Beyond Escobar: Murder and Denial in Colombia

For decades, the people of Colombia have been brutalized by a violent civil war fueled by drug money and billions of dollars in military aid from the United States. It’s the bloodiest and most intractable conflict in the Western Hemisphere but it remains poorly understood and seldom discussed in the U.S.

 For insight into the plight of Colombia, Town Hall is proud to present Maria McFarland Sánchez Moreno, author of ‘There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia’. Maria worked for over a decade at Human Rights Watch chronicling stories of violence and corruption in Columbia. Her new book reveals what she learned there, but also tells the story of courageous individuals who resisted paramilitary violence and provide some hope for justice and peace in that country. 

 She will be speaking about the book at a Town Hall event on Tuesday, March 27th but in the meantime I spoke with Maria about Colombia, the United States’ role there, and the intersectional consequences of the war on drugs throughout the world.

Get tickets for Maria’s upcoming event on 3/27.

EW: Thanks so much for talking to me. We’re very excited to be presenting you.

MMSM: I’m super excited about it! It will be wonderful to be in Seattle and to get to present the book there.

For many Americans the main thing they know about the Drug War and the conflict in Colombia is the story of Pablo Escobar. But your book actually begins after his death in the mid 90s, which far from ending the violence actually catapulted the country into a new phase of extreme conflict. So can you share a little bit about the context in which your story begins?

Yeah. So a lot of people think that Colombia is about Pablo Escobar and that after he died things somehow got better, but that’s not true. After Pablo Escobar was killed, other groups immediately stepped into his shoes and in particular people who were involved in getting him killed—a group called the Pepes, people persecuted by Escobar, who were former associates of his—immediately took the reins of the drug business. They were closely connected and in many cases they were the leaders of a paramilitary groups in Colombia, which claimed to be fighting left-wing guerrillas, claimed to be protecting people from abuses by the guerrillas, but in fact served as death squads for powerful interests and drug trafficking and became a huge factor in their violence. And so as they expanded throughout the 90s, they committed horrific massacres: killings of trade unionists, of community leaders, indigenous leaders, people who got in their way, and tried to spread terror in communities that were on territory that they wanted to control.

They would claim, for example, that a particular community was working with the guerrillas and use that as an excuse to go in and pull everybody out of their homes, commit a massacre, kill several people in front of their families, torture them, rape the women, in some cases a kill people in very gruesome ways, and in that way, force the rest of the community to flee in terror. So you had, even as the violence was happening, you had also this massive force displacement crisis where hundreds of thousands, eventually millions of people were fleeing the communities that they lived in—mainly rural communities— and moving into slums on the fringes of major cities.

The internal displacement crisis in Colombia prior to the Syrian civil war was one of the largest refugee crises in the world.

People don’t know that about Colombia. It’s also something that’s happened over many years and so people didn’t see it.

The conflict in Colombia can be so grim and the accounts of the violence can be so chilling that I was happy to see that you structured your book around profiles of activists who were able to mount effective resistance, some of whom paid with their lives. Can you tell us the story of one of these characters and why you approached the book this way?

When I was covering Colombia for Human Rights Watch, I got to know so many people in the country who had, despite all the pressures against them, all the pressures to either work with criminal organizations or armed groups or at least look the other way from their abuses, these people had insisted on standing up to those pressures and instead pressing for what they thought was right for justice, for truth, for basic human rights. And these are often very ordinary people who just could not go with the flow even though it would’ve been much easier and safer for them to do so. And those stories were never told in the United States. Most of the stories that come out of Colombia in the U.S. are either about Pablo Escobar or maybe you hear a little bit about the FARC’s kidnappings or you hear about DEA agents as the heroes.

