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An Archaeology of Media Spectacle, 1974–2008
How did the state come to believe that branding could help defeat the FARC? What I will argue in this chapter is that the government's marketing campaigns to demobilize individual guerrillas emerges from a layered history of the Colombian armed conflict's mediatization. By mediatization I mean the increasingly central role of the media in the war as it wore on. The chronicle starts in the early 1970s and ends in the mid-2000s, when the PAHD began to outsource its campaigns to Lowe/SSP3. Until the turn of the millennium, the state's media operations had largely acted defensively, responding to provocations from guerrilla groups, drug cartels, and paramilitary forces. Locked in a spiral of crisis and response, the state tumbled along in a multifront propaganda battle with a mutating cohort of violent groups. For most of this history, illegal armed actors proved more agile than the state in adapting to a changing media environment. Each armed group adopted the others' media tactics and adapted them in a process of multiparty mirroring. Faced with the impossible task of tracing all of the feedback of media tactics among the multiplicity of armed actors in the late twentieth century, I have chosen to highlight a few of the strategic adaptations of one group's tactics by another. Taken together, the transitions I expand upon below provide crucial context for the emergence of the PAHD's brand of brand warfare.
The M19: From Agitprop to Armed Propaganda
Since its beginnings in the mid-1960s, the FARC has drawn upon the communist tradition of agitprop, a portmanteau of agitation and propaganda, which emerged in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The theoretical distinction between agitation and propaganda was precisely that: theoretical. In What Is to Be Done? Vladimir Lenin validated Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov's idea that agitation strategically simplifies and repeats a message to the masses, while propaganda is a matter of contextual critique that targets elites. Peter Kenez, historian of the early Soviet Union, maintains that "the distinction between agitation and propaganda is not a helpful one. One suspects it became part of Soviet parlance only because of Lenin's endorsement."
As a practice, agitprop emerged from the Russian Civil War that followed the October Revolution of 1917, when the Red Army traveled with mobile propaganda theaters to build support for socialist ideals as it contended with defenders of the old regime. In the 1920s the Soviets drew upon their experience with propaganda theater to deploy agitprop brigades to factories and rural areas. The hallmark of agitprop was its highly materialist focus. For example, the agitprop brigades enlisted workers to contribute financially to the operation of the plant and, like sales managers, set benchmarks in their efforts to bolster collectivization in the rural areas. These roving troupes used satirical songs, tongue twisters, literary montages, and short skits to try to instill a sense of responsibility for collective production among factory workers and peasants. The agitprop brigades complemented the ideological work of state-produced newspapers, books, films, and posters. Kenez compellingly argues that this early period laid the foundation of the Soviet propaganda state.
Between the 1930s and early 1970s, the Soviets exported their propaganda techniques through international communist parties and their youth leagues. Agitprop focused on local, often nonliterate publics, which meant that it translated easily to Latin American contexts. Promising youth leaders from across the region traveled to ideological meetings with their Latin American peers in Moscow. The meetings included discussion of the principles of agitprop and training in the technologies of the day. In Colombia, these young men (they were almost always men) were drawn from the Communist Youth League, or JUCO, and fast-tracked into the FARC's leadership upon their return. Heavily influenced by the Soviet Union and the Communist Party since its inception, the FARC has retained a materialist disposition toward propaganda and a primarily rural vision of the revolution (postures that after the mid-1980s it would cautiously reform).
By the end of the 1960s, in the midst of expanding urbanization, a new branch of revolutionary fervor was growing in Latin America that argued for the need to bring the struggle to the cities. The first groups of this new wave were National Liberation Action in Brazil (1967–74), Tupamaros in Uruguay (1967–72), and Montoneros in Argentina (1970–79). The idea of an urban guerrilla came to Colombia a bit later. In 1972 a group of young people, many of whom had been alienated by the Communist Party, and some of whom had attended ideological trainings in Moscow, began to challenge central assumptions of the Colombian left. They questioned the utility of importing ideologies from the Soviet Union, China, or Cuba, as well as the rural bias of revolutionary struggle. By February 1974 they would break off and begin their own group, the Movimiento 19 de Abril, or M19.
The M19 became famous for its signature strategy, propaganda armada, or armed propaganda. Most definitions I gathered from former militants track closely with that of Carlos, an early member of the M19, who said: "Propaganda armada is a military action whose fundamental objective is to disseminate a message, an ideological message. It is a propaganda action that's done with the help of arms." In essence, propaganda armada privileges political message over military force, in actions that tend to render weaponry stage props first and deadly armament second. The M19's theatrical acts resignified symbols to engage in a mediated dialogue with politics at the national level, as opposed to more localized communication. Propaganda armada is best explained by example, which is why I focus on the event that served as the M19's dramatic launch: the theft of the sword of Simon Bolívar, independence hero of northern South America. But first let's back up and meet the story's protagonist.
