New Security Ends Solitude in Colombia’s Small Towns


The plank-board home where Garcia Marquez lived. (Scott Wilson/The Washington Post)

ARACATACA, Colombia—This famously sleepy town between a snow-capped coastal range and a vast tropical swamp is the quintessential Colombian hamlet. It is quirky, claustrophobic and, above all, forgotten bythe powers that be in Bogota, the capital in mountains 400 miles to the south.

At least that is how Aracataca is portrayed in the literature of its most famous son, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature. After growing up here, Garcia Marquez used the town as his model for the fictional land of Macondo, a place of haunted isolation populated by an obsessive clan that ascribes life’s turns, horrific and wonderful, to the forces of magic and evil.

But Macondo’s solitude is ending, as it is for scores of Colombian villages that have begun receiving new security forces since President Alvaro Uribe’s national emergency declaration. The decree, issued Aug. 12, signaled the new president’s desire to bring back into the national fold vast stretches of rural Colombia that have been the domain of warring guerrillas for years.

Across rural Colombia, the somnolent small-town pleasantness that inspired Garcia Marquez’s fiction and fuels the nostalgia of a generation of Colombians has given way to a war that has turned country life into a hell the author might have imagined. Uribe, also a country boy who has seen his birthplace overrun by war, was elected on a pledge to restore order to the isolated villages that provide support for various guerrilla armies and at one time served as childhood homes for many of the urban well-to-do.

Since his emergency decree, 50 new National Police officers have arrived in Aracataca, doubling the size of the local force. The men have strung up hammocks and set up card tables on the grounds around the plank-board home where Garcia Marquez was born, resting amid the pink hibiscus in the broad shade of the suana tree where the young writer’s garish imagination flourished.

Establishing the temporary barracks has meant closing the cobwebbed museum of old typewriters and nostalgic photos; the cradle of “magic realism” has become a small example of the sacrifices Colombia is making to address the grimmer realties of war.

After years of watching the dead turn up under their famed almond trees, many of Aracataca’s 26,000 residents have welcomed the new troops. The less dreamy among them hope the new military patrols will awaken the town to the realities of violence that have marked life here for generations.

“People here have always been so folkloric,” said Alicia Martinez, owner of the Progress farm supply store on the Street of the Turks, whose business has been halved by violence in the countryside. “You say, ‘They are bringing in a lot of dead to the hospital.’ And they say, ‘Wow, let’s go take a look.’ They don’t assimilate anything, but I worry about my children’s lives and mine.”

Uribe, who took office Aug. 7 as Colombia’s largest guerrilla army welcomed him with an attack on the presidential palace, has promised to bring the government more squarely into hundreds of isolated towns. He has promised to double defense spending, sinking most of the new money into new troops and police officers, and to create civilian militias and intelligence networks to stand in for a cash-strapped state.

Aracataca, although largely left on its own by the central government, has been witness to Colombia’s violence for the past century because of its strategic spot between the mountains and the Caribbean Sea. From the War of 1,000 Days at the turn of the last century to this latest chapter of civil conflict, political violence has long been a central fact of life here.

The magical stories conjured by Garcia Marquez, whose cast of tinpot mayors and lonely colonels are still a fixture of Colombian life, were meant in part to explain the tragically inexplicable that has shaped this place and others like it around the country.

Much of what ails rural Colombia can be seen in miniature along the town’s mostly dirt streets and sagging city hall—the sputtering social progress, crippling public corruption, strangled agricultural economy and the inescapable violence. It has remained, for better or worse, the model Garcia Marquez intended it to be.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the larger of Colombia’s two guerrilla groups is known, has been active near Aracataca for two decades. A mostly rural movement that wants to replace the government with a Marxist-inspired system, the FARC is battling a privately funded paramilitary army that fights alongside the U.S.-backed military. Last year, 3,500 people died in the war, most of them civilians.

The fight is for territorial control and political advantage among a whipsawed civilian population— much of it fueled by a drug trade that supplies 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States. Some of those coca fields are not far from here, tucked into the Sierra Nevada range that looms in the near distance.

Aracataca emerged at the turn of the last century, a company town of the United Fruit Co. that ran the surrounding banana plantations. Railroad tracks, a rare sight in a country where three mountain ranges doomed any nationwide system, run past pastel billiard halls as they split the town. The train figured prominently in Garcia Marquez’s work, once as the carrier of massacre victims killed during a spate of political violence and labor unrest.

Garcia Marquez was born under a peaked tin roof in 1928, and began absorbing the stories told by his grandmother and grandfather, a veteran of the War of 1,000 Days, that would bloom into the characters of Macondo. He has noted that everything in his fiction is true, despite its fantastical flavor.

Macondo has become the town’s second name and graces everything from telecommunications companies to pawn shops. Painted yellow butterflies cover the welcome sign over the Plaza de Bolivar, a reminder of the swarm that followed the suitor of a member of the sprawling Buendia family in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Nobel Line is the name of the local bus company, a salute to Garcia Marquez’s prize.

But much of the town feels betrayed by Garcia Marquez, who has failed to respond to its request for a donation to restore his boyhood home on the 20th anniversary of his Nobel Prize. “He has forgotten his birthplace,” said Efrain Garcia Jimenez, the town mayor, who has spent all of his 37 years here.

After inheriting a public debt of $7 million—three times the annual municipal budget—from several voraciously corrupt administrations, Garcia Jimenez essentially fired the entire town government. Only 18 people work in city hall today, down from 543 when he took office 18 months ago.

Local unemployment is near 30 percent. Even the Aracataca River has abandoned the town by changing its course on its way to the Great Swamp of Santa Marta, jeopardizing the water supply.

“What is amazing is that, in the villages around here, nothing has changed in my lifetime,” Garcia Jimenez said. “They have no sewer, no water. Only in the city has there been any improvement at all.”

Garcia Jimenez does not mention that he is working under a death threat, delivered via the FARC’s propaganda radio station. Scores of mayors—and hundreds more judicial and municipal officials across Colombia—have been told by the FARC to leave their posts or be considered military targets. Many have acquiesced, some have resisted and still others run municipal affairs from the relative safety of the local army headquarters.

“We have light, water and telephones,” said Alfonso Orosco Villero, 69, a retired agricultural engineer in a red-checked shirt and khaki-green driving cap.

Despite those amenities, Orosco Villero has also seen steps backward. He has watched hundreds of small farms and banana groves be absorbed into large ones owned by absentee landlords and multinational corporations as a close-quarter war has crept into the courtyards of Macondo.

“Our security now is nothing. We used to keep our doors open at night. We could string a hammock in this park and sleep, if we wanted,” Orosco said. “But now we have these [paramilitary groups], and no one knows who anyone is anymore.”

An average of one body a week was turning up on Aracataca’s streets over the past year, town officials conservatively estimate. Then three months ago a bluff, bald police commander named Luis Enrique Moreno arrived.

Almost at once, town officials say, he began dismantling the paramilitary network that was doing much of the urban killing—“social cleansing” in paramilitary argot—that targeted common thieves to guerrilla sympathizers. Now Moreno has double the men, and he expects the deployment to be permanent.

“The people are collaborating enormously, providing detailed information about who belongs to these militias and where to find them,” he said. “I think it is even helping them feel a little more at peace.”

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.

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