Page 99 of my dissertation “Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels,” recounts the moment when drug lord Pablo Escobar handed himself over to Colombian authorities—political theater through and through. Escobar and his associates in the Medellín Cartel had branded themselves The Extraditables and waged a war on the state and Colombian civil society to avoid extradition to the United States. The group’s slogan was: “We Prefer a Grave in Colombia to a Jail Cell in the United States.” Part of their strategy was to turn their acts of violence into spectacular media events. This was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when live television rendered the news not only more immediate but also more urgent and unsettling. Escobar had kidnapped notable figures from political and media families (the two tend to overlap in Colombia) and used their kidnapping as a public relations strategy.On page 99, I am writing about their release. This scene is part of two historical chapters of the dissertation that contextualize the ethnography that follows. That ethnography focuses on the Colombian government’s efforts to lure individuals out of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—two Marxist guerrilla groups founded in the mid-1960s—through marketing campaigns and military intelligence operations. The dissertation, and now the book, is all about the interpenetration of marketing and counterinsurgency in Colombia, a case study in the wider phenomenon of the mediatization of security in the twenty-first century.
Guerrilla Marketing is deeply interdisciplinary, threading together flourishing literatures on marketing, consumer culture, and late capitalism, on the one hand, and critical studies of the surveillance state, counterinsurgency, peace and conflict studies, and humanitarian interventions, on another. Throughout the text I develop the concept of brand warfare, which I define as a melding of the marketing nation and the counterinsurgency state. To tease this out I analyze publicity operations, such as massive campaigns urging individual rebels to defect and return home for Christmas, and their multiple targets: from individual combatants to national audiences to international imaginaries about Colombia.
Escobar’s macabre public relations antics helped to catalyze state re-formation in Colombia, prodding the government to adapt his penchant for manipulating the spectacle of war. As Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez noted, the Extraditables acted as a business brand. Writing about Escobar, García Márquez said: “No other Colombian in history has had, and has exercised such a talent as his to manipulate (condicionar) public opinion.” Page 99 is about Escobar’s theatrics. It sets the stage, so to speak, for the guerrilla marketing campaigns that I analyze in the following chapter.
* * *
Quote from page 99:
The press camped out outside of the hostages’ homes and had a field day with the liberation. In announcing their decision to free the hostages, the Extraditables claimed they wanted to “erase any doubt that we are pressuring the National Constitutional Assembly” (El Tiempo 1991). The statement was transparent in its dishonesty. In a more candid moment, when Escobar penned a handwritten letter to Maruja apologizing for the ordeal, he said, “Don’t pay attention to my press releases they’re only to apply pressure” (García Márquez 1995:126). Escobar turned himself over to the Colombian authorities the day after he freed Maruja Pachón and Pacho Santos—he had obtained his goal although the country did not yet know it.
Escobar’s public pressure, private threats, and handsome bribes worked in concert. As the special commission to formally receive Escobar in his long-awaited “subjugation” departed in two helicopters, news that the Constitutional Assembly had struck down the provision allowing for the extradition of Colombian citizens blared out of radio speakers throughout the country. García Márquez described the scene of Escobar’s “subjugation”:
He raised the pant-leg of his left leg and pulled out the pistol he carried in a harness tied to his ankle. A magnificent gem: Sig Sauer 9, with a gold monogram on the plates of the handles. Escobar didn’t take out the clip but rather he removed the bullets one by one and dropped them on the ground. It was a theatrical gesture that seemed practiced. (García Márquez 1995:164)
Fattal, Alex. 2014. “Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobiliation of FARC Rebels.” PhD diss., Harvard University.
Alex is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego. His scholarship and creative work focuses on representations of the Colombian armed conflict and the fitful efforts to build a lasting peace to that South American nation. He brings an interdisciplinary perspective to his work, combining socio-cultural anthropology, media studies, and the documentary arts. You can contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex’s dissertation has been turned into a book, Guerrilla Marketing: Counterinsurgency and Capitalism in Colombia (2018), University of Chicago Press.
Alex Fattal, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, UCSD