Jaime Bateman defied stereotypes of disciplined revolutionaries. His curly afro and gregarious style marked him as a costeño (someone from Colombia's Caribbean coast). He carried himself with an air of informality and irreverence, and would liken the revolution to a party to which Colombians of all types were invited. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Communist Youth League, or JUCO. On multiple occasions the Communist Party selected him for ideological training in Moscow and Havana. In Bogotá, Bateman excelled at agitprop, a skill that launched him into the group's national leadership. He visited FARC camps to deliver supplies and lecture the rank and file about Marxism. His charisma and dedication earned him the trust of Jacobo Arenas, the FARC's ideologue and second in command.
Even as he ascended in the FARC, Bateman maintained his strongest relationships with his Bogotá-based comrades in the JUCO. When the Communist Party tasked Bateman with creating a military structure to oversee logistics in the cities, he turned to friends from the JUCO, many of whom had dramatic ideas for urban operations. Luis Otero, a zealous member of the JUCO, recalled one conversation with Bateman about Simon Bolívar's sword:
The original idea came from reading a book by the Tupamaros [urban guerrilla group in Montevideo, Uruguay] where they talked about how they recuperated the flag of Artigas. I told El Flaco [Bateman's nickname, "Skinny"], "The Tupamaros stole the flag of Artigas — why don't we steal Bolívar's sword?" He answered, "Propose it to the military commission [of the FARC]."
Otero recalled that when Bateman proposed the idea to the leadership of the Communist Party, "they responded that it was foolish because the sword is just an object in a museum."
Feeling restricted by party discipline, Bateman and his friends began to gather informally. The Communist Party accused Bateman of being a "fractionalist" and engaging in "parallelism" for meeting with people who had been banned from the party, and in 1972 the party expelled him. The secretary general implored members of the party to avoid contact with Bateman's growing clique: "We have to guard against ... those who are singing to the young communists with a siren's voice about the 'urban guerrilla.' Its adventurist ideas are out of sync with the reality of our country." Though the accusation of adventurism proved prescient, thousands of people were flooding the cities to look for work. In that sense the FARC and the Communist Party were the ones out of sync with Colombia reality.
For a short year Bateman and a group of friends and conspirators met. They talked about transcending the "ideological cannibalism of the left" and creating an urban guerrilla that could embody an appealing and nondogmatic style. In October 1973 the group held what is now considered the M19's foundational meeting. As Arjaid, one of the twenty-two people present that day, told me, "We didn't want to talk about the huge socialist debates of Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin. No, here we needed to interpret ourselves, to build socialism the Colombian way."
In preparing for the group's dramatic launch, Bateman, thirty-four years old at the time, would rely not only on a group of twentysomethings but also on the friendships he cultivated among the intelligentsia. In designing the propaganda strategy for the operation to "recuperate" Bolívar's sword, Bateman relied on his friend Nelson Osorio, a poet and singer-songwriter who earned a living in consumer marketing. Carlos, who played a key role in the M19's early media operations, described Osorio as the M19's closest collaborator. Carlos had sought asylum in Sweden in 1986, and in one of our interviews in Stockholm's Culture House, he described to me Osorio's role in the M19's early propaganda operations: "Anything that had to do with propaganda strategy, he was the man. [The M19 leadership] had total confidence in him."
Osorio died of cancer in the early 2000s. I located his son Orlando, a telenovela producer in Bogotá. Orlando and I spoke in Bogotá's Commerce Club. He was surprised that I had sought him out but pleased at the chance to reflect on his father's life. "He was a salesman for Cabot. He never spoke about it — he hated it. He traveled to different parts of the country selling drugs from laboratories," he said.
"What kind of drugs?" I asked.
"Alercet and Bayer, all the labs that are here. For [artists], they were annoying jobs. Though they were the kind of people who never get bored. In the 1970s, intellectuals started going into publicity [publicidad]. ... Television was coming to the country, and all of a sudden there were a lot of jobs in publicity."
Carlos recounted one of the campaigns that Nelson Osorio crafted.
He told me, "I need to do something to bring a new refrigerator to the Colombian market. I have an idea, but it's going to be pretty expensive."
"What's the idea?"
"I think I need to put a small animal from the arctic, Antarctica, inside the refrigerator, and when the owner opens it the animal comes out — to give an idea of the natural cold."
"A penguin," I said.
"That's it!" he said."
In designing the advertising campaign to build expectation for the theft of Bolívar's sword, Osorio combined the element of surprise he had used in the penguin commercial with his experience selling over-the-counter drugs.
On January 12, 1974, the M19 placed its first advertisement in El Tiempo, Colombia's largest daily paper. "Parasites ... worms? Wait — M19." The advertisement was simple in its design, with white block letters on a black background and two equilateral triangles connected at a point, like a bowtie. Iterations of the ad appeared in the Colombian press with increasing frequency over the following week: "Aging ... lack of memory? Wait — M19"; "Low on energy ... bored? Wait — M19" (figure 1.1). The advertisements ran in the major newspapers of Colombia's most populous cities, often displayed prominently at the foot of a page dedicated to movie listings and graphic advertisements — a dense semiotic space. Carlos paraphrased the advertising campaign for me: "Insomnia, anxiety, stomach problems? Wait — M19." Smirking, he said, "People were expecting a new medicine."
