Walking Ghosts by Steven Dudley

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Excerpt from Walking Ghosts

The following is an excerpt from Steven Dudley’s book, Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia. The book is about the Unión Patriótica, a political party the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas created during peace negotiations with the government in the mid-1980s. Over 3,000 members of the UP were assassinated, mostly by the Colombian army and their right-wing paramilitary allies. Only a handful of army personnel have been prosecuted for these crimes, and the FARC uses the slaughter to justify their never-ending civil war against the state.


Prologue: The Martyrs
(photo courtesy of Justicia y Paz)

In Colombia there are walking ghosts, people who have crossed death’s frontier. They’re still alive, but many of them wish they were dead. Living, as it stands, is a burden. They’re not suicidal. They’re just suffering because their enemies have them cornered. The time they have left is short and they know it. They’re surrounded by threats and bodyguards. Not only is death beckoning but guilt. These walking ghosts live in a world of wakes and funerals. They have survived when so many others have perished. What’s left of them is often used to hasten the end, to take that final step into the other world. While some search for safety, most of them search for a perch where they can die with dignity. They’d rather be considered martyrs than cowards.

I met one such walking ghost in 1995, early in my stay in Colombia. His name was Josue Giraldo. Josue was an inconspicuous person, Colombian in so many ways. He had dark, wavy brown hair, which was neatly trimmed, and a light, European-mestizo colored skin. The first and only time we met, he was clean-shaven and wearing a pressed shirt and pants. He was compact and strong. He reminded me of the wrestlers I’d known in high school. His friends later told me that Josue played basketball and soccer, and jogged regularly.

But Josue's cool look couldn't hide his anxiety. He was noticeably nervous. His movements were jerky, and he had a rigid handshake. We exchanged names and a few pleasantries that day but little else. Words came quickly out of his mouth, and I had a hard time understanding him because I was still getting used to Colombian Spanish.

Josue lived in a world I was only beginning to understand. His main job was in human rights. He worked Josue Giraldowith a Catholic non-governmental organization, Justicia y Paz, in Bogotá and the local human rights committee in the city of Villavicencio, the capital of the province of Meta and the beginning of the vast Eastern Plains that covers nearly a third of Colombia’s territory. But Josue was also a member of the Communist Party and one of the few remaining active militants of a leftist political party known as the Unión Patriótica or Patriotic Union, which people called the UP. In human rights and politics, Josue could not have chosen two more dangerous professions in Colombia.

The day we met, Josue had driven four hours from his home in Villavicencio through the steep mountain pass to Bogotá. He was going to be a panelist at a human rights conference. Two bodyguards were with him, and he was carrying a little pistol that he tucked in the front of his pants beneath his belt. I was working with an international human rights organization at the time and was accompanying him to the panel as an added measure of protection. Despite the guns and guards, I was as jittery as he was as we set off towards the conference in his armored car. I had been in Colombia for about two weeks, and I was terrified. I thought it would be like other countries I'd visited where fear of the unknown wears off quickly once you arrive. Instead, I found myself just waiting for something bad to happen.

The Colombia I had known up until then was mostly from the few English-language books on the country. They compare Colombia’s civil war to others around the world. And at its roots, Colombia’s war is like most. Close to half of the population is in poverty. There is a severe shortage of functioning schools and health facilities. About 15 percent of the population is illiterate and a quarter lack basic public services like electricity and water. The richest 10 percent of the population control more than half of the wealth. Four percent of the ranches and farms occupy three-quarters of the arable land. The inequalities lead to unrest, which leads to protest, which leads to war.

The books highlight the civil strife by giving horrible figures: nearly 30,000 murders per year (15 times that of the United States); 75 political assassinations a week; 10 people kidnapped per day. There are over 20,000 leftist guerrilla soldiers fighting 250,000 government soldiers and police. There are another 10,000 of the government’s proxies, the right-wing paramilitaries, who fight the rebels and assassinate anyone they suspect aids the guerrillas. Most of these armed men are hidden in army barracks, distant jungles, and mountainside hideouts. Still, to a newcomer like myself, the numbers were overwhelming. In my first few weeks, everyone was a potential assailant, and every situation had become a dangerous one. The abstract left me with an utter sense of dread, especially when I spent time with people who had death threats like Josue.

Raindrops slid down the car windows as Josue, his bodyguards, and I wove through the Bogotá traffic that day. The moisture blurred the lights of the other cars that jostled for position between the lanes. Impatient drivers honked furiously at the traffic cops, the cars in front of them, the rain, and anything else that was in their way. Downtown Bogotá looks like a modern city—tall buildings, fancy apartments, bright neon signs—covered with a layer of soot. When it rains, the mud simply deepens and the traffic becomes unbearable. I didn't like being stationary for long periods of time that day, but the cars were stacked in a seemingly impossible knot.

