Colombia’s dirty secret

The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez exposes the wartime persecution of Germans


The Informers
Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean
2008, Bloomsbury
338 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

WHEN journalist Gabriel Santoro publishes his first book based on the life of a dear family friend, he expects his father’s approval – or at least constructive criticism.

Instead, he becomes the target of his father’s most vicious public rant and, searching for a reason for this hurtful attack, uncovers the role he had played in the secret history of Colombia: the mistreatment of Germans during the second world war.

The subject matter was worthy, concealed and intriguing: the life and testimony of Sara Guterman, a young German girl of Jewish origin who had made of Colombia her home. Her father had had the foresight to leave Germany and so avoid the dreadful fate suffered by the Jews who could not leave Europe during the conflict.

As the war is unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic and is merely a prominent news item in the American continent, Sara’s family and friends discover that the same ailments present in the old country are there within Colombia’s tiny ex-pat German community.

While the older generation struggles to define its identity as Jewish or German (or both), for the new generation of German emigrants of every denomination integration is a painful process of reinvention. This slowly worked for Sara – but it did not work fully for others, like Enrique Deresser, the best friend of Gabriel’s father.

Quiet intrigue and betrayal were the dish of the day at the Nueva Europa hotel, which belongs to Sara’s father and to which the foreigners flock, and there was no room for true friendship – or indeed for being yourself and doing “all the things that people who live in their own language can do.”


While it is common knowledge that many active Nazis went to South America to escape justice, Vásquez makes an effort to present all sides of this story by mentioning the blacklists drawn up by members of the Colombian government in response to pressure from the US to act against a fifth column of Hitler followers that President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted was present in the country.

In September 1941, Roosevelt took to the airwaves to warn Americans that Hitler’s “advance guards” were coming, and that a secret airstrip had already been discovered in Colombia – causing pandemonium in Bogotá and outraged denials. The US Secretary of State was later forced to apologise for the reference – but the damage had been done. Eventually, the government of Colombian President Eduardo Santos would fall into line anyway, unleashing one of the harsher regimes of mistreatment against expatriate Germans in the Americas.

This had terrible consequences, not least through the loss of livelihoods, for innocent Germans who did not support National Socialism and, like the Jewish emigrants who had landed in Colombia, were seeking a new life and to escape Nazism. Vásquez’s book includes a brief mention of the Hotel Sabaneta, where Germans were confined during this period.

A son who held his father – a professor of rhetoric and a public figure – on a pedestal, Gabriel quickly learns that secrets are not just the domain of those prepared to inform: even willing informers such as Sara can be victims of self-censorship, or those who were not even alive at the time later feel they have the authority to expose secrets.

While the beginning of The Informers is slow and at times clichéd, if the reader persists he or she will find that, as the innermost thoughts of each character are revealed, the narrative tension grows intense and this suspense is captured well in the translation.

The theme of The Informers is also an original and enlightening prelude to the chain of events that gave rise to La Violencia, whose scars are still visible in the Colombia of today.

Juan Gabriel Vázquez has skilfully substituted real history for a fictionalised journalistic account that is highly original.

Although he trades all his carefully constructed meditations about language and identity, and the potential informer within every individual, for the resource of sensationalistic denunciation of his father by his late lover – an uncultured native Colombian woman half his age who spills the beans on television – The Informers is otherwise flawless.

Georgina Jiménez is a Mexican freelance writer