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Robin Kirk



Gen. Jaime Uscátegui at the army’s Seventh Brigade helped organize the attack. I investigated this massacre for Human Rights Watch and published the results as part of several reports, available through the organization’s website.1 As I learned later, evidence of the army’s involvement was overwhelming. When two planeloads of paramilitaries arrived at the regional airport nearest Mapiripán, soldiers stationed there helped them unload weapons and munitions. Army commanders ensured that local troops who could have responded to the judge’s call were busy elsewhere. Prosecutors concluded that the relationship between troops and the paramilitaries who carried out the massacre “could not just have been through lowranking soldiers or junior officers without command control, but had to include high-ranking officers with the ability to order the movement of troops and the control of territory.” The story of this massacre demonstrated not only that such things took place in Colombia but also that they depended on the planning and support of highlevel officers. Taking place over a period of six days, the Mapiripán massacre showed, with terrifying clarity, how such atrocities were constructed: by close coordination between the military and paramilitaries; by the complex dance of troops and vehicles and weapons; and by the essential cover-up that has to this day shielded almost all of those responsible from justice. At the time, U.S. forces in Colombia, as part of the “war on drugs,” were caught up in this chain of events. At the airport where the paramilitaries arrived, employees of the State Department’s Narcotics Affairs section monitored the U.S. crop dusters used to spray poison on coca fields. Mechanics hired by Dyncorp, a major U.S. military contractor, kept the planes in the air. That day, U.S. officials noticed an “unusual number of army personnel at the airport” but did not investigate further. While transiting the Guaviare River, paramilitaries had to get permission to pass a Colombian Special Forces base where U.S. trainers were in residence and planning a graduation ceremony for their students. I happened to visit the U.S. installation at the regional airport a month before the massacre. Two days later, a delegation of five U.S. congressional representatives, their staffers, and embassy personnel arrived. Two days after the Mapiripán massacre ended, a separate

Robin Kirk offers a spirited response to Lesley Gill’s “Labor and Human Rights: ‘The Real Thing’ in Colombia.” Drawing on her own research and writing about Colombia, Kirk focuses on the massacre at Mapiripán to demonstrate multinationals, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the United States government are all implicated in the complicated political economy of torture and murder in Colombia. Although Kirk acknowledges the issues Gill raises, she argues that anthropologists should not look for simplistic or easy answers but should instead seek to better understand complexities. Kirk concludes that “embracing complexity is not just good anthropology; it is good politics.” KEYWORDS: Mapiripán, Colombia, Lesley Gill, human rights, guerrillas, paramilitaries Over a five-day period in July of 1997, paramilitaries operating with the support of the Colombian Army killed more than thirty residents of a hamlet known as Mapiripán. From a hotel telephone, local judge Leonardo Iván Cortés alerted the authorities, including the military, about the atrocities that were taking place. In a fax to the chief justice of the nearest Superior Court, Judge Cortés wrote, “[Paramilitaries] threw bodies into the river and if the waters returned them to the river bank, they would throw them again into the water, as if they were mongrel dogs. . . . Until yesterday, I witnessed twenty-six murders.” The screams made it impossible to sleep at night. “Every night, they murder groups of five or six defenseless people, who are cruelly and monstrously massacred after being tortured. The screams of humble people, begging for pity and help, can be heard everywhere.” But no help was sent, at least not until after the paramilitaries left. An investigation by government prosecutors later showed that a Mobile Brigade II commander and troops under the command of

Robin Kirk is the author of More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia (Public Affairs). From 1992 to 2004, she was a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch and covered the Andes. Currently, she directs the Duke Human Rights Initiative and works as an investigator on capital cases in North Carolina.


