Duke University named Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno’s book, There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia (Nation Books, 2018) as the winner of the 2018 Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America.  McFarland will be on campus on February 26, 2019 at to receive the award and discuss her book.  This interview was conducted over e-mail with Miranda Gershoni, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center.

Miranda Gershoni: What inspired you to write There Are No Dead Here

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: In my five-plus years of work on Colombia, I got to know so many extraordinary Colombians, who had risked their lives to stand up for truth, justice, and basic human dignity, but whose stories were unknown more broadly. Most of the stories you hear about Colombia—especially outside the country—have to do with violence, drugs, or corruption, and while that is all certainly a part of the country’s reality, it fails to capture what I found to be most striking about my experience there. The book is an attempt to paint a more nuanced portrait of Colombian society and uncover parts of its recent history that aren’t well known, but also to honor the many brave Colombians who in largely anonymous ways are fighting to make a difference.

Miranda Gershoni: How did your work for Human Rights Watch inspire the book? 

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: My book is deeply intertwined with my experience at Human Rights Watch. I got to know Ivan Velasquez and Ricardo Calderon, two of the main characters, as HRW’s Colombia researcher, and I earned their trust thanks to the work I did then. My HRW work also forced me to visit places, meet people, and pursue storylines that I would never have encountered otherwise. It was often painful and ultimately traumatic, but it also allowed me to grow, and turned me into the person I am today. In many ways, the book was also a way for me to process my experiences at HRW and to tell the stories that could not be captured in a traditional human rights report.

Miranda Gershoni: Your story centers around the lives of a prosecutor, a journalist, and a human rights activist. How do these stories intersect? How do these characters gain power from each other? 

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: I started thinking I would write about Ivan Velasquez, an assistant justice on Colombia’s Supreme Court who led a series of groundbreaking investigations into how murderous right-wing paramilitary groups had conspired with members of Congress to commit electoral fraud. But as I started talking to Ivan about his history, it became clear that Jesus Maria Valle, a human rights activist who had been his friend, and who had been killed in 1998 for exposing the links between paramilitaries and members of the military, had been a tremendous influence on Ivan. So I started digging into Valle’s story. And then Ricardo Calderon, an intrepid yet little-known journalist, finally agreed to let me write about how he exposed a plot by the intelligence service and people in the presidency to undermine Velasquez’s investigations. So the story came together organically, through my research. Each of them built on each other’s work, from different angles, but the picture that emerges of state complicity with paramilitaries is one and the same.

Miranda Gershoni: How do you think There Are No Dead Here contributes to our understanding of Latin America and Colombia?

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: I hope it fills some of the gaps in the understanding that most Americans have of Colombia. Its story is not just about Pablo Escobar or the FARC guerrillas’ kidnappings. There is so much more complexity, horror, and beauty there. The paramilitaries’ influence in the country is not well known. Neither is the story of US involvement in Colombia, which is threaded throughout the book. One piece that I think is important to understand, though it’s not explicit in the book, is just how wasteful and counterproductive the US drug war has been in Colombia and beyond—if you read through the history, it’s very clear that no matter how many resources the US pours into arresting, killing, or extraditing drug trafficking leaders, there are always new ones ready to take over because the business is so profitable. And the resources they get through the drug trade give them extraordinary power to corrupt authorities and evade justice for their killings.

Miranda Gershoni: What do you hope readers will take away from the book? 

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: I’d like people to come away with a sense of humility, but also of hope.

Colombia gives us some very extreme stories, but that doesn’t mean that Colombians themselves are any different from people elsewhere. I’ll quote the preface of the book: “So many Colombians have spent their lives in constant fear of death, of losing their families and homes, of being kidnapped. They have also lived knowing that, if they made certain choices—to take the bribe, join the local gang, or simply look away from their neighbors’ and leaders’ crimes—they could not only protect themselves and their families but also, perhaps, acquire wealth and power beyond their wildest dreams… And who is to say what any of us would do in a similar situation? Living in a world shaped by these desires, opportunities, and fears, perhaps it is no surprise that some people grow as twisted and knotty as seaside trees battered by powerful, unpredictable winds. What is more surprising is that so many do not, and that, incredibly, a few go on to engage in acts of tremendous, if largely forgotten, heroism.”

It is the stories of those heroic individuals that I chose to tell in the book, that give me hope, and that I would like readers to also find inspiring and ultimately uplifting.