Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guest Author Max Tomlinson

Our guest author, this week, is Max Tomlinson. Max is fron the Bay Area of California and has traveled extensively throughout South America. 

His debut novel SENDERO, a thriller set in modern-day Peru, got a star from Kirkus. His second in the series, WHO SINGS TO THE DEAD, will be available in December.

In his next book, Max will be shifting his focus to Argentina and dealing with the aftermath of the military takeover in the ‘70s. 

You can visit him, and I hope you will, on his web page: http://maxtomlinson.wordpress.com/

Cara - Tuesday

The Shining Path

“What a frightening thirst for vengeance devours me.”  Osmán Morote (Comrade Nicolas)

Abimael Guzmán dressed as he was when paraded through the streets of Lima in 1992

During the 80s, after an unknown philosophy professor by the name of Abimael Guzmán founded the Shining Path (“Marxism–Leninism is the shining path of the future”), there was a period when it seemed that the Maoist revolutionary movement might well take control of Peru.

Inflation was rampant, as was corruption, and the indigenous Quechua population, along with many demoralized Peruvians, were more than ready for change.

But at what price?

Somehow Chairman Gonzalo (one of Guzman’s noms de guerre) was able to take that deep discontent and turn it into a full-fledged insurgency that lasted twelve years and killed, by modest estimates, 30,000 Peruvians. (Some estimates go as high as 70,000.)

The Cult of Shining Path

The Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) were matched only by their Cambodian counterparts The Khmer Rouge for creative brutality and out-and-out atrocities. Stories of dogs hanging from lampposts in Lima, beheadings for civilian infractions such as adultery, and random bombings with explosives strapped to farm animals only touch upon what the Senderitsas were capable of.

Cult-like activities including free love (but absolutely not ‘love’) and members taking oaths (the cuota) agreeing to their own death once they had killed their share of soldiers and capitalists, only helped raise the Shining Path to a level of notoriety well above your average South American revolutionary group.

Bear in mind that Peruvian government forces battling the insurgents weren’t much better. Accounts of disparados (disappeared ones), political prisons, torture and the wholesale attack on the Quechua people in the Red Zone of the Andes are abundant and many Peruvians regarded the Shining Path as Robin Hoods in ski masks.
Somehow the Peruvian people lived through it all and on September 12, 1992, Abimael Guzmán, a man few people had ever actually seen, was arrested in a Shining Path safe house in Lima. And thus began the decline of the Shining Path.

President Alberto Fujimori (currently in prison for human rights abuses and bribery scandals) was given much of the credit for ending the dirty war. Many Peruvians are willing to forgive the methods he used.

Ironically both men on either side of the struggle are still in prison today. 

President Fujimori during his sentencing.
 In recent years the Shining Path’s numbers have dwindled to 100-300. The odd military-style attack has been carried out against soldiers and political leaders but the main effort has been to provide security for Peru’s drug cartels. It is said that a five percent fee is charged for ‘protecting’ cocaine shipments through the Huallaga Valley, where half the world’s cocaine comes from.

The Peruvian Military destroying a cocaine lab in the Huallaga Valley

Last December Comrade Artemio, one of the last infamous old school terrucos, said the Shining Path were defeated. He requested the Peruvian government grant amnesty to imprisoned members and open talks with the remaining holdouts.

Comrade Artemio prior to his arrest.

But on February 12 of this year Comrade Artemio was captured in a jungle basecamp. After two bullets were removed from his stomach, he too, is in prison.

So, finally—the end of the Shining Path?

Unfortunately, not yet. Just last April, Shining Path rebel leader Martin Palomino (Comrade Gabriel) took responsibility for the kidnapping of three dozen natural gas workers in the coca growing region.

The workers were ultimately set free but only after six soldiers were killed in a shootout.  

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Brazilian Connection

Brazil shares borders with Colombia, Peru and Bolivia and has eight thousand kilometers of coastline.

