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The Rise of Drug Trafficking
Narcotics emerged as a major national problem in the late 1970s when Colombia began exporting a great deal of marijuana to the United States. With the profits from marijuana, drug leaders diversified their operations to include cocaine trafficking. Two major drug cartels—Mafia-like organizations—evolved, one in Medellín and the second in Cali. The Medellín cartel was led by Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder, and a few other men. Escobar bribed and threatened government officials to ensure their cooperation. He also attempted to get involved in the government himself and was elected to the Congress as a member of the Liberal party.
The Drug War
Violence grew along with the drug trafficking. In 1984, Medellín traffickers assassinated President Belisario Betancur's minister of justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who had taken an aggressive policy against drug dealers. Betancur invoked his state of siege powers, and extradited thirteen drug dealers to the United States. The Medellín cartel, calling themselves the Extraditables, immediately began a campaign against extradition, which included targeting the treaty's prominent supporters. Drug kingpin Lehder was extradited to the United States in 1987, where he stood trial and received a life sentence plus 135 years. (He was released in 1996.) The Medellín cartel launched an unsuccessful hit on the minister of justice, assassinated the attorney general, kidnapped a candidate for mayor of Bogotá, and bombed a newspaper office, a commercial airliner, and the national police agency.
This narcoterrorism led to an enormous rise in Colombia's murder rate; in 1989, homicide was the leading cause of death in the country. The destructive effects of this violence were perhaps most readily apparent in the 1990 presidential campaign, as three candidates were assassinated, including the poll-leading Luis Carlos Galán. This action led President Virgilio Barco Vargas to declare a War on Drugs, which involved concerted repression of drug dealers. While several leading drug traffickers were arrested or killed, Escobar responded with his own wave of terrorist attacks. Barco also used the weapon of extradition, promising to enforce the new treaty with the United States that would send drug dealers to America to face prosecution and punishment. Barco believed that extradition was an effective resource against drug-related criminal activities.
The End of the Medellín Cartel
César Gaviria Trujillo, elected in 1990, also held a hard-line anti-drug policy, but he believed that extradition should be only one way to fight the war on drugs. Instead, he favored strengthening the Colombian justice and penal system to deal with traffickers nationally. He implemented a policy of plea bargaining, often combined with a reduction of sentences, to win the surrender of drug traffickers. The rewritten constitution of 1991 declared extradition to be unconstitutional, removing the issue from both Colombian politics and the War on Drugs. These efforts led to the surrender of most members of the Medellín cartel, notably Pablo Escobar in 1992. After escaping thirteen months later, in July 1993, Escobar immediately began to carry out internal purges of his organization and launch another terrorist campaign. A special unit tracked down Escobar in December, and shot and killed him, which also brought the end of the Medellín cartel.
The Colombian Economy
One of the reasons that drugs became such big business in Colombia was the troubled economy. Colombia had long been wracked by economic woes. While the discovery in 1985 of a large petroleum reserve was a major boost to the declining economy, the drug trade also provided enormous benefits. The drug industry made annual trade balances positive whereas they were negative for legal goods. Drug dealers put a great deal of money into the construction and the cocaine refining businesses, invested in other businesses, and were a major source of employment. Drug dealers also provided charitable contributions to poor neighborhoods.
During the early 1990s, Colombia entered a new economic order. Gaviria's government lowered tariffs on imports, provided fewer subsidies for the poor, and lessened the government's role in the economy. However, in 1996, inflation rose, gross domestic product declined, and unemployment hit a new high. By 1998, Colombia was in its worst recession since the Great Depression.
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In September, 1990, publisher Hernando Santos Castillo received word that his son Francisco had been abducted. His first reaction was to say “Thank God.” In many parts of the world, such a response might have been unthinkable, yet in the Colombia of Gabriel García Márquez’s News of a Kidnapping it was understandable. Abductions had become epidemic—but so had killings. As the author notes, “News of a kidnapping, no matter how painful, is not as irremediable as news of a murder.”
In News of a Kidnapping (originally published in 1996 as Noticia de un secuestro), García Márquez takes on the task—he calls it “the saddest and most difficult of my life”—of detailing the Santos abduction and nine others perpetrated in Colombia beginning in August, 1990. He describes this collective kidnapping as a “gruesome drama” that is only one component of a vast “biblical holocaust that has been consuming Colombia for more than twenty years.”
García Márquez offers a disturbing glimpse of that national calamity, focusing on the abductions while surveying the circumstances that enabled Colombian militants and drug traffickers like Pablo Escobar Gaviria to attain warlord and even folk hero status, amassing fortunes and entering mainstream politics while masterminding assassinations and kidnappings. According to García Márquez, their ascendance sent a clear message to the public: “The law is the greatest obstacle to happiness; it is a waste of time learning to read and write; you can live a better, more secure life as a criminal than as a law- abiding citizen—in short, this was the social breakdown typical of all undeclared wars.”