When the real heroes I got to know were very different. So I started working on the book, focusing on this one character named Iván Velásquez, who I got to know when I was covering Colombia for Human Rights Watch. And he was an assistant justice on the Colombian Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction to investigate congress. He, one day was sitting in his office and received a complaint. It was very simple. It said: the paramilitary leaders who are negotiating now with the government on the terms of a supposed peace deal have claimed that they have friends in 35% of Congress. Please investigate this. This is very disturbing. And Iván Velásquez, who had had a history of investigating paramilitary crimes and other positions in the past, could have set that aside. He knew how dangerous it would have been to really go after the paramilitaries or their allies in Congress.

But he decided to take a look and there wasn’t much to go on. He started looking at old case files that were lying around in the court that might point in the right direction. And he started finding that there were a whole bunch of old case files that included evidence that was relevant and slowly he started finding witnesses and he built a series of cases against members of Congress eventually leading to what became known as the parapolitics scandal, where about a third of the Colombian congress ended up in prison for working with the paramilitaries, conspiring with them to commit electoral fraud, and in one case, murder.

Another party in this conflict is the United States. What was Plan Colombia, when did it start and what were its goals?

Well, the United States has been in involved with Colombia for decades. The war on drugs officially started in the 1980s and the US started increasing its aid to Colombia around then in the late 90s after a peace negotiation with the FARC guerrillas failed the US started Plan Colombia, which was a massive influx of mostly military aid into the country, meant to supposedly help with counter-narcotics but also provide greater security in the country, more order. And unfortunately because of that, because the vast majority of that money was going to the military, in practice the US was supporting a party in the conflict that was working with paramilitaries who themselves were among the country’s biggest drug traffickers. So in terms of fighting the war on drugs that didn’t really make any sense,

What has the Trump Administration’s policy been towards Colombia?

Well, it’s interesting, the Trump administration has been very critical of the Colombian government. The government a few years ago suspended areal fumigation of cocoa crops. In part that was because the WHO itself has said that glyphosate, which was being used to fumigate the cocoa crops, could produce cancer. And so they made this decision, they stopped it, the US didn’t like that. And then it appears that the Trump administration doesn’t like the peace deal with the FARC and cocoa production has gone up in recent years due to a variety of factors. And so Trump is approaching this long-time ally by threatening them and saying that he might remove them from the list of countries that cooperates with us on narcotics. So it’s a very aggressive, hostile approach at a time when Colombia is maybe starting to shift policy.

This isn’t that surprising because Trump, when it comes to the war on drugs, has been completely over the top. I mean, he and Jeff Sessions not only wanting to go back to the most aggressive harshest way of talking about the war on drugs, but they want to go even further and so you have Trump recently calling for the death penalty for people who sell drugs.

Echoing Duterte, the president of the Philippines.

Praising Duterte! And so it’s not surprising he’s using the war on drugs domestically as a way to get his base riled up. You know, the war on drugs within the United States has always targeted primarily people of color and he is using it clearly as an excuse to go after immigrants in particular. And against people who he’s stigmatizing as undesirable—people who sell drugs, people who use drugs. It’s easy to demonize and then get people angry and then say “let’s kill them,” even if that does absolutely nothing to solve any problems.

For more about the human rights crisis in the Philippines, check out Town Hall’s April 6th event PANALIPDAN! DEFEND!

And that’s a nice segue into the last thing I wanted to ask you about, because a lot of the research into this book was done in your previous role at Human Rights Watch, doing watchdog work in Colombia, but you recently moved to a new position as the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. A lot of people in the Pacific Northwest are very proud of our region’s forward-thinking policies on drugs and marijuana decriminalization and later legalization.

And LEAD and supervised consumption sites!

What do you see as the relationship between organizing to resist the Drug War domestically and your previous work and the subject of this book which touches on the impacts of the Drug War internationally?

For me, the War on Drugs is a root cause of many of the social justice problems that I’ve tried to tackle throughout my career. So in Colombia I saw how the War on Drugs meant that this created this huge illicit market in drugs that fueled organized crime, that gave them this enormous power and ability to corrupt authorities and undermine democracy and kill people in enormous numbers. Later on I worked more internationally and I saw very similar patterns in Afghanistan and Mexico again: the drug trade fueled by prohibition in turn leading to massive violence and corruption. But then later on I worked on the US as co-director of the US program at Human Rights Watch and I worked on criminal justice issues here and immigration and national security issues. And again, I saw how the War on Drugs was this major factor fueling the mass criminalization of people in the United States.

