[Paleopsych] The Times: Authors in the front line: Martin Amis
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Tue Feb 8 22:06:01 UTC 2005
Authors in the front line: Martin Amis
On the streets of Colombia, young boys cripple or murder each other
just for showing disrespect or for winning at a game of cards. Is the
taste for violence opening up a wound that can never heal? Report:
The newsprint edition carries accompanying photographs by Tom Craig
1. Exit wound
For little Kevin, it was a bala perdida that almost did it: the stray
bullet went in through his nape and came out through his brow. That
was a year ago, when he was four. The incident took place a few yards
from where we now sat, in a front room that felt like a car-less
garage, with its damp cement floor, and a series - almost a pattern -
of scorched light fixtures along its walls and ceiling. Kevin's
grandmother runs a modest line in second-hand clothes; there was a
stretched wire with some coat hangers on it, and a plastic bag stuffed
with espadrilles and flip-flops. The family dog, small, frazzled and
elderly, was still growling at us after half an hour, even while
scratching its ear with a raised hind paw.
Kevin was playing in the street when the car sped by (it never became
clear to me what, if anything, the muchachos were trying to hit). At
the hospital, his 20-year-old mother was told that Kevin had five
minutes to live. They operated; and, after a five-day coma, a silent
and unsmiling spell in a wheelchair, and a course of rehabilitation,
Kevin seems to have re-emerged as a confident, even a stylish little
Kevin was deeply withdrawn for months; he responded only listlessly to
other children, and was indifferent to adults. When he divided his toy
soldiers into good guys and bad guys, the bad guys always won.
What happened to Kevin was an accident: an accident in a very
accident-prone city, but an accident. Another child, 10-year-old
Bryan, will find it harder to gain the (in fact nonexistent)
consolation of 'closure'. He was shot in the back by his best friend.
Bryan's offence? It wasn't as if he threatened to take his football
home - all he did was say he didn't want to play any more. Bryan now
has a palsied gait (a slow, bobbing hop) and a face deprived of
symmetry; and he looks blind too (though he isn't), because his gaze
seeks nothing. Kevin, on the other hand, amiably complied when his
grandmother, parting his hair and lifting his fringe, showed me the
entry wound, the exit wound; they looked like vaccination scars. As we
took our leave, the dog gave us an eloquent snarl: good riddance to
bad rubbish. The dog, it seemed, had taken on the fear and distrust
that ought to belong to Kevin.
In the forecourt of the house opposite, a fully adult male
(statistically quite a rarity in this neighbourhood) was closing up
his house for the night; he stared at us with frank but nonspecific
hostility, all the while rearranging the contents of his crimson
Some residents try to disguise it with fancy grilles and lattices, but
most of the houses in non-downtown Cali are wholly encaged. The male
adult across the street now proceeded to wall himself up in his
personal penitentiary. In El Distrito, the boys rage all night and
sleep all day (in their coffins and crypts); and at dusk they all turn
We always had to be out by five - but wait. There was still time to
visit Ana Milena. Some years ago her sister had been paralysed after
being shot in the throat by a neighbour; she died of depression and
self-starvation in 1997. Seven years later, Ana broke up with her
boyfriend. So he attacked her in broad daylight at a bus stop,
stabbing her in the navel, the neck, and twice in the head. Their
daughter (then nearly three) stood and watched, and hid her face. She
still insists that her mother was hit by a car.
Gang slang for a home-made gun is una pacha: a baby's bottle. The
violence starts at once and never goes away. Kevin's scars are not at
all disfiguring. He has an entry wound and an exit wound. His was
easily the most hopeful story I heard in Cali. In general, you
suspect, emotionally and psychologically there may be entry wounds,
but there are no exit wounds.
