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.
LAST year Colombia, the only country in the Americas that is still fighting a major guerrilla insurgency, saw its government's decade-long losing streak continue. Army bases were overrun, villages were leveled, and images of refugees and shell-shocked soldiers filled the nightly news. Yet the most ominous event in Colombia in 1999 did not take place on the battlefield, as Semana,Colombia's version of Time,recently pointed out. Rather, it occurred when half the country's mayors threatened to resign their positions en masse, in November, because their districts had become ungovernable.
With its underlying message of frustration and futility, the announcement seemed to crystallize the mood of despair that envelops Colombia. The mayors' threat suggested a crumbling state, spreading anarchy, a society gone haywire. But then, there were plenty of other clues pointing to these things: they would have been immediately apparent to anyone visiting Bogotá last December. Normally, at the end of the year Bogotanos abandon their chaotic city, with its damp and chilly climate, and travel in all directions toward tierra caliente—hot-weather land. Last year, however, few people were willing to make the trip. Many feared run-ins with the various insurgent groups and professional kidnappers who have turned this city into one collective hostage. Just as well they stayed home—few had the money to travel anyway. Bogotá shops were empty. The peso was near an all-time low. And with one in every five Colombians currently unemployed, the question for many was what, exactly, they would be taking a holiday from.
This reluctance to leave the capital did not extend to the rich, who as usual were filling up the international flights at El Dorado Airport. Plane rides can be harrowing in Colombia, where every airport seems to be sitting atop a spiny mountain ridge or facing a cliff. Nevertheless, the country has superb air service, which the well-to-do use frequently and casually, often to visit weekend homes in Miami. At the Bogotá airport I met one such commuter, a balding, middle-aged banker who, like most of the Colombians I talked to, spoke freely about his country's problems but turned pale when I asked if I could print his name.
"Life has changed," the banker told me. "The security situation has gone from bad to worse. A few years ago when you heard about the war, you almost felt that it was happening in a different country. You did not feel threatened. Now, though, everyone is on guard. You do not take the intercity highways, and you look twice before you leave your house."
It is a telling measure of Colombia's lawlessness that Bogotá, one of the most murderous cities in the hemisphere, has long been viewed by Colombians as a sort of haven. The city sits at an altitude of 8,600 feet, towering over the rest of the country, separated from the nearest coast by hundreds of miles and two mountain ranges. It is a corrupt and disorderly place, but its isolation and the fact that it is the seat of central government have made Bogotá relatively safe by Colombian standards. Or at least this was true until recently.
With extraordinary cunning and staggering self-confidence, the country's two main rebel groups—the venerable and mysterious FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the smaller, more ideological ELN (National Liberation Army)—have begun to move in on the parts of the country once under strong government control. These include the major cities (Bogotá, Medellín, Cali), the ports (Buenaventura, Barranquilla), and the tourist towns, most notably Cartagena. If the advance does not exactly constitute a siege, its practical and psychological impact has been almost as great. Over the past year most of the highways leading into Bogotá have been cut off at one time or another by guerrilla roadblocks; Medellín has been forced to ration power after a series of electrical-tower bombings; and last spring in Cali an entire congregation—more than 140 people—was kidnapped during Sunday mass.
The move toward the cities amounts to a change in strategy for the rebels, who have been at war with the government since the early 1960s. Speaking to Semanain regard to the Cali kidnapping, Pablo Beltrán, one of the ELN's top commanders, said, "In Colombia the war has always had a rural connotation.... We want to send a message: that the well-to-do must also feel the war."
Feel it they have. The question is how they will respond. Having survived the terrorism of the Medellín and Cali drug cartels in the 1980s, the battle-hardened Colombian elite may be more than the ELN bargains for. Still, if there is any good news coming out of Colombia, it is that the rebels' new strategy is refocusing attention on a war that has often seemed invisible, and whose root causes have usually been ignored.
