Getty Images

Letter from Colombia


charles castaldi, a former NPR correspondent, is a regular contributor to the Review.

Published January 22, 2018


The first Thursday in September, Bogota awakened to drizzle and mostly deserted streets. Pope Francis was beginning his tour of Colombia, celebrating mass in Simon Bolivar Park in the center of the city. Access roads were closed to traffic, security was heavy and throngs soaked to the bone were already waiting in the park at first light.

When the Pope arrived the sun appeared as if on cue, and as he spoke over a million Colombians stood transfixed in the vast open space. Papal visits are always a big deal. But this particular visit came at a profoundly important moment.

The Colombian government had just signed a truce with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the last guerilla group to operate in the country. This followed on the heels of a pact with the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the largest of the guerilla armies, which had been fighting for a half-century. Over those decades, combat among various combinations of guerillas, narcos, right-wing militias and the country’s armed forces had left over a quarter-million dead (most of them civilians) and seven million displaced.

When President Juan Manuel Santos first inked the FARC deal in Cuba, he was celebrated with a Nobel Peace Prize. But voters back home were less impressed than the prize committee in Oslo, nixing the agreement in a national referendum and illustrating just how polarized Colombian society remains. Santos managed an end run around the popular vote, pushing ratification of a slightly modified version through the legislature. The Pope’s unequivocal support for the peace process couldn’t have come at a better moment.

Eduardo Guttierez, a 61-year-old civil engineer, came to the outdoor mass with his extended family of seven. “I voted in favor of the peace accords,” he told me. “Like we say here: a bad deal is better than a good fight.”

Guttierez is no fan of the guerillas, but blames the ferocious economic inequality that fed the outlaw armies’ anger. “This is a very complicated country whose worst sin is to be rich,” he says, implying that wealth can’t be amassed without corruption. One hears this often in Colombia, a country that, while amply endowed in natural resources and boasting a large middle class, has yet to shed a legacy of rural feudalism.

By contrast, Soraya Hernandez, who sells packing materials with her husband, is not ready to forgive or forget. She talks while trying to corral three kids at risk of disappearing in a sea of worshippers. “I love the Pope,” she says. “But I voted no. Not after so many hostages, so many dead.”

Later, when I stop for an empanada to fuel my long walk back to my hotel, I strike up a conversation with Rafael Mora, a city employee who had also been at the mass. He embraces the Pope’s message of reconciliation, but he, too, voted no. “We are very close to becoming a Castro-Chavista country like Venezuela,” he says, repeating a favorite refrain the right used to defeat the referendum.

The loudest voice against the peace process has been Alvaro Uribe, who served two terms as president of Colombia before Santos, and who is credited with forcing the FARC to the negotiating table by aggressively pursuing them on the battlefield. Uribe is a very polarizing figure. Some admire his work ethic and conservative views. Others disparage his politics, accusing him of being in bed with narcos and the right-wing paramilitary who were responsible for most of the killings of the past few decades.

El Capo Lives in the Hills

Of course, Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, was for many years synonymous with the mayhem perpetrated by the Medellín Cartel and its infamous “capo dei capi,” Pablo Escobar. The ghost of Escobar still haunts parts of the city. But you wouldn’t know it if you stuck to the center, lined as it is with glistening high rises and the lush landscaping that makes Medellín’s nickname as the city of eternal spring more than wishful thinking from the tourist board.

Walking by smart restaurants and the omnipresent Starbucks, it’s easy to believe Medellín really is a welcoming place to live. And then there’s the new subway: it could well be the cleanest … anywhere. Well, at least in Latin America, where standards are somewhat lower than in Oslo or Stockholm.

The Medellín funicular, connecting poor barrios to the town center.
Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

The people of Medellín, known as “paisa,” are quick to draw a distinction between themselves and the rest of the country. They are more industrious, they will tell you, which is actually borne out in the numbers. The metro area has long pulled more than its weight in banking and manufacturing. And now it’s becoming a high-tech hub, attracting loads of young, highly educated workers.

Andres Restrepo is president of Mineros, a gold-mining company based in Medellín with operations in Colombia and Nicaragua. Over dinner, he tells me he’s very bullish on the city. “We’ve reduced poverty significantly,” he says. “We’re attracting lots of investment. After the terrible times we went through in the past, we’re finally able to thrive.”