Transforming Anthropology, Vol. 13, Issue 2, pp. 116–118, ISSN 1051-0559, electronic ISSN 1548-7466. © 2005 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, at

high-level team of White House and State Department officials visited for a briefing on the ongoing campaign to eradicate coca plants. So far, this story seems brutally familiar, at least in its broad outlines. Military corruption and human rights violations are the deplorable legacies of decades of Latin government. In part, Gill blames neoliberalism; others have rightly pointed to bad or even criminal Washington policy, the corrosive effect of a lingering Cold War mentality, elites who maintain a stranglehold on power and dozens of other root causes. In Colombia, multinationals certainly can play a nefarious role, whether it is directly, through the intimidation or killing of trade unionists, or indirectly, through the support of Colombian security force units that work with paramilitaries who kill Colombians they suspect of “subversion.” But is this the whole story, the “real thing,” to quote Gill? The answer is no. In Colombia, there are clearly abuses and tales of woe. Gill refers to some of the work I did as a researcher for Human Rights Watch as proof of that. There are also complexities and complications within these stories. Unfortunately, these complexities are missing from Gill’s account. As much as other researchers and writers, it must be the role of anthropologists to examine these rambunctious and at times uncomfortable elements and represent them in their work. Ultimately, some of the conclusions scholars draw may be the same—it is undeniable that the kinds of abuses Gill describes in her piece exist—but the actions scholars such as Gill call for must change or become more nuanced, in order to reflect a deeper analysis of what is happening in Colombia. To explain what I mean, I will delve once again into the story of Mapiripán. Paramilitaries were not the first to subject the residents of Mapiripán to violence. Guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had driven the police out the year before. Located in the country’s cocaine-producing south, Mapiripán was a mini-hub of the drug business, with hundreds of young men coming in to harvest, refine, and traffic in coca and hundreds of young women following as dealers, prostitutes, vendors, cooks, and launderers. Over all, guerrillas maintained a kind of government control, in part through “taxation” of the cocaine economy. This was why paramilitaries chose Mapiripán for their attack. They wanted to push the guerrillas from this inexhaustible supply of cash and claim it as their own. Residents who opposed or questioned guerrillas were summarily executed. Guerrillas also compelled families to hand over children as recruits. Across Colombia, guerrillas incorporate thousands of children

into their ranks, luring them with promises of pay (which rarely arrives) or depending on a child’s sense of adventure or an equally acute sense of hopelessness. Once in, however, there is no escape. Children who desert are shot, especially if they take their weapons with them. In a report I helped prepare for Human Rights Watch, children reported being ordered to execute other children, and some said that they had been selected deliberately because the victim was a friend. Not every army officer was in on the plot unfolding in Mapiripán. The day that paramilitaries arrived in the village, Judge Cortés called Major Hernán Orozco, at the time in charge of the army unit responsible for the regional airport where paramilitaries had organized their attack. But here is a critical detail: Orozco knew nothing of the army’s support for the paramilitary attack. Keeping Orozco in the dark was deliberate, I found as I examined the evidence. His commanding officer, possibly one of the collaborators, had taken a sudden vacation once plans for the massacre were set. Orozco was meant to be the fall guy, the officer who, inevitably, would be blamed for having allowed the massacre to occur. A decorated officer who had served with UN forces in the Sinai, Orozco prided himself on his knowledge of human rights. In part, this was political. He knew that the United States was planning to support a new counternarcotics brigade within Colombia’s army and he wanted to be its commander. An officer with a rabo de paja—literally a straw tail, an obvious link to atrocity—would never get American approval. Orozco took immediate action. In a telephone call and fax to General Uscátegui, the Seventh Brigade commander, Orozco recommended specific and urgent measures to stop the massacre and capture those responsible, among them the use of U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopters to transport Colombian troops to Mapiripán. But Uscátegui ignored the appeals. Undaunted, the major continued to take Judge Cortés’s calls, gather information, and pester his superiors. When Orozco’s commander returned from vacation, Orozco immediately told him about what was happening in Mapiripán. The officer did nothing. Later, General Uscátegui ordered Orozco to file a second, fraudulent fax that minimized the seriousness of the information he had gathered from Judge Cortés. When investigators came calling, the general used the fraudulent fax to justify his decision to take no action. Confronted later by prosecutors who had obtained the first, authentic fax, Major Orozco confessed. He then became the prosecutors’ most important witness. “I felt that I was obligated to change [the fax] in order to save the prestige of a general to avoid scandal, and I was ROBIN KIRK 117