In other words millions of people getting arrested in most cases for nothing more than consuming drugs. So possessing drugs for personal use. Overwhelmingly these arrests are affecting people of color. Even though black and brown people use drugs at the same rate as whites, they are arrested for using those drugs three times as often as white people. So many people are deported because of low-level drug offenses. For simple marijuana possession, many, many immigrants end up deported. Even green card holders who would otherwise be allowed to stay. The War on Drugs has even been used as an excuse to justify mass surveillance both in the US and abroad. So to me this is a critical issue that we need to address that we can also tackle so many other social justice problems that I care about.

Well, thank you so much for doing this work and for writing this book.

Thank you so much. I’ll say one, one more little thing. I think the book in addition to getting people to think about the war on drugs, I hope it inspires people because we’re talking about characters in this book who are ordinary people yet made tremendous change possible in their country, even under the most dire of circumstances. And if that was possible for them in Colombia, it’s certainly possible for people who are fighting for change in this country.

 Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno will be speaking at Phinney Neighborhood Center on Tuesday, March 27 presented by Town Hall Seattle.

Kory Stamper Would Like a Word

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer who worked for nearly two decades at Merriam-Webster dictionary, a world she reveals in the new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. She will be speaking about the book at her upcoming Town Hall event on Sunday, March 25th. In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley spoke with her about her love of language, the lexical merits of emojis, and the wonderfully weird word that is ‘gardyloo.’

Get tickets for Kory’s upcoming event on 3/25.


You’re a lexicographer. For the common person, what is that?
A lexicographer is a writer and editor of dictionaries.

Have you always had an interest in words and writing and reading?
I always loved reading but really in high school I started loving individual words—the way that individual words sounded, or what they meant, or how they could be deployed.

Anytime I told people what I did for a living I was bombarded with questions and assumptions about what the job was and lots of assumptions about what English was that just aren’t true.

I started blogging about language and then decided to write this book as a behind-the-scenes of how dictionaries are made but also to give people some kind of entry point into what English actually is. As a dictionary writer, you often hear from people who think English is dying and they complain that English is falling by the way side, and kids these days and so forth.

Texting and emojis…
Exactly. Soon we’re all going to devolve into gestures and grunts. But the reality is that all of things actually enrich English. English is such a resilient and wild and beautiful language. I wanted to write the book as a love letter to this oft-maligned language that is actually really inventive and beautiful.

What do you hope readers gain from reading your book, then?
The recognition that language is dynamic and dictionaries are dynamic. That neither of those things are, or should be, static. Language changes at a really quick pace and that’s good and right, so dictionaries should also change and that is also right.

I suppose people are often surprised that dictionaries don’t just sit at the library, the giant tome opened up. I’m assuming a lot of people believe that’s still the case. It’s just a thing that existed and it is never edited, reworked, redone. It’s just like the Bible.
The analogy of the Bible is a really good one because it’s not that it doesn’t move or change but for some people the dictionary has this elevated status. It is the arbiter of good English. It tells you exactly where the language is. That’s just not the case. Dictionaries just record the language which is terrifying when people realize what that means. The language is pretty wild. You can’t really stuff it into a box very easily.

Do you get complaints when people think there’s a word that isn’t elevated enough to be placed in the dictionary?
They’ll always find something that they don’t think deserve to be in the language. just this week announced that they’re trying something new. They’re going to enter some emoji into their dictionary. From a lexical and linguistic standpoint, emoji are used as lexical items. So that makes sense. The response to that has been like is blowing up the English language. Because people are responding with ‘Those aren’t words.’ ‘That’s not real communication.’ ‘Only kids use those.’ People find just amazing things to complain about whenever a dictionary does anything.