Those borders are porous and the coast is ill-patrolled.

So, even though the authorities manage to do a lot of busts, it’s still a snap to smuggle-in cocaine...

...and crack.

And Brazil is one of the cheapest places in the world to buy it.

Quite naturally, domestic usage has swelled in recent years.

And the violence that accompanies the trade has flared.

Of the fifty most violent cities in the world fourteen are now in Brazil (Twelve in Mexico, Five in Colombia, Forty in Latin America).

The murder rate in Maceio is up one hundred and eighty percent from ten years ago.

And in Bahia, it grew four-hundred-and-thirty percent between 1999 and 2008.
But it’s not just an internal problem.

Brazil is an important conduit for transshipment. Thousands of tons of drugs pass through the country on their way to Europe.

A hundred grams of cut cocaine, bought on the street in Rio de Janeiro for twelve hundred dollars, can be sold in Helsinki for more than thirteen thousand.
With profits like those, thousands of amateurs are being tempted to try their luck, travelling to Europe frequently...

...and being apprehended in ever-increasing numbers.
The Brazilian government recently earmarked the equivalent of six point three billion dollars to secure the country’s borders and an additional two billion to curb the spread of crack.
A necessary measure, perhaps, but also a tremendous waste.

How much better it would have been if the same amount of money could have been spent on better schools, better health care and lifting families out of poverty.
Leighton - Monday  

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Disappointing the Fans

So.  You sit alone in a room for eight months to a year, herding errant thoughts, unreliable inspirations, and imaginary acquaintances until you've turned them, somehow, into a story.

Your social skills, if you ever had any, atrophy until friendliness feels like phantom limb syndrome and you look up from the keyboard at a person you've known for 38 years--your wife, for example--and squint at her as though she's someone you met in a theater line in 1978 and you can see that she's wondering if you remember her name and you know you don't.

Conversation becomes a grammatical construct that requires carefully placed quotation marks. And then, just as you reach the point at which you haven't heard your own voice in weeks, your fingernails are curling under, and you've started to wear Kleenex boxes as house slippers, it's time to go MEET THE PUBLIC!

In justice, it's not like we writers are confronted with the 15,000 screaming people, eager for a religious experience, who jam into any arena Bruce Springsteen plays.  Instead, it's usually a small collection of friends, fans, friends of fans, and people looking for air conditioning.  The problem is that the people who have read me have this anticipation that I'm going to be interesting and--perhaps--amusing.  After all, the books are interesting, aren't they?  And amusing at times, yes?

Just to prove I'm not trying to sustain your interest to undue lengths, let's immediately stipulate, as they say in court, that few things on earth are duller than a writer, whose idea of company for the past year has been the weekly supermarket coupons, standing up in a bookstore, holding a book, and talking about it.  I mean, I just spent all those months trying to write it.  What am I going to say about it?  "I wrote it and I really like it, and now I'm going to read you some of it."  Please.  PBS is more interesting than that, even when "Downton Abbey" isn't on.  "Pledge Night with Yanni" is more interesting than that.  Piers Morgan is more interesting than that.

And this "amusing" thing.  Yes, once in a while my books are funny.  But there's a big difference between saying something funny spontaneously, in real time, and writing it, especially when you're a slow typist and you have time to reject and improve eight or nine lines by the time you get to the verb.  You know that thing you always wish later that you would have said, that thing that would have devastated the entire room?  Well, when you're writing, you have lots of time to think of it.  And if you don't think of it, you can stop time, so to speak, leave everybody standing where they are, one finger dipped in their martini or whatever, and say it again.  Say it better. And then write about how they're all hearing it for the first time and how devastated the entire room is.