2. La Esperanza
Occupying about a quarter of Colombia's third city, Aguablanca
(Whitewater) consists of about 130 barrios; each barrio has two or
three gangs, and all the gangs are theoretically at war with all the
others. What do they fight about? They don't fight about drugs
(ecstasy and dope are popular, but the cocaine trade is an elite
activity). They fight about turf (a corner, a side street); they fight
about anything at all to do with disrespect (what might be called
'eyebrow' murders); and they fight about the fight that went before
(venganza operates like a series of chain letters). Yet the main fuel
of the murder figures, here as elsewhere, is the fantastic plenitude
of weaponry. A home-made gun costs just over £20, a hand grenade just
over £12 (a hand grenade is what you'll be needing if, for instance,
you gatecrash a party and get turned away). 'Guns don't kill people.
People kill people,' argued Ronald Reagan. You could take this line
further, and say that people don't kill people either. Bullets kill
people. In Cali they cost 50 cents each, and can be sold to minors
individually, like cigarettes.
Three teenage girls, acting as the representatives of a barrio called
El Barandal (The Rail), advised us not to enter; but a couple of
hundred yards down the road, at La Esperanza (Hope), we were casually
welcomed. I asked what had made the difference, and our driver said
that El Barandal was even poorer and dirtier and, crucially, fuller;
there was more humiliation, more wrath, and more guns. Sara, the
friendliest of the Esperanzans, had a different emphasis: 'Somos todos
negros, y somos buena gente.' We're all black, and we're good people.
And good people they would need to be. Every South American country
has its own name for places like this. In Bogota the word is tugurio
(hovel), but the Chilean version best evokes La Esperanza: callampa
(mushroom). 'Whitewater' suggests a fast-flowing river, or rapids. The
marshlands where the barrios sprouted up, in the 1980s, are now
whitened by their own putrefaction. The endless ditch isn't deep
enough to submerge the tubs and tyres that disturb its caustic mantle.
Yet the egrets still consider it worth their while to paddle in it and
peck in it; when they flap their wings you expect them to fly off on
The people here are desplazados, displaced peasants, mainly from the
country's Pacific coast. Cali contains about 70,000 of the displaced.
Some are pushed from the land by that irresistible modern force,
urbanisation; others are fleeing what may be the final convulsions of
a civil war that began in 1948. But here they are, with no money and
no jobs. Colombia does not provide free health care or free education
for its citizens; and the first explanation you reach for here is the
enormous South American lacuna - taxation. Taxation, necessarily of
the rich, is not enforced. To paraphrase the former president Lleras
Camargo, Latin Americans have gone to jail for many strange reasons,
but not one, in the whole continent, has ever gone to jail for tax
Of the four houses I ducked into at La Esperanza, Sara's,
counter-intuitively, was easily the worst. Your first step took you
onto a nail bed of chipped, upward-pointing tiles on bare soil: this
was clearly a work in progress, but for a moment it felt like a booby
trap. Then a communal area, and a dorm of crushed cots. Then, finally,
out towards the water, a kitchen-bathroom, with lots of exposed (and
ingenious) plumbing, a hotplate, a heap of compost in the corner and a
largely ornamental fridge with four eggs in its open door. A huge
negress, already stripped to the waist, pushed past us and disappeared
into a wooden wigwam. There came a gush of water and a burst of song.
Outside, the ladies laugh, and playfully squabble about whose house is
the prettiest. La Esperanza's lone shop has only a handwritten sign on
its door, saying no fio (no credit), and sells only tobacco and
starch, but the residents call it their supermercado. As for the
rancid water, into which the barrio seems about to collapse - you just
tell yourself, said Sara, that it's a nice sea view.
Colombia has a foot in both of the two great oceans. It also straddles
the equator. At noon, on a clear day, your shadow writhes around your
shoes like a cat. We paid our visit on one of the cooler mornings (the
clouds were the same colour as the water); and it was onerous to
imagine the barrio under a sky-filling sun. Just back down the road,
at the entry point to Aguablanca, the smell of the blighted canal,
with its banks of solid rubbish, grips you by the tonsils. This smell
is La Esperanza's future.