So, personally what is your least favorite word?
In a professional capacity I have no least favorite word.

Off the record.
Lexicographers are people, too. We all have our own likes and dislikes. I cannot stand the word impactful. I understand that is an irrational dislike. I’m completely aware of how irrational that is. I’ve had to revise the entry for impactful, so I’m very aware of how current it is. It’s just a word I don’t like.

What are some of your favorite words?
One word I love because it makes me laugh that there is a word for this and that there’s enough use of it for it to merit entry into the dictionary is the word gardyloo. Its definition is something like “used as a warning cry in Edinburgh when it was customary to throw slop out the upper story window” I love that there’s a word for that.

The specificity!
Yeah! Only in Edinburgh. Only during this time when it was customary. I love that. Etymologists, people who study word histories, think that gardyloo actually comes from French. Which tells you something about not just the time this was used but also that there was a time when Scotland was under French rule. But it’s a ridiculous word! But I love that it’s ridiculous. I love that it has a place in the language.

For more from Kory Stamper come see her on Sunday, March 25th at 6:00pm at Seattle University, presented by Town Hall Seattle. Thanks for listening.

Jazz on the Mountaintop—Summit in Seattle

On March 2, four jazz powerhouses gather for the Summit in Seattle—a first-ever performance together in this configuration, with no rehearsal or setlist! They come together, warm up, and then dive into an evening of collective improvisation, collaboration, and musical risk-taking. The event is the brainchild of Global Rhythms 2017-18 Co-Curator Daniel Atkinson, and represents a form of jazz he seldom sees represented in today’s musical landscape. Atkinson sat down for an interview with Town Hall’s copywriter, Alexander Eby, to discuss his vision.

AE: The Summit in Seattle is a pretty unusual event. What makes it so unique?

DA: The fact that it’s unusual is precisely why I put this event together. I envisioned the Summit as a way to get back to the true roots of jazz. The format goes back 100 years—a group of musicians at the top of their game with no setlist, listening to each other’s language and finding their own way to speak and respond to one another. It’s an arrangement that harkens back to the ritualistic traditions that define jazz as an art form.

AE: Can you tell me more about that?

DA: At its core, jazz is about musical risk-taking. Success is defined not by playing what’s written, but by taking those risks—by almost failing and then not. An artist becomes a conduit for the culture rather than a destination. They push themselves and their instrumental skills by understanding their relationship to the other artists. That’s why there’s no setlist. Jazz lives in the moment. Mistakes become opportunities to work out potentially new ideas. I want to give these guys a chance to express themselves and navigate that process together and ultimately have fun!

AE: Why put on a performance like this in Seattle?

DA: People in the Seattle jazz community want to promote equity. The Summit is my way of doing exactly that. I wanted to give these four master musicians of color a chance to collaborate with no restrictions and celebrate an art form with roots in West African and Afro-American music traditions.

AE: Is that what makes this concert a great fit for the Global Rhythms series?

DA: Exactly. The musical forms that define jazz, like syncopation and the blues scale, were introduced and popularized by Black artists in the early 1900’s. The context of jazz has changed over time to become more convenient for conspicuous consumption, but jazz began as a space for Black musical expression. It’s a style that (for a very short time) created spaces where a Black performer could be respected for the merit of their musical skill, not judged for their skin color.

AE: Could you give me an example of one of these spaces?

DA: Jam sessions are a prime example. In 1930’s New York, the jam session was an environment that tested a musician’s mettle. A Black musician could demonstrate his/her prowess, and if a White musician couldn’t answer the call, they would have to sit down and make way for someone who possibly could. Value was placed on the merit of musicianship—and bred a learning process. If you couldn’t match or surpass another musician’s skill one night, you went to the woodshed and came back when you felt ready to try again.

AE: And with four masters onstage at the Summit, improvising and adapting to one another is the name of the game.

DA: That’s right. There are two MacArthur Fellows in this group; they’re at the top of their game.