See, you can cheat when you're writing. But when you're standing up in front of 12 or 20 or 30 people in a bookstore, holding a book you barely remember the title of and people are looking at you expectantly and you know that at least half of them only came to demonstrate support for the member of the couple who likes your books and how that half would rather be watching "Pledge Night with Yanni," the old pressure builds. What can I possibly give these people, you think desperately, that would be more fun than, say, a traffic ticket?  And so you natter and wheeze and read a bit and at your back you always hear time's winged chariot hurrying near and yonder all before you lie deserts of vast eternity (Andrew Marvell -- now there's a guy with a head start, a name like that) and those vast deserts have to be crossed before you can sign the books and run for your life.

So, this little confessional is by way of an apology to all who have turned out to hear me thus far along.  But for the rest of you--the ones planning to come to future events--I've got a hell of a show planned.  Just turn up.  Trust me.

Tim -- Sundays

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"Civilization can be seen in the way it treats its prisoners." Dostoyevsky

Sometimes a news story just drives me off the wall.  Does that ever happen to you?  Yes, Tim, I know your answer.

Here’s the lead in to a story published in Wednesday’s eKathimerini, the online version of Athens “equivalent” to The New York Times. 

“Greece's largest maximum security prison won't get to keep its waterfall-adorned, barbecue-equipped pool.” 

The Grecian Pool that created all the fuss.
Catchy huh?

It gives you the image of prisoners lounging around a pool eating lamb chops while “One of three Greeks has serious financial woes”--another headline story in the same paper.  

The Elegant Barbeque unmasked by the media.
If you’re a Greek taxpayer that’s bound to really piss you off.  How could it not?  The image of prisoners holidaying on your tax dollars as you struggle to earn a living, paying what you know is an unfair tax burden, dealing with daily threats of jail from bankers demanding payment of your debts, and forced to deal with so many around you still insisting on their “no receipt” ways.

It’s almost enough to make the decent, law-abiding overlook another story.  The one about the Greek “Tax Ministry mulling another tax amnesty to collect revenues.”  Greece did that in 2010.  It allows you to pay a “one-off fee” so that your outstanding tax affairs are not investigated.  The new one would cover arrears up through 2011.  Can you imagine a better way to encourage tax evasion than by offering tax cheats another get out of jail (almost) free card?  But at least if some do get caught and serve time they won’t have a swimming pool to look forward to.

By the way, it wasn’t taxpayer dollars that paid for the pool, though I assume the Ministry of Justice will be sure they are used to destroy it.

Guess who paid for it?  Greece’s Prison Officers Association.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The prison guards raised money to build a twenty-four-foot pool for the use of the staff and inmates of the prison’s psychiatric wing.  Their purpose: “To change things for the better—viewing inmates as human beings, not numbers.”

The Ministry claims the pool was built without its “permission” and did not comply with “health and safety standards.”  I’d appreciate it if those of you familiar with Greek construction practices would please stop laughing.   As for the claim of no permission, how could the Ministry not know about a 7.4-meter pool being built in the middle of the prison of yard of Greece’s largest maximum-security prison?  Then again, with all the celebrated escapes from that prison by high profile inmates (the most recent only a few weeks ago by a notorious Pink Panther-style jewel thief) those in charge may not have known.

Olivera Cirkovic, Pink Panther escapee
One of two separate helicopter escapes by same prisoner

Frankly, I thought the Prison Officers Association’s efforts should have been applauded across the nation as a proud example of how Greeks truly care about what happens to other members of the human race.   

I’m well aware of what goes on inside a prison because for a-half-dozen years I served as Special Counsel to the New York City Board of Correction.  I know that correction officers spend more of their lives in prison than the inmates.  Their opinions on what would help deserves far more weight than any politician’s knee-jerk “let’s show I’m tough on crime” blustering. 

Just think of all the time, care, and energy it took for so many to visualize and bring that pool into being.  And how easy it was for a single, dismissive, bureaucratic reaction to destroy such genuine acts of human kindness.

Shame on you, Ministry of Justice.

