My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind
  • My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind
  • My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind

My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind

by Silvana Paternostro

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Growing up in the coastal city of Barranquilla, Colombia, Silvana Paternostro enjoyed a privileged childhood, a comfortable existence marred only briefly by fleeting encounters with the social inequalities and burgeoning drug trade that threatened the country's security. Soon, however, these shadowy threats intensified, boiling over into the most violent, most…  See more details below


Growing up in the coastal city of Barranquilla, Colombia, Silvana Paternostro enjoyed a privileged childhood, a comfortable existence marred only briefly by fleeting encounters with the social inequalities and burgeoning drug trade that threatened the country's security. Soon, however, these shadowy threats intensified, boiling over into the most violent, most protracted, and most misunderstood civil war of our time.

In My Colombian War, Paternostro, now an acclaimed reporter, journeys back to the place where her family and closest friends still live, weaving authentic experience into a history of this ongoing conflict. Drawing on interviews with family members, rebel and paramilitary leaders, and a singular young American marine named Charlie, Paternostro portrays all sides of the conflict. Blending superb reportage with poignant personal stories, she offers a stunning, comprehensive narrative of Colombia's complicated past and present.

Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
Toward the end of My Colombian War Silvana Paternostro hits on the perfect Spanish word to express her sense of dislocation. She is desubicada, which she translates as "difficult and kind of ridiculous, and always out of place." It shows, even to her family. "The stork dropped her in the wrong country," her father says. For a journalist it sometimes helps to be a little ridiculous and out of place. Alienation imparts a sense of urgency to Ms. Paternostro's intimate, emotion-saturated portrait of the homeland with which she cannot come to terms, a sentimental journey undertaken after decades living in the United States and working as a journalist in New York. Her confusion, and her often astounding ignorance of her own country, ends up being an asset, as she reconnects with her family and tries to sort out how Colombia developed into an international Wal-Mart for cocaine and marijuana, and a world leader in several major crime categories, including murder and kidnapping.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In this disjointed memoir, Paternostro describes her return to war-torn Colombia, which she left in the 1970s as a teenager. A member of a wealthy, landholding family, Paternostro attended American schools and universities and made a career in the U.S. as a journalist, while giving little thought to the country she left behind. Yet the crises of cocaine and civil war draw her professional attention and an assignment from the New York Timesallows her to return to her coastal hometown of Barranquilla. Once there, she discovers how much her conservative family's life of privilege is at odds with her own romantic left leanings, and how the danger of being kidnapped is only matched by her countrymen's refusal to acknowledge the civil war around them. All the elements are in place for a fascinating story and yet the memoir lacks essential clarity. Although Paternostro addresses various aspects of Colombian history, she doesn't illuminate them to any great depth, and the lack of a narrative through-line leaves the book adrift. Revealingly, Paternostro writes: "I go around without contact lenses; that way I cannot see too much. I think otherwise I would not be able to smile, to talk, to sleep, to stay here." Ultimately, the author's decision not to see clearly leaves the reader as confused as she is. