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Foreign Affairs 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.

by Benjamin Ryder Howe

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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.

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"A Platform of Change" (October 6, 1998)
"Charles Krause talks with Andres Pastrana, the new president of Colombia, about efforts to bring peace to the South American nation." A transcript of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, by PBS.

Republic of Colombia
A comprehensive overview of Colombian history, culture, politics, current events, and more. Includes extensive links to Colombian publications and organizations. Posted by the Latin-American Student Organization at Colorado State University.

Colombia Support Network
"The largest, grassroots activist-oriented group in the U.S. focusing on Colombian human rights." The organization's Web site includes political news, general background information, and related links.

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 Semana in 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 Paz it 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."


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Benjamin Ryder Howe is a freelance writer and an editor at The Paris Review.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Out of the Jungle - 00.05; Volume 285, No. 5; page 32-38.