Review- Hristov, “Blood and Capital”

Jasmin Hristov, “Blood and Capital: the Paramilitarization of Colombia” (2009) – Canadian sociologist Jasmin Hristov casts a critical eye on the war and peace process in Colombia. The decades-long war supposedly ended with the victory of the Colombian government (aided significantly by the United States) over both the far left guerrillas of FARC and the ELN and the right-wing paramilitaries of the UAC. Both groups formally surrendered and disarmed, AUC in 2006 and FARC in 2017.

Hristov argues that the paramilitaries won the war, effectively, by “paramilitarizing” the Colombian state. Despite their formal antagonism — the AUC was always illegal and part of the US State Department terrorist list along with FARC — the Colombian government frequently worked hand in glove with the paramilitaries, before, during, and after the time the AUC formally existed. Much of the book is made up of lists of deeds undertaken jointly by the Colombian military and one or another right-wing paramilitary group, of arms and intelligence funneled to paras, blind eyes turned towards their atrocities, and joint operations. Hristov wisely does not place as much emphasis on the AUC as an organization as the peace process did- it was always a coalition and never a central command for all paramilitaries in the country. Its inheritor groups continue to this day, exporting drugs, intimidating labor and social movements, killing to protect their rackets.

In most insurgency wars, there’s something like a ten-to-one ratio between kills made by counterinsurgents and those made by insurgents. This is why you still get whiners claiming that the US “won” the Vietnam War- we surely killed many more people, by a chasmic margin, much good it did us or anybody else. But in the FARC war, the titular FARC inflicted twelve percent of the casualties, and the armed forces of the Colombian government inflicted eight. The rest, eighty percent, were killed by right-wing paramilitaries. These wars generally make mock of the distinction between civilian and military, but the paramilitaries in particular ignored the distinction. They terrorized communities seen as in league with the guerrillas, which often meant nothing more than that the village organized peasant groups or labor unions. The paras are also notorious for “limpieza social,” bloody social cleansing of the poor, sex workers, LGBT people, and so on.

Hristov is a Marxist and she makes clear the class lines of the war. The paramilitaries are the armed forces of the (primarily rural) Colombian elite. Isn’t a certain other body also the armed forces of the elite… oh yeah, the government! So ultimately, six of one, half a dozen of another. Why, then, did the paras form? In part, it’s counterinsurgency strategy gone feral- the establishment of local anti-guerrilla patrols was a part of counterinsurgency from its beginnings in the late fifties/early sixties. As Hristov points out, at first it was the government creating paras and the elites supporting- later on, as the war heated up, the roles were reversed, with elites creating paramilitary bodies with tacit or overt government support. The paras, she holds, could get their hands dirty in a way the government was reluctant to do. The rest is history.

My one main quibble with Hristov is that she takes a rather either/or attitude regarding criminality and ideology- if you’re a criminal, you’re not an ideologue (and presumably vice-versa), and the paras are definitely criminals looking to protect ongoing criminal enterprises like drug exportation and land clearances, so, their ideology is bunk. I’m not so sure I agree, in general and certainly in the case of the more ideologically-inclined paras like the AUC- maybe she’s right about the inheritor groups. Colombia has a long history of patriarchal rural conservatism that goes berserk when challenged, and it’s far from the only place that fits that description. The particular kinds of violence and the rhetoric around them strike a chord familiar from the history of paramilitarism and vigilantism from Northern Ireland to Michigan in the Black Legion days. The righting of the world, the restoration of the natural hierarchical order, through spectacular violence is an ideology in and of itself, at least as common on the right as the notion of the existential necessity of armed revolution is on the left. Crime fits in- when the right people do it for the right reasons, it stops being crime, in this view of the world, and becomes a sacrifice made by superior men. In general, though, this is a fine and useful book about a conflict whose lineaments should be of broad interest to those interested in social conflict. ****’

Review- Hristov, “Blood and Capital”

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