Seeking Justice at All Costs, from Colombia to Central America

A new book on Latin American corruption shows that the death squads of the 1980s never really died.

Seeking Justice at All Costs, from Colombia to Central America

There Are No Dead Here by Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno. Nation Books. 336 pages.

A BRICK WALL, the first layer of the barrier, encircles most of a city block on an unassuming street in Guatemala City. On the other side is a checkpoint with metal detectors like airport security. Next comes a winding walk flanked by two security guards, and then, the destination: a one-story building arranged like a grade school, except there is an armed guard in every corner.

This is the headquarters of the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, or CICIG, a United Nations–backed independent commission that investigates corruption in the country. Here sits Colombian judge Ivan Velásquez, the commission's head, and his background is revealing.

It was in Colombia where, a decade ago, Judge Velásquez charged that the government was running murderous paramilitary forces linked to narcos, supposedly to fight guerrillas and other organized crime. Now a new book, There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia, chronicles that time by profiling three men who lived it: Judge Velásquez, lawyer Jesus María Valle, and journalist Ricardo Calderón. Each one risked his life to denounce the militarized state's atrocities and corruption.

The author is Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, formerly the senior Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch, now the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Her book has the cadence of a mystery novel and the depth of an investigative report as she follows corruption borne of wars on drugs and crime. Those wars later crawled north from South America.

In Central America today, as in Colombia then, governments frame reality as a battle between good and evil, in which the state, the defender of “honorable citizens,” must militarize public security to vanquish the delinquents. Cruelty by the state becomes ubiquitous. To get away with the crimes, politicians try to convince the public that the people denouncing injustices are the real problem.

In 2016, Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales tried to stop Velásquez's investigations and kick him out of the country. His strategy was nearly identical to those of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe 10 years earlier. “One is the sum of everything one has lived and done and the people one has met, for better or worse,” Velásquez told me in that fortress of an office in December of last year.

The judge has worked battling corruption for nearly three decades, and the years have taught him legal game plans, he said, but also “what attitude to have in the face of smear campaigns and harassment. This isn’t something I’m first experiencing now. I’ve faced it for many years, with varying intensity, so it’s easier to take it on than it was 20 years ago.” By the time he arrived in Guatemala, he had learned much from Colombia.


Discovering wrongdoing is hazardous. First it was Jesús María Valle.

He became acquainted with state violence as a child: he nearly lost his father during the period known as “La Violencia,” a decade ending around 1958, in which over 200,000 Colombians were killed, land stolen, and personal scores settled under the cover of a political clash. Valle later worked as a rural laborer and then as a lawyer in Medellín. He loved to read and play chess. And because he remained close with people in the region where he spent part of his childhood, Antioquia, they came to him when strange and awful things began happening there.

Residents of rural communities told him of massacres they survived. The aggressors were vigilante groups called Convivirs who “carved people up with chainsaws, made their victims drink acid, and tied men, women, and children to the backs of cars, dragging them until they died.” Valle investigated further and found that the military seemed to be abetting the carnage. Troops would inexplicably withdraw from an area before a vigilante attack, which often lasted days, giving the Convivirs easy passage and the military an excuse to be unable to provide aid to the besieged civilians.

The Convivirs had become paramilitaries. They additionally began seizing land belonging to communities, and would later profit handsomely by selling it off to corporations or using it for smuggling, as the region was “a key strategic corridor for transporting cocaine,” writes Sánchez-Moreno.

Álvaro Uribe, the man who would become president, was then the governor of Antioquia, and he, according to Sánchez-Moreno, “viewed the entire country as his own enormous bullfighting ring.” He had encouraged the creation of Convivirs, and he brushed off Valle’s public denunciations as imaginary, instead dressing the paramilitaries in progressive language. The Convivirs had “shown the people of Antioquia that what’s really needed is solidarity, in working jointly with public security forces and providing timely information,” Uribe said to the press in 1997, adding that if abuses happened, it was an issue of a few bad apples.

