While in other nations in Latin America the word mamerto refers to someone who is slow, stupid, arrogant, clumsy, tired, or even drunk, in Colombia the word takes on a strong political meaning. It is used to refer pejoratively to both Marxists and anyone who has left-wing views – be they radical or moderate. Below, I will try to explain why the word has come to be used in this way.
Upon the murder of charismatic Liberal Party leader Jorge Gaitán in 1948, the Dirty War in Latin America arguably got underway. US hegemony in the region had already seen heavy imperialist interference in the politics of several nations, but the continent’s elites, often in cahoots with US businesses, were also committed to ensuring that the voices of the people were not heard.
Gaitán, a law graduate, had defended workers’ rights on many occasions. For example, he had called for the accountability of those involved in the Santa Marta Massacre in 1928, when striking banana workers were fired upon by the army on the orders of the United Fruit Company. He spoke of justice for the proletariat and opposed their exploitation at the hands of the country’s oligarchs, making him a dangerous figure for elites both in the USA and Colombia itself.
His murder led to the Bogotazo, a massive set of riots in the Colombian capital that left up to 5,000 people dead and thousands injured. The already-existent tensions between Liberal and Conservative forces in the countryside exploded, leading to a ten-year civil war known as La Violencia, in which at least 200,000 people died. Upon its conclusion, a strong, US-backed anti-communist campaign of repression was launched in rural Colombia. As a result, Liberal and Communist militants organised into armed revolutionary factions, starting the Civil War (or ‘Colombian Armed Conflict’) that continues to this day.
The conflict has seen the side-lining of truly left-wing political views in mainstream Colombian politics. This is probably one of the biggest reasons why the word mamerto has come to be used in the way that it has. Influenced heavily by the USA (which has fuelled the government’s efforts in the Civil War in order to prevent a communist revolution), Colombia has adopted a political system similar to that of the United States. Like in the US, two main parties, both essentially representing business elites, fight for the support of largely uninformed and often disenchanted voters. Socialism, as in the USA, is seen to be a dirty word for a significant part of the population. This is the result of corporate media propaganda and business-infected education. The use of the word mamerto is simply a representation of this reality.