Tina Rosenberg’s Children Of Cain

One of the most haunting pieces of long-form journalism I’ve ever read was produced by the Wall Street Journal and written by David Luhnow, bearing the simple but effective title “Latin America Is the Murder Capital of the World.” It’s a lengthy compendium of carnage, intended to shock us out of our complacency and confront us with the particularities of a truth too often presented as abstraction: that every single day, some 400 people are murdered in Latin America. What does murder on that scale look and feel like? Gangs of gun-wielding men and young boys casually roaming the streets; morgues so overwhelmed by the day’s deaths that bodies cannot be preserved for autopsy and end up in trucks endlessly circulating hospitals, like planes waiting for permission to land; funerals so frequent that grief bleeds into grief and the wounds of loss never heal. Tina Rosenberg, a veteran reporter for Foreign Policy, the New York Times, The New Republic and The Washington Post, opens Children Of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America with a nod to the everyday frequency of horrific violence: “Twenty murders a day are common in Medellín and fifty not unusual. Kidnapping has become an industry. You can rent a killer for ten dollars here; high school girls hire them to take care of romantic rivals.” She travelled extensively throughout Latin America in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reporting on the crime, violence, drug trafficking and, above all, the political dysfunction that makes all of these problems insuperable. For her reporting, she won the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, but the culmination of her work was this book, a melange of history and biography told from the perspectives of six representative people, among them a judge in Medellín tasked with bringing traffickers to justice in a nation where cartels have cannibalized the state, and a Peruvian guerrilla fighter, a member of the revolutionary communist Shining Path, seeking to overthrow the government.

The single thread uniting each of these countries, in Rosenberg’s eyes, is a savage inequality of wealth and political power, much of it rooted in the colonial history of South America, much of it owing to the malicious influence – sometimes deliberate and sometimes inadvertent – of the United States. America’s appetite for cocaine handed enormous wealth and influence to murderous thugs across Latin America, and to nobody’s surprise, those same people turned their societies upside down in a desperate bid to maintain control of their multi-billion dollar industry. Rosenberg interviews a policeman in Colombia, who laughs off a question about corruption among the very people charged with upholding the law:

I asked about corruption. He laughed. “Everyone thought that I joined the force to get rich,” he said. “It wasn’t true. I was broke the day before payday and the day after.” But going a little easy was tempting, he said, both for the cop’s safety and for his billfold. “The police are fighting mafiosi who make two or three million pesos a month. A policeman gets fifty thousand a month, and that’s only if he’s married. What would you do?” Semena magazine estimated that 80 percent of Medellín’s city police had some business relationship with the traffickers.

It was in Colombia that the infamous expression plata o plomo? – silver or lead? – first entered the popular lexicon, and everywhere that the cartels hold sway, that same question dictates how business is conducted and how governments are run. The result is governments run on behalf of organized crime:

In 1987 the government allotted just 2 percent of the federal administration budget to run the justice system; the legislative and executive branches got 27 percent. Judges receive four hundred thousand new cases each year and are able to process only seventy thousand of them. Three quarters of the men in Medellín’s jails have not yet been tried; those who are finally acquitted will have already spent years in jail. No laboratories exist to examine evidence, and no one possesses the training to use them in any event.

Rosenberg quotes data from a National Police study indicating that just one in ten crimes is ever reported to authorities, and of those only one in 100 results in a prison sentence, “meaning that 999 of 1,000 crimes go unpunished.” A similarly egregious state of justice obtains in some of America’s most crime-ridden inner cities, where homicide “clearance rates” often hover in the high single-digits, with the equivalent result: impunity for criminals who don’t think twice about taking a human life.

In the second chapter, “The Good Sailor,” Rosenberg switches her focus to Argentina, where a coup in 1976 installed a military junta that prosecuted a “dirty way” against purported revolutionaries and subversives, but which, in actuality, led to the persecution and disappearance “of such dangerous terrorists as Argentina’s journalists, psychiatrists, social workers and labor leaders.” Rosenberg focuses in on the dashing Alfredo Astiz, “a citizen of the most European and developed country in Latin America; a member of the most civilized and aristocratic of its armed forces; the son of a navy commander father and a blue-blood Dutch mother; a lover of Van Gogh and Calder and classical music; well traveled, well educated, and well read – and an officer of the operations department of Task Force 3.3.2 during the Dirty War, the most notorious group of torturers and murderers of the most notoriously murderous junta in modern Latin American history, and directly and personally responsible for the kidnapping of hundreds of people who suffered unimaginable torture and then vanished forever.” It was during the Dirty War that so-called “death flights” were put into practice: suspected subversives, enemies of the regime, or anyone unlucky enough to have upset someone in a position of power were taken to ten or twenty thousand feet in the air and then forced out of the plane, dropping to their deaths in the ocean waters below. Amnesty International estimates that some 2,000 Argentinians lost their lives this way, but legal battles to uncover further evidence and prosecute surviving perpetrators continue to this day. The lesson Rosenberg wishes us to draw from Argentina’s dark revolution is another instance of inverted purposes: “In a country that had a much weaker civilian government than Germany, the military began to believe that civilians existed to serve a military purpose. The armed forces became a strong interest group that pressured the government for more arms, more resources, and military solutions to Argentina’s problems.” And here, too, America had a dark role to play: it knew of the impending coup before it took place, and intervened only to urge the junta to act swiftly, calculating that a right-wing military dictatorship would be better allied with American interests in South America than whatever party might emerge from a democratic vote.

There is something numbing about encountering these stories of violence and political failure in country after country. Entire books have been written about the most minute aspects of the drug trade, the military coups, and the pernicious coffee and fruit interests that subjugated entire nations to the interests of a handful of wealthy land-owning families or multinational corporations. And yet the honesty of Rosenberg’s on-the-ground reporting, her keen eye for telling details, and the tenacity with which she chases down even unwilling witnesses all make Children Of Cain a riveting read, equal parts exhilarating and depressing.