AE: These musicians come from a variety of backgrounds: jazz, hip-hop, R&B, soul. Do you think they’ll have trouble adapting to each other’s styles?

DA: You know, a lot of people have forgotten that those genres actually take their roots from the same place. Back in the early Jim Crow era, what we know as jazz was called “race music.” Eventually it was changed to “rhythm and blues” to make the music easier for White audiences to conspicuously consume, and finally became known as “rock and roll” when White artists took it over completely.

Jazz, gospel, blues, R&B, and hip-hop, are genres that retained certain elements of that progenitor—of “race music”—which were not transposed to rock and roll. The syncopation, the improvisation, the focus on self-expression and adapting to your fellow musicians instead of cutting and pasting ideas together in the spirit of improvisation to an audience that remains benevolently ignorant. This style has gone through so many identity changes that it’s no longer a Black art form, but ultimately the masters playing at the Summit do share a musical lineage—which begins first as a recognition of where it comes from and its uniquely Afro-American, cultural cache. That’s why it’s so important to me that Black musicians be given a space to express their mastery in an art form that is, at its roots, Black.

AE: Do you have any thoughts to prepare audiences for this show?

DA: This performance will be what it will be. Improvisation, risk—this is jazz at its core. As an audience member, you’re witnessing a space for four masters to collaborate and negotiate their process together in real time. It’s probably one of the only times you’re going to see anything like this—it’s an arrangement that just doesn’t happen very often anymore, as much as I wish it did. But I couldn’t bring the mountain down, so to speak, so I put together the Summit to bring the audience to the mountaintop.

Join us March 2 for this exciting collaboration!

Jonathan Talks to Jonathan

Jonathan Kauffman, a James Beard Award-winning writer, is returning to Seattle. The former restaurant critic at Seattle Weekly, he will be at West Seattle’s Westside School to discuss his new book, Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat on Tuesday, February 27th at 7:30 pm.

Jonathan recently sat down with Jonathan Shipley, Town Hall’s Marketing Manager, to discuss lentil casseroles, vegetarian cults, and the horror of carob.

JS: You lived in Seattle and now live in San Francisco. What’s different between each city’s food cultures?

JK: They’re really similar. There’s more money in San Francisco and so there are more high-end restaurants. The Chinese population is greater here, so there are better and more Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. Seattle’s got better seafood and, since it’s not as expensive as San Francisco, there’s more willingness to experiment in Seattle. They can try new things.

JS: What do you miss about Seattle?

JK: My family and my friends.

JS: What don’t you miss about Seattle?

JK: I like sunlight. I like that I don’t have to take Vitamin D supplements anymore.

JS: What inspired this new book of yours?

JK: I was having a meal in Seattle at The Sunlight Café on Roosevelt. I was being served steamed vegetable with tahini dressing, and whole wheat pastries, and veggie burgers and I was hit with a sudden sense of nostalgia. I grew up in the middle of Indiana. How did I grow up eating this food? How did lentil casseroles and stir fried vegetables with tofu and South African stews get there?

JS: What hippie food is your favorite?

JK: My reset meal is a big wok full of stir fried vegetables and tofu over brown rice.

JS: What hippie food do you detest?

JK: Carob is horrifying.

JS: Who was the most interesting interview subject in your book?

JK: Former members of the Source Family. They were members of a vegetarian cult in the 1960s and 70s under Father Yod. They dressed in white, lived in a mansion, were in a rock band (Ya Ho Wha 13), and earned their money off an organic vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles. They are pretty lovely people and are very positive about their time.

JS: What fact did you uncover in the book that most delights you?

JK: Tempeh [an Indonesian dish made by deep-frying fermented soybeans] was introduced by The Farm, at one time the biggest commune in America. The Farm, still in operation in Tennessee, have made three lasting contributions to the world: tempeh, home births, and radiation detection. I totally love them.

Whether you’re into granola or sprouts, co-ops or quinoa, Town Hall looks forward to hosting Kauffman at the Westside School. Join us!

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