diumenge, 13 de setembre del 2009

She was an assassin

"...Afterward, as an old ceiling fan lost its battle with Puerto Asís's intense humidity, they lay naked in each other's arms all night, drifting in and out of sleep in a state of bliss. "At dawn, Marylin said she had something to tell me," Jason [Jason P. Howe, famous war photographer] remembers. She suddenly grew very tense, her face hardening as she attempted to control her agitation. There was no way Jason could have imagined what would come next. He knew she had some connection with the paramilitaries; what he didn't know was that she'd become a full-fledged member of a right-wing death squad, and was now working as a "special operative," she said. Her job was to find and kill traitors and informers. She confessed to executing 10 men and women by her own hand so far, mostly ordinary civilians, after her group had "investigated" them and found them to be helping the FARC. "She said she went by motorbike and either shot her targets in the head, used a knife, or, more rarely, injected them with a syringe full of air," says Jason, exhaling in a deep, incredulous sigh. The woman he was falling madly in love with was an assassin.

Jason sat up on the bed soaked with sweat from the leaden morning air, and tried to take in what she was telling him amid the honking traffic and shouting food vendors in the streets outside his window. "I lit a cigarette while Marylin studied me with a petrified expression," he says. "She was scared I was going to freak out, but I didn't. After our night together, my attraction to her was even more powerful, and I didn't want anything to ruin that. I remember just nodding my head slowly and not saying very much at all. The relief on her face was instant."

In fact, Jason admits, part of him found her confession thrilling. "I didn't think too deeply at that stage about who she was killing or her methods of doing it," he says. "It just felt surreal, like I was living in some kind of exciting war-zone fantasy. I rationalized it by thinking, OK, she's just another soldier in this conflict, and how is this different from dating someone in the army back home?"

Jason and Marylin continued sleeping together in his torpid hotel room over the next few weeks, and he grew used to her pistol lying on the bedside table. Now that her secret was out, Marylin became so matter-of-fact about her murderous alter ego that she even cleaned her gun in front of Natalie. Then one evening, some of Jason's foreign-journalist friends arrived in town. They'd hired a "fixer"—a local man who would help connect them with sources—and during drinks, the fixer recognized Marylin as a known paramilitary killer, and told Jason he was "out of his mind" to be dating her. American photographer Eros Hoagland was present that night: "It was incredible," he says. "Even the hotel waiter was visibly spooked when he saw Marylin. Everyone seemed to know who she was, and she seemed to enjoy the fact that they feared her." Hoagland describes Marylin as "very friendly," but says he and his colleagues decided to leave town the moment they realized who she was—just being seen with her made them marked men. Jason was furious and ignored their insistence that he go with them. "They called me an idiot," Jason says. "But I stayed."

Garry Leech, editor of the online Colombia Journal and author of several books on the country, confirms that Jason's involvement with Marylin could have cost him his life. "Journalists are prime targets for assassinations because they can so easily be accused of being informers for one side or the other," he says. "Jason could have been killed by the FARC for his relationship with a known paramilitary, or he could have been murdered by the paramilitaries themselves if they didn't like one of their female operatives being involved with a foreign journalist." Although all sides in Colombia's war are guilty of human-rights abuses, Leech adds that historically, the right-wing paramilitary death squads have been by far the worst perpetrators, responsible for perhaps 70 percent of killings of unarmed civilians. On a really bad weekend in Puerto Asís alone, a city of only 70,000 people, there could be up to 25 fresh corpses in the morgue.

But Jason was immersed in the romantic intensity of it all. With his Leica camera, he took loving portraits of Marylin to try to understand her shocking dual identity. In one grainy black-and-white photo, she sits on a battered sofa in her kitchen, smiling as she reads a bedtime story to Natalie and two nephews, cuddling them close. In the background, a jumble of cooking pots and an ancient electric oven complete the cozy domestic scene. "I looked at Marylin through my viewfinder and tried to imagine her putting a gun to someone's head and pulling the trigger," Jason recalls. "It was impossible to visualize."

One morning over toast and eggs a few weeks after the fixer's warning, Marylin casually mentioned that the previous night, she'd killed a woman she'd been hunting for some time. "She told me she'd persuaded a friend to help her decapitate and dismember the woman, and that they'd thrown her head and limbs into different rivers to make the body disappear," Jason says. He put down his knife and fork, unable to eat another mouthful. Feeling nauseated, he realized that something about her story didn't add up—usually the paramilitaries left the corpses of informers on gruesome display to act as a warning to others.

"What had the woman you executed done?" Jason asked her. "Was she a rebel sympathizer?"

"No," she replied. "A friend paid me $300 to get rid of her because she'd been sleeping with my friend's boyfriend."Jason was horrified.

"This was the breaking point for me," he says. "It was one thing to kill for a cause, no matter how dubious, but quite another to be taking life purely for money. A wave of revulsion hit me.

"Jason's immediate instinct was to put some distance between them, but then his cash flow dried up—rebels had blown up a power station, disabling money-transfer services—so he had to move back into Marylin's home. In such a dangerous city where few people could be trusted, it was the only safe place he knew. "It was very uncomfortable because I didn't want to be around her," he says. "But she couldn't understand what had changed, so we argued, and she cried a lot." In some ways, too, he was still conflicted about his feelings for the woman he'd shared so much with, and he couldn't let go just yet. At least, he says, his enduring sexual attraction to her no longer complicated things, since it was impossible for them to be intimate in her family's house.

One day, after yet another argument, a tearful Marylin pulled out her gun and pointed it at Jason's forehead. "Aren't you scared of me?" she screamed at him. "Why aren't you scared of me?" Jason knew there was a possibility that she might kill him, or that her superiors could order her to do so. He knew he had to leave.

His final days with Marylin were spent in a futile attempt to understand the killer in her. "I hoped she was going to say she was doing it to earn money to pay for Natalie's schooling or future, something vaguely redeeming like that," he says. Instead, "she just shrugged and said she spent the money on clothes and makeup.

"In an expressionless voice, Marylin admitted to being afraid, at least when she began her career as a killer. "The first was very hard, because the person I executed was kneeling down begging not to be killed," she told Jason. "The person was crying, saying, 'Please don't kill me. I have children.' That's why it was difficult and sad. After the killing, you can't talk or eat. You just keep trembling." But the second time, she said, it got a little easier, and by the time she'd killed 23 people, she no longer felt anything at all. She just felt "normal."

"I asked her why she became a paramilitary, and she didn't have a good reason, nor did she have a good reason for why she'd started doing contract killings," Jason says. She told him that she had approached the militias herself to see if she could join up, because she wanted "excitement, and to find out if she had the capacity to kill."

Abigail Haworth, Marie Claire. My girlfriend's secret life.