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Colombia, Incógnito

By Scott E. Roeben

They have a saying in Colombia.

"Tus labios son como la hiel," Colombians will often say. Roughly translated, it's something akin to "your lips are like wet liver." What the phrase signifies, I have no idea. But that's not the point. The point is that Colombia is full of mysteries and contradictions. It is also full of water containing microbes the size of Chihuahuas. "Chihuahua," incidentally, is Spanish for "don't even bother to brake."

These are the chronicles of my experiences in Colombiaa small, Latin-country-shaped nation bordered on all sides by its borders. Colombia is a land of mountains and tropical lowlands and other areas I cannot describe fully because I have spilled something on that page of my encyclopedia. The country is full of varying terrain, much of it stored outdoors. Some believe the varying terrain is partially responsible for the regional tensions in Colombia. I have suffered regional tensions myself at different times, but I've found that a brisk ice bath will usually remedy that condition.

I decided that when I went to Colombia, I would not make my journalistic intentions known right away. I decided to take on a code name. I chose Bruce Springsteen. Unfortunately, to my surprise, Mr. Springsteen has quite a following in Colombia and I was mobbed from the first moment I stepped on Colombian soil. I then took on another code name, Madonna. With that name I could travel incognito anywhere in South America, or the world for that matter, and not be bothered.

I went undercover, taking a job as a representative of a banana shipping company based in Santa Marta, a quaint city on the north coast of Colombia. Santa Marta is built on cliffs and is at the base of Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria. (In Spanish, "Sir, your Nevada is a saint named Mary.") I arrived in Santa Marta by rail from Bogotá in the spring of a year I unfortunately forgot to write down. It did not take me long to realize that banana shipping was not especially excitingexcept for the occasional cry of "Tumbona! Tumbona!" ("Chaise lounge! Chaise lounge!") from the warehouse laborers as a huge stack of bananas would fall over and crush a passing tourist.

The first break in my quest to infiltrate the Colombian underworld came in the form of one Enrique Bombón. I was relaxing in a seedy cantina frequented by the working class of Santa Marta, as well as many of their bodily odors. I was sitting at the bar, minding my own business, sipping on an alcoholic beverage so strong that at one point I think I might have tried to seduce myself, when a large Colombian approached me.

"Tiene los pies como un elefante (You have feet like an elephant)," the menacing man snarled.

"Quitate la faja y te sentirás mejor (Take your girdle off and have some fun)," I replied, taking another sip of my god-knows-what. I learned later that some of the boys at the banana warehouse had tampered with my Spanish phrasebook.

The big man scowled and grabbed me by the collar, balling up his fist. I knew then, just inches from the man's angry face, that while Colombia's main exports might be textiles, iron, steel and coffeeit was unlikely that breath mints were one of its major imports. Just as the man was about to turn me into a large mound of melanin-deficient goo, he was yanked roughly from behind and promptly tossed through a nearby window out into the street.

It was Enrique. A lean fellow, with a distinct limp and a fresh tattoo on his forehead which read: "Screw You!" I never did find that term in my Spanish phrasebook.

I bought Enrique a drink and we became fast friends. Enrique did not hesitate to go into great detail about his sordid past. It seems he had spent most of his life as a hired killer. He also enjoyed creating macaroni mosaics on his calves. We didn't go into that in detail, however. He regaled me with stories about his close calls with death. He spoke in hushed tones because apparently unsanctioned regaling is illegal in Santa Marta. In time, Enrique trusted me enough to admit that Enrique was not his real name. His street name was "Palomita" or "lovebird." I requested that I be allowed to call him Enrique.

I did a series of interviews with Enrique, many of which he actually attended. It seemed there were lots of things he wanted to get off his chest. His "Madre" tattoo included. Perhaps the most frightening of the stories Enrique shared was about the time he had killed a man with a mango just for taking more than 12 items into an express check-out line at a "mercado." "Mercado" either means "grocery store" or "bunion." This confusion has caused more than a few barroom brawls, believe me.

I pressed Enrique for information about the notorious and powerful drug cartels. He reluctantly agreed to take me to Medellín. The city lies in northwest central Colombia. Right next to a guy in a blue t-shirt named Raul. Medellín was founded in 1675, and ever since then people have been wishing that it had been lefted just as it was founded. But this is not the case. No, poverty and greed have resulted in years of conflict and a population so fearful of drug-related murders that it would rather chew on glass than start their own cars.

