Cemetery in Medellín
They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying —
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
Edgar Lee Masters.
I have a persistent memory of the San Pedro de Medellín cemetery. There I had the first revelation of what the drama of drug trafficking could mean. It came from Havana, from the Havana confinement, where the drug war was for us mere mortals, the distant news of corrupt countries and —of course— capitalists. The world of drugs was something that had nothing to do with our lives involved in the “construction of the New World”, the one where the inevitably heroic and altruistic man would live, without the stains printed by imperialism, the incorruptible combatant of the “battle for the future”. (I was unaware then that “New Man” already had access to artificial paradises, in secret and endless parties). I will never forget the impression that the photos of the very young hitmen, framed in stucco tombstones, and the sound of rancheras that never ended made on me. Photos, flowers, messages, toys, souvenirs, music that created a strange atmosphere, like life in death —as before, I suppose, it must have been death in life. There was something pathetically frustrated on that side of the cemetery where the photos of so many smiling young men contradicted the peace of any cemetery. And then, when we went up to the Itagüí cemetery, in front of Pablo Escobar’s discreet (elegant) grave, covered with fresh flowers (as they told me there were always fresh flowers), I understood the enormous distance between one cemetery and the other, the symbolic dimension between the niches with photos and the exasperated music of El Rey del Despecho and that tomb on the ground, with flowers and a slab of dark gray marble. Even death knows differences. In the end it doesn’t matter, but the warlord seems to face eternity in a very different way from his vassals.
And I thought (I think) of the ‘caudillismo’ that has been and continues to be one of the most damaging scourges left by the Hispanic tradition, the despotism and the wars for independence. Since the beginning of the 19th century, from the very wars for the liberation of Latin America from the Spanish empire, the horror of the leader appeared, the power of the enlightened guide, the authority of the “messiah”, the man who stands out for his strength, his charisma and, above all, for their lack of scruples and morals. One of the great problems of “our painful republics” (as José Martí called them) comes from the persistence of this initial anomaly. Have we ever been full democracies? Something terribly definitive survives between us when we are able to create an entire literary discipline called the Dictator’s Novel. From Tyrant Banderas, by Ramón del Valle Inclán; even The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa, has witnessed the horror that has made life impossible on a wonderful continent —in its double meaning of excellence and magic. It was a matter of time before caudillismo went from landowner or politician (or both) to drug dealer. It was only a matter of time: it was a simple historical process. It goes without saying, the republics of “generals and doctors” became those of the Lord of Drugs. Power accommodates itself, adjusts to the times. Power also tries to “persevere in its being.” Now Pedro Páramo directs his tyranny towards controlling the sale of drugs. I, the supreme, reappears in the Sinaloa cartel. As is known and verified every day, the consequences have been dire. It almost seems unnecessary to talk about the extremely high number of deaths (murders, suicides …); of the devastated towns; of political and legal instability; of the abuse of power; of militarization and, as a consequence, of the consequent loss of freedoms; of mental illnesses that cause fear, instability and confinement; of extortion; of corruption in all its forms; of poverty; of the boredom of living; and perhaps the worst, the trivialization of all these scares…
And in the middle of it all, where is the freedom? Individual freedom, I mean. So it seems fair to me to talk about the prohibitions. For example: a hundred years ago the famous law called Prohibition was imposed in the United States, passed by Congress and signed by the Democratic president Woodrow Wilson in 1917, by means of the manufacture, sale, import and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The process towards it came from afar, of course, from that American Temperance Society of a puritanism so close to fanaticism. The State (the “Philanthropic Ogre”, as Octavio Paz would say) assumed control of the “common good”, the observation of the security and well-being of its citizens. As was logical, the consequences were immediate. The production and alcohol consumption did not decrease. On the other hand, organized crime increased considerably. It was the great moment of the North American mafia. The neighboring countries (Mexico, Cuba) suffered to a high degree the consequences of the “dry crusade”. For alcohol to continue its secret presence in American society during prohibition, the corruption of the system was necessary. And lo and behold, history repeats itself in an atrocious way.
One hundred years ago, the adverse effects of Prohibition were far more disastrous than the consumption of alcoholic beverages. The counterproductive effects of the fight against drug trafficking are proving more sinister, much more sinister, than drug use itself. To a dramatically superlative degree. It always happens when the State moves towards control, banishment: the result not only undermines individual freedom, but also destroys the hygiene of the system itself. Does war not ruin more than the drugs itself? It destroys physically and morally. It leaves behind a trail of ruin, poverty and hopelessness. Corrupted both sides, the State and the “narco-state”, attack the most vulnerable side of society. Nobody should realize that drug use is primarily a public health problem. Drug trafficking and the battle against it, make the rope break for the thinnest, if I may be allowed a frivolous phrase, given the terrible tragedy that it implies. I think that the power of the State is catastrophically close to the power it seeks to combat and that the poison of “caudillismo” spreads to all institutions. Suddenly it is difficult to know if whoever claims to come to save us, intends, on the contrary, to destroy us.
I’ve always liked walking around cemeteries. Cemeteries are novels, Cees Nooteboom might say. Or wonderful books of poetry, as Edgar Lee Masters taught us with his portentous Spoon River Anthology. As paradoxical as it may seem, somehow cemeteries reconcile me with life. There is something beautiful about pretending that in the end there is a garden of peace (whether or not the cypress trees grow there). However, the San Pedro de Medellín cemetery caused me a dark unease. There was no reconciliation in that walk between niches with the photos of so many smiling young people and the tenacious music of the rancheras. There was something desperate and violent. The photographs spoke of disaster and failure. Could it have to do with the awareness of how history becomes a trap? Subsequently, numerous testimonies have been read and heard. We have been shaken, for example, by the chronicles of Marcela Turati. Just today, I have seen, in a television report: an army of child soldiers somewhere in the north of Mexico to mitigate the failure of the State in the lost battle. “History is a nightmare from which I try to awake” (Stephen Dedalus: James Joyce). That nightmare, that story extends across the entire continent, up to the Rio Bravo. It seems fair to me to distinguish that on the battlefield there are the dead-dead and the dead-living. It is becoming more and more precise to understand that it is not only corpses that are being piled up in the gutters.