One of the more common phrases in the book is a variation of this: in Colombia, if someone really wanted to kill you, they would. On the afternoon of February 27, 1998, two men in suits with briefcases entered Valle’s Medellín office and tied up his sister, Nelly, who worked as his receptionist, and a colleague who he was meeting at the time. Then the men bound Valle’s hands and feet with his own shoelaces, laid him facedown on the floor next to a window, and Nelly watched his face and screamed in horror as they shot him in the head. With that, the author writes, the “calm and strong voice that so many had relied upon to speak the truth, and which so many in power had dismissed, was now silenced for good.”

Judge Velásquez rushed to his friend’s office, grieving and angry. “It was about feeling very small in the face of it all, because you clearly knew who the enemies were,” he told Sánchez-Moreno later. He had struggled to believe the nefarious connections Valle saw, although he trusted his friend. But now he understood. So instead of heeding the killers’ obvious message — to leave the topic alone — Velásquez “doubled down” on investigating the paramilitaries. His “indignation at the injustice of Valle’s murder won out over his fear.”

Sánchez-Moreno notes that the judge once described his work as powered by a “functional optimism,” which he defined as “that reaffirming feeling that makes us believe that it is possible to put an end to impunity.” But as he continued down the investigatory path that he and Valle began together, he reached closer to the heart of the paramilitary’s power — the country’s political and business elite. He received multiple death threats and began smoking three packs a day. What he didn’t know was that his wife, María Victoria, was also fielding threats in his name. A funeral wreath delivered to the house, with a card she refused to read. A colleague who often mentioned that her husband was either “brave or stupid” and would end up dead if he didn’t heed “all those dark forces around here.”

The family relocated to Bogotá, where the judge took a backseat job as an assistant justice on the country’s Supreme Court. His attempt to step away was temporarily successful: before long, a tip landed on his desk that he couldn’t ignore. He hunted for shreds of evidence among countless corruption cases that had been abandoned halfway, flew abroad to interview relocated witnesses, reactivated investigations on the verge of being sealed. As in Medellín, he again created a private, trusted team, populated by handpicked investigators on loan from the other state agencies.

But there would be resistance. As Velásquez dug up the “parapolitics” scandal, investigating politicians that seemed untouchable, someone else was trying to bring him down. He wasn’t sure who was targeting him, but journalist Ricardo Calderón would unravel that knot.


Sánchez Moreno borrows a structure from magazines: short chapters, three to 12 paragraphs long. Passages of details that might otherwise be wonky are wrapped in reminders of just how high the stakes are, via foreshadowing or suspense or a clipped summation of the most salient part of the Colombian history we just digested. With this format, she gives herself ample opportunity to maintain momentum, and gives readers clarity about the primacy of justice at a time like this.

She edges on the Arendtian when describing the killers’ physical appearances; one, a “skinny, small man with a scraggly mustache and elfin features,” illiterate but with an impressive memory for details. Another is smooth in an expensive suit who made secretaries “swoon”; a third, “mild mannered and looked like an ordinary man, of medium build, tan, with a balding head.”

Sánchez Moreno exposes the human face of a dark trend that also affects modern Central America: militarized public security policies. Such policies tend to morph into state-sponsored cruelty wielded against citizens labeled internal enemies. El Salvador is an example. In August 2017, a colleague and I conducted an interview inside a holding cell in Cuscatancingo, San Salvador. While we interviewed a teenage gang member at a table in a courtyard, with a guard standing over my shoulders, I couldn’t help but glance repeatedly to my left. Four young men lay face-up on the ground, handcuffed to a metal pipe protruding from the building about eight inches above the dirt. They were living skeletons: pale with sunken eyes, their legs mere cords attached to bone and covered in skin. One had a gash on his face. They all had one hand cuffed and the other free, and I watched a boy reach out to stroke the free cupped palm of another. They gazed at their hands in the air and whispered to each other. A third boy repeatedly rose to a crouch and lay down again, trying to find comfort. All four were speckled in white bandages and scratching at skin sores.