On January 17, 1974, the day of the operation, El Tiempo carried a simple text box on the top left corner on its front page that read, "It's coming ... today the M19 arrives."
Between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m., when most tourists were leaving, six militants trickled into the Quinta de Bolívar, the liberator's last Bogotá residence, which the government had transformed into a museum. Álvaro Fayad, known as "the Turk" (an oblique reference to his Lebanese heritage), commanded the operation. On cue, the group tied up the security guards and stormed into Bolívar's bedroom. Fayad shattered the crystalline casing, grabbed the sword's handle, and tucked its 85-centimeter blade under his full-length ruana. Other militants scattered copies of the M19's first public declaration —"Bolívar, Your Sword has Returned to the Struggle"— throughout the museum. Here is an excerpt from that statement:
Bolívar has not died. His sword breaks through the cobwebs of the museum to the battles of the present. And now it points its tip at those who exploit the people. Against those who, with foreigners, own the country. Against those who shuttered it in a museum to rust. Those who distort the idea of the liberator.
When the getaway car passed the agreed-upon spot, Carlos Pizarro (who would go on to become the M19's last commander) alerted the media: "Go to the Quinta de Bolívar. It's the M19." Within three hours the radio was reporting the news.
Alternativa magazine, Latin America's most exciting literary project of the 1970s, launched one month after the M19 stole Bolívar's sword, and the magazine lavished coverage on the event in its inaugural issue. The news dominated its cover. Atop page 24 the magazine published a photograph of the sword lying diagonally on top of a map of South America, in front of an M19 banner, the barrel of a rifle jutting into the frame (figure 1.2). Bateman frequented the offices of Alternativa, which is where he recruited Carlos. Alternativa grew out of a collaboration between Gabriel García Márquez, the country's most famous journalist-turned-novelist and 1982 Nobel laureate in literature; Enrique Santos Calderón, scion of a family that produces presidents and has owned El Tiempo, who, in a betrayal of his class, tacked to the left; and Orlando Fals Borda, the renowned sociologist of the Colombian conflict.
The media played a pivotal role at every stage of the operation. The M19 managed to create a media event through its savvy use of advertising, not only resignifying the sword and shifting the ideological justification of guerrilla struggle from a menu of international leftist doctrines to a more nationalist key, but also transforming media spectacle into a central dimension of Colombia's guerrilla wars. Without firing a shot or injuring a human being, the M19 had managed to take a sacred object from the state and activate its dormant political potency. Bateman aptly described the sword as "a symbol worth more than a thousand rifles."
Throughout the fifteen years of the group's existence, the military tried in vain to recapture the sword, detaining and torturing many M19 members and sympathizers. In the process, the military studied the M19 and its acts of propaganda armada. These armed antics entertained middle-class Colombian audiences and won the group unprecedented sympathy in the cities by confounding expectations of the militant left. The group's political currency rose with its media profile.
As Bateman's growing clique experimented with its novel form of armed media politics, it found that its most successful acts did not end with the loss of life. In 1976, two years after the M19 stole Bolívar's sword, it kidnapped José Raquel Mercado, a union boss that it accused of betraying his base by secretly colluding with the aristocracy. The M19 called for a public "trial" and asked people to opine on whether Mercado was guilty. The M19 circulated photographs of Mercado held in a "people's jail" and printed the "charges" leveled against him, threatening to kill him on their namesake day, April 19. The M19 demanded four significant pro-labor reforms in exchange for Mercado's life. The government refused to negotiate, sweeping up members of the M19 (and nearly capturing Bolívar's sword in the process). The rebel group decided to kill Mercado, and left his body on a sidewalk alongside a busy public square in Bogotá, with two bullet wounds in its chest. Darío Villamizar Herrera, a former member of the M19 and its official historian, wrote that the kidnapping, "trial," and death of Mercado "placed the M19 before the country no longer as a group of audacious and cool young people, but as a guerrilla movement." Bateman himself came to lament the episode, insinuating that he had hoped the government would negotiate and that the result would have been different. Villamizar Herrera writes, "For many people, even with all of the charges [against Mercado] and people shouting from every corner 'Yes, guilty,' extinguishing a life that way was an inhumane resolution."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Guerrilla Marketing"
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Guerrilla Marketing 1
Chapter 1 An Archaeology of Media Spectacle, 1974-2008 41
Chapter 2 Operation Christmas 79
Chapter 3 Operation Genuine 125
Chapter 4 The Good Life Deferred and Risks of Remobilization 163
Conclusion: The Colombian Model 205
Epilogue: Target Intimacy 229