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Public Culture 16.1 (2004) 79-95

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Dismembering and Expelling:
Semantics of Political Terror in Colombia

María Victoria Uribe

In a series of very suggestive essays, Daniel Pécaut considers how representations of Colombian society as fragmented, heterogeneous, and precarious go hand in hand with the anguish produced by irruptions of an object that hinders socialization.1 This external something is violence, which Pécaut understands as a circumstantial default or excess of the social that deprives the latter of any type of internal unity. Colombia, a semiperipheral and violent country with one of the most durable democracies in Latin America, has tragically fulfilled Homi Bhabha's definition of the nation: an idea whose potential resides precisely in its impossible unity as a symbolic force.2 Some of the most remarkable features of the Colombian case are the paradoxes and dilemmas that in its recent history accompany the relationships between war, nation, democracy, and the peaceful [End Page 79] or violent appropriation of national territory.3 Throughout its turbulent history, Colombia has been unable to incorporate its territory within a unitary idea of the nation, and the state has failed to solve profound social inequalities and to gain national legitimacy. As a result, political factions have become violent adversaries seeking territorial control. Tragically, these confrontations have been advanced through the forceful expulsion of local inhabitants. Today, terror in Colombia is a contagious physical reality that has forced more than 2 million citizens to abandon their belongings and flee into urban slums amid terrible hardships.

In Colombia, violence does not follow linguistic, religious, or ethnic lines of difference. It is the slightest disparity between persons that acquires the greatest importance, what Freud called the "narcissism of minor differences."4 In this essay, relying on the testimonies of survivors of violence, I would like to examine the figures of "the neighbor" and "the stranger" in two situations of extreme political polarization in Colombia: La Violencia of the 1950s and the generalized war waged today among the military, guerrillas, and paramilitaries.5 Both these periods have been characterized by widespread massacres that function as social symptoms of unsocializable violence.6 In these massacres, perpetrators carry out a series of semantic operations, permeated with enormous metaphorical force, [End Page 80] that dehumanize the victims and their bodies. These technologies of terror seek to expel rural inhabitants from their homes in order to consolidate territorial control. Although massacres are a recurrent cultural practice, the specific alterities they are constructed around have varied from one period to the next.

During La Violencia (1946-64), neighbors used to sharing the same spaces and quotidian practices were transformed into strangers through the intervention of informants. At that time, families in the countryside were politically affiliated with one of the two political parties. This bipartisan polarization coincided with and reinforced the social isolation of rural communities. Internal division was fomented by inflammatory speeches from heads of state, politicians, village priests, electoral bosses, vote buyers, and community leaders belonging to the two parties. Nevertheless, it was an outburst of generalized violence that transformed neighbors into strangers and enemies, precipitating a war of extermination that spread throughout the country. During La Violencia, perpetrators and peasants became involved in a perverse logic. Bandoleros adopted the names and behavior of common birds of prey as well as the practices, strategies, and language used for hunting animals. In turn, peasants adopted the attitude of prey: meek, passive, and terrorized.

Colombia entered the twenty-first century immersed in an internal conflict whose political issues differ substantially from those of La Violencia but in which the battleground remains fundamentally rural. The countryside has been broken apart again by a generalized terror produced by guerrilla and paramilitary groups. This terror is not reducible to each side's fantasies and has had deadly consequences for a largely nonpartisan civilian population. The obsession with manipulating the Other's body characteristic of La Violencia has now been replaced by a faunalization that mimics the industrial slaughter of cattle, entailing a diminution of the meanings ascribed to the Other's...