One of the most problematic outgrowths of this breakdown was the extradition policy that allowed Colombians to be taken from their homeland and tried in the United States. Extradition had resulted in the removal and imprisonment of drug kingpins as powerful as Carlos Lehder Rivas, but it also had raised the stakes of Colombian discord. Using the slogan, “We prefer a grave in Colombia to a cell in the United States,” the traffickers, who became known as the Extraditables, seemed willing to deploy all the means at their disposal—kidnapping included—to strengthen their influence and stay out of the reach of the U.S. judicial system.
Such was the backdrop of the abductions documented in News of a Kidnapping, which began just after the inauguration of President César Gaviria and just before the convening of a Constituent Assembly intended to bring about the first major Colombian reforms in decades. As their primary victim, the Extraditables targeted an individual closely associated with Colombia’s government and mass media—Diana Turbay, director of the television news program Criptón and daughter of former president Julio César Turbay (who had signed the extradition treaty). They ensnared her under the pretext that she was being escorted to an interview with the leader of the Army of National Liberation guerrilla movement. Also taken were five of her colleagues: editor Azucena Liévano, writer Juan Vitta, German journalist Hero Buss, and cameramen Richard Becerra and Orlando Acevedo.
At the end of September, two more people—Marina Montoya and Francisco Santos—fell into the hands of the Extraditables; like the other abductees, they were linked by family, friends, and occupation to leading politicians and the mass media. Marina, the sister of Colombian ambassador Germán Montoya, was abducted by three armed men. Francisco was the editor- in-chief of his father’s newspaper, El Tiempo; his abduction cost the life of driver Oromansio Ibáñez. In November, a group of armed men abducted Maruja Pachón de Villamizar and her colleague and sister-in-law Beatriz Villamizar de Guerrero on their way home from work at Colombia’s agency for film promotion. Their driver, Angel María Roa, was killed in the process.
Torn from their daily routines, estranged from their loved ones, and held captive by masked criminals, the abductees underwent profound psychological and physical duress. García Márquez conveys a sense of their displacement by integrating extensive journalistic reporting with “literary” devices—tinkering with chronology, withholding important details, and even introducing “red herrings.” Ultimately, his narrative illustrates how the lives of all the involved parties changed in the wake of the kidnappings, which resulted in Marina’s and Diana’s deaths before the release of the last two hostages, Maruja and Francisco, in May of 1991.
News of a Kidnapping is not the kind of tale most commonly associated with García Márquez, who is best known for the “Magical Realism” of his novels and short stories. Along with the aforementioned narrative devices, however, this nonfiction work includes characters, themes, and events that recall the author’s fictional writings. Perhaps most characteristic is the episode in which Diana’s mother, Nydia Quintero de Balcázar, correctly senses that her daughter has been killed and confronts Gaviria, blaming the death on him. After the president assures her that she must be mistaken, she tells him she knows Diana has died “Because I’m her mother and my heart tells me so,” and ultimately declares her daughter’s fate “the story of a death foretold”— recalling García Márquez’s 1981 novella Crónica de una muerte anunciada(Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1983).
Nydia is but one of the many real-life figures the author portrays with the kind of powerful, near-mythic personality traits found in his fictional characters. Many of the men in the book, for example, seem to personify manifestations of machismo in extremis—such as the glacial stoicism of President Gaviria (Nydia accuses him of having a “soul of stone”), the hearty fellowship of Francisco Santos (which he maintains even with his guards), and the unwavering resolve of Alberto Villamizar (who single-mindedly devotes himself to rescuing his wife).
The power of family units is another García Márquez motif well represented in News of a Kidnapping. The affinities he delineates between crime families and the families of key hostages suggest that Colombia, despite its democratic aspirations, remains a nation where family units compete and overlap with gangs, guerrilla groups, and the government as centers of power. With communications between the Extraditables and the government consisting mostly of policy statements and violence, interfamilial contacts established areas of relative accord where progress could be made.
Although some of these contacts occurred in face-to-face meetings, other crucial exchanges took place through electronic and print media. Indeed, News of a Kidnapping is as much about news and communications as it is about kidnapping. García Márquez offers many instances of how, with the hostages isolated and the Extraditables on the run, media offered channels where fruitful communication could take place. On more than one occasion, for example, Nydia and other relatives of the hostages staged broadcast events that used secret codes and outright pleas to influence negotiations and boost the morale of the abductees—who, despite their deprivations, were often afforded access to television, radio, and newspapers.
