Devil’s on the Loose: A Review of Forrest Hylton’s Evil Hour in Colombia

Evil Hour in Colombia

There was a period in the 1990s when I honestly thought that Colombia would become Washington’s next Vietnam.  Instead, it turns out that the counterinsurgency assisted financially and militarily by Washington is more like the so-called low-intensity conflicts waged by Washington and its clients in Central America during the 1980s.  Forrest Hylton‘s new book Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso 2006) not only documents the essential truth of this, it also provides one of the most coherent and honest histories of Colombia’s last one hundred years.  With the understanding that the two-party system in Colombia is mostly a system that serves the country’s elites (with occasional inclusion of the non-white and peasant members of the population), Hylton details the relationship of the rest of Colombian society — the Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and other disenfranchised groups — to the bourgeois democracy that is Colombia.  He begins his telling in the late 19th century and ends it in early 2006 — almost yesterday.

Told not only from a viewpoint that places Colombia’s politically excluded on equal footing with those who are represented by the two-party system, Evil Hour in Colombia also acknowledges the role skin tone plays more than any other Colombian history I have read.  It spares no side, either, not only noting the various guerrilla organizations’ failure to reach out to the indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations, but documenting their biases against these groups in their organizing.  At the same time, Hylton makes clear that most of the racist and anti-indigenous sentiment comes from the ruling parties and the elites they represent.  Consequently, so have most of the attacks against those groups.

The text draws a clear line from the assumptions and practices of Colombia in colonial times to the Colombia of today.  The rapaciousness of the light-skinned Creole elite is replaced by that of today’s paramilitaries and the Colombian Army.  The Spanish invader is now the Pentagon and its School of the Americas counterinsurgency training center in Fort Benning, Georgia.  The land is still owned by a very few.  (According to the Center for International Policy, the wealthiest ten percent control 60.9 percent of the income and the poorest ten percent, only 1.1 percent).  Now, the primary sources of their riches are drugs, oil, and flowers.  In earlier days, it was coffee, whose prices were subject to the fluctuating demands of the North and whose profits were reaped by the corporations of the North and their Colombian partners on the latifundia.

The tale told here is a history of exploitation determined by money, skin tone, and topography.  It is about criminals and thugs strong-arming the poor for the rich and, ultimately, the criminals becoming the new rich.  This latter dynamic is the result of the drug trade which is now the dominant part of Colombia’s economy and, consequently, a major player in its political scene.  Indeed, Colombia’s two political parties have become so addicted to drug profits that they have even relegated some of their traditionally allies in the Church and Colombia’s old-money establishment for the huge monetary resources the drug rings bring into the mix.  Of course, with that money comes the thuggery of the drug gangs and their paramilitaries, whose anti-guerrilla politics and tactics fit nicely into the traditional politicians’ hatred of the guerrillas and the demographic they partially represent — the poor.

At the same time, some of the guerrillas make their own deals with the drug trade.  Foremost among these groups, of course, is the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).  Not only do the FARC tax coca farmers, they also protect them from the US-directed counterinsurgency that operates partially under the facade of the so-called war on drugs.  Under the Bush administration, that facade is less of a factor as Washington has incorporated Latin America into its war on terror, yet the spraying of farmers’ fields in guerrilla-held territory by US-trained troops and their US advisors continues unabated. 

Hylton documents the history of the insurgencies in Colombia, detailing the genesis and growth of the various organizations that have waged and continue to wage war against the Colombian government, its military, and their paramilitary allies.  He traces the current groups’ origins back to the 1948 Conservative destruction of the popular movement named for its leader: Gaitanismo.  The attack on the movement resulted in the deaths of thousands and the displacement of many more.  The beginnings of FARC are to be found there.  Other smaller groups took shape in the 1960s and continued to grow into the 1990s, changing shapes, tactics, and philosophies ever so slightly according to the shifts in the international Marxist and other liberation movements and events on the ground. 

Conversely, one could argue that the current government — a pro-military anti-guerrilla regime very close to the right-wing drug paramilitaries — had its genesis in the birth of the FARC.  I say this because the current president’s father was killed by the FARC.  Besides the personal aspect, Álvaro Uribe came to political power in a region controlled by the paramilitaries and his connections to them are numerous.  Since he first took political office as mayor, several of his administrative actions have made it easier for the paras to operate and, even more importantly, have helped to incorporate these men into the political system as legitimate players.  This has diminished the role of the Catholic Church, a prominent player in the conservative political sphere, and seems to have increased the bloodshed against the popular movements.  Most of the popular movements are not connected to any armed organization, but peace community residents, union organizers, and other activists are murdered and disappeared regardless, usually on the pretext that they are guerrillas.  Just like anybody labeled terrorist by Washington, no matter how falsely, can be tortured and denied their rights, so can anybody merely alleged to have a connection to the guerrillas in Colombia be killed with impugnity.

Evil Hour in Colombia is a well-written and extensively researched study of Colombia’s history and present-day reality.  The story told herein is an ongoing example of the Monroe Doctrine at work in the worst possible way.  As the third largest recipient of US military aid over the past decade or so, the importance of what happens in Colombia can not be overstated, nor can the US involvement.  Hylton’s reasoned analysis and refreshing perspective on the situation makes this book must reading for those interested in what might lie ahead for the growing opposition in Latin America to Washington and the Yankee dollar. 

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <>.

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