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Mary Roldán. Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia, 1946-1953. Latin America Otherwise Series. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. xiii + 392 pp. Maps, illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8223-2903-4; $23.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8223-2918-2.

Reviewed by James D. Henderson, Department of Politics and Geography, Coastal Carolina University.
Published by H-LatAm (October, 2003)

A Regional History of the Early Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia

This is the most thoroughly researched of the several regional histories of Colombia's Violencia, the civil conflict occurring there between 1947 and 1965. In Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia, 1946-1953, Cornell historian Mary Roldán takes up the early phase of what Colombians call their "classic" violence. That phase extended from 1947, the second year of Conservative President Mariano Ospina Pérez's term in office (1946-50), to the overthrow of Conservative President Laureano Gomez in mid-1953.

Roldán's focus is Antioquia, the large coffee and textile-producing department (state) located in northwestern Colombia. About the size of the state of West Virginia, Antioquia had a population of 1,570,000 during the years under consideration. That relatively small population approximates that of present-day Nevada.

Antioquia is a place well known to the author, as members of her immediate family live in Medellín. While residing in Antioquia's capital during the late 1980s, Roldan researched departmental and municipal archives and conducted personal interviews throughout the department. This research is impressive. Standing at its center are the 113-volume archives of the Governor of Antioquia (52 volumes) and of the department's Secretariat (61 volumes). These archival sources are complemented by others housed in Bogota and elsewhere in Colombia. Her research was undertaken as she pursued a doctorate in history at Harvard University.

This regional study does a better job than any other in illustrating the essential paradox of Colombia's Violencia: while maddeningly complex in its particulars, the phenomenon was simple in terms of cause. LaViolencia_, along with most other Colombian violence, past and present, was founded in the country's ineffective governance of national territory. That was and remains particularly the case in Colombia's outlying regions.

Violence-prone regions of Colombia have typically had a low level of state institutional presence, owing in large part to their physical inaccessibility. As Mary Roldán puts it, "In the areas where the regional state was strong and enjoyed legitimacy, partisan violence never threatened the status quo and was largely avoided or was mediated in nonviolent ways.... It was in geographically peripheral areas where the regional and central state claims and their respective clientelist networks came into severe competition and formed a significant catalyst to violence" (pp. 34-35).

At the book's core are four lengthy chapters treating Antioquia's principal regions: the central and southern portions, northeast, northwest, and southwest. The first chapter deals with the department's coffee-growing heartland surrounding Medellín and extending southward to the neighboring department of Caldas. Central Antioquia, where most of the department's people live, experienced little Violencia because departmental governance was strong and generally viewed as legitimate. When Violencia threatened, local and state leaders were able to either head it off or diminish its impact through mediation and remediation. In establishing this fact, the author challenges earlier arguments that Colombia's Violencia flourished in relatively affluent coffee-growing regions--places that had frequently experienced strife over land ownership when the coffee frontier was settled early in the twentieth century.

In chapter 2 Roldán examines the portion of Antioquia that slopes down to the Magdalena River, in the east, and to Cauca River lowlands, in the northeast. Making up a third of the departmental territory, yet home to just 150,000 people, northeastern Antioquia challenges the idea that Violencia study can be delimited by departmental boundaries. Violencia there followed the seasonal migration of agricultural workers. In outlying parts of Antioquia especially, it increased during the twice-annual coffee harvest. Coffee was Colombia's largest revenue earner, at the time, and the perpetrators of violence sought those revenues.

Violentos themselves moved easily in and out of the region. Throughout the period of the Violencia, Liberal guerrillas moved back and forth across the Magdalena River between Antioquia and Santander, to the east. So too did Conservative paramilitaries known as "contrachusma." Such fluidity "rendered largely insignificant the administrative boundaries that treat [zones of violence] as self-contained or discrete entities" (p. 112).

A lengthy statement by agricultural laborer Angela Rosa Arango brings into relief the plight of poor Colombians caught up in the violence. Robbed, raped, and virtually enslaved by men under arms, Angela Rosa leaves little doubt that Colombia's Violencia was more a criminal than an ideological endeavor. Roldán makes it clear that economic motivation quickly became paramount in the Violencia in northeastern Antioquia as well as in the northwest, the focus of her third chapter. The quest for spoils won through violence quickly undermined partisan loyalties in frontier regions.

Roldán's discussion of the early Violencia in northwestern Antioquia makes clear the vast complexity of the phenomenon. In the northwest, a region including the frontier zone of Uraba, on the Caribbean coast, there was a near absence of state control owing largely to its remoteness and inaccessibility. Then as now, citizens responded to personal insecurity through paramilitary organization. Members of armed groups soon began to prey on their hapless fellow citizens, particularly those not openly siding with them. In the author's words, "Violence, initially waged in defense of particular party interests or to protect the lives of party members against the actions of the opposition, evolved into a free-for-all in western Antioquia" (p. 211).

This picture of Antioquia's Violencia as a Hobbesian struggle of all against all is modified by the case of southwestern Antioquia. There it unfolded as a partisan struggle, much as early studies had depicted the Violencia at large. In the southwest, the subject of chapter 4, a rebellious, nonconformist, and mostly Liberal citizenry had historically been at odds with the department's traditionalist and predominantly Conservative elite. Hence when national Liberal party leaders commissioned the formation of Liberal guerrillas late in 1950, following the election of Conservative President Laureano Gomez, hundreds of southwesterners flocked to the banner of Juan de Jesus Franco. Franco, whose actions were authorized by Liberal party leaders in Medellín, organized and led Liberal guerrillas until the Gomez government was overthrown in 1953. Franco and his followers later accepted the amnesty offered by Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, the national army commander who had toppled Gomez and demobilized his guerrilla forces.

Especially notable in Juan de Jesus Franco's actions were his steps to redistribute land in Antioquia's southwestern region. This Liberal leader's commitment to land reform drew on the same ideological sources driving the land reform of Liberal President Alfonso Lopez Pumarejo during the 1930s, as well as the reform effort of Liberal party leader and national president Carlos Lleras Restrepo during the 1960s. The Colombian Liberals' land reform initiatives were in the spirit of liberal reformers throughout Latin America during the middle decades of the twentieth century.

An important if secondary theme of this study concerns ethnocultural divisions among Antioquians. The author argues that Antioquians in older areas of settlement "constructed an image of frontier difference" founded in part on the "racial imaginings" of darker-skinned peoples living in the department's peripheral areas (p. 327). This allowed them to interpret violence in the periphery as a function of the moral weakness and general inferiority thought characteristic of the dark-complected late arrivals who had settled those zones. Whether consciously or not they were applying racist theories taught in schools earlier in the century, a time when Antioquian leaders were high school and college students. The most effective propagator of racist theories popular in Colombian academic circles during the second and third decades of the twentieth century was intellectual luminary Luis Lopez de Mesa, himself an Antioquian.

Mary Roldán's Blood and Fire is a valuable contribution to the scholarly literature on Colombia's classic Violencia. It stands as the most thoroughgoing regional study of that phenomenon produced to date. That being said, this reviewer suggests that non-specialists familiarize themselves with events unfolding at the level of national politics during Colombia's 1940s and 1950s before taking up this work. Those events, while mentioned by the author, form something of a disconnected backdrop to this splendid regional history of the early Violencia in Antioquia.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 27/01/04 09:04:31
©S D Stein

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