Between 1946 and 1964, a period known as La Violencia in Colombia, a proxy war between mostly peasant partisans of the Liberal and Conservative Parties resulted in so many deaths that, in order for terror to have any effect, ever more sadistic methods of torture had to be dreamed up. In the mountains and hot valleys west of Bogotá, new styles of mutilation entered the argot: the 'necktie cut' involved pulling the victim's tongue through a slit in the throat, while in the 'florist's cut' severed limbs were arranged in the open cavity of the neck following decapitation. Colombia's current conflict - between the state, its unofficial paramilitary allies, leftist guerrillas, and the narcotics mafia that has ties to all three warring factions - is no less violent, although the methods employed have changed. In 1989, the Medellín Cartel put a bomb on an Avianca flight, intending to kill either the presidential candidate César Gaviria (who turned out not to be on the plane) or two police informers (who were), and in the process murdered 105 other passengers. In 2000, a rancher called Elvia Cortés died when the 'necklace bomb' that soldiers of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) had wired to her body exploded, killing in addition the bomb-squad agent desperately trying to defuse the device. But it is the paramilitaries (right-wing militias organised to combat the left insurgency) who have committed the greater number of these crimes. One example among many is the 1997 massacre in the village of Mapiripán, in which members of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) slaughtered civilians suspected of sympathising with the guerrillas, dumping their disembowelled bodies in the Guaviare River and, according to one witness, playing football with the heads. The familiar (because so often repeated) story of paramilitaries using skulls as footballs links this cycle of violence with La Violencia, when a Liberal guerrilla leader known as La Cucaracha sought to score goals with the heads of Conservative policemen she and her men had killed.
LRB 24 January 2008 | PDF Download