Inside our car, there was little noise: no radio, no talking, just an occasional “clink” when the bodyguards' machine guns tapped the windows as the car jerked into motion again. Josue and I sat in the backseat together. We didn't speak about him, his human rights work, or the UP; I didn't really know too much about the political party that would later become my obsession, just that it was a major target of the paramilitary groups flourishing around the country. I was also too unsettled by the guns to speak in complete sentences.

After 45 minutes in the Bogotá rain, we finally reached the conference. The auditorium was half-full. We removed our jackets and shook off the water. I settled into my seat. Josue made his way to the front to greet the other panelists. Then I noticed something odd, the first indication that Josue was special: The others on the panel stood up to greet him and shook his hand gently; he spoke collegially to them while they simply smiled at him, talked to him slowly, then stepped out of the way as he moved to sit down. None of this would have been so strange except for the fact that Josue was only 36 at the time, younger than all of them. Yet they treated him like he was an old, withering soldier. The gestures didn’t seem so much out of pity as reverence. It soon became obvious that Josue was a hero to many of them, a survivor from a lost era. The panel began. And although Josue sat next to them, the other panelists made references about him as if he wasn't even there

Colombia's democracy is lauded as one of the oldest in the region. Democratic elections were interrupted only once during the mid-1950's by a brief military dictatorship. There's a thriving party system, albeit most of the activity is limited to the two traditional parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. The two parties have been running the country since the early 19th Century. They've alternated power in democratic and less than democratic ways. More importantly, they've sown the seeds of loyalty so deep that it's been impossible to unseat them from their throne. For over a hundred years, Colombians have been either Liberal or Conservative. It was in their blood, it was said, as much as the tradition of voting. Even when military dictators took over many other Latin American countries for long stretches in the 1960's and 70's, the two parties weathered the storm and the country remained a democracy. What's more, Colombia's leading politicians condemned the repression throughout the region.

But it was as ingenuous as it was hypocritical for the Colombians to take the moral high ground during the dictatorships. Violence has always surrounded Colombian politics and most of it has been administered by these two ruling parties. There have been countless civil wars, the most famous of which have daunting names like "The War of a Thousand Days," or the "War of the Supremes." In the 19th Century alone, one historian counted 59 "local revolutions." Political violence is almost as common as elections. Still, Colombia has a way of propping itself up as a beacon of development and first world values even while politicians are being assassinated in staggering numbers.

Such was the case with Josue Giraldo's party, the UP. The UP was a tiny leftist party, a marginal player compared to the Liberals and Conservatives. At its height in the mid-1980's, the UP garnered a small percentage of the vote. Its impact was largely symbolic. Despite the UP's size and scant representation, it had given the country a startling number of martyrs, which I had read about before coming to Colombia. For me, these dead were largely a faceless group-another figure to throw into the mix along with the number of murders per year, political assassinations per week, and kidnappings per day. But then, on that rainy day in Bogota, I went with Josue to that conference, and he did something that none of the books I'd read could have: He stood up between his admiring colleagues and gave the UP victims shape and meaning.

They were unionists, teachers, students, housewives, and children. Some made the speeches, Josue said, others organized the crowds; the majority simply attended the rallies and voted. Many of them were rejoining politics after a long absence, he explained. They'd given up on the democratic process as long as the Liberals and Conservatives dominated the government. Before the UP was founded in 1984, they'd believed all politicians were corrupt, and voting didn't seem to change this fact. But for a brief time the UP had given them hope, and many of them had returned to politics with a renewed vigor. They all paid for this choice with their lives.

Some UP politicians were murdered in full public view-in front of their homes, their friends, their children, their wives. Other militants were killed as they traveled along dirt roads or played billiards in popular pool halls. UP members died drinking coffee in outdoor cafés, picking up their children for school or parking their cars. Other UP leaders' lives were torn apart by threats or assassination attempts that forced them into exile.

The party's killers used automatic weapons and pistols, Josue said. Very often men riding double on motorcycles or leaning out of cars with tinted windows fired the guns. These men didn't hide their faces. But few of them have ever gone to jail for these murders, he lamented. The investigations sat in stacks in the attorney general's office. Those behind these crimes didn't hide either, he added. Many of them were rival politicians in the Liberal and Conservative Parties who publicly vilified the UP at every turn and paved the way for the hitmen to kill even more of them.

