Evil Hour in Colombia unravels the complicated dynamic of Colombia's decades long civil war, and it is must reading for anyone interested in understanding the violent social and political landscape of this war-torn country. Speared headed by newly rich drug lords and their paramilitary henchmen, Colombia has experienced a massive counter-agrarian reform, and it has the second largest internally displaced population in the world. Moreover, an impunity-powered campaign of terror against trade unionists, human rights activists, journalists, and peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders have left thousands dead and the perpetrators -mostly among the right-wing security forces and allied government security forces--free to continue terrorizing and dispossessing innocent people. The book demonstrates how, in recent years, the right-wing government of Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, flush with massive infusions of U.S. military assistance and support from the Bush administration, has transformed the country into a model counterinsurgent "democracy," where regular elections accompany widespread state terror, and where officially imposed impunity legitimizes the violent concentration of wealth and power. As a result, Colombia in the early 21st century is evolving into a neoliberal paradise with a growing supply of dispossessed workers, unaccountable security forces available to suppress opposition, and a government opposed to redistributive policies and supportive of a vicious brand of unregulated capitalism. Yet the roots of the human tragedy unfolding in Colombia go much deeper than the present moment.
While many analysts of the Colombian conflict give only a passing nod to history, Hylton argues that a historical analysis is key to understanding the complexities of the current situation. The book provides a concise, tightly argued account of the violent upheavals that have shredded the Colombian social fabric from the onset of 19th century coffee capitalism to the contemporary cocaine economy. It demonstrates with great clarity and precision how dramatic social ruptures, imposed silences, and unresolved tensions have transformed people's sense of what they can do by themselves and with others and what is improbable or unimaginable. The book also speaks powerfully to the ways an exclusionary political system and widespread impunity have nurtured various radical popular movements, armed and unarmed.
By highlighting over a century of struggles by frontier settlers, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, and peasants and rejecting an exclusive focus on the actions of elites, Hylton shows that, despite successive periods of brutal terror, marginalized people have developed organizational forms to advance their demands for land, justice, and equality. He uncovers some of the pathways to peace, self-determination, and state accountability that were blocked by political terror and the violence unleashed by U.S.-trained security forces and shadowy paramilitaries. By so doing, he lifts the fog of amnesia that obscures a deeper understanding of the defeated political projects in Colombia that have struggled to broaden the parameters of democracy. Hylton also dismisses the over-generalized media portrayals of Colombia as a nation mired in a "culture of violence."
Interwoven with the discussion of radical populism, Hylton lays out an incisive analysis of the rise and expansion of narco-politics and right-wing paramilitarism; indeed, this discussion is one of the highlights of the book. Beginning in the 1980s, regionally based paramilitary groups blocked new political movements from formally entering the political arena, and by the end of the decade, they had wiped out much of the Colombian Left. Tied to drug traffickers, powerful landlords, and state security forces, the paramilitaries expanded in the 1990s within and alongside the state, becoming a parastate that spearheaded the concentration of land ownership, consolidated power in many regions of the country, and penetrated the congress, the courts, and the intelligence agencies. When thousands of paramilitaries "demobilized" between 2003 and 2005, the so-called Justice and Peace Law provided no mechanism to force them to relinquish stolen property, reveal the clandestine structure of their organizations, or provide information about their victims, and it mandated light prison sentences of 8 years or less for even the most heinous criminals. All of this furthered the paramilitary incorporation into politics and society and the fusion of the state with organized crime.
Today, Hylton points out, the paramilitaries are stronger than ever, and their growing autonomy from the state that nurtured their expansion makes them the biggest threat to a peaceful resolution of the Colombian conflict. Evil Hour in Colombia offers a nuanced account of a complex and poorly understood county. It is well written, and its analysis should be taken seriously and discussed widely.