Gauging the guerillas: Braun explores Colombia's bad boys

"Almost all of us who grew up in the '60s," says UVA professor Herbert Braun, "took it for granted that the guerillas were the good guys." Decades later, many Latin intellectuals still admire Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda (Pedro Antonio Marin), the legendary commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, putting him in the same camp with Che Guevara and Castro, "men with guts, with courage, with beliefs" says Braun.

Braun found a new store of intellectual curiosity about this new breed of rebels, however, after three and a half months of daily, tortuous communication with them. They had kidnapped his brother-in-law.

Braun wrote about his experience in Our Guerillas, Our Sidewalks, published in 1994. The book has just been re-issued with a new chapter reflecting the effects of a lapsing peace process between the rebels and the government, and the $1.7 billion war contribution from the U.S. as part of its own equally stymied war against drugs.

Hijacked over the last half-century by warlords and drug traffickers, modern Colombian culture is characterized by guerillas, kingpins, and death squads, all playing an inordinately large role and acting in inexplicably senseless fashions.

But there is method in the madness, says historian Braun– truisms that Colombians can count on in an otherwise tumultuous society.

For example, Colombian presidents are never targeted for assassination; presidential candidates always are (four out of six were felled during the 1990 election). All successful businessmen in Colombia, whether assessed at six figures or six cows, are candidates for kidnapping; any level-headed negotiator can secure a release.

"It becomes daily life, it becomes what you expect," says Braun, who is known by friends, family, and his UVA students as Tico. "We've had kidnappings for 40 years now. There are rules and regulations."

After three decades observing Colombia through an academic prism in the US, in 1998 Braun was catapulted into the gritty realities of his native land by a phone call. His brother-in-law, a hard-nosed American executive, had been seized by guerillas. It was up to Braun, the gentle intellectual with leftist sympathies, to negotiate his release. They did release the hostage after he went on a month-long hunger strike.

Perhaps more changed than Colombia in the past decade is Braun himself. For decades, poor communication, brutal tactics, and a perplexing disregard for any revolutionary ideology rendered the guerilla movement incomprehensible to most historians, analysts, and politicians. Not knowing how to deal with them, they didn't– and Braun was no exception.

Now, writes Braun, "I am trying to understand the guerillas. I'm looking for them, for their past." The thesis of his updated book argues that fear of isolation is the driving force for the uprising as it enters its fifth decade.

It is another Colombian truism, perverted by the prevalence of kidnappings: Colombians hate to be alone. They'll go to extreme lengths to secure a little company. Especially if they can get a good chunk of change in return.