Photo by Lucas Ospina.

Colombia’s more than half a century of war has produced no shortage of accounts and analysis, yet Alexander L. Fattal’s Guerrilla Marketing (University of Chicago Press, 2018) accomplishes the increasingly rare feat of opening a new and productive conversation about the conflict. Through an analysis of the role of marketing in campaigns to demobilize guerrilla fighters, the book provocatively opens up a new terrain of conflict: the affective structures that sustain warfare, even as they advocate for peace. Fattal’s work offers a gamely guide into the ways neoliberal logics—and marketing as its meaning-making apparatus—engage and transform practices of warfare and governance. Facing a conflict marked by duplicity and dissemblance made famous by the work of Michael Taussig, Fattal builds his analysis on a series of negations: advertising as non-advertising; demobilization as remobilization; conflict as post-conflict; war as non-war. By exploring these linked dissemblances, Guerrilla Marketing illuminates the ways in which the Colombian state overtook its adversary, expanding the terrain of conflict toward the intimate realm of desire, morphing warfare into consumption.

A deadly and malicious kernel lies at the center of these neoliberal practices of war. Tucked in the middle of the book, Fattal tells us of the scandal surrounding the case of the so-called False Positives. Incited by a government directive which offered soldiers about US$2,000 for each enemy killed in combat, army personnel conspired to kill and murder thousands of civilians. In passing these murdered civilians as guerrilla fighters killed in combat, soldiers and their superiors claimed economic and professional benefits. Fattal intimates his understanding of the scandal related to the False Positives as an important precursor to the raising importance given to demobilizations within the official accounting of the war. In this reading, elevating the value of the apparently peaceful demobilization of enemy combatants would anticipatorily mitigate the public relations nightmare to ensue after the revelations of the results of a military strategy centered around the quantified death of the enemy. In this sense, demobilization not only mobilized the tools of marketing to further the war effort but was the preeminent weapon borne from a reading of war through the optics of marketing. Yet, the False Positives may well point toward a different sense of what the war in Colombia amounts to, to how accounting matters to the conflict, and to how neoliberal imperatives impinge on the value of life and death.

During the eight years of former president Alvaro Uribe’s government—who famously insisted that there was no war in Colombia—official statistics tell us that sixteen thousand guerrilla fighters were killed and seventeen thousand demobilized. According to ongoing investigations, during the same time anywhere between four and ten thousand civilians were murdered by army personnel and made to look like guerrilla fighters. The official accounting of military success, particularly through then–Defense Secretary and future President Juan Manuel Santos’s continual press conferences informing and celebrating counterinsurgency operations, was a central tool in the mobilization of political support for the war effort at home and its economic support abroad. Uribe, Santos, and the rest of Colombia’s military high command have consistently insisted that the False Positives was the work of a few rogue soldiers working independently from each other and from state institutions. But the sheer magnitude of the murders, compounded with the logistical and strategic leadership necessary to carry them out points rather to their central place within the strategies of war in Colombia. That the official accounting of combat deaths was substantially composed of civilian deaths, speaks to the ways in which the very real and violent confrontation between antagonistic armies often masked the even more violent repression and dispossession of vulnerable populations in the purported margins of the country.

This analysis of how political marketing transforms extrajudicial executions into war statistics should alert us to how the war in Colombia has been an essential fiction that violently sustains political and economic structures of power. The discursive construction of an object called “the Colombian conflict” obscured an extraction machine, fueled in large part by American foreign aid, that displaced and dispossessed millions, violently dismantled emergent forms of political rebuke, and murdered populations deemed dangerous or disposable. The majority of the more than six million displaced persons in Colombia were small-scale farmers whose land was stolen and annexed to large-scale interests, and whose labor was then incorporated to the lowest rungs of transnational capital in the country’s urban centers. Political parties that mobilized around the plight of rural workers and who spoke out against their disenfranchisement were violently repressed; the murder of their members cloaked under accusations of guerrilla collaboration. Thousands of youth, labeled drug-addicted and criminal, were murdered under calls for security by state and para-state actors.

In all of these instances, the conflict against the guerrillas offered a convenient pretext for violence against civilians. Marketing not only constructed the Colombian army as a benevolent defender of human rights but posited the war itself as one whose actors were clearly differentiated, whose engagements were obvious, and whose outcomes and endings apparent. In making the war knowable, marketing masked the unspeakable horrors of mass disappearances, the enormity of forced migration, and the enduring impunity with which violence and death sharpened Colombia’s neoliberal cutting edge.