In fact, he argues that the good times now and violence of the past are linked. “Here people are very entrepreneurial,” he says. “People are ambitious. The down side: the same drive and business savvy is what made the cartels so successful.”

robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo
The barrios Regalo-de-Dios above Medellín.
In spite of its successes, Colombia suffers from extreme income inequality. And Medellín is no exception.

The numbers support Restrepo’s optimism. According to the World Bank, extreme poverty in Colombia has been cut by half in the last 15 years. Meanwhile, GDP growth, which had stalled over the last five years due to the drop in the prices of oil and coal — together, they account for almost half of all exports — is expected to pick up. The peace accords can only help in this regard.

But in spite of its successes, Colombia suffers from extreme income inequality. Indeed, in Latin America, it is at the bottom of the heap, along with Honduras, Brazil and Panama. And Medellín is no exception.

To see it firsthand, I take the funicular that was built to connect the center of town to the poor barrios clinging to the mountains that ring Medellín. Efforts to narrow the gap in living standards are evident in new housing, libraries and the funicular itself. But a walk in the barrios makes clear that life remains very tough.

While the homicide rate in the poor neighborhoods of Medellín has dropped considerably, other crime is rampant. Those who haven’t succeeded in snagging space in the subsidized high-rises live in marginal conditions familiar to anyone who’s visited the slums of Caracas or Rio. When I stopped to sample a bowl of traditional bean soup, I struck up a conversation with a local named Diego Rivera at the next table. Everything that happened in the hills was subject to criminal intervention, he laments. “You have a shop, you have to pay a vacuna (vaccine),” he says. “Otherwise they’ll force you to close. You have a car, you pay. Any business, you better be vaccinated.”

A Colombian policeman checks part of a cocaine load confiscated in Medellín.
Reuters/Albeiro Lopera

His friend, who asked that I not print his name, tells me he started working for Escobar’s drug cartel in the 1980s when the narcos first showed up in the neighborhood with new motorcycles. “After they gave you a bike, they’d say we’ll give you so much a week,” he remembers. “Who’s going to say no to that? We were all very poor.”

His instinct for self-preservation eventually overwhelmed his desire to earn a good living as the violence escalated. “So I joined the army,” he says with a smile. “I thought that was the best way to be safe.”

It turned out, of course, that the army was at war with the guerillas. “So I left as soon as my time was up,” he says. But within a year, a paramilitary group formed to fight the Medellín Cartel recruited him. “I knew some of these guys from the army and a couple of them from before, in the cartel,” he says. “Now they wanted us to help fight them because we knew how they operated.”

The regular military was often accused of cooperating with the private militias, both to fight rival cartels and to go after guerillas or anyone suspected of supporting them. He managed to survive that episode and now does construction jobs with his friend Diego.

Later, I spoke to James Bargent, who works in Medellín for InSight Crime, a nonprofit that studies organized crime in Latin America. He says that what had once been Escobar’s collection arm — it was called the Oficina de Envigado because it was initially located in the Medellín neighborhood of that name — has morphed into a more fragmented crime syndicate. “Nowadays you have a board of directors,” he says. “Each director controls territories through alliances with street gangs.”

Medellín, he points out, remains the business center for drugs and money laundering, especially on the heels of an agreement struck in 2014 between the paramilitary groups, which control the coca-growing and supply routes, and the local crime syndicates. “They decided to work together, so this allowed them to concentrate on business instead of fighting,” he says. “After this, the homicide rate dropped substantially. But the vacunas, extortion, robberies, all these other crimes have grown exponentially.”

Medellín, Bargent points out, remains the business center for drugs and money laundering, especially on the heels of an agreement struck in 2014 between the paramilitary groups, who control the coca-growing and supply routes, and the local crime syndicates.

I also spoke to a woman (who preferred to remain anonymous) who develops housing for middle-income households. She repeated the mantra over and over again: “You want to get a permit, pay the vacuna. You want to build, pay the vacuna. There’s no way around it, so you just do it.”

In spite of this, she says her business is booming. And her city is a source of pride. “We’ve been rated one of the best cities to live in in the world,” she says. “What can I say?” she answers, when I point out the contradiction. “This is Colombia.”