In all, perhaps as many as 3,000 UP leaders and supporters had been killed. Josue called it a "political genocide." Many relatives and friends of the victims didn't seek redress in the cases of their loved ones because they feared for their lives and saw justice as a remote possibility. Only a few dozen paramilitary assassins and low level army personnel had ever served time for killing a UP militant. The party, Josue concluded, had been destroyed on every level, and the democratic left was still recovering from what was a deciding blow to its belief that the region's oldest and most celebrated democracy really was a democracy.

Josue had probably given the talk a hundred times, but for me it was a turning point. For the first time, I could see the front lines in Colombia's war. They weren't made up of rivers and mountains where the guerrillas and paramilitaries were hiding. They were made up houses, parks, cafes, and armored cars driving through traffic jams in Bogota. And the front-line soldiers weren't carrying Kalashnakovs and marching toward army barracks. They were carrying notebooks and participating in human rights conference

By the time I met Josue Giraldo, this idea that the UP were dying for its cause was all it had left to fight for. And this is what made Josue a walking ghost. He couldn’t win the war. He couldn’t even win the battle. Josue’s side had lost. Thousands were in the morgue. Hundreds were on the run. Josue and some of his brave UP colleagues were all that was left. Yet, there they stood sticking their chests out, waiting for the bullets to hit them. It was sad and inspiring all at once. In a way, I don’t blame Josue or the UP for taking this unconventional stance. They were a product of Colombia’s violent political history and victims of its unforgiving wrath. For them, the only way to live was to prepare for death. They were the martyrs.

Part of Josue enjoyed this dark fame. He liked being slapped on the back by his colleagues, revered by fellow panelists, and considered a hero in leftist political circles. Josue was a member of both the Communist Party and the UP. He was a revolutionary and as such was a willing soldier in the fight to topple the government either through political or military means. Like the UP, he was the embodiment of la combinacion de todas las formas de lucha. He embraced the idea that he could contribute to the revolution, which sometimes meant helping the leftist rebels. It was a strategy that confused me--why help the guerrillas and at the same time openly campaign for human and political rights? Even stranger, Josue’s status seemed to rise, including his position within the UP, as he became more of a target. Around the time I met him, he was said to have a $30,000 price tag on his head. This left him both scared and proud.

But while he liked the attention he got from surviving, Josue didn’t quite know how to handle living, as it was. Through eleven years of politics in the most targeted political party in the country, somehow he’d been spared; many of his closest friends and colleagues had not, and this seemed to eat away at him. He became manic, unpredictable. On some days, Josue could be defiant, daring his enemies to kill him. On other days, he behaved like a frightened puppy dog. Everyday he was paranoid. He had trouble sleeping. He would wake up at night, walk around the house or read. The anxiety mostly made him cautious. He would change his routes, avoid getting into predictable routines, and never go out after dark. He loved sports but limited his activities. He would jog in front of the house where his wife, Mariela, could keep an eye on the road and the abandoned lot in front of their two-story mini-colonial house.

But the constant threat wore Josue down. He told his wife about his fears, and she urged him to leave the UP. “No,” he would reply, “that would be like being a coward.” And she wouldn’t mention it again. She didn’t want to be bitter one, the one who tore him away from his struggle, his dream. But Josue shared some of her feelings as well. He longed to live a normal life, to jog in the park without his wife having to keep watch; to be with his two young daughters without fear they might suffer in an attack on him. But what Josue found out, like so many UP members before him, was that these two urges—a dedication to the UP and a desire to live a normal life—were, in effect, polar opposites. Dedication to the UP meant leading a normal life was impossible because Josue was on the front lines.

“We don’t go to the movies,” Josue wrote of his family life. “We don’t go out dancing. We don’t go to the park. We don’t have guests over. We’ve shut ourselves into a room because of this death sentence. It’s like we’re in prison. We can’t even think about taking a trip, not even in our own city. I don’t like going out with the girls because it puts them at risk. I can’t even get an ice cream with them. This has helped me stay alive but at a huge cost to my family. We have moments of collective tension because of this prison-like existence when we just feel like exploding; we want to throw ourselves out the window or run away.”

On the morning he was finally killed, Josue was trying to be what he couldn’t: a playful father. He and his daughters were putting up a tent in the lot in front of their home. As Josue took a machete to the grass to make room for the tent, his friend and colleague Michael, a lawyer with the human rights group, Justicia y Paz, and a US citizen who was visiting him that weekend, sat on the front steps reading a book. After clearing the grassy area with a machete, Josue began setting up the tent with Michael's help. The girls played near them and occasionally offered to hold a stake steady while their father gently hammered it into the ground.