3. Stag night
The classic venganza, in Cali gangland, is not a bullet through the
head but a bullet through the spine. Some thought has gone into this.
'One month after the attack,' says Roger Micolta, the young therapist
from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), 'the victims ask me, 'Will I ever
walk?' Two months after, they ask me, 'Will I ever f***?'' The answer
to both questions is invariably no. So the victims not only have to
live with their wound; they have to wear it, they have to wheel it:
everybody knows that they have lost what made them men.
At the municipal hospital in Aguablanca, at therapy time in the
mid-afternoons, crippled innocents, like limping Bryan, are
outnumbered by crippled murderers - by cripples who have done much
crippling in their time. They go through interminable sets of
exercises: pull-ups, sideways rolls. Girlfriends and sisters take
hairbrushes to their legs, to encourage sensation. One young man,
inching along the parallel bars, keeps freezing and closing his eyes
in helpless grief. Another has a weight strapped to his ankle; he is
watched by his mother, who reflexively swings her own leg in time with
In the back room there is a storyboard used for psychosexual
counselling. 'Lo mas frustrante: estar impotente. No poder sentir, no
comprension, no tener ganas.' To be unable to feel, to understand, to
have no desire. The MSF educational posters, too, rightly and
aggressively zero in on the question of testosterone. A typical
specimen shows a pistol with its shaft curling into a droop: 'To carry
a gun doesn't make you a man.' Another shows a series of waistbands
with the gun positioned behind the belt buckle and pointing straight
downwards. In Cali, all the stuff you have ever read or heard about
male insecurity, phallic symbols, and so on, is almost tediously
verified, everywhere you look.
Nearby, in the market streets, the shops are disconcertingly full of
goods, essentials and nonessentials - cheap cameras, exercise gear,
shower organisers (an item badly needed in La Esperanza). The armless,
headless mannequins are faithful to the indigenous female type: high
and prominent backsides, hefty breasts with nipples the size of drawer
pulls. At the patisserie there is an elaborate cake representing a
thonged muchacha. Another represents a penis. The testicles are
hirsute with squiggles of chocolate; the blancmange-hued helmet bears
a thin swipe of cream, appreciatively indicating the slit. A hen-night
item, you might suppose. The inscription says 'Chupame, cari-o', in a
toilingly decorative hand. Suck me, honey. There is no female form for
it in Spanish - no cari-a. But you wonder. In Cali, maybe the tackle
cake is meant for the stags.
That night there was a cookout on a rooftop downtown. The guests were
professionals, academics; there was music and some dancing - very
chaste and technical. Yet even here a sexual trap door can open up
beneath you. At one point a young woman began an innocent conversation
with a handsome young guest, and after some joking in male undertones
she was grinningly handed a paper napkin. The suggestion was that she
would now be able to wipe away her drool.
All the outer walls around us were topped by shards of glass, varying
dramatically in size, shape and thickness. If glass-topped walls
constitute a kind of architecture, then here we had it in its gothic
phase. In Britain this form of crime prevention was a very frequent
(and very stimulating) sight in my childhood - but not in my youth.
Again and again you kept vaguely thinking: two or three generations,
40 or 50 years - that's how far back they are. Just now, Colombia
seems to be poised to turn in the right direction. If there is a
current theme in the evolution of South America, it appears to be
this: the vested interests (very much including the United States) are
tolerating an improvement in the calibre of the political leaders,
with Kirchner in Argentina, Lula in Brazil, and now, perhaps, Uribe in
Beyond the silver-studded walls you could see an entire mountainside
of lights. This was the callampa of Siloe, which, I am told, is
roughly twice as violent as Aguablanca.