That Colombians as a whole share a desire to transcend their painful predicament by building a sense of community comes across through numerous anecdotes that document what seems to be an almost absurd national desire to celebrate—not only on triumphant occasions like the release of a hostage but also under extremely dire circumstances. Describing the festive atmosphere in the Villamizar home on the night after Maruja and Beatriz’s abduction, García Márquez characteristically shrugs, “It can’t be helped: In Colombia, any gathering of more than six people, regardless of class or the hour, is doomed to turn into a dance.”
Religion, or faith, constitutes another avenue of hope for García Márquez’s Colombians. Drug kingpins, hostages, guards, and legislators all profess some form of religious (usually Catholic) belief. Prayers, religious medals, and holy water are used on numerous occasions. Mystical faith even plays a role in the life of Maruja, who rattles her guards by professing atheism but views one of her dreams as a religious omen. In passages redolent with “Magical Realism,” Maruja and her husband communicate through supernatural means: García Márquez writes that Alberto would “spend hours staring in the direction where he supposed Maruja was, sending her mental messages until he was overcome by exhaustion” and that Maruja “had responded with all her heart: Get me out of here, I don’t know who I am anymore after so many months of not seeing myself in a mirror.’”
According to García Márquez, it was ultimately a mystic—the television priest Rafael García Herreros—who emerged after months of abductions, death threats, and desperate communications as the key to the release of the hostages and the subsequent surrender of Escobar, leader of the Extraditables. The breakthrough occurred when the elderly and eccentric clergyman—considered a saint by some and a lunatic by others—made the following declaration on the April 18 broadcast of his long-running series of God’s Minute television sermons:
They have told me you want to surrender. They have told me you would like to talk to me. Oh sea! Oh sea of Coveñas at five in the evening when the sun is setting! What should I do? They tell me he is weary of his life and its turmoil, and I can tell no one my secret. But it suffocates me internally. Tell me, oh sea: Can I do it? Should I do it? You who know the history of Colombia, you who saw the Indians worshipping on this shore, you who heard the sound of history: Should I do it? Will I be rejected if I do it? Will I be rejected in Colombia? If I do it: Will there be shooting when I go with them? Will I fall with them in this adventure?
How did the cryptic comments of García Herreros, who died in 1992, trigger the machinations that ended the hostage crisis? The narrative strongly suggests that the answer may lie in García Herreros’ appeal as a media personality, one who shunned the greed, violence, and clannishness plaguing Colombia while appealing to its citizens’ desire for community, understanding, and peace.
García Márquez, himself a national icon, may have thought of himself as a possible successor to García Herreros when he dedicated News of a Kidnapping “To all the protagonists and all my collaborators” as well as “all Colombians—innocent and guilty—with the hope that the story it tells will never befall us again.” Throughout 1997, however, reports from Colombia showed the nation to be, in the words of The New York Timescorrespondent Diana Jean Schemo, “in its worst shape in decades, demoralized, angry and broke,” and site of approximately 70 percent of the world’s kidnappings. National reconciliation still seemed the province of dreamers in a country mired in a leadership crisis and controlled largely by rival militant groups.
Sources for Further Study
Commonweal. CXXIV, September 26, 1997, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 1, 1997, p. 10.
The Nation. CCLXIV, June 16, 1997, p. 23.
The New York Review of Books. XLIV, October 9, 1997, p. 19.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, June 15, 1997, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, April 28, 1997, p. 58.
Time. CXLIX, June 2, 1997, p. 77.
The Times Literary Supplement. July 11, 1997, p. 21.
The Wall Street Journal. June 3, 1997, p. A20.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, June 29, 1997, p. 5.
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García Márquez undertook the project that became News of a Kidnapping at the behest of Maruja Pachon de Villamizar, one of the captives, and her husband, the politician Alberto Villamizar, who was instrumental in winning the release of his wife and the surrender of Pablo Escobar. The book originally focused on Maruja's ordeal, but eventually García Márquez decided to include more of the personal remembrances of the other victims as well. Most likely because of this initial focus, García Márquez chooses to open the book with the kidnapping of Maruja and Beatriz, even though these women are the final captives taken by the Extraditables. After exploring their capture, their families' reaction to the news, and their impressions, the narrative delves back several months to chronicle the eight kidnappings that came before it, eventually catching up again to the present, November 1990.
The narration focuses on the victims, describing the conditions the different hostage groups face and their responses to their captivity. It also focuses on their families, showing their efforts to keep up the spirits of the captives. As the captivity lengthens, negotiations become more complex and involve more people—President Gaviria, members of his administration, high-ranking leaders in the Medellín drug cartel, a priest—and the narration carefully explores the relationships between these people and details the actions they take. The narration also includes background about Colombia's drug wars over the past few decades, which is necessary to understanding the significance of the events that García Márquez recounts. The Colombian government faces considerable difficulty and pressure, particularly from the families of the captives, as it attempts to create a workable drug policy that will lead to the capitulation of the drug kingpins.
