Review- Civico, “The Para-State”

Aldo Civico, “The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads” (2016) – More uplifting material! Italian anthropologist and… life coach? According to his website? Aldo Civico originally set out to do an ethnography on the peasants forced from the land in to urban slums in Colombia during its last spate of protracted civil war. Among these people he found people connected with those most responsible for their plight- ex-members of right-wing paramilitaries, most of them part of the infamous Autodefensas Unidos de Colombia, or AUC. While the communist guerrillas in FARC did not play with kid gloves, it’s estimated that it’s the right-wing paramilitaries that were responsible for a majority of the civilian killings and forced displacements over the course of the war. The people Civico first found were cast-offs from the period wherein the Colombian government, less in need of the services of independent right-wing whack jobs and their private armies, began demobilizing the paras, who typically either found employment in the drug trade or none at all. And so Civico set out to understand the culture they came from.

Most of it is what you’d expect. A few leaders mouth platitudes about how bad the communists were and how they were the ones really looking out for the campesinos, etc. The lower-level soldiers mostly talked about needing to join one group or another during the war, and preferring the paras for various reasons- the guerrillas had wronged them somehow, or the paras paid more, etc. Civico does get them to open up about violence- how violence for its own sake, spectacular violence, was at the core of what the paras did, how even leaders routinely got involved in killing every now and again “to keep in practice.”

Civico throws a lot of theory around. The stuff from Lacan, et al, is generally unhelpful, and most of them are insights Civico could have come to himself. His borrowing of Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the “war machine,” the organically-evolved reticular body of people and forces that coheres to wage battle either against or orthogonal to the more orderly bodies of the state, is more interesting. The AUC really did harness inchoate social forces in Colombia — from the decentralized power of local landlords (and later drug exporters) to Catholicism to the particular vision of the good life of land-bound order to the reality of Colombia’s embedment in global capitalism — to create a lethal force along the grain of existing Colombian society and against those who would change that grain. Deleuze and Guattari typically see the “war machine” as opposite from and destroyed by the state, but Civico points out that war machines like that often wind up reducing opposition to a certain kind of state, clearing room for a given form of order- or, in right-wing Latin American terms, engages in cleansing (limpieza) a given space or society. The government can forsake them, but in many respects, these groups are the precondition for the sort of governance the government had — has — in mind. Never underestimate the murderous rage or native organizing capacity found in the space where money and privilege meet the shock of resistance. ****

Review- Civico, “The Para-State”

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