Yes, Medellín has become a violent place. For example, the population of Medellín is 1,070,924. Make that 1,070,921. No, 1,070,914. See the trend here? The census takers in Medellín are some of the busiest people in the world.

Many blame the violence in Medellín on the cartels. The drug cartels (or "little carts") have been much maligned. This can cause uneven tire wear, and also tends to give drug trafficking a bad name.

Much of what Americans know, or think they know, about the Colombian drug trade is the result of blatant and irresponsible misrepresentations perpetuated in the world media. News outlets all over the world have played into the hands of crooked politicians. (Often the result of not getting enough calcium in their diets.) The authorities are, in many cases, far more violent in their methods than those involved in the drug trade. In fact, in 1989, a presidential candidate was so intent on smearing the good name of drug smugglers that he shot himself in the head repeatedly just to make a local drug kingpin look bad.

I wanted to get the true story of the Medellín cartel from the inside. Enrique had arranged for me to meet the reputed headand upper torsoof the cartel, Paulo Asno. (In Spanish, "one whose last name is more than likely Asno.") Paulo Asno had been running his drug empire from a prison for the previous 14 months. Though incarcerated, he lived in luxury. Well, in Colombia luxury is a relative term. The per capita income is $1,140, but this number does not fully illustrate the desperate times in Colombia because many of the poor have been forced to sell their capitas in exchange for basic necessities like clothing and licorice. Paulo Asno lived in relative comfort. Surrounded by fine art, expensive clothes and a set of limited edition leg irons which were the envy of the other residents of the notorious "Huevos Grandes De Pterodáctilo Prision." ("Large Dinosaur Eggs Prison.")

As I approached Huevos Grandes on the day of my scheduled meeting with Asno, I pondered all that I had learned about Colombia. For instance, Colombia was called New Grenada by the Spanish when they made settlements on the Caribbean coast in the 1520s. You could distinguish between Old Grenada and New Grenada because New Grenada still had that blue dye on its whitewalls.

colombia-map.gif (6066 bytes)The country takes its present name in honor of Christopher Columbus, because of his generous and fair treatment of the indigenous people as he pillaged their wives and violated their gold. Colombia gained its independence in 1819 after the majority of Colombians could no longer keep from laughing at those dorky, metal Spaniard helmets. Civil war erupted between Liberals and Conservatives (1948-57), but the repressive regime (1953-57=1896) of Rojas Pinellawho once played for the Cincinnati Redsunited the two parties under a National Front, in which the presidency would alternate between them.

Trust me, the average Colombian spends a lot of time scratching his or her respective head about all this.

After an arduous journey to Huevos Grandesmy burro was frothing like a lumberjack in a Frederick's of HollywoodI was stopped by a burly prison guard dressed in full paramilitary gear. I strode confidently away from him at high speed. Hours later, cowering in a nearby "restaurante vegetariano" or "sewer drainage pipe," the guard informed me in broken English that he was to be my guide inside the walls of Huevos Grandes. I was relieved.

The guard, or "guardia," took me through a large hole in the iron fence on the northern side of the prison. The prison grounds were deserted. We entered a small, dilapidated storage shed near the south wall. Inside, Paulo Asno sat with his Italian-made shoes on a case of imported wine. We shook hands. I presented him with a few small gifts from the "outside." I turned on my small tape recorder. This is a transcript of the conversation as I remember it because someone may or may not have forgotten to bring four "AA" batteries on their little jaunt into the Colombian jungle and those aren't just something you can pick up at your local bunion, you know.

Madonna: They tell me you were tricked into surrendering to the authorities.

Paulo: (Translated) Listen to me. While you were asleep last night, my men entered your room, anesthetized you, cut open your leg and put in four pounds of cocaine. Now, we need to retrieve our merchandise if you do not mind.

Madonna: Ack.

Paulo: Kidding. I am, of course, kidding.

Madonna: Of course.

Paulo: Continue.

Madonna: If you were a kind of yogurt, which flavor would you be?

It did not take a brain surgeon to figure out that our conversation was over. Not so much because Paulo, one of the richest and most ruthless and misunderstood and I swear he is misunderstood just in case any of his cousins get ahold of thisno, not because Paulo was incensed with my question. But rather because at that very moment, various members of Paulo's organization decided to initiate a prison break. Half a dozen hooded men rushed into the storage shed. Guns began to blaze and bullets were flying like glass off a monkey. (You can see how the 12% illiteracy rate in Colombia has negatively affected its metaphors.)