Josue’s wife, Mariela, was inside the house putting on her makeup for church. In contrast to Mariela, who never missed mass, Josue didn't go to church. His faith, he said, came from helping other people. "I think I'll go to heaven much faster than anyone in church," Josue often told Mariela. And he believed it. His lifetime commitment to the UP, to a party forged with the blood of martyrs, gave him the right to believe a lot of things.

The tent was only partway up when a short, curly-haired man with a thin mustache appeared on the other end of the lot and slowly approached Josue. Since he'd joined the UP eleven years before, Josue had begun noticing strange movements and suspicious characters. He also knew what assassins looked like since they'd shot him once already; the only reason he'd survived the first attack was because the gunman ran out of bullets before he could finish the job.

But on this day, Josue’s guard had fallen. As the assassin slinked through the tall grass feeling for his gun, Josue didn’t even notice him. Perhaps he was daydreaming. Perhaps he was wrapped up in his daughters' joy of putting up a tent. Perhaps he was wondering if his friend Michael was enjoying himself. Perhaps he was just trying to be normal and had given up looking over his shoulder wondering when the bullet was going to come again. He wouldn’t have been the first UP member to feel that way. For the UP, there seemed to be an endless number of assassins, and they didn’t stop until they’d hit their target. Others before him had tired of the chase and taken death head on. Josue, it appeared, was doing the same. He’d left his bodyguards in Bogotá that weekend. He’d put his pistol away in the house. He was ready, and it was his time.

The curly-haired man was only a few feet away when Josue finally noticed him. He immediately shouted to his daughters, "Run! Run! Run!" But the gunman was already firing at him. The UP leader began running, zigzagging across the grassy lot. Michael grabbed the girls and ran into the house. Then he turned to see the gunman standing over Josue with his weapon pointed at the back of his friend's head. Michael watched as the gun recoiled and Josue’s body jiggled in one last dying gasp. Then the assassin shot a second time just to make sure and ran to other end of the lot where he sped off with another man on a motorcycle.

Josue slumped over on his side spilling blood onto the pavement. He lay face up in the street, his eyes wide open. His journey was over. Along with his UP colleagues, he’d transformed into a martyr, a dead soldier in the battle for his party.

Josue’s death jolted me. If his speech on that rainy day in Bogotá made the UP victims real, then his murder brought the UP dilemma horrifyingly close. It also brought on some questions that went beyond just trying to resolve the identity of his killers. Who was Josue and how could he accept such a certain fate? What was it that was so worth dying for when he had such a beautiful family?

How did he become the person he was: both cowering and defiant, submissive and combative?
The questions didn’t have easy answers so I began to find out more about Josue and his political party. Over time, I got to a know a man who perplexed me and a political party that enthralled me. Like the UP, Josue was a living contradiction. He was a strange mixture of dedicated father and uncompromising UP militant. He lived for his family but never seemed to truly assess what he meant to them, alive. For he was, it seemed, caught up in a struggle that went against all common sense. This struggle led Josue and the UP to their ends.

I also found out that Josue’s martyrdom was just a part of the larger story, as was he. The UP was full of walking ghosts like Josue, but the UP was also once full of energetic and creative people who believed in the party. These people weren’t interested in la combinacion de todas las formas de lucha. They didn’t take orders from the FARC or the Communist Party. They weren’t trying to become martyrs. They sought to work through democracy. They believed the UP wasn’t just a part of the struggle of the masses, it was the struggle.

I discovered there was even a time when Josue himself was more hopeful than submissive. When the UP first started he was a daring young Communist lawyer who joined the party to fight for peace; a tireless organizer who set up art openings, read poetry, and directed plays for the nascent party; a sports lover, a giving father, and a dedicated husband. In those days Josue had life and spirit for his cause. He was afraid, of course, but that fear was mitigated by the incredible possibilities.

As I found out, the story of the UP was less about fear and submission than about boundless hope. When the party started, thousands like the spirited Josue joined the UP to push for an end to the war. As the party’s name suggested, they were patriots. They saw Colombia as one of the wealthiest and most educated countries in Latin America. And they saw politics as a means to start a new peaceful era. Events surrounding them made them believe in themselves and their party even more. The government and the FARC were talking peace. Guerrillas were coming down from the mountains and campaigning for political posts. Opposition politicians were supporting the UP’s efforts.

Indeed, a story that would end in tragedy began with courage and optimism. And that’s where I need to begin.

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