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A Colombian-born journalist returns to her homeland in an attempt to reconcile her own past and her country's chaotic present. Paternostro (In The Land of God and Man: Confronting Our Sexual Culture, 1998), a reporter and senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, turns her pointed journalistic skills inward to examine her own identity in the larger context of her roots in Colombia, a place revealed here as "a beautiful country with an awful history and a terrible present." Although the author left the country in the turbulent 1980s, her identity now as much American as Latin, Colombia haunts her as she stares every morning at a map and imagines it as a corporal entity, assigning a divided body part to each of the country's disparate regions. Paternostro takes assignments that suit her "personal inquisition," traveling to each region to pursue stories of kidnapping, drug-running and the politics of rebellion. These, however, are mostly missions of convenience, as the author adopts the subjects of her stories for comparison against her own experiences of the country. The voices that emerge-ranging from an American soldier in the drug war who goes native, to the everyday citizens who have learned to accept gunfire and kidnapping as a part of life-are vivid and compelling characters in the author's introspective history. There is something of a dichotomy between the Paternostro's remembrances of her fortunate childhood as the daughter of an acclaimed economist and her reportage of the country's violent civil war. Because of that split, her overarching themes occasionally become muddled by the accounts of current events. Yet her poetic descriptions of the country's cultural conventions andfractured consciousness do much to enliven her account of a Colombian war that is, in the end, "brutal, sad, incoherent, and rarely resolved." While some of these labels certainly apply to segments of the book, its graceful melancholy and conscientious reporting elevate it beyond the customary journalist's memoir. A conflicted memoir of bodegas, bullets and a country tearing itself apart from within.
David Fromkin
The gifted journalist Silvana Paternostro confronts her own past, her family's past, and Colombia's past, in this indispensable guide to the drama currently being played out in the Latin south: a drug-haunted, tangled drama of feuds, rival warlords, criminal mafias, kidnappings, and endless civil wars. An intensely personal memoir, it demonstrates at the same time a firm grasp of the political, economic, and social realities that provide the background against which the headline news of Colombia in 2007, and 2008 and succeeding years, will continue to unfold. It makes fascinating reading.
author of Falling Through the Earth Danielle Trussoni
In this elegant and riveting exploration of Colombia, Silvana Paternostro journeys back to her homeland to confront the country that has long held a hypnotic hold on her psyche. My Colombian War offers not only insight into the troubled legacy of Colombia, but presents a beautiful portrait of a woman's heartbreaking journey to understand the meaning of home.
author of The Lessons of Terror: A History of Caleb Carr
My Colombian War cuts far deeper than the typical work of an international journalist, while at the same time, by tying Paternostro's quest to rediscover the country she left as a teenager to the violent yet moving history and culture of that nation more generally, achieving the status of something altogether superior to simple memoir. This is personal history writ large, a moving, admirably objective, and deeply courageous examination of how Colombia has arrived at its present troubled state, sometimes with the aid of outsiders, sometimes all on its own; and it could only have been written by someone with Paternostro's unique personal history, gift of observation, and record of laying bare the myths of Latin America. An absolute must for anyone who either aspires to an understanding of what is happening in the region, or who simply wants to read about a life that has been genuinely fascinating.
author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life an Jon Lee Anderson
In this intensely honest and revealing memoir, Silvana Paternostro takes us on her own Rip van Winkle voyage of return to her beloved, violent homeland. It is a compellingly bittersweet chronicle, with touches of great beauty, much like Colombia itself.
The Atlantic
Revelatory . . . a moving, highly memorable take on how a country lost its moorings.
Marie Claire
Paternostro's stunning, nononsense prose truly lets you into her mind and the country's history.

