The Lame Dogs of War

Oil and cocaine may be Colombia’s biggest industries, but its largest expendable resource is young men ready to die. While drugs, extortion, and voluntary contributions finance the four-decade civil war, the young men who pick up weapons and head off to war are its fuel.

Near Colombia’s Caribbean coast is the small village of Santa Fe de Ralito. Deep in the heart of the country’s extreme-right-wing paramilitary territory, it is set to be the center of negotiations between the government and the paramilitaries some time later this month.

Among large fields where cowboys tend grazing cattle under a Caribbean sun, Santa Fe de Ralito has for years served as one of the largest recuperation centers for paramilitaries injured in the conflict that pits them and the Colombian state against Marxist guerrillas.

This is where maimed warriors, now useless for fighting, are put out to pasture.

The horrors inflicted by this civil war now live on as the bitter memories of these young men. Almost all the paramilitaries here are living with an incapacitating injury, ranging from amputees struggling along dirt roads on crutches to those who use wheelchairs after run-ins with landmines. Colombia ranks fourth in the world in the number of landmines sown.

This center is a snapshot of the men on all sides—army, guerrillas, and paramilitaries—who fight in this brutal conflict: young and poor, from small rural communities long forgotten by Colombia’s central government, and usually lacking anything but the basics of education. Most come from zones that have been viciously fought over by the Marxist guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries.

There is little to do in this village of 200. The two bars blast out vallenato songs, an accordion-based * music that usually deals with the male singer’s inability to remain faithful to his woman or her failure to stay true to him. Cowboys pass along the dirt tracks directing their herds of cows. Most of the homes here are one-room wooden huts, lacking running water or telephone lines. The nearest city is two hours’ drive away.

One of the high points of a visit to Santa Fe de Ralito is Pecoso, the leopard kitten owned by Commander 08. The 8-month-old cub mostly wanders free and is still young enough to be played with without too much injury, although many residents show off nicks and punctures from when Pecoso got a little too excited. The morning I arrived, the commander was paying off one of the local peasants for the slaughter of a dozen chickens the previous night. It’s affectionately noted by all that Pecoso didn’t eat any of birds, instead contenting himself with torturing them to death.

Much of the day is spent avoiding the intense Caribbean sun, playing board games or watching television. On a recent Saturday, with a number of prosthetic legs strewn around the room, around 25 of this company of the mutilated watched Universal Soldier 2, a film about invincible cyborg warriors.

Colombia’s conflict is the embodiment of the oft-used phrase “circle of violence.” Paramilitaries or Colombian army soldiers commit atrocities, propelling their victims to the ranks of the insurgency. Atrocities are then committed by the guerrillas, leading to more volunteers for the paramilitaries.

A fighter who calls himself Cornelio is cutting the hair of these fighters in the paramilitary style: cropped at the sides with a tuft of hair on the crown. Cornelio is here after a landmine explosion took off nearly half his face, leaving him savagely scarred along one side of his body. “Everyone here has a cause; mostly they’re here for some revenge for what the guerrillas did to us,” he said as he trimmed.

He says he has eight or nine outstanding arrest warrants, including at least one for murder. When asked how many people he killed in his time in the paramilitaries, he points up to the sky and says, “That’s something only me and God know.”

However, the paramilitaries have a recruiting tool the guerrillas don’t offer: money. With a mix of funds from the cocaine trade and contributions from wealthy farmers and some businesses, the paramilitaries may be the wealthiest illegal group operating in Colombia.

A 27-year-old paramilitary who gave the name of José Joaquin said he joined three years ago for the wage the paramilitary paid. The sum that tempted him to join this ruthless conflict? $150 a month. As low as it seems, it’s nearly three times that earned by more than 60 percent of Colombia’s population.

For $150 per month, José got a guerrilla sniper’s bullet in his head. Luckily for him, the bullet entered and exited the back of his head, but it has left him unable to bend his left leg or arm.

When I tell him I’m from London, he asks, “Being a paramilitary, do you think England would let me move there?” It seems inappropriate to tell him that the group that he sees as saving the country from rebels and for which he was prepared to die is viewed by most governments as a drug-trafficking terrorist organization.

Correction, June 11: Vallenato music is accordion-based, not harmonica-based as the article originally stated. (Return to the corrected sentence.)