Another Country

The following day I fly north to Sincelejo, a small city in the Caribbean region of Colombia. The contrast with Medellín couldn’t be more marked, starting with a taxi ride that began with my suitcase being tied to the top of an old Toyota compact already occupied by four passengers. We pass gas stations full of motorcycles and their loitering riders. These are mototaxis, hundreds of them, one of the principal forms of employment in this largely impoverished town. While there is agriculture in the surrounding areas, Sincelejo, like much of the Caribbean region, is a backwater that suffers from much higher unemployment than the big cities.

I stop off at the offices of Sembrando Paz, a nonprofit focused on supporting the peace process and revitalizing the villages in the surrounding countryside. It’s run by Ricardo Esquivia, a Mennonite and pacifist from the Caribbean region, and his American wife, Lillian Hall. Inside the modest building, young people — among them a few American volunteers — are hunched behind desks.

Over lunch, he tells me his father contracted Hansen’s disease long ago and was forced to move to a leper colony in the interior of Colombia. The family followed, though they were not permitted any contact with him. Mennonite missionaries founded a school for the children of the internees, which is how he joined the religious group. He says that was the third strike against him in the local culture: “Not only was I the son of a leper and black, I was a protestant.”

Esquivia was taken by liberation theology while a law student in Bogota, which brought him in contact with lots of people who would later join the guerillas. “But I wouldn’t get involved in fighting,” he says. “I was a conscientious objector.”

He moved back to the Caribbean region to work on land reform with peasant unions. Things got messy rather quickly. “The campesinos would become frustrated with the slow pace of reform and invade a farm,” he says. “The police and the army would show up to push them out, often brutally. Then the FARC would arrive to support the campesinos. So the land owners formed the paramilitary to fight the FARC, and things escalated from there.” It’s a succinct explanation of one of the root causes of Colombia’s violence.

Pichilin is a sad-looking place, and the stories of its residents are sadder still, a constant reminder of just how pervasive and cruel the violence that overwhelmed this area was.

Now, with the peace process, Esquivia sees a ray of hope:

Land, of course, is the most fundamental issue. In the peace accords, they promised to distribute three million hectares to peasants, which in the scheme of things isn’t very much, but even then, it’ll be very hard to do. Many landowners expanded their farms by taking over adjoining land. That’s where some of this three million is going to come from. And that’s sure to generate a lot of conflict.

That afternoon I headed to an area known as Montes de Maria. It’s here that in 1996 the FARC used a “burrobomba,” a donkey loaded with over 100 pounds of dynamite, which was led into the town square and detonated in front of the police station, killing seven policemen. After the attack, the police withdrew from the region, accusing the locals of having supported the guerillas.

Eight years later, a special unit from the attorney general’s office that prosecuted guerillas and their alleged collaborators accused 125 people from the town of having participated in the attack. By then the town had practically emptied out, leaving it to the guer­illas and the paramilitary to fight for control.

I visit with a group working with Sembrandopaz in the village of Coloso. Daisy Alvarez, 54, tells me her daughter was “disappeared” by the FARC 14 years ago. She was 18 at the time and had an 8-month-old baby. Alvarez points to the two men, Pedro Rodriguez and Francisco Alvarez, sitting beside her. “They weren’t in the group that killed her,” she says. “But they were with the guerillas. I’m hoping they can help me find her body, so I can give her a proper burial, put a flower on her grave.”

She’s known the two all of their lives. “We’re from the same place and we’re all victims,” she says. Rodriguez, who says he joined the FARC 20 years ago, chimes in: “I had family members who were disappeared, too. We all lost people.”

Alvarez joined the FARC in 1999, right after doing his two-year stint in the army. “Many of us did military service and then joined the FARC,” he says. “They would come by and say ‘brother, either you’re with us or we might not be able to protect your family.’”

All three talk about the dangers of being caught between the FARC and the paramilitary. “The authorities left,” Alvarez says. “And they gave free rein to the paramilitaries who would come in and kill anyone suspected of collaborating with us. The paramilitaries once killed five people in the village all at once … all they had done was listen to a speech given by some guerillas.”

