While national-level studies of Colombia’s contemporary violence can proceed immediately to analysis, confident that readers are broadly familiar with the actors and the stage, regional studies can make no such assumption. The market for the pure testimonio genre pioneered by Alfredo Molano is proof of the continuing “exotic” quality of Colombia’s peripheral regions to an overwhelmingly urban readership. This is certainly true for the Urabá region of northwestern Antioquia, whose economic importance as a banana production/export hub, and paradigmatic quality as one of the most violent regions of a numbingly violent country, have done little to bring the realities of the region home to other Colombians. García, of the Universidad de Antioquia, has given Urabá studies a welcome push forward with an efficient volume that manages to set out the chronology and regional peculiarities of the region’s contemporary violence without sacrificing a problem-oriented analytical framework.
García makes use of fascinating Gobernación archives and testimonio-cum-interviews to trace the development of the region, from sub-Macondo status before i960 to the dual influxes of peasant cultivators and agribusiness in the sixties and beyond. The predictable gamut of land-and-labor disputes in both the eje bananero and the peasant/ ranching periphery of Urabá was initially met with minimal state response; to García, such a situation was sociologically reprehensible—social actors did not understand their roles, and institutionalization was almost nil—but judging from her chronology of social conflict and violence presented in the appendices, it was not particularly deadly by wider standards. According to García, it was the Ejército Popular de Líberación’s ca. 1980 decision to move from the proverbial monte into the eje bananero that provoked parallel phenomena which, in isolation, might be seen as positive: a newly strengthened (if thoroughly EPL-dominated) labor movement began to argue forcefully for recognition and substantive concessions, the previously atomized growers joined together in an effective gremio and met the unions at the negotiating table, and the state began to formulate development plans for the previously forgotten region. The EPL’s new strategy, García suggests, made Urabá an intelligible region for the very first time, by uniting banana and nonbanana subregions (pp. 122-23, 165-66).
Alas, no sociologically good deed went unpunished in Urabá during the 1980s, and each of these developments had a disastrous upshot. Urabá entered the big leagues of Colombian violence in 1985, when the EPL’s guerrilla rival, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas, attempted to recover lost influence in the eje bananero; the EPL-FARC conflict took the form of massacres of banana workers, which became Urabá’s regional specialty of horror. The resurgence of popular movements provoked the rise of paramilitarismo, a murderous phenomenon that García links to the regional elite, though she is predictably light on the specifics. And in the broadest terms, the EPL’s success in linking the region’s disparate popular grievances—including demands of town dwellers for public services—reconfigured all protest as political, and in the collective minds of the military and the regional elite, as outright subversion. The “great paradox” of Urabá’s recent history, García suggests (p. 144), is that efforts by both the state and the guerrillas to win the struggle by relatively de-emphasizing its military side (in favor of union organizing, development projects, etc.) have led to greater violence, as every aspect of regional life is subsumed into the overall conflict. The power of her insight, and its wider relevance, is brought home by the current campaign in Colombia for “la humanización de la guerra”: that the security forces and the guerrillas should fight it out, preferably in unpopulated areas, and leave everyone else alone.
The book makes for rather depressing reading, but García is responsible for very little of it through her authorial choices, apart from a tendency to recycle evidence and phrases that is an inevitable consequence of her analytical method. Her work raises important questions about the potential for national-level understandings of Colombia’s contemporary violence because it so compellingly interprets a case whose structural characteristics and key conjunctures are regionally distinctive.