In This Review

Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza
Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza
By Michael Taussig
New Press, 2003, 256 pp

Raw statistics on human rights abuses and dry policy debates on U.S. assistance fail to capture the pervasive terror that daily confronts ordinary Colombians caught up in the interminable conflict between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian military. Rarely has their story been told as well as it is in this "diary" kept by a distinguished anthropologist over two weeks in 2001 that he spent in a town in Colombia's lush Cuaca Valley as paramilitaries conducted a limpieza -- a "cleansing," a word heavy with menace for Colombians, promising the imposition of law and order by selective assassination. The paramilitaries, set up by property owners who found the state incapable of defending them, now number 11,000 and, self-funded with narco-dollars, control large areas of the country. They have long enjoyed the clandestine support of the army and the police. And now, Taussig recounts, their forces also garner the approval of many Colombians fed up with corruption and crime. They arrive in town with SUVs and laptop computers to carry out spectacular massacres -- a process that he describes day-by-day in intimate detail. Taussig recognizes that "many Colombians rich and poor now support the [paramilitaries]" and adds that this support must be acknowledged and understood. Still, the consequences are horrific: the homicide rate in this town is 420 per 100,000, 50 times that of the United States. Despite its occasional philosophizing, this is an indispensable book, replete with the stink of death and the resilience of individual human survival.