Residents of Pichilin at the graves of family members killed by FARC guerillas and paramilitaries during the last decades.
Courtesy of Charles Castaldi

Soon the conversation turns to their hopes for the peace process and their plans to form a cooperative farm with eight ex-FARC members and 12 families of victims. They have an eye on a 300-acre parcel and are waiting for the government to buy it on their behalf. It’s moving to see them sitting together making plans, but one wonders whether the government will really step up.

After Coloso, we drive south on a muddy track to the hamlet of Pichilin, where in December 1996 the army pulled out so a paramilitary force led by Salvatore Mancuso could enter the town and shoot 11 men. After that, most of the inhabitants fled.

Mancuso, who’s thought to be responsible for more than 1,000 disappearances, was extradited to the United States in 2008 and sentenced to 15 years for cocaine trafficking. The extradition came as a number of arrested paramilitary leaders testified to ties with then-President Uribe’s brother as well as a senator and other officials in the Uribe administration.

Pichilin is a sad-looking place, and the stories of its residents are sadder still, a constant reminder of just how pervasive and cruel the violence that overwhelmed this area was. But while I was interviewing some who had lost relatives in the 1996 massacre and others that followed, four Colombian Marines arrived on motorcycles. Yarlis Salgado, a Pichilin resident, says the army comes by a couple times a day. “It makes us feel safe.” Quite a change from the days in which the army and the paramilitary worked hand in hand.


The following day I hired a taxi for a seven-hour drive northwest to Valledupar, in the province of Cesar, along the Venezuelan border. A few years ago, the drive would have been perilous, but now it’s more an opportunity to contemplate the landscape. We cross the Magdalena River, Colombia’s biggest, which runs north from the Andes to the Caribbean and was once notorious for the victims of violence it carried in its turbid currents.

Lucas Urieta calls the kidnappings “retentions,” and rationalizes them as a tax system.

Cesar had more kidnappings per capita than any other province of Colombia — quite a feat. During a short walk around Valledupar, I found three people who told me they had relatives kidnapped, most of them by the FARC.

In a colonial square just a few blocks from my hotel stands a museum dedicated to folk music from the region. The walls are lined with photographs of musicians with accordions, including many of the great novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is from the area. But here, too, are memories of murder. Consuelo Araujo, the woman who founded the museum and who had served as Minister of Culture, was kidnapped by the FARC in 2001 and killed during the military’s attempt to rescue her.

Later I meet with Freddy Izquierdo, a 33-year-old Arhuaco Indian leader. He’s from the Santa Martha Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks are visible to the north. The Indians farmed Santa Martha peacefully until the 20th century, when conflicts with the government and non-indigenous farmers began. Things really took a turn for the worse with the boom in cocaine production.

The Arhuaco use coca for ritual purposes. But production brought in narcos, guerillas and government eradication programs — and the Arhuaco were caught in the crossfire. “A number of our leaders were killed,” Izquierdo says. “The guerillas and the paramilitary were everywhere.”

When the government threatened to spray herbicides to eradicate the coca bushes, he organized manual eradication to avoid the chemicals ruining the land. Izquierdo admits that convincing farmers to cultivate other crops is tough. “We calculate that you can make almost twice the amount growing coca,” he says. “But I tell them to think about their families’ safety.”

“The government has to invest in social programs and agricultural support. If not, many campesinos will keep growing coca,” Izquierdo adds. The numbers, for the moment, bear that out: coca production in Colombia has increased about 40 percent over the last few years.

That evening I meet with Jimmy Rios, a FARC leader and former college professor. Outside, by the fenced-in front yard of the house where we meet, two bodyguards hover.

“If they don’t kill us, we will take power away from them,” he says, when I ask what the future holds for the FARC as a political party. “We’re confident that if we are given the minimum democratic guarantees, we will win the elections.” The elections he refers to are in 2018 — though so far, the polls don’t show the FARC having much support.

Rios is undeterred. His concern at the moment, he says, is the slow pace of the peace process. “On the one hand, there’s so much hope for reconciliation, but on the other hand, you have the government dragging its feet. Some of us think this is a strategy to defeat us in a way they couldn’t accomplish with guns.”

Courtesy of Charles Castaldi
FARC commander Gonzalo (right) and guerilla in Simon Trinidad Camp near Valledupar.

