worked in the Middle Magdalena region where élites first united against the guerrilla forces. The concentration of land in the hands of landowners, cattle ranchers, and businessmen encouraged the spreading of leftist guerrilla groups, including the FARC, which, in turn, resulted in the establishment of the first self-defense groups in 1982 and the beginning of the paramilitary parabola. Land and ranch owners, local political élites, army officials, drug traffickers, and businessmen all contributed to the project with men, money, and protection in the effort to annihilate the guerrilla insurgency in the region in the name of peace and stability. By so doing, they created the basis for the intertwinement.

Contrary to El Doctor’s case, other members joined the paramilitary in search of revenge and of a sense of belonging to a greater cause. Jorge Andrés, for instance, volunteered as paramilitary after a short experience in the army, after the guerrillas killed his brothers. While he joined motivated by a personal vendetta, he soon appreciated the salary and the order enforced by the paramilitaries in the villages freed from the leftist presence. In his eyes, the killings and the torture of militia members and civilians was a necessary tool to respond the enemy’s violence. He spent years fighting the guerrillas in the mountains before he decided to return to Medellín, where he joined the Cacique Nutibara bloc, an urban paramilitary group. Eventually, he had to demobilise with his group, although with other former members he still continues to work as a vigilante.

Chapters three and four investigate two empirical manifestations of the intertwinement, namely the Limpieza and the flourishing drug-based economy. Using a combination of historical ethnography, interviews with paramilitaries, and personal experience, Civico provides an accurate account of the expansion of the paramilitaries in the entire Antioquia region and their alliance with drug cartels. The key figures who orchestrated the birth of the paramilitaries in the region are the Castaño brothers, Fidel and Carlos; starting respectively as a drug trafficker and a hitman, they both collaborated with the emerging drug boss Pablo Escobar and, thanks to their charismatic personalities and connections, the brothers managed to acquire both wealth and political influence. After the FARC killed their father, the Castaño brothers embarked in the creation of a small self-defense group in the Urabá municipality, so as to help the banana plantation owners in the fight against the guerrilla forces. Once the presence of the leftist’s combatants and collaborators was eliminated, they widened the project to the entire country and created the AUC—Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, an umbrella organization unifying paramilitary groups countrywide, financed mostly by drug trafficking. The convergence of interests shared by the paramilitaries and the drug cartels is reflected in the creation of the North Valley Cartel to fund the AUC on the one hand and the concentration of economic and political power and land in the hands of powerful drug dealers on the other.

The relationship between drug-related criminal organizations and the paramilitaries, however, is more complex than it appears at first sight. Indeed, they shared the geographical location: Medellín and the Antioquia region were not only home to the paramilitaries, they also emerged as a strategic hub for the distribution of Cuban cocaine into the US market in the 1970s, before taking over control of the cocaine business in the following decade. Moreover, many paramilitary commanders were at the same time drug kingpins, such as Cuco Vanoy, leader of the Bloque Metro, while the cultural impact left by Pablo Escobar and his cartel had inspired the new generation of paramilitaries. The ties between these actors strengthened in the 1990s, following the death of Escobar and the rise of small, competitive, yet powerful drug cartels that adopted the “anti-insurgency discourse” (p. 130) to use the paramilitaries as private armies.

Having described the building blocks of the convergence of interests between legal and illegal economic and political élites, chapters five and six go further in examining the theory of intertwinement. Civico draws a parallel between the Colombian paramilitaries and the Sicilian Mafia, highlighting their many commonalities. Similar to the paramilitaries, the Mafia developed in the rural areas of Sicily in the second half of the 19th century in the aftermath of the process of land privatization and social unrest, which led the new owners to rely on armed groups of bandits to control the territory and resolve disputes. With the Italian unification in 1860, these armed groups further consolidated their power, as state officials benefited from their collaboration. As pictured by Block, a scholar cited by Civico, the newly established Italian state, being unable to enforce the law, forged an alliance with the Mafia to pacify the region. The intertwinement began, and the Mafia operated within and with the consent of the state. Civico posits that the paramilitaries mirror the evolution of the Mafia; the local élites, landowners, and business owners turned to armed groups to counteract the emergence of the guerrillas.  In time, the paramilitaries set aside political ideology and transformed into powerful criminal organizations funded by drug trafficking.

Although “the convergence of interest among armed, political, and economic actors” in Colombia (p. 173) represents the strongest similarity with the Mafia, other parallels can be seen as well. Civico refers specifically to  the complicity of the population with the paramilitaries, which resembled the acceptance that the Mafia enjoyed from some of local communities. Even if people at first welcomed the leftist militias, they soon looked to the paramilitaries to eliminate the social instability endorsed by the guerrillas. Élites also backed the paramilitaries, as long as they remained a lesser evil. The implications of such interconnections are investigated in chapter six, where the author analyses the narratives of the demobilization. As part of the agreement between the AUC and the government, paramilitary groups disarmed, while thousands of combatants entered reintegration programmes throughout the country. Without public protests, complete immunity was assured to the paramilitaries, except for a few leaders who were extradited to the US for drug-related offenses. Most interestingly, only the paramilitary activities fell under the agreement, leaving the criminal business unpunished. Likewise, not all paramilitary members abandoned their arms and continued both their criminal and the vigilante careers. Hence, “paramilitaries continue to dominate” (p. 185). In the concluding remarks, Civico emphasizes the double nature of the intertwinement process: while the spectacular violence perpetrated by the paramilitaries expresses the state’s coercive function, the intertwinement itself originates new spaces in which to delegate such function to armed groups. Violence thus became and remains endemic in Columbia’s political system.

Overall, the book has several strengths. First, the reading is engaging thanks to the combination of styles; field note annotations, interviews, policy documents, personal considerations, and historical reconstructions create an intriguing storyline. Second, the topic is unique, since the role of paramilitary groups in the Colombian conflict has so far escaped the attention   of the broad scholarly community. Moreover, the comparison between the paramilitaries and the Mafia offers an unprecedented insight into the nature of violence itself. Rather than separate political from criminal violence, Civico successfully highlights the similarities between the two phenomena; in the long run, they may converge and overlap, as the historical trajectory of the paramilitaries and the Mafia proves. The notion that the state itself creates the conditions for paramilitary violence to spread in order to maintain the system’s configuration is also innovative, promoting future debates on the innate nature of violence in any given society. Third, without being a manual of ethnographic methods, the book offers a practical overview of several research methodologies. Apart from first-hand interviews, the reader learns about historical ethnographic methods as well as the importance of field notes. Civico does not hesitate to share his own doubts and feelings as a researcher, giving the book a profound sense of reality and engagement. The Para-State is an excellent contribution to the study of the Colombian conflict in general and the history of the paramilitary groups in particular, which has the potential to become a reference for students and scholars in anthropology, criminology, international relations, law, as well as history.

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