PALO ALTO — This article, if written in Colombia, could be a death sentence for the writer. If not death, then at the least a cause for exile.
The situation in my country has so deteriorated that one can be killed for an infinite variety of reasons: For writing articles condemning the participants in the country's countless clandestine domestic wars; for being a member of a human rights commission; for becoming a union leader; for being a homosexual who conducts a symphony; for acting in plays that convey a social message; for singing in opera, or for joining a leftist political party.
The list of killings for these "crimes" and others lengthens daily with, as one Colombian news weekly put it, "monotonous regularity." As the list grows, the fear grows--among a helpless people trapped in the cross fire of groups applying power by terror.
Through November, there have been 1,500 political killings this year, and, according to the government, 140 known paramilitary units and death squads operate throughout the country. There have been few, if any, arrests--no formal investigations, no firings of police and government officials for their failure to solve the crimes.
The murders and continued threats against the press have increasingly muzzled the media. Many journalists, among them the country's most respected, have joined a wave of exiles that already included writers, professors, priests, doctors, actors and union leaders.
No one knows how many have left. They slip away in the night, telling as few people as possible, trying to erase any references to their destination. Each letter from family and friends in Colombia lists the latest murder and forced exile; each, in the correspondent's own way, expresses deep despair, fear and impotence.
These are the responses to the work of sicarios (hired assassins), the existence of informants and private armies that operate with impunity and the sudden appearance--at people's homes--of a black-bordered condolence card sent to a prospective victim by a macabre killer.
Lists of the condemned and their "crimes" circulate freely:
--Vicky Hernandez, actress. "For being a guerrilla sympathizer."
--Alberto Aguirre, journalist. "For slandering the army."
--Jaime Borrero, doctor. "For being an apologist for subversive ideas."
--Eduardo Diaz, priest. "For inciting labor strikes."
The sentence is always the same, implied or spelled out.
In Colombia, the state, for all practical purposes, barely exists. As in all Latin America, Colombia's political system is suffering a crisis of legitimacy. Almost nobody believes in politicians and only a minority of voters bothers to participate in elections. The criminal justice system no longer functions. The police, the army and the judiciary have been virtually discredited, while the continent's celebrated new democracy is increasingly insecure.
What makes Colombia a special sadness is that even with its violence and ferocious pace of social deterioration, the country's image is that of the most stable Latin democracy and economy. International experts use it as a paradigm for domestic economic management. "It is the rare Latin American debtor nation that seems to do practically everything by the book, paying its foreign debt on schedule, courting foreign investment, opening up its polls to opposition parties," wrote the Wall Street Journal last month.
Colombia's current turbulent reality--so contradictory to foreigners--has a screwball logic.
Colombian society has always been tolerant and patient. People become indignant, yet citizens remain complacent in the face of government inaction, guerrilla terror, the fantastic growth of the drug trade and brutal repressions by the army against anything that looks leftist.
The economic crisis--a foreign debt of $13.5 billion in 1986--upset a fragile balance among the government, army, guerrillas and drug lords. Faced with enormous obligations to international banks and pressure from the International Monetary Fund to apply rigorous spending controls, the government practically abandoned its obligation to provide public services such as housing, health care or police protection.
At the same time, enormous drug fortunes were growing. Wealthy beyond belief in a country where the majority are dirt poor, the drug barons began imposing their own law. Money made them all-powerful. Those refusing to collaborate were killed. Private armies and paramilitary death squads were organized. The drug business intimidated society, bought its own security forces and rendered the justice system incapable of prosecuting armed criminal groups.
The drug gangs created the sicarios . In the last three years, those hired guns have killed a minister of justice, 50 judges and more than a dozen journalists who had dared threaten the power of billionaire barons. Over a year ago, judges and politicians abandoned all efforts to control the activities of the "narcos," or even attempt to apply the law to them.