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.74(w) x 9.13(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

My Colombian War

A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind

By Silvana Paternostro

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2007 Silvana Paternostro
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5633-2



MAY 2002

The Miami airport is where the tug begins. Walking the long corridor that runs from the food court to the gate area is where the gringa in me starts struggling with my inner Colombian. It is here, at the airport, where the transformation began as I learned to run these terminals, as I went from Colombian to American and back again. I walk past the drugstore where, as a child on family vacations, I spent my last American dollar on Bazooka bubble gum before boarding the plane. A few yards down I encounter the bathroom where, as a college student returning to the University of Michigan after Christmas break, I ran to change from summer clothes into heavier winter attire. It was here where I turned into my American self: I had never had to wear a coat on the coast of Colombia. It is here where I started doing things on my own, from buying a book with sex scenes — Scott Spencer's Endless Love — to forgoing the flight that my parents had booked for me to hang out with my childhood friend, Allegra, who was already married and living in Miami, which is like living in Barranquilla, except with better roads and better stores.

As I walk toward the gate, I remember the time when I planned to meet Sam at the duty-free shop so we could spend the day together instead of taking our connecting flight back to school. I also remember the time when I heard my confusion voiced out loud for the first time. I was waiting outside for Allegra to pick me up when a young man wearing a janitor's jumpsuit and mopping the floor made comment after comment in Spanish, the kind we call piropos, flatteries. I struggled to ignore them. "Look at her," he finally said in Spanish. "Pretending she is a gringa with that Latin face of hers."

Going to Colombia is not easy for me. After almost twenty-five years of living outside of Colombia, I still define myself as Colombian when asked where I am from. But am I really? When does one stop being what one was born to be? I wonder as I sit at the gate waiting for the plane for Bogotá to board. Colombia is having presidential elections next week and I have been hired as a "fixer" for the Wall Street Journal. My job is to accompany a staff reporter, who has never been to Colombia before, and help him navigate the list of sources and the safety of the streets. I took the job the instant it was offered. I stopped working as a fixer more than a decade ago but I couldn't resist the temptation. Whenever I am offered a job there I take it no matter what, especially since I put that map on my wall. My recent trips under professional auspices have made it harder to separate my American self from my Colombian self, to divide the journalist in me from the daughter and the sister. During college, I thought of Colombia as a place of familial obligations; now I think of it as a war zone where my family lives. It might be that my journalistic ambitions are a way for me to protect myself from where I come from, a way of clarifying and exposing the ugly reality that surrounds and threatens my family. Or maybe I accept those assignments as an excuse to see them.

Between 1999 and 2000, news editors became increasingly interested in Colombia and so I've gone back with some regularity. It all goes back to the minister's visit to the America Society in New York City. By August 1999, the gift of the night goggles had turned into Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion military aid package, a move that opened the door for news stories about Colombia. "It is the recipient of the United States government's third largest military package" is the sound bite I now repeat as a mantra to make my Colombia assignments materialize. "The third," I say. "After Israel and Egypt." After I mention those two countries, editors want to know why the United States is being so generous to such a rogue country, still known as cocaine country and now known as the home of the intransigent FARC rebels. Plan Colombia opened the doors for news stories about Colombia for a sliver of time, but those doors were closed by 9/11. Now, however, with Hugo Chávez next door in Venezuela and the extensive military aid on the table, the financial paper has decided that the country's election merits at least a story, even one written by someone who has never been there. Still, I am glad the Journal needs me.

I am full of doubts and trepidations, angels and demons talking at the same time. It's all about how I feel about this place I still call home. So I am thankful to be distracted by a handsome young American who sticks out in the crowd of mostly cachacos waiting to board the plane. His nervousness is palpable to me — perhaps because I am also nervous, but also because he cannot sit still. His clothes also make him stand out among the formal bogotanos. The men wear tweed jackets and suits, mostly blue and gray, and he is dressed in a loud brown and white short-sleeved tropical shirt.

I watch him closely as he approaches other passengers. "Hola," he says, "tengo que practicar mi español," but he is not having any luck engaging anyone. A group of businessmen give him the silent brush-off, not even pausing in their conversation to look at him, perhaps thinking he's just another gringo who wants to practice his pidgin Spanish. Clearly agitated, he approaches a man sitting alone. Politely, he also turns him down. Again and again, he tries to start a conversation but none of the passengers waiting for the American Airlines flight to Bogotá, Colombia, takes his bait.

Granted, these post–September 11 days are not particularly good for chatting with strangers. I've chosen to sit a few rows away, making sure I am in the outer circle of Colombians, as if that would differentiate me from them, pretending that I am not traveling to Colombia. I want to be the last one to board. Still, I try hard to overhear their discussion. "How paranoid and rude they've become," the man closest to me says, referring to the brusque manner of American immigration officials these days. But there are moments for light conversation too. The well-seasoned group in business suits and refined ties like to ask one another where they've dined. I hear Nobu mentioned a few times.