LIKE many modern cities, Bogotá is split socially and geographically. If you are doing well enough to, say, own a car, you probably live in the north—an area with half-decent roads, private security forces, and regular trash collection. To the south lie the slums, the enormous barrios de invasión,where residents build their own sewage lines and highway on-ramps rather than wait for the government to do so. Neither half has a strong visible connection to the region's colonial past, when Bogotá was the capital of an unmanageably large territory that included Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. Yet something of the old Spanish character remains—an element curiously at odds with Colombia's lurid image abroad. Bogotá is still a city of traditional European ideals, stubbornly devoted to the doctrines of elected government and constitutional fidelity, of scholarly passion and aristocratic politeness, of reverence for the principle, if not the application, of law.
On the campus of Colombia's largest university, the Nacional, I met with a prominent academic who asked that I not even mention which department he teaches in. "I am not discussing anything that will get me in trouble," the professor said, shrugging, "but there is a dirty war going on here." We were sitting in an office not far from the hallway where, earlier in the semester, one of the professor's colleagues had been murdered by an assassin posing as a student. Two weeks after our interview another faculty member was shot, on his way to the university.
"It used to be that the guerrillas targeted only the instruments of the state—police stations, aqueducts, oil pipelines," the professor told me. "Now they are going after the wealthy and even the middle class, closing in on the people who essentially run the country. This is a dramatic change, because unlike El Salvador or Nicaragua, here the rich have never suffered."
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.
In town after town like Juradó, FARC and the ELN recruit young men and women for whom the state has done nothing. Some join for the benefits of a steady wage; others get an invitation at gunpoint. Many have already lost a family member in the fighting or have been transplanted from their property, and may feel deep resentment toward the government.
Physically, Juradó also illustrates why the rebels have been able to keep up their fight for thirty-five years. Like many other towns in Colombia, Juradó is completely isolated, surrounded by jungle. In December, Juradó's navy barracks suffered a huge surprise attack by FARC. It took eighteen hours for the Rapid Deployment Force—a brand-new, high-tech mobile battalion whose stated goal is to raise the rebel death rate by at least 50 percent—to reach the scene of fighting. In staging the attack FARC had been able to move 600 soldiers through the jungle undetected. Owing to poor weather, the Rapid Deployment Force had to land at an airstrip thirty miles away. The results of the battle were predictably lopsided: at least forty-five dead soldiers and, reportedly, not a single rebel fatality.
This kind of attack—the overrunning of a military base—has come within the rebels' reach only in the past few years, and it is particularly effective at enlarging the guerrillas' presence in the public mind. Nevertheless, few analysts consider either FARC or the ELN to be capable of toppling the government. Estimates of their combined numbers top out at 25,000, whereas the Colombian army has 120,000 soldiers. But few observers give the government much chance of winning a decisive victory in the near future either. The army is viewed as one of the weakest in Latin America, and it has been unable to prevent the guerrillas from taking control of more than a third of the country. Nor has it done anything to curb the suspicion that the cumulative weight of Colombia's problems may eventually lead to some sort of national disintegration, with or without a clear-cut guerrilla victory.
Paradoxically, increased power seems to have done nothing for the rebels' popularity—if anything, it may have lessened it. One hotly debated subject in Bogotá is whether the guerrillas actually want to topple the government. Judging from what I heard, many people believe that the guerrilla cause is really more like a business—one that makes money by kidnapping executives (an average of seven kidnappings a day take place in Colombia), practicing extortion on oil companies, and taking a piece of the black market. Or, as one well-heeled woman in the capital put it to me, "This is a war between the legal multinationals and the illegal multinationals."
Such a view might seem to betoken the feelings of a defensive elite determined to deny its adversary any respect. But it is not entirely baseless, as the story of Ashock Nandwani demonstrates.
Nandwani, a wealthy businessman, was abducted one night last October. Within days he managed to escape, after his kidnappers, a gang that included former policemen, swamped their getaway boat. Nandwani swam to shore and returned home. His story made headlines, not because of its dramatic ending but because Nandwani was kidnapped from outside his home in Panama City, 500 miles from Bogotá. The kidnappers had planned to take him to Colombia and sell him to the guerrillas, who would then have negotiated a ransom.
