Credit Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times
When the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, Colombia’s bloody troubles did not die with him. In “There Are No Dead Here,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, who spent years as a Colombia researcher for Human Rights Watch, writes about the harrowing violence carried out by paramilitary groups that bloomed in the country in the late 1990s. She focuses on the stories of three men who have tried to help solve the problem against enormous odds: the human rights activist Jesús María Valle, who was murdered for what he exposed; the prosecutor Iván Velásquez; and the journalist Ricardo Calderón. The book covers their dangerous efforts, the links between the paramilitaries and Colombia’s political establishment, and the influence of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and its war on drugs. Ms. McFarland, now the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, discusses below the bravery of her subjects, the inspiration she takes from photojournalists who work in conflict areas and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
It started when I had finished up being a Colombia researcher for Human Rights Watch. I had spent six years documenting atrocities and trying to get the government to address them. But I was frustrated, because all those documents I had been producing didn’t really capture the reality I had gotten to know so well, the stories of these extraordinary people, who despite horrendous conditions often insisted on fighting for truth, for justice; insisted on being incredibly honest even though they could have easily gone in another direction and all the pressures were in that direction. In the United States, anyone who knew anything about Colombia knew about Pablo Escobar and the FARC, but very few people knew about the paramilitaries, and stories usually depicted the heroes as D.E.A. agents or law enforcement. They were missing this whole piece, these ordinary people who make tremendous sacrifices, take huge risks and often get killed because they’re standing on principle.
I started out with the idea of just doing an article in 2012. I was very focused on the story of Iván Velásquez, who had followed the links between congress and these paramilitary death squads. He had worked very much alone with not much support, and faced an elaborate campaign by high-level government officials and those in the intelligence service to discredit him. As I talked to him, I realized it was part of a much larger story. He was personally connected to the other two characters in the book. I started drafting a book proposal, which took four years to write. The book took two.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
I knew that people were brave. But once I started asking them for their stories in details, I was surprised by just how many risks they took. And when I spoke to their family members, they received threats and had themselves been wrapped up in this and terribly impacted. Yet they had never tried to get them to stop doing their work. In fact, María Victoria, Iván’s wife, kept some very serious threats made against her secret because she didn’t want him to give up what he was doing. She knew it would break him because it was such an important part of who he was, to follow through on his commitment.