I cannot keep my eyes away from the American. He paces, he smiles, he tries to act calm but it's not working. I would do anything to have him talk to me. He is handsome but that is not why I've decided to focus on him. I want to tell him that bogotanos are reserved around those they don't know; they are polite, sometimes even too formal, and usually circumspect. He'd be better off striking up a conversation with me. We costeños are much more open than they are. I could tell him that cachacos are like Boston Brahmins and costeños are more like Texas cowboys. I am determined to find out why this young man is on his way to Bogotá. I have a hunch that our trips may be connected.

Although September 11, Afghanistan, and Iraq took the spotlight away from Colombia, the money Washington promised in 1999 did get there, the billion that would put Colombia on the news map arrived. Though the narco-rebels were eventually obscured by Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the United States did send in three counternarcotic training teams to the jungles of southern Colombia and added the FARC and the right-wing AUC to the terrorist list. By the time I boarded the flight to Bogotá, more than a dozen Huey helicopters had been sent to fumigate coca fields and the Department of Defense had turned a few Cessna planes into flying spies. By installing them with FLIRS, the acronym for Forward Looking Infrared Radars, a step up from the goggles, Washington was helping the Colombian government identify cocaine laboratories so that they could be destroyed and also helping hunt down terrorists. By 2002, four hundred military personnel were stationed in Colombia. It was conceivable that the young man at the gate could be one of them. I was right to jump on a plane if just to be another reporter's lackey, hoping for a moment like this.

I started going back to report in August 2001, and I soon began to understand what it was like to live there, a daughter's duty I had not fulfilled. The more I learned, the more I visited, the more I felt my brother's words of so many years before echo in my mind. "Easy for you living in New York," he would say angrily when I pontificated about what needs to be done in Colombia. "You come live here and see what it's like." I am sure that he — or any Colombian who knows me — would not believe me if I told him that I am haunted by Colombia.

* * *

I want to sit next to the overeager American. I want to sit with someone who, like me, feels like an outsider. Once on the plane, I trade my seat for the middle seat next to him. It doesn't take him long to introduce himself.

"Hola, me llamo Charlie," he says, smiling. "Colombiana?" he asks.

I nod my head yes. "Going home," I say, fully aware that it's not how I've made it sound. But I know that if I say I am going to Colombia as a Colombian who works in American journalism, my new friend would not be as talkative as I want him to be, so I decide to keep my cards very close to my chest.

"So," I say, checking out the back of his neck, "why Bogotá?" He has a buzz cut. I believe I may have found my U.S. military personnel. I feel some guilt but Charlie is just happy to be finally talking.

"Moving there," he tells me. I ask him from where. "From North Carolina." I smile because that can only mean one thing: Camp Lejeune, home to forty-seven thousand marines. That is where new recruits live and train while they wait to be sent abroad. On a mission. That could mean anything from guarding an embassy to pushing paper in an office, to actual training. And fighting.

He asks the flight attendant for a scotch. "Military?" I ask.

"Yep," he replies. I could not have asked for more. I feel like I'm on a plane to Saigon in 1964, or Central America in the eighties. Finally, someone was using straightforward war language with me about Colombia, words straight out of covert operations and front-page scoops. I could be talking to the young men in Vietnam out of Michael Herr's Dispatches. This is better than flying to Baghdad or Kabul, I say to myself, because everyone knows marines are in Iraq and in Afghanistan; no one has yet heard of them in Colombia. He can be my next story. Will the New York Times Magazine want it? Maybe it's best for Rolling Stone. I wonder if my friend's friend is still an editor there.

I hang onto Charlie's every word like a cardiologist listening for a heart murmur. But it is hard to keep up with the jargon. He uses words like "joint patrol" and "riverine." Is he purposely enticing me? He reaches under his seat and from his black bag he takes out a file. "I shouldn't show you this," he says, a caveat directed more to himself. I see photocopies of papers that look totally ordinary, instruction sheets explaining what to do in the new country, like materials handed out to me during my orientation week at the University of Michigan. I nod as he talks and I try to read upside down, making it a point to memorize as much as I can make sense of from my seat. I remember two acronyms: JPAT and MILGRP and make a mental note to find out what they mean the moment we land.