Also contributing to the guerrilla-mafia image are persistent allegations, leveled by the U.S. drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, that the guerrillas are engaging in drug trafficking. The issue has been treated cautiously by Colombia's President, Andrés Pastrana, who has made generous concessions to the rebels in order to coax them into peace talks. McCaffrey's frequent use of the word "narcoguerrilla" is seen as counterproductive by those involved with the negotiations, because it casts the guerrillas as criminals, not legitimate political actors. Yet analysts who know the groups well say it is true that FARC especially has long acted as a labor organizer in the coca fields, keeping the price of a bushel up while taking a hefty percentage from the farmers. Whether the practice is motivated by greed or by ideology may be beside the point: the result, a steady flow of cash, has given the rebels more than ample resources to carry on against the government. By some accounts, they are the best-outfitted insurgents in the long history of Latin America's guerrilla wars.
ON the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, which is the traditional start of the Christmas season, Bogotanos were jittery: it was a ripe moment for the guerrillas to make a statement. For several nights in a row the head of the national police had been on television trying simultaneously to raise the city's guard against bombings and to forestall a wave of panic. At one point he guaranteed a terrorism-free holiday—a promise that largely was kept. But on the night of December 8, when the city put on a fireworks display and held free concerts, the streets were mostly empty.
A decade ago bombings in Bogotá were routine, as the drug cartels sought to pressure the government into dropping its policy of extraditing high-level criminals to the United States. During the 1990s, however, the government dismantled the largest cartels, which have been replaced by smaller, more discrete groups—cartelitos.Nowadays explosions in restaurants and shopping malls are less common, and when they occur, it is not always clear who set them off. For example, in November an exceptionally large bomb blew up a block in northern Bogotá; the list of suspects initially included the cartelitos,remnants of the Cali cartel, FARC, and the ELN. Conspicuously absent from the list of suspects was a man named Carlos Castano, who may now be Latin America's most feared warlord.
Castano symbolizes what has gone wrong with Colombia. He commands the Colombian United Self-Defense (AUC) unit, a deceptively bland name for what are in fact death squads: gangs of mercenaries and hit men who try to terrify the population—everyone from peasants in Juradó to professors at the Universidad Nacional—into shunning the guerrillas. The hallmark of the AUC is "the list": a roster of suspected collaborators who are dragged into public places and executed. Castano says he is only fighting a guerrilla war with guerrilla tactics. The government says he was responsible for more than 1,500 deaths in 1999 alone.
Like so many who get their hands dirty, Castano is driven by the most personal of politics: his father and, it is claimed, nine of his eleven siblings were killed by the guerrillas. But what makes him a symbol goes deeper than vengefulness. An ugly truth of the Colombian civil war is that the army relies on Castano's death squads to fight its most difficult battles—skirmishes deep in the jungle or in guerrilla-held mountain ranges. It has traditionally been a weak, clumsy organization, and the AUC is one of the few effective tools it has. In short, the army not only tolerates the death squads but needs them.
Other institutions are no better than the army at doing their jobs. According to their own statistics, the police fail to solve 95 percent of crimes, and fail even to investigate most murders. When a justice system loses credibility to this extent, victims stop reporting crimes and vigilante groups—nascent death squads—begin to appear. In Medellín, whose murder rate—the highest in the hemisphere—is five times Bogotá's, the outlaw justice system is entrenched, and gangs with names such as Death to Car Thieves and Robocop have taken over from the police.
One of the few institutions that have not fallen apart completely is the Bank of the Republic, which flips the switches of monetary policy from a high-rise in downtown Bogotá. Along a quiet and dusty corridor on the sixth floor sits the office of Salomón Kalmanovitz, one of the bank's directors. Kalmanovitz has spoken publicly about the dire need to strengthen the state, and owing to his position, it would seem that he could get the attention of the elite if anyone could. When I interviewed him, though, Kalmanovitz seemed already defeated. "The reality," he said, "is that a weak system of justice can benefit the upper class as well." For many of them the war means the freedom to avoid paying taxes, to misuse public funds, and to dip into the rivers of drug-related cash flowing through the Colombian economy.
I left the bank and walked south into the neighborhood that houses the main offices of the central government. Outside the gate of the presidential palace two men approached me and identified themselves as narcotics agents. "You're in a dangerous neighborhood," the first man said. "Care to sit down with us?" We moved to a quiet corner. A few minutes later they emptied my wallet at gunpoint and fled.
Within a block of where this happened, I later counted more than twenty soldiers guarding the entrance to the palace.