4. The central divide
We were on the central divide of the dual carriageway, about 300 yards
from one of the most decidedly no-go barrios. Three muchachos
approached. When I offered Marlboros, I got two takers; they lowered
their heads as they smoked, embarrassed by the fact that they didn't
inhale. The third boy declined. He didn't say 'No fumo', he said 'No
puedo fumar'. It wasn't that he didn't smoke. He couldn't smoke (much
as he'd like to).
Then he lifted his T-shirt and showed us why. His right shoulder, his
right breast and his right armpit, where he had recently been shot,
formed an unmade bed of bandages and brown sticky tape. He had
recently been stabbed too, and with a vengeance. From his sternum to
his navel ran the wound, not yet a scar, pink and plump, like a garden
He turned out to be a patient of Roger Micolta's (one of the less
tractable). His name was John Anderson. This was by no means the first
time he had been shot, nor the first time he had been stabbed. He was
Like everyone else, they were keen to be photographed, but first they
had to go and get their weapon. After rooting around in a rubbish dump
across the road, they returned with a sawn-off shotgun. John posed,
with his flintlock, his knife wound (like an attempt at vertical
seppuku), his stupidly wonky hairstyle, his trigger-happy stare.
Abruptly you were struck by the thinness and inanity of it: an
existence so close to nonexistence.
It couldn't have been clearer that John Anderson had only weeks to
live. To say this of human beings is to say both the best and the
worst. They can get used to anything.
5. The less-crippled murderer
And I got used to it too. You find yourself thinking: if I had to live
in El Distrito, I wouldn't stay at Kevin's but at Ana Milena's, where
they have cable TV and that nice serving hatch from the kitchen to the
living room. And if I had to live in La Esperanza, I would gently but
firmly refuse Sara's offer and try to buy myself into the place four
houses along, where the guy has the fridge and the fan (and the 10
dependents). Similarly, I now found myself thinking: you know, this
crippled murderer isn't nearly as interesting as the crippled murderer
I interviewed the day before yesterday. And so it seemed. Raul
Alexander was nothing much, compared to Mario.
When we called, Raul was lying on his bed watching The Simpsons. In
Kevin's house, in Ana's house, in Sara's house, there were never any
young men. When there is a young man in the house, it's because he
can't walk away from it. He will certainly be a cripple, and very
probably a crippled murderer.
With his buzz-cut hair and ingenuous little face, Raul looked like the
kind of waiter you might grow fond of at a resort hotel. It sounds
tactless, but the truth was that we were settling for Raul. We had
hoped for Alejandro. He was the crippled murderer who couldn't get to
sleep at night if he hadn't killed someone earlier that day. But we'd
already skipped an appointment with Alejandro, more than once, and
when we did appear his mother told us he had taken the dog to the vet.
Was this a particularly savage Latino anathema, or just a weak excuse?
I thought of the gang verb groseriar (no respetar). And it was a
relief, in the end, to make do with Raul.
Asked about his childhood, he described it as normal, which it seemed
to be, except for a father who remained in situ well into Raul's
teens. He started stealing car parts, then cars, then cars with people
sitting inside them. 'One on Monday, one on Thursday.' Then he got
competitive with a friend: there would now be six armed carjackings a
day. He started stealing money that was on its way to or from shops,
factories, banks. He did nine months in prison and emerged,
predictably fortified. By now the bank deliveries were oversubscribed,
with queues of blaggers in the street; so Raul started venturing
within. These weekly capers were not to last. He did 30 months, came
out for three days, and went back in for three years. During his last
stretch, Raul killed a man, for the first time, he claimed: payback
for a stabbing.
Blooded, his bones made, Raul took a job in an office. That last
sentence may look slightly odd to a non-Cale-o, but when someone
around here says that they worked in an office or did 'office work',
you know exactly what they did: they sat by a phone, on a retainer
(£250 a month), and did targeted assassinations through an agent for a
further £100 a time. Boys who work in offices, incidentally, are not
called 'office boys', so far as I know, but boys are valued in office
work, because they are cheap, fearless and unimprisonable till the age
of 18. Raul would have been in his twenties at this stage. John
Anderson, though, for example - he may well have worked in an office.