Besides, there’s no need for any Greek politician to show the world how tough the country is on the criminals they catch.  The world already knows.  After all, the prison that created all this fuss, Korydallos Prison Complex in Pireaus, has long been rated by Amnesty International as one of the worst prisons in Europe, repeatedly cited for overcrowding and inhumane treatment of detainees.  And that was before Greece’s financial crisis and spike in crime.
Korydallos Prison Complex south of Athens
Don’t we all feel so much better now as human beings knowing that the pool will be destroyed?


Friday, July 27, 2012

The Olympic (non) Cynic

It is not easy being a cynic. Take Antisthenes for example, widely believed to be the first of the Cynics. He preached a life of denial and poverty. '..when I find myself indoors, what warmer shirting do I need than my bare walls?' Quite. But then this was ancient Greece, where the weather hardly demanded central heating or roaring fires.


So what would Antisthenes have made of the London Olympics and the £9 billion that has been lavished upon it? Not much I wager. Though I'm sure he'd have thought it was worth spunking a few quid just to see Mitt Romney come over and prove himself to be some sort of political Borat, inadvertently creating mirth and hilarity each time he opened his mouth. He's off to Israel next. I can't see that one going badly. As one wag on Twitter put it, perhaps his advisers might tell him that 'Hey, I baptized your dead Grandma!' might not be the best way of greeting the public there. So far, he's made Sarah Palin look like, well, Antisthenes.


I have every reason to place myself in Antisthenes camp. I live in Chiswick, west London. The competitors, officials, panjandrums, journalists and gaffe-prone Presidential candidates all make their way around Chiswick as they travel in from the airport in special cars in special 'Games Lanes'. The traffic lights on the main road through Chiswick have been 're-phased', which is a lovely bit of modern-speak, meaning 'Messed around with so that only one car can get through at a time.' This means the whole area is effectively kettled for the the duration of the Games. They will probably find the place awash with wild dogs, piles of human bones and bloodsoaked sourdough bread when the Olympics are over. The last thing organisers seem to care about are the people who live here.

Then there's our crumbling Victorian underground network. All the money in the world couldn't make it run smoothly and on time. But that's why we love it. In order to stop the whole system grinding to a halt our Mayor, Boris Johnson, (a man who hides a nasty, right-wing personality and world view behind one of a stumbling posh buffoon who looks like his hair has fallen out of a tree and landed on his head) has basically told the whole of London to stay at home for two weeks and not go anywhere unless it's to the Games. He's even record a Stalinist message in which he urges us to do just that, in so many words, without once saying please. He may well be a future Prime Minister. PM Johnson and President Romney. Jesus.

Posh buffoon

Then there's the weather. This summer has been wetter than an an otter's pocket. This week the rain finally went, to be replaced with gorgeous sunshine. Yet, as I write, only a few hours before the Opening Ceremony (cost: £27 million - in your FACE Antisthenes) the rain is tapping on my window, much as it has done since April. When London first hosted the Olympics in 1908 (with great imagination - the swimming pool was in the middle of the stadium. The Brit men tried to cheat in the freestyle by starting when the American was still taking off his jumper, though he still won...) the rain fell incessantly for the two weeks. The tickets were overpriced and the crowds stayed away, missing all kinds of controversy in the Tug of War contest (won by City of London Police, who pulled in their police boots, while the Americans slithered in the mud in sneakers. I have blogged about those Olympics in more detail here - I don't expect such enmity between the US and Brits this time, not after they sent Mitt to hit the fan and tickle us beforehand.)

