Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia

by Jasmin Hristov

During a controversial July 2007 trip to Colombia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper bluntly stated that human rights concerns could not get in the way of trade relations with that country. Since last year’s Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was inked – in blood, some would say – reports of grave human rights abuses continue to emerge, receiving little or no Canadian media coverage.

An attempt at filling that void comes from Jasmin Hristov’s in-depth examination of a country that, while a democracy on paper, is in fact run by what she calls a State Coercive Apparatus (SCA) composed of death squads, the military, intelligence services, and paramilitary forces. Its function over the past four decades has been to steamroll over any opposition to economic policies that are designed to benefit foreign investors, and to target any dissenters who are thrown together under the broadly defined “internal enemy” moniker (i.e., journalists, students, labour organizers, and human rights lawyers, among many others).

Based on extensive research, and three years of on-the-ground interviews with Colombians from all walks of life, Hristov presents a disturbing picture of a nation that exercises almost total control over the daily lives of its citizens – a situation that has resulted in one of the world’s highest populations of forcibly displaced people, a 65% poverty rate (with some 10 million homeless), and a police apparatus in which torture is the norm. Hristov deconstructs the manner in which such a state can present itself as a democracy, examining the dual rationales of the wars on drugs and terror, which are regularly trotted out by both the Colombian government and its international supporters.

The book is generally a very accessible study that suffers only occasionally from the kind of academic language that may leave lay readers scratching their heads. And while Hristov’s narrative is not overly long, there are sections in which she illustrates her points with pages of examples where a couple of paragraphs would have sufficed.

Copies of Blood and Capital certainly belong on the Prime Minister’s reading list, and would no doubt be helpful to those Canadian business executives who remain clueless about (or willfully blind to) the human costs of high returns on Colombian investment.