Talking to Rios makes me feel I’ve entered a time machine back to the 80s, when, as an NPR reporter, I interviewed Central American guerillas. FARC leaders seem not to have left their Marxist-Leninist bubble. Perhaps they’ll evolve. But even the decision to keep their acronym and change the underlying words from Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to Common Alternative Revolutionary Force — whatever that means — seems flat-footed.

I had much the same feeling later that evening in a Valledupar hotel while talking to Lucas Urieta, who is a member of the 111-person national directorate of the FARC. He tells me with a straight face that Venezuela’s problems are entirely the result of an American campaign of destabilization. When I ask him whether he now thinks the kidnappings were counterproductive, he says: “Sure, it might have been unpopular, but how else could we support ourselves?” In fact, he calls them “retentions,” rather than kidnappings, and rationalizes them as a tax system.

It’s pretty much the same story when I ask about the FARC’s well-documented involvement in the drug trade. “The accusation that we were narcos is just sophisticated government propaganda,” he insists.

The next morning I drive south to the town of La Paz, then cut east into the mountains that form the border with Venezuela and for years served as the hiding place and escape route for the guerillas. The camp where the now-disarmed FARC guerillas are concentrated is on the other side of a gorge that my driver’s small taxi can’t navigate. So I trek across the divide and enter the camp where the commander, known as Aldemar Altamirano, has arranged for me to speak to a FARC guerilla.

I ask if I can wander around and take a look at the rows of newly built housing.

Altamirano says no: it’s forbidden. When I ask why, he just repeats the words and introduces me to Uriel Mora, a 42-year-old who joined the FARC at 15 but mostly stayed in the rear guard as a farmer.

Mora tells a story that’s become familiar by now. Caught in the middle, he opted to join the guerillas. He sensed the guerillas were more popular among the peasants because they treated them with respect.

But soon the commander is gone, so I wrap up with Mora and cross over to the other side of the camp, beyond the nicer housing, to where tents made of camo tarps and plastic sheeting stand. I share a cigarette with a couple of guys. They tell me they’re from the section of the camp where guerillas released from prison as part of the peace process are living. One of them, Omar, tells me he was in prison for eight years for kidnapping.

He’s been taking courses offered at the camp in agriculture, baking and fish farming. At some point, he says, he wants to go home and go back to raising cattle. “I think the commander will allow me to go,” he says.

In fact, this is the dilemma facing the FARC and its now-demobilized troops. If they stay together in the camps, the FARC can count on having a base from which to launch their political party. After years in the mountains, many of the ex-combatants have only each other. But many others have families they haven’t seen in years. If they leave, the tight bonds of the FARC formed in common endeavor and suffering will slowly dissolve.

We leave the camp and drive north a couple of hours to a second camp whose access road is guarded by a couple of tanks. Not a good sign, but this camp, called Pondorez, proves to be positively relaxed and luxurious compared to the previous one. I’m told I can wander wherever by a tall, anglo-looking young guy, who is in fact nicknamed “El Gringo.” He was a geography student at university when he joined the FARC 17 years ago after witnessing the government’s violent repression of a student demonstration.

If they stay together in the camps, the FARC can count on having a base from which to launch their political party. If they leave, the tight bonds of the FARC formed in common endeavor and suffering will slowly dissolve.

He takes me to a room where a group of 20-somethings are studying maps. “This is where we come up with our projects,” he says. “We’ve submitted many, but so far the government hasn’t responded. If we don’t give them something else to do quickly, some might turn to violence again.”

He shows me a map of the nearby mountains. “We’re thinking we could give guided eco-tours of the mountains. We know every nook and cranny, every trail after so many years hiding in them.”

We walk the grounds. Women are making bread in the open kitchen. In another classroom, ex-combatants are being taught to read. Under a roofed terrace, a former fighter in a wheelchair is playing chess with a friend.

From where we stand, there’s a clear view of the mountains. A curtain of rain is moving over one of the ridges. It’s as if the beauty and potential of the place could eventually overwhelm its history of violence. “Do you think anyone would come to do a tour?” he asks. “I would,” I tell him.

main topic: Region: Latin America
related topics: Policy & Regulation