But, all these reasons and Antisthenes aside, I'm secretly, and whisper it carefully, pretty excited about the whole thing. Whatever the next two weeks bring, whether they're great feats or great farce (we've had a lovely taste of the latter already) it promises to be enormously entertaining, and then when it's done, we can all have a good moan about how we never wanted it it here anyway. And nothing warms an Englishman's heart, or his house, even better than bare walls, than a good moan.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Lawson #1

You’ve just got to love a great storyteller! 
The other day I was wandering around Denver helping a friend look for a real estate investment when I stumbled upon a map shop in the Cherry Creek area.  I had to go in.  I love maps and have several wonderful maps of Africa on my wall, including a 1587 printing of a 1570 Ortelius.  It is extraordinary – the accuracy of the shape of the continent is remarkable, particularly as it was done primarily through observation and drawing. 
Ortelius map of 1570
I chatted to the proprietor about maps in general, and maps of Africa in particular.  He showed me what he had in stock, but I found nothing to really interest me.  One of the topics discussed was how remarkably accurate very old maps were, despite no one being able to determine longitude with any accuracy.  He said the outlines of landmasses were decent but the interiors were all guesswork. 
Part of Cram's map showing Mount Hercules
He pulled out a map (circa 1895) by the well known American cartographer George Cram.  It shows the relative lengths of the world’s major rivers and the relative heights of the world’ highest mountains.  In general, it was pretty accurate, EXCEPT for one mountain: Mount Hercules in New Guinea, towering a thousand metres or so (3,700 feet) above Mt. Everest.  “Cram had never been to New Guinea,” the proprietor said.  “He believed what he was told.”
Needless to say, I had to find out why such a well known cartographer had bought into a story so thoroughly that he put a non-existent mountain on one of his maps – not just a non-existent one, but one that was significantly higher than the highest known mountain.
Let me tell you about Captain John Lawson.
Despite a European presence in the East from the late 1400’s, there was much that was unknown.  One area that had captured the imagination of Europeans was New Guinea, about which very little was known and a great deal imagined.  It was exotic and far away.
Joseph Beete Jukes, an officer on HMS Fly that explored the coast of New Guinea in the 1840s, wrote:
I know of no part of the world, the exploration of which is so flattering to the imagination, so likely to be fruitful in interesting results, whether to the naturalist, the ethnologist or the geographer, and altogether so well calculated to gratify the enlightened curiosity of an adventurous explorer, as the interior of New Guinea. New Guinea! The very mention of being taken into the interior of New Guinea sounds like being allowed to visit some of the enchanted regions of the Arabian Nights, so dim an atmosphere of obscurity rests at present on the wonders it probably contains.

In 1875 an explorer by the name of John Lawson published a book of his travels in New Guinea.  His achievements as told in Wanderings in the Interior of New Guinea (Chapman & Hall) were awe-inspiring.

He had walked, save for about 30 miles, across the island at its widest point; he climbed Mt. Hercules up to its snowline (in one day); he mapped vast tracts of the interior, including Lake Alexandrina and the Gladstone and Royal rivers; and he lost three of his five assistants to horrible deaths.  For food, his party lived off the land.  They fished, at one point catching over 100 in two hours; they hunted, once bringing down 19 ducks with two shots.  And when their rifle was lost, survived by hitting quail with a stick.  He discovered many new species of flora and fauna, and shot and killed a giant striped tiger, which he called the Moolah.
Sketch from Lawson's book
His story was very believable, at least to the general public – he described species in minute detail (for example, five page to an new trapdoor spider), but often made entries in his journal such as “Passing over exactly the same kind of country as yesterday. Still less forest”.  This juxtaposing of detail and dismissive comments seemed real to readers in England.
However the story was not so believable to other explorers and scientists.  Even though the book sold well, a number of prominent publications like The Times, Geographical Magazine, and Athenaeum ran articles decrying it.  The famous British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, reviewed the book in Nature, writing that he had “a duty to inform our readers that it is wholly fictitious. It is not even a clever fiction”.
In response to a derisory review in the Athenaeum that included a statement that the coordinates of the village from which Lawson had launched his expedition were actually in the middle of the ocean, Lawson retorted: “The gentleman who wrote this article knows nothing whatever about New Guinea, except such information as he has gleaned from text-books and gazetteers of doubtful accuracy”.