The most popular day for office murders in Cali is Sunday: that's when
people are more likely to be found at home.
Raul's downfall? By this point my faith in his veracity, or in his
self-awareness, never high, began to dwindle. How did he tell it? He
had some trouble with a guy who shot his cousin, a murder that a
friend of his (Raul's) impulsively avenged. There was this consignment
of marijuana. Raul circled and meandered, and it all seemed to come
down to a problema, a poker game, a spilt drink - an 'eyebrow'
We took our leave of Raul Alexander heartlessly early (one of us had
to get to the airport), and filed through a sunny nook containing his
wheelchair and his walking frame. When, minutes earlier, I asked him
how many people he had killed, he pouted and shrugged and said:
'Ocho?' You thought: oh, sure. But even if Raul was dividing his score
by two, or by 10, he was nothing much, compared to Mario.
He, too, is lying on his bed - apparently naked but for a pale-blue
towel spread over his waist. The reproductions on the wall of the
adjacent sitting room - a wooden cottage near a waterfall, a forest
with a white horse picked out by opalescent sunbeams - prompt you, in
describing Mario, to seek the heroic frame. You think of the fallen
Satan, hurled over the crystal battlements. Mario was once very
radiant and dynamic; but he has made the journey from power to no
power, and now he lies on his bed all day with his clicker and his
Although the long legs are tapering and atrophying, Mario's upper body
still ripples. The armpits, in particular, are unusually pleasing;
they look shaved or bikini-waxed, but a glance at the half-naked
relative in the kitchen, who has his hands clasped behind his head,
confirms that the abbreviation is natural. Mario's trouble, his
difficulty, begins with his face. With its close-set eyes divided by a
shallow bridge, its very strong jaw (full of avidity and appetite),
Mario's is the face of a mandrill. If you'd seen Raul Alexander coming
for you, on the street, in a bar, or standing in your doorway, you
would have tried to resist him, or reason with him, or reimburse him.
If you'd seen Mario coming for you, in his prime, you wouldn't have
done anything at all.
As a seven-year-old, he hid under a cloth-covered table and listened
while nine peasants, two of them women, killed his father. Mario is
about 30 years old now: this would have happened during the period
known as La Violencia (though there is barely a period of Colombian
history that could not be so called). When he was 12 he made a start
on his venganzas, killing the first of the nine peasants with a knife.
He then went on to kill the other eight. Then he gravitated to Cali.
That's who they are in Aguablanca, in Siloe: peasants, and now the
children of peasants, drastically citified.
After a spell in carjacking, then in kidnapping (a vast field), Mario
was called up for military service. On his discharge he took his
improved organisational skills and 'went to the woods', supervising
the production and transfer of talco (cocaine) in rural Colombia and
in Ecuador. This was itself a kind of military tour; your adversary
was not the police but the army.
Mario speaks of his time in the woods with fondness and awe. 'The
cocaine came in blocks, all stamped - very pretty [muy bonita], how it
shines [como brilla],' he says. 'Once I saw a whole room full of
He came back to Cali, equipped with discipline, esprit and (one
imagines) a ton of pesos, and started 'enjoying life'. It is not hard
to imagine Mario enjoying life: in a city full of terrifying men, he
would have been universally feared. He took a job in an office, and in
this capacity he killed about 150 people in six years. But that's a
lot of venganza to be storing up, and in December 2003 they came for
him in force. He was at a stoplight when four men on two motorbikes
pulled up on either side of the car.
Now Mario's sister served coffee - a profound improvement on the Tizer
and Dandelion & Burdock you are usually offered in Colombia.