"Did you want to come to Colombia?" I ask him.

"I've volunteered," he tells me.

"You volunteered to come to Colombia," I repeat. "Why would you do something like that? Colombia," I tell him, "is dangerous."

Colombian men his age, I tell him, would do anything to be him: twenty-four, handsome, and living in the United States. Many take great risks, especially now, to move there. I met a married hotel clerk who is working two jobs to accumulate five thousand dollars to pay for a fake tourist visa. "No one wants to be in Colombia. Why did you volunteer to do something so dangerous?"

"Because I want to kill each and every motherfucking drug dealer with my own hands." I had forgotten that Colombia still has that image: the place where drug dealers come from.

The legendary and ruthless cocaine lord Pablo Escobar put us on the map. Most of the world by now knows his story: a boy with an absent father and no money who hated the discrimination and the difficulty of achieving upward mobility for someone average — neither rich nor poor — in Colombia; a bloodthirsty teenager who started robbing graveyards and who by the time he was thirty-three controlled the world's largest drug-trafficking empire making the Fortune 500 billionaire list and having thousands of Colombians on his payroll, killing for him.

When I arrived in the United States in 1977, my classmates at the Academy of the Sacred Heart liked asking me if I knew Juan Valdez, the only thing they had heard about Colombia. The mustachioed coffee grower with a poncho, a gentle face, and a donkey that was created by a Madison Avenue advertising agency sold the idea to America that Colombia grew the richest coffee in the world, but Juan Valdez soon lost to the popularity of Pablo Escobar. Thanks to Pablo, Colombia went from being America's purveyor of coffee to becoming its prime supplier of cocaine. Soon, everyone had heard about Colombian "marching powder," and I was approached with all types of jokes and comments about the larger than life legend.

A Robin Hood, a corrupt drug dealer, a vicious killer, Pablo Escobar built hospitals and schools for the poor. He built himself a house as big as a national park and with as many exotic animals as a zoo. He imported giraffes, hippopotamuses, and elephants from Africa and he extended his largesse to the people. The grounds of his entertainment park, known as Hacienda Nápoles, were open to the public. There he met with senators and partied with beauty queens. He also installed a reign of terror. Depending on whom you ask, Pablo Escobar directly killed somewhere between one thousand and four thousand people, from presidential candidates, ministers, and judges to other drug dealers and girlfriends.

In 1989, Colombia was ready to sign an extradition treaty with the United States. This would allow the United States to come arrest Escobar. That was his biggest fear. To prevent that treaty from being signed, he ordered planes to explode in midair. He killed magistrates and judges, kidnapped journalists and politicians. He made it known that he preferred a grave in Colombia to a day in a cell in the United States. At that time, my feelings were exactly the opposite of Don Pablo's: I didn't want to spend one day in Colombia. I was by then a journalist reporting on Latin America, but I took little notice of my country's role in global politics. When news of the rising violence reached me, nothing about it felt particularly close to me or interesting to me as a reporter, except for a few absurdities. There were so many murders at one point that Colombia passed a law making it illegal for people driving motorcycles to wear helmets and for cars to have dark-tinted windows. That way criminals could be more easily identified. Not that it mattered: In Colombia, 99 percent of crimes go unpunished.

The violence of those days had a name; everyone blamed it on Pablo. But the drug lord was killed in 1993 and yet ten years later Colombia's violence still persisted. As Charlie and I descend on Colombia, it holds the highest kidnapping rate, the highest murder rate, and the highest crime rate in the world. Colombian writer Fernando Vallejo, whose novels and essays capture the Escobar-induced culture of killing in his native Medellín, has said that Colombia is, and has always been, a country of killers and that it should change its name to Violencia. But don't tell that to Colombians. They are furious at Vallejo's proposition.


Excerpted from My Colombian War by Silvana Paternostro. Copyright © 2007 Silvana Paternostro. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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