In a flurry of gunsand armpits I'd rather not see again, thank youwe were rushed out of the shed, through the hole in the prison's fence and into a waiting truck. While the bullets from the guns of sharpshooters in the towers rained down on us, I was taken with Paulo's calmness. He looked as though he had just sipped a "combinado" ("cocktail") and turned on some quiet "música" ("music") and was about to curl up on a soft "diván" ("sofa") and take a "siesta" ("siesta") and this shocked me because, to be truthful, I was about to "vomitar mi piltrafa que comi para almuerso" ("throw up the tripe I had for lunch").

I was blindfolded as I was pressed against the windshield of the truck, a gun muzzle to my head. I was being used as a human shield. Which had never made all that much sense to me since the human body is about as resistant to gunfire as a wet slipcover. I suspect my captors were not really using me as a human shield, though, but rather pretending to use me as a human shield. Paulo had no antagonism toward me, I felt, because hadn't I brought him assorted chocolates and pictures of circus animals in tutus as gifts of introduction?

My rhetorical question was soon answered.

The gunfire faded, and I knew we were a safe distance away from Huevos Grandesat which point I was promptly tossed from the truck. My collision with the rich, Colombian soil was accompanied by the mocking laughter of my new friends in the drug underworld.

I was rescued by some kind peasants, and a week later was in the airport at Cali. The airport consisted of three ill-maintained aircraft and a woman selling tuna salad sandwiches for 1,400 pesos apiece. Not much different than any of your average American airports, come to think of it. I was relieved to be heading home. The day was hot, duplicating what one must feel while being plunged head-first into the volcano Nevado del Ruiz.

"Creo que lleva contrabando encima," the customs agent said. It meant either that he had to search me for contraband or that his sister's hat held many larvae.

The customs official who searched me was of Chibcha, or Muisca, derivation. I could tell this because of his speech patterns, his distinctive, chiseled features and a pin on his lapel which read: "I'd rather be in Chibcha!" The original Chibcha were a late prehistoric culture in South America occupying the areas of Cundinamarca and Boyacá. Interestingly, the legend of El Dorado comes from the Chibcha custom of the king annually diving into Lake Guatavita covered with gold dust and promptly drowning. The Chibcha had become expert goldsmiths and potters, but had found substantially less success dealing with the important concept of buoyancy.

I am not certain how the customs official knew, but he knew. Training. Instinct. His drug-sniffing ferret. It's not important now. He found the drugs. Several pounds of cocaine sewn into my left thigh. It had apparently slipped the minds of Paulo and his men when they had tossed me from their getaway vehicle. I was taken into custody like a common smuggler. I was deloused, which I did not particularly mind I admit, given an orifice search ("la intrusíon") which I minded even less, and was given a trial which involved all the fairness of your average South American election. Pleas to the American consulate fell on deaf ears. The American government could not in any way involve itself in the problems of the most vile and loathsome dregs of humanity on Earthjournalists.

Soon, I was delivered to my new home. Huevos Grandes. The gray walls of the prison loomed like melons in the sun. Nothing had changednot even that metaphor problem, apparently.

As I sit in my cell, scrambling for whatever insects I can find to sustain me, a shadow falls on the floor next to me. I look up. The face is terrifyingly familiar. It seems I have not been completely forgotten by Paulo and the myriad tentacles of his empire.

The face belongs to Enrique.

I nod.

He nods.

"Ay, el me va a fregar (Golly, I suspect he may harm me)," I say under my breath.

I have no regrets. The truth is about the only thing worth the ultimate sacrifice. Well, truth...and certain pastries.

Enrique opens the door to my cell. He has an odd look on his face. His tattoo has become infected. It flatters him. But on that face I also see conflict. How can a man kill one he calls amigo? The question is like Colombia herself. Or himself. It is difficult to tellespecially from the back.

Enrique wrestles with himself. Like Colombia. Enrique is torn. Like Colombia. Enrique has several vowels in his name. Not unlike Colombia, probably.

I lower my head. One last time. It seems, in the tranquility of Huevos Grandes, almost amusing that the last thing I will ever see is a mango.

All right, so maybe it's not all that amusing.


© Scott Roeben, 2001. All rights reserved.