(It seems deeply typical of Aguablanca that there is never any coffee;
you trudge from place to place searching for a cup.) Time to go. I
asked Mario to describe the difference between his first murder and
his last, and he said: 'The first, with the knife? It was awful. I had
I cried all day. I had paranoia. But the last time? Nada. You just
think, 'And now I get paid.''
Mario called for his cloudy trophies, and lay half-immersed in them:
his handgun (very heavy - to its wielder it must have the divine
heaviness of gold), his x-rays (the lucent second bullet in the arched
thorax), and his stainless police record (which cost him £750). He
also had his clicker, his clock, and, of course, his transparent
wallet of urine, taped to the side of the bed.
They are still after Mario, so it was double deliverance to get out of
his house. When I thought about it later, though, it seemed to me that
Mario, with his provenance, was entitled to his hate; and that the
non-monstrous Raul, with his slight frame and his bellhop's smile, was
the more representative figure - a leaf in the wind of the peer group.
Machismo, in its Latin American mutation, has one additional emphasis,
that of indifference - unreachable indifference. You felt that
indifference very strongly with John Anderson, on the central divide.
Any kind of empathy is not just enfeebling - it is effeminate. You
have no empathy even for yourself.
So it appears that the Aguablancans are playing a children's game -
kids' stuff - of dare and taunt and posture, in which they all feel
immortal. Except that the sticks and stones are now knives and guns
and hand grenades.
As you drive back into the heart of the city, you see boys - jugglers
- performing for an audience that is sitting trapped in its cars. They
are not juggling with clubs or oranges, but with machetes and brands
7. The return of death
On my last day I went to the MSF exhibition of photographs and case
histories. There were familiar names and faces: Ana Milena, little
Kevin. On the night the exhibition opened, all the featured victims
attended, except Edward Ignacio.
Still recovering from his multiple panga wounds, Edward was shot dead
earlier that day.
From there to the cemetery in the middle of town, a small, crowded
plot of land between the football ground and the busy Texaco. Its
entrance was almost submerged by roadworks: a steamroller, a cement
mixer, hillocks of hot tar. Tradesmen had gathered with soft drinks
and ice cream. A storm was coming, and you could smell the moisture in
The cemetery was more like a morgue than a graveyard, with the dead
stacked into a series of thick blocks, each berth the size of a paving
stone. Every panel had something written on it, at the minimum just
the name and the year of interment, in Magic Marker; others were more
elaborate, with framed photographs, poems, avowals ('yo te quiero'),
figurines, crosses, hearts, angels. We had come with a woman called
Marleny Lopez. Her husband was one of the few who had been buried in
the earth. The tombstone gave his name and dates, Edilson Mora,
1965-1992. This was an engraver's error. Edilson was in fact 37 when
he died, two years ago. He was playing dominoes with a policeman, and
he won. This was perhaps survivable; but then the loser had to pay for
Most of the other dates were shorter than Edilson's: 1983-2001,
1991-2003. On the whole they got longer as you moved deeper in and
further back in time. Further back in time, too, the names ceased to
be Anglophone. And so went Diesolina, Arcelio, Hortencia, Bartolome,
Nieves, Santiago, Yolima, Abelardo, Luz, Paz...
I returned from one of the back alleys and found myself in the middle
of a burial service. There was a coffin, with four bearers, and over
100 people had come to mourn. This wasn't a gang slaying, a drive-by,
a bala perdida. A woman had died of a heart attack at the age of 28:
1976-2004. What happened next happened suddenly.
I had spent the recent days making believe that death didn't matter.
Now a bill was presented to me. It was a chastisement to see the
bitter weeping of the husband, the bitter weeping of the mother. It
was a chastisement, long overdue, to see death reassuming its proper
Authors in the Front line
In The Sunday Times Magazine's continuing series of articles, renowned
writers bring a fresh perspective to the world's trouble spots. The
international medical-aid organisation MSF has helped our
correspondents reach some of these inhospitable areas. To donate
to MSF, visit www.uk.msf.org, or call 0800 200 222
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