García Márquez's skill as a writer allows him to mesh all of these complex elements into one cohesive narrative. As Bonnie Smothers writes in Booklist, "[H]e tracks the story like a detective, weaving in the voices of all the players, [and] ferreting out the nuances in their relationships."
News of a Kidnapping was written in García Márquez's native Spanish and then translated into other languages. García Márquez knew that his work would attract foreign readers, most of whom would have little knowledge of the machinations of the Colombian drug wars and the relations between the government and the narcotraffickers. Because his work is directed at this foreign readership, as well as at readers in his own country, who already had a familiarity with the kidnappings, he gives background about the perils of late twentieth-century Colombia. Despite this background information, many readers may have difficulty putting all of the events that García Márquez reports in perspective. In Commonweal, Joseph A. Page chastises the American publisher's "failure . . . to provide background information, a simple chronology, or even an index" as "inexcusable."
News of a Kidnapping, a piece of reportage, is based on real events and populated with real people. García Márquez draws on interviews, media broadcasts, newspapers, and diaries kept by several of the hostages to produce this account. While his text is imbued with illuminating details about 1990 Colombia as well as about the mindset of the captives, García Márquez maintains the requisite objective tone of the journalist. He makes no judgements about any of the people that figure in the narrative. Instead, he lets the bare facts speak for themselves, as when he writes about Marina being taken from the room she shares with Maruja and Beatriz (and two guards) to her execution, "The fact was brutal and painful, but it was the fact: there was more room with four people instead of five, fewer tensions, more air to breathe.''
As an eminent, well-respected Colombian who has played an important role in the country's recent diplomatic and political life, García Márquez also speaks for the Colombian citizenry in News of a Kidnapping. He uses the word "we" in relating how Colombians react to the kidnappings, to Escobar, and to the drug war in general. He calls the drug wars "the biblical holocaust that has been consuming Colombia for more than twenty years"; the details that he provides throughout the book seem to prove his assertion.
As with many works of reportage, readers may question whether García Márquez sticks completely to the facts. In an interview with World Press Review, García Márquez stated that the book "does not contain a single line of fiction or a single fact that has not been corroborated as far as humanly possible." However, in creating this work, García Márquez, in part, draws upon individual memories of an extremely harrowing period.
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Bemrose, John, Review, in Maclean's, Vol. 110, No. 35, September 1, 1997, p. 56.
Cato, Susana, "Mirroring Colombia's Drug Terror," in World Press Review, Vol. 43, No. 8, August 1996, p. 44.
Kakutani, Michiko, "Fantastic Voyage," in Houston Chronicle, June 26, 1997.
Lorenzo, Olga, Review, in Quadrant, Vol. 41, No. 11, November 1997, p. 82.
Page, Joseph A., Review, in Commonweal, Vol. 124, No. 16, September 26, 1997, p. 20.
Sheppard, R. Z., Review, in Time, Vol. 149, No. 22, June 2, 1997, p. 77.
Smothers, Bonnie, Review, in Booklist, Vol. 93, No. 17, May 1, 1997, p. 1458.
Stone, Robert, "The Autumn of the Drug Lord," in New York Times Book Review, June 15, 1997.
Anderson, Jon Lee, ''The Power of Gabriel García Márquez," in New Yorker, September 27, 1999. This profile of García Márquez discusses the author's role in helping bring peace to Colombia.
Bergquist, Charles, Ricardo Peñaranda, and Gonzalo Sánchez, eds., Violence in Colombia 1990-2000: Waging War and Negotiating Peace, Scholarly Resources, 1992. This book presents some of the best recent work by Colombian scholars on the continuing crisis of violence that has been plaguing the nation for the past decade. This collection also includes primary documents and testimony from such crucial eyewitnesses as government members, guerrillas, kidnap victims, and human rights lawyers.
Bowden, Mark, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001. Bowden chronicles the rise and fall of the world's first narcobillionaire, tracing the prevalence of violence in Colombian history, the manhunt for Escobar, and the role that the United States played in bringing down the drug kingpin.
Bushnell, David, The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself, University of California Press, 1993. In the first history of Colombia written in English, Bushnell traces the process of Colombia from its struggle for independence through the 1990s.
Leonard, John, "'News of a Kidnapping,'" in Nation, Vol. 264, No. 23, June 16, 1997, p. 23. This book review provides a good overview of the issues that García Márquez's book raises.
Solanet, Mariana, García Márquez for Beginners, Writers & Readers, 1999. Solanet introduces readers to the life and work of this acclaimed author.