Law in a Lawless Land

Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia

A disturbing chronicle of the terror and uncertainty of daily life in Colombia’s American-funded civil war

“This book seizes the reader and does not let go, testimony both to the terror in which so many Colombians live as well as to the powerful contributions that ethnography can make in conveying the hallucinatory reality in which far too many people are forced to make their way.” —Kimberly Theidon, Journal of Anthropological Research

The town needs to get 300 coffins ready. Heads Up! The priest better be ready to work overtime. —flier from Colombian paramilitaries announcing their arrival

In January 2003, U.S. troops were sent to Colombia to train army units engaged in a bloody civil war, deepening a multibillion-dollar American commitment that makes that country the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

Despite the potential for disaster embodied in the U.S.’s looming entanglement with another jungle war, America’s role in Colombia has received little critical media attention. The interlacing of terror, drugs and oil with endemic political instability makes the country a likely international flashpoint in the near future.

In this stunning account of Colombian violence and disorder, acclaimed anthropologist Michael Taussig recounts two weeks in a village under siege by paramilitaries. Routinely visited by autodefensas brandishing weapons and a laptop containing a list of names, victims are rounded up, tortured, and killed, their bodies left on display as a warning to others. In his diary of the limpieza (the “cleaning”), Taussig offers unusual insight into the nature of Colombia’s present peril and a nuanced account of the human consequences of a disintegrating state.