Even the Alpine Club weighed in, saying that Lawson’s ascent of Mt. Hercules was three or four times faster than one could do Mont Blanc.
Lawson's response: "My ascent of Mount Hercules has, also, provoked something more than mere astonishment in the minds of the delicate city gentlemen and podgy professors who are in the habit of ascending Mont Blanc, with the aid of sherry and sandwiches, and half-a-dozen greasy, garlic-fed guides, and then devoting a quarto volume to an account of their exploits."
When the famous explorer Captain Moresby wrote a letter solemnly proclaimed that Lawson’s claims were unfounded and supported his position by saying that he (Moresby) had never seen the species described by Lawson, Lawson again went on the attack:
“A due sense of modesty should have kept [Captain Moresby] silent, especially as he is not a qualified judge as to what is or what is not to be found in the interior of New Guinea … “We never saw,” “we never saw”; when Capt. Moresby does see, he will be deeply mortified to think he is numbered amongst those who have tried to throw discredit upon my narrative.”
Lawson eventually went silent when he was invited by the editor of the Athenaeum to produce the skin of the Moolah he had shot.
Lawson’s book was obviously pulling everyone’s chain, and he must have delighted in the reactions of so many prominent people, particularly those who pontificated but had never left the shores of England.

Mount Hercules from Wallace's book
So that is the story of how cartographer George Cram got sucked in to publishing his erroneous map.  It just goes to show that even in those non-Internet days so long ago, one could not believe everything one read.  Needless to say,  I bought the map.
There’s one other footnote of interest.  There was no Captain Lawson in the English navy at the time.  To this day, no one knows who the real author was of Wanderings in the Interior of New Guinea.
Next time I am going to tell you of another wondrous Lawson - an American of truly astounding vision.
Stan - Thursday
Note:  I read a lot about Captain Lawson in Oceanic encounters, a scientific collaboration between the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) at The Australian National University.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Good news

Two of my fingernails are coming detached and since the two doctors in my life are currently both in the States I was reduced to googling my situation, i.e. "fingernails falling off". The internet told me that I had come into close contact with levels of high radiation. Since it is never dark out here these days I do not know if I glow in the dark or not. And I am not the proud owner of a Geiger counter. I am sure my diagnosis would have been less impressive or exagerrated had it been provided by an actual doctors, not one made up of bytes.

I sometimes find that wine descriptions have the opposite effect on me than what the taster intended. I do not want to drink a liquid “reminiscent of buttercups with a whisper of fresh soil and a gun-metal aroma”. Often the words selected are way over the over the top and either intended to increase the price of the bottle or to establish the taster as a serious connoisseur with super-human taste buds and outlandish smelling apparatus. I recently came across a very funny one from an amateur member of a tasting group. It read: Like a donkey defecating into a vat of blue cheese. Another one that made me smile was meant to descibe an over oaked red: Chateau Two by Four. Another inteded for the same read: A wine only a termite could love. After seeing this I really want to orgainse a group to take a wine tasting class with the sub-intention of competing amongst ourselves for the evening‘s most ridiculous description.  

But this purple prose is catching on for other beverages, at least here in Iceland. Coffee is now branded in the same way and the writers of these descriptions are just as superfluous as the wine guys. Last week such a decal made the news here as an inside joke in the coffee packaging factory accidentally went out to market. It read: The coffee is full bodied, lively yet low in acidity and has a lightly spiced enchanting tang. If you wish to be sodomized phone Gummi B. Not really along the saccharine line set out at the beginning.

This newsflash about the dirty coffee is typical of what is in the papers these last couple of weeks. There is nothing going on as everyone is on vacation. On Saturday the weather office had predicted a storm and due to the lack of things to report this was blown out of all proportion, no pun intended. Everyone in Iceland was asked to walk around their homes and remove any loose items that the wind might pick up and owners of trampolines were given special warning. My husband and I did an inspection and secured everything in sight and even bid farewell to all of the plants we have recently planted in our new flower beds. We were certain that on the Sunday morning they would be stems at best.

