Out of the Jungle

Colombia's capital, Bogotá, long seemed exempt from the lawlessness and violence of that country's chronic civil war. Not anymore.
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The professor's office looked out on the dreary, muddy courtyards and graffiti-covered buildings of the university. Every inch of accessible wall space had been tagged with a slogan ("The peace of the rich is the death of the poor," "Free Mumia Abu-Jamal"), in strange contrast to Bogotá's generally muted political atmosphere.

"The students have a lot to say, but in general Colombians have enormous tolerance for things they don't like," the professor told me. "We are used to pressure from the United States. We are used to corruption. We are used to violence—that goes without saying. But there is something peculiar about us that distinguishes us from our neighbors: we almost never protest."

So it must have been a sign of how bad things had gotten when, in October, two million Bogotanos—a third of the city's population—demonstrated their outrage over the country's condition by marching through the streets. The marches were largely seen as an explosion of pent-up frustration, lacking any kind of political agenda. There were no organized calls for the President to step down, no party slogans chanted, no ultimatums to the central bank or the International Monetary Fund. The protesters' message could be read on a little green flag that has since become ubiquitous in Bogotá, flapping on car aerials and taped to store windows: Por la Pazit reads—"For Peace."

I asked the professor if the marches suggested a commitment to solving the country's problems. He shook his head. Colombia, he explained, is the only country in Latin America that maintained steady economic growth over the half century ending in 1998. It has also sustained the region's longest-running civil war—but Colombians were willing during the economically good years to live with that. "When the economy is growing, people are willing to put up with horrible social conditions," he said. But in 1998 much of South America plunged into a recession, and Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela were hit the hardest. Since then patience has worn thin. "People in Bogotá sense that a perpetual state of violence may have finally caught up with them. For that reason they want the war to end, but I'm not sure they have a sincere desire to get to the root of the conflict." He added, "This city has always taken care of itself and allowed the rest of the country to fall apart."

The professor did not want to be classified as an optimist in any respect, but at the end of our interview he reluctantly admitted that the current situation left him with one reason for hope. Rolling back in his chair and lighting a cigarette, he said, "As a scholar, I look back at our innumerable crises and see that the country somehow found a way to adapt, reorganize, and move on. We are in one of those crises now. Colombia is about to scrape the bottom. There will have to be some kind of fundamental change."

TWO hundred miles northwest of Bogotá lies Juradó, a lonely seaside village housing a small navy barracks. Commercial fishing vessels browse the nearby waters, drifting in the equatorial trade winds. As one of the few ports on Colombia's desolate northwestern coast, Juradó serves as a minor staging area on the Pacific drug-smuggling circuit, and the navy barracks are here supposedly to show the government's vigilance.

Juradó's condition suggests why a guerrilla movement might be popular. The electrical generator in the village runs only a few hours a day. There are hardly any telephones or roads. Doctors, teachers, and professionals of every other kind are scarce. Twenty percent of the region's residents are infected with malaria.

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