For the past 60 years Colombia’s social and political climate has been defined by violence. The root of Colombia’s three decade-long civil war can be traced back to the period known as “La Violencia,” which stemmed from the assassination of the leftist presidential candidate Jorge Gaitán and the seizure of government power by conservatives. As a result, numerous left wing and communist revolutionary groups formed throughout the country, notably the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). In turn, conservative paramilitary groups such as the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) were created in response to these collectives. For these groups violence is the route to power. Both the leftist guerillas and conservative paramilitary groups have terrorized the populace through massacres, kidnappings, extortion, rape, robbery, assassination, disappearances, lootings and intimidation.
The Bojayá massacre of 2002 exemplifies this: In 2002, the AUC paramilitary group occupied the town of Bojayá in order to rid the area of FARC guerillas and to gain possession of the coca plantations surrounding the town. Despite protests from the local inhabitants that the presence of the paramilitary groups would only bring suffering to the town, the AUC remained. Then, on May 2nd 2002, FARC began shelling the town with primitive mortars, indiscriminately killing both civilians and AUC members. 119 citizens were killed and 98 were seriously wounded. In the wake of the atrocities, it became evident that the people of Bojayá were viewed as expendable by all combatants. The AUC reportedly used civilians as human shields, to have looted the town and confiscated goods, vehicles, and equipment from the denizens of Bojayá. Furthermore, the Colombian government failed to prevent the pillage, despite warnings from the UN of the brutality that would occur.
In The Armies, Rosero depicts this lack of concern for lives of the Colombian people. The armies playing out their gruesome war games are nameless, but are meant to evoke groups such as FARC, ELN and the AUC, who for many years have brutalized the Colombian people in the name of politics. Although Rosero elects to render anonymous the warring militias who wash through the town, murdering at will, the narrative trajectory of The Armies is fuelled by accounts of the very specifically named people of the fictional town of San José. From Chepe the restaurant owner whose pregnant wife is abducted, to the outsider figure of Hey, the empanada vendor who is eventually decapitated, no life in San José is left untouched by the book’s violent and destructive course. Rosero says of the specificity of victims and the facelessness of the killers: “Everything is reduced to death tolls without ever reporting on the causes, the offenders. Impunity is our daily bread. To tackle this aspect of the Colombian reality from a human perspective, to tackle the life of the citizen, the unarmed people stuck in the middle of crossfire, was a tremendous challenge, because I am a novelist and couldn’t take sides. I couldn’t let it fall into becoming a propaganda piece, so through writing I was able to use the literary art as a witness.” This refusal to “take sides” renders the novel all the more powerful as a depiction of humanity on the brink of destruction: the people are pawns in this game; husbands and wives are taken and used for ransom, innocent children are transformed into soldiers and murderers and the corpses of women are raped and defiled. No one in the novel escapes the grip of terror that the armies bring.
Furthermore, the reader cannot identify any recognizable incentive for the acts of either the insurgents or the paramilitaries, other than monetary gain and greed for power. The war seems in this way apolitical–the stated goals of the guerillas and paramilitaries are merely a front for their quest for power. Despite the political ambiguity of the book, figures of authority are lampooned heavily in The Armies, rendering the novel a tragicomedy of sorts. Nobody dodges Rosero’s ridicule, which acknowledges the position of those in the socio-political hierarchy and proceeds to underscore their foibles, both political and moral. The local priest is an adulterer, the chief of police a paranoid “nutter” and even the professor Ismael, our narrator, is a man tormented by lust in spite of the fact that he is incontinent and approaching decrepitude. We, like the villagers, only hear of the army general indirectly, as a man who uses helicopters to evacuate his livestock rather than aid the people. The guerillas are depicted as mocking children, and even the people of San José, caught in the chasm of violence, remain ignorant of the reasons behind their plight. In rendering his characters ignorant, Rosero has made it difficult to surmise whether or not this is satire in itself, a stereotype of rural life, in which peoples’ only concerns are the quotidian, the humdrum life of a small village.
However, it would appear that Rosero uses ignorance and anonymity in order to highlight the ruthless nature of this war, one in which sides are irrelevant and all noncombatants are victims. In his Colombia, the fictional town of San José is quite literally stuck in the middle of the greater power struggle occurring throughout the country. The villagers thus come to embody the suffering of the people of Colombia under these figures of power, and our hero Ismael, with his descent into decay and forgetfulness, becomes a metaphorical allusion to Colombian politics, a system plagued by violence and poverty, in which reason and certainty hold little meaning.