But nothing happened. You would not even have been able to fly a kite it was so calm. The following day the news started backtracking. We had interviews with meteorologists that said the weather had been absolutely crazy at 1000 m height. And there was a report of a man being blown over on a campground on the south coast.

But I guess a no-show storm beats one that does make an appearance. Just as no news is good news.

Yrsa – Wednesday

Monday, July 23, 2012

Guest Author Annamaria Alfieri

Annamaria Alfieri's first novel, City of Silver, was set in seventeenth-century Potosi. Now, in Invisible Country, she carries us two centuries forward, and a thousand kilometers away, to the little Paraguayan village of Santa Caterina.

Thus begins my review of this, her latest obra prima. You can, and I hope you will, read the rest of it on Amazon, Shelfari or Goodreads. It's a great book, one you are sure to enjoy.

In the writing of it, Annamaria became somewhat of an expert on the life and times of Eliza Lynch, a subject on which she'll be holding forth tomorrow at the New York Public Library.
If you're going to be anywhere near the New York Metropolitan area, here's the information you need to attend:

But, if you're too far away (as I am, alas) or otherwise can't make it, here's a taste of what it's going to be about, a post she has entitled The Lost Gold of Paraguay. Enjoy!

Leighton - Monday

Some months ago, Leighton wrote a post about Eliza Lynch, one of those fascinating and enigmatic characters that people the history of South America.  Leighton’s post reported what quite a number of writers have stated as truth: that the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70), the most devastating war in South American history, was started to satisfy Señora Lynch’s lust for fame, fortune, and power.  Today, I want to take another look at that conclusion.

This is not to say that La Lynch was an innocent bystander.  She participated in the events.  But many historians say she fomented them.  Hold on a minute there, Sherlock.  Perhaps, in this case, hanging all the blame on the only woman in the story is just another instance of mankind’s (and I am being gender-specific here) penchant—since Adam and Eve—of blaming all catastrophes on women.  And let’s face it; “cherchez la femme” always seems to make more sense if the woman in question is beautiful and sexually powerful, as Eliza Lynch evidently was.

However, there are a few other things that might have caused all the uproar.  Most historians agree that the politics of the La Plata region were a mess at the time.  Argentina had for decades been mired in a persistent identity crisis, unable to make up its mind whether it wanted to grow up to be a republic or a unified country ruled by a strong man from Buenos Aires.  The Argentinos had been killing one another over this question since the last Spanish Viceroy turned tail and fled at the beginning of the century.  Also, Brazil and Argentina had an ongoing feud, each rising up from time to time to flex its muscles and try to prove it was the biggest kid on the block.  Poor little Uruguay.  Stuck between the two coastal would-be super powers, it suffered as a frequent battleground in proxy conflicts between the pro-Brazilian and pro-Argentine factions in its midst.
Enter, for my money, the real villain of the piece: 

Francisco Solano López, the son of Paraguay’s second dictator, Carlos Antonio López.  When Francisco Solano ascended to the “throne” on the death of his father, he took over a wealthy country and the most modern nation on the continent:  Paraguay had what no one else did—a railroad and a telegraph system.  In 1850, the Ybycuí foundry began to turn out cannons, artillery, and bullets, using every bit of metal it could lay its hands on, including the bells in the church towers.  With all that political tumult and materiel at hand, there was bound to be a war.

The precipitating factors could have been any of several.  Many texts posit that Solano López coveted a port on the Atlantic and set out to conquer a swath of Brazil so he could have one.  The evidence in support of this is heavy: Lopez shot the opening salvo by declaring war on Brazil on December 13, 1864.

Three months later, because Argentina refused to let him march his army through its territory to get to the battlegrounds, he declared war on Argentina.  Uruguay later joined in making it a Triple Alliance against Paraguay.