One boy asked the guard standing behind me if he could go to the restroom. The guard looked at him and responded. I thought, shocked, So you see them too. Of course he did; but then again, what this confirmed is that we were all aware that there were four starving boys chained to the floor.

In El Salvador, the militarized war on crime took a turn for the extreme after 2015, with the state’s adoption of an unofficial extermination policy of suspected gang members — which is to say, of young people deemed suspicious in marginalized communities, some of whom are gang members and some of whom are not, like the neighbors perceived to be supporting gangs. In the jails and on the streets, the drive seems not for justice but for punishment. It oozes with vengeful macho delight: we control your body.

Similar violations legitimized to serve national security abound throughout Central America. They do not stop unless people speak out — but as for Sánchez-Moreno's characters, the stakes for doing so are high.


Ricardo Calderón was perhaps one of the few in Latin America who felt soccer “was just a group of men running around with a ball,” but his beat at his first reporting job was sports. He moved into politics on a whim when the magazine he worked for, an influential weekly called Semana, had a vacancy in that department that needed filling.

He had the right instincts. This was a journalist who — having read an anonymous email to the general Semana account asking for anyone to meet at a certain bar at a certain time — showed up. When that source asked for money in exchange for information, Calderón refused but surprised the man by correctly guessing he was an officer in police intelligence, creating a rapport that would last months and crack a huge case. The source slowly fed Calderón about 8,000 hours of recorded calls in which paramilitaries, who had made a deal with the Uribe administration that supposedly left them demobilized, could be heard on the phone still directing crimes like murders and drug shipments.

Calderón published a “short but explosive story” and was immediately threatened by the police. He “knew how he wanted to reply,” Sánchez-Moreno writes. “[I]f the police were going to go after him for the first article, then he was going to open five more holes that they would have to deal with.” Of the many scandals he would go on to break, a particularly perplexing one was who was trying to bring down Velásquez.

By this time, in the words of one Colombian congressman, the paramilitaries were mafias of “economic elites, political leaders, and criminals.” Calderón cultivated sources among paramilitaries, which led him to the state intelligence service. Sources there would tell him so much that, at one point in 2009, nervous that the journalist had not yet published, the intelligence officers knocked him out, kidnapped him, and injected him with truth serum to make sure he wasn't going to betray them. They left him unconscious on his front lawn that night, and when Calderón walked into his office the next morning, the sources were waiting by the front door to explain. “Calderón accepted their apology and said he understood,” Sánchez-Moreno writes.

The national intelligence service was using several tools to enforce the wills of corrupt politicians. One was the electronic surveillance of people perceived to be anti-Uribe: labor unionists, activists, Ivan Velásquez, Ricardo Calderón. The service had surveillance abilities in part thanks to the US government, Sánchez Moreno writes, which had sold such technology as part of its drug war aid to the country.


Sánchez-Moreno's book at once illuminates and intercedes, a vote of confidence for the individual lives caught up in the battle for justice when corruption reigns. Her meticulous attention insists that these people and their work matters.

When I saw him in Guatemala, Velásquez was harried, kind, and cautious: he set his own recorder beside mine as we began to talk. He held eye contact. Throughout the interview he was serious, but also looked as if he were about to break into a smile.

I asked the judge, who lives surrounded by layers of protection from his many enemies, what he fears.

His answer: “CICIG's work, in order to be legally effective, has to be done in tight coordination with the public prosecutor’s office. If we didn’t have a public prosecutor who is very committed to the struggle against impunity and against corruption, it would be very difficult,” he said. He paused, and then he said, “But it probably wouldn’t be impossible…” and began brainstorming the ways his team could get around that. He is forever the functional optimist.


Reporting for this article was partly funded by an Adelante fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.


Danielle Mackey is a journalist based in El Salvador and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

LARB Contributor

Danielle Mackey is a journalist based in El Salvador. She is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism and the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and is originally from Iowa. More of her work is available here.


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