Colombia's Baffling Reality: Of Garcia Marquez, the Medellin Conference, Cocaine Cartels and Civil War

By Smith, Mike | National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2006 | Go to article overview

Colombia's Baffling Reality: Of Garcia Marquez, the Medellin Conference, Cocaine Cartels and Civil War


Smith, Mike, National Catholic Reporter


After the War of a Thousand Days in 1899, the only difference between the two major political parties in Colombia was that liberals went to 5 o'clock Mass to avoid being seen and conservatives went to 8 o'clock Mass so that people would believe them to be believers. At least that was what Gabriel Garcia Marquez's grandparents told him.

Besides underscoring the hypocrisy of politicians, this piece of Marquesian irony also points out the important role that religion has played in the history of Colombia and still plays today. With 95 percent of the population baptized Catholic, Colombia is one of the most Catholic countries in Latin America. It is also the most violent country in the Americas.

Half a century after La Violencia (The Violence), Colombia's second civil war in 1947 and the background to Garcia Marquez's famous short story "No One Writes to the Colonel," yet another brutal civil war rages in much of the country, this time with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Thrown into this violent mix are a large and extremely brutal paramilitary force and the drug thugs, two often indistinguishable groups. The paramilitaries continue to terrorize and murder poor people in the rural areas, the drug thugs continue to assassinate prosecutors and judges as well as people suspected of being guerrillas, and in April 2005, the guerrillas launched a new offensive, the boldest initiative since law and order President Alvaro Uribe was elected more than three years ago, vowing to crush the insurgency.

Perhaps only a writer as gifted as Garcia Marquez can capture Colombia's long, byzantine history and the role that history played in the development of the religious movement that would have a profound influence on the entire world, liberation theology.

Landholders dissent

Pope Paul VI opened the Latin American bishops' conference in Medellin in 1968. At that conference, the Latin American bishops endorsed the pope's call for the church to take a leading role in socioeconomic reform. However, the Colombian bishops, among the more conservative of Latin American bishops and profoundly influenced by the latifundistas--landholders of large estates who believe that the serfs should never have been freed--found the overall call to action too radical and published a dissenting treatise. They were troubled by social movements all over the world, many of them violent, and certainly did not want to seem to be endorsing violent means in the most violent of Latin American countries.

Two years before the Medellin conference, a Colombian priest, Fr. Camilo Torres, upset by the church's support for the rich and the status quo, had joined a rebel group, the National Liberation Army, and was killed in combat with the Colombian military. Fr. Torres had been a university friend of Garcia Marquez, who recounts in his autobiography that when someone teased a young Torres about being a guerrilla he replied, "Yes, but one of God's guerrillas." The popular Chilean singer Victor Jara immortalized Fr. Torres in a song called "Camilo Torres."

While much of the Colombian clergy worked for social justice after the Medellin conference, in the episcopate only Bishop Gerardo Valencia Cano supported this radical idea. Activist priests formed the Golconda Group, which issued a manifesto and a platform for social reform. This was the beginning of the liberation theology movement.

All of that is ancient history now. Indeed, only a dozen years after the first Medellin conference, the town was no longer synonymous with the bishops' conference but with the Medellin cocaine cartel, which became the first well-known drug cartel. Considered too crude, it was soon supplanted by other, more media-conscious cartels such as the Cali cartel.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Medellin conference and the Medellin cartel may be vaguely familiar, but much of Colombia's history, at least to North Americans, is not so well known.

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