López has his apologists, who claim that he was not after territory but rather was defending the rights of Paraguay and Uruguay not to be meddled with by the two local heavy weights.  There is some supporting argument in favor of this, too.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, revisionist historians floated a new theory, saying that real culprit was Great Britain, variously motivated by its need for a source of cotton (having lost its supply from the American South because of our Civil War) and better yet because it stood to make enormous amounts of money supplying armaments and engineers and importantly by lending the warring powers bags of cash at favorable—to Britain—interest rates.  Since Britain actually was the only entity to come out ahead in the awful struggle, lots of people believe it entrapped the warring parties to participate.   Profiting heavily from such a horror show does seem a nasty way for any country to make itself rich, but it is hard to imagine that Britain could have gotten the war started if the other participants had not been looking for a fight, as well as cruising for a bruising.

Of all the possibilities, I would say the least likely cause of strife was Eliza Lynch.

But what was Eliza Lynch doing in the five years while Paraguay was going down to the worst defeat in history, while 90% of its male population was perishing, while major numbers of noncombatants were starving to death, and her consort was torturing innocents to assuage his frustration?  Well, she was having babies and trying to take care of her children.  She bore six.  Five sons were alive at the  war’s beginning.  She was also collecting gold and jewels.
Before the war began, Eliza managed to acquire some pretty expensive trinkets, even in that middle of nowhere that was Paraguay in the 1850’s and early 60’s.

Lacking a Cartier showroom, she repaired to a local church that boasted a miraculous statue of the Madonna.  As happened elsewhere in Christendom, many of the faithful entreated the Madonna to help loved ones survive life’s perils.  When their prayers were answered, they bestowed gifts of gold and precious gems on the beloved image.  Eliza took Mary’s real jewels and replaced them with dross.
Just before the war started, López instructed his agent in Buenos Aires to withdraw Paraguay’s hoard of gold from a bank there and send it up river to Asunción on the Esmeralda.  He and Lynch added the ingots to their hoard.  Not stopping there, as the conflict dragged on, they began to “induce” the upper class women to donate their jewels (or anything else of value) to the war effort.  Well, of course, patriotic ladies would give their jewels for such a cause.  Remember the collection of the gold scene in Gone with the Wind?  The trouble was Eliza Lynch’s efforts took place after the Brazilian navy had taken control of the rivers leading in and out of the country—at which point there was no possibility whatsoever of buying anything even faintly resembling goods useful to an army.

It seems likely that they lugged the Treasure of Paraguay along with them as they fled before the pursuing enemy month after month, year after year.  To her credit, maybe, Eliza stuck by López’s side throughout the war.  Life with López meant breaking camp and running north repeated for literally years until he was finally felled on the first of March 1870.  Many chroniclers report that she buried him and their oldest son, who also died that day, with her own hands.

What happened to the gold and jewels in the process is still a matter of hot speculation over a hundred and thirty years later.  

Here are the main theories:  Lynch and López tossed the trunks holding the treasure over a cliff in a deserted area of the north cordillera.  He then forced the carters who had transported the goods to leap over the cliff, too, thereby ensuring that only the ruling couple would know where the gold and jewels rested.  A friend of mine and fellow researcher on Paraguay at the New York Public Library tells me that treasure hunters are still scouring the landscape there looking to strike it rich.  No one has yet found anything.
Another more likely possibility is that Eliza entrusted the treasure to a third party for safe-keeping.  A close look at her life style after Paraguay’s bitter defeat indicates that she never repossessed the fortune.  She did, however, go to Scotland and sue the family of a certain Dr. William Stewart, who had, during the war, been the chief surgeon to the Paraguayan forces.  She sought to recover “certain valuables” that she had entrusted to his care.  She did not win her case.

Eliza Lynch, shown here in her age, died in obscurity in Paris on 27 July 1886. 

The treasure of Paraguay is still missing.

If you want to read a fictional explanation of what might have happened, along with a murder mystery and a few love stories, you will find them all in Invisible Country.