very afraid, because I was receiving veiled threats and I thought I had no other option,” he later told journalists. On February 12, 2001, a military judge found General Uscátegui guilty of “erring by omission,” or failing to act when informed of the massacre. The same tribunal acquitted Uscátegui of the much more serious charges of crimes against humanity, terrorism, lying, and conspiracy. The judge sentenced Uscátegui to forty months in a military barracks, a place where he could come and go at will—not even a slap on the hand. For his part, the judge sentenced Orozco—the whistleblower—to thirty-eight months for “failing to insist” that a superior officer act. “They convicted me for informing on a general, and by extension, offending all generals,” he later said. Eventually, government prosecutors managed to overturn this verdict, and Orozco fled Colombia for his family’s safety. For doing the right thing, he lost his culture, his career, his life savings, and many of his friends. About a year after the massacre, I was shocked to hear a U.S. congressman decry U.S. support for Colombia’s military by naming Orozco and claiming that he, like other officers who abused human rights, had been trained at the School of the Americas, the U.S. Army training center for Latin officers. Yet Orozco was the good guy in this horrific episode, the lone officer who sacrificed his career and placed his family in jeopardy for human rights. What is missing from Gill’s analysis is this type of complexity. There is nothing in her report that is false; it is just one-sided and for that reason misleading. Is Colombia among the most dangerous countries in the world for trade unionists? Undoubtedly. Do paramilitaries working with military support and in collusion with business threaten, attack, and even kill trade unionists? This is a fact. It is also a fact that guerrillas kill Colombians, among them trade unionists, often for the same reasons that paramilitaries kill Colombians: perceived disloyalty, suspicions that the victims are sympathetic to the other side, mistakes. Is this also a product of neoliberalism? That becomes a much harder argument to make. Do multinationals always have such a nefarious effect on the freedom to unionize? If you talk to Father Francisco de Roux, a human rights leader and the director of an innovative development project in the Middle Magdalena region, the answer would be complicated. Certainly, the allegations against Coca-Cola are well-known and worth investigating. But Father De Roux says multinationals are essential partners in constructing economic solutions in the midst of war. I do not mean to suggest panaceas or easy solutions; this is hard, dangerous, slow work. Paramilitaries and guerrillas have threatened and even killed some of 118 TRANSFORMING ANTHROPOLOGY 2005 VOL. 13(2)

Father de Roux’s colleagues, and he himself has been threatened countless times. Among those who have written about human rights in Colombia, I have been unsparing in my criticisms of the army and paramilitaries and have worked successfully to get generals fired, paramilitaries jailed, and justice done. But I have also been just as determined to chronicle complexity, including abuses committed by guerrillas. Like me, many Colombians would read Gill’s piece with a sense of amazement—why is there no mention of the devastation wrought by guerrillas? Why are the hundreds of trade unionists, community activists, mayors, city council people, and government workers slain by their bullets unacknowledged? Why is there no comment on the bloody wars within the banana workers’ unions promoted by the FARC, including massacres as disgusting as the one that took place in Mapiripán? These absences not only lead to a one-sided—and misleading—view; Gill’s arguments also erode support among those who would, if guerrilla abuses were acknowledged, gladly sign on to her appeals. In other words, embracing complexity is not just good anthropology; it is good politics. Certainly, the American Anthropological Association should take action on issues like the one Gill presents. But the association risks irrelevance—or ridicule—if it fails to acknowledge the full complexity of these matters. That would, in Colombian slang, simply dar papaya—open the association to an avoidable, unnecessary risk and weaken what should be a forceful appeal on behalf of human rights. NOTES 1. The reports are available at doc?t americas&c colomb. I also wrote about Mapiripán in my book, More Terrible than Death.