Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Darien Gap I: Monteria and the AUC

“Open your eyes, man!”

The ferocity of tone more than the words themselves startled me awake, but I could not open my eyes. My lungs were locked, body frozen, and something pressed into my gut. The consuming panic for air and vision was compounded by the intimidation of an unseen commander whose directions I could not follow.

I did not surrender to the panic. From deep inside the darkness I told myself this was just a rebooting error, that I had awoken before my brain had the time to release my muscles back to voluntary control, and that even militants were unlikely to do violence to the unconscious.

The checkpoint, the barking sergeant with the rifle muzzle poking my gut, everything I imagined while my lungs and eyelids stood locked and shuttered, was all wrong. When my eyes finally opened the van was still moving. No one was looking in my direction, but forward. The other passengers were wide awake with expressions ranging from anger to fear.

Another voice, less forceful but with grave clarity, said “It’s ok if you need some rest. Pull over, take a nap if you need to. But don’t risk our lives if you are too tired to drive.”

Sensible advice. There were enough dangers to worry about in Cordoba without your driver falling asleep at the wheel. The driver sounded defensive, though his response was unintelligible. He stopped at the next village and we took a coffee break at a thatch-roofed store.

No one was in the mood for talking. We drank coffee from tiny plastic cups and took turns eyeing the driver as he drank one, then another of the sickly sweet caffeinated shots, gauging for signs that he’d be able to get us to Monteria without another nap.

I looked around at the sullen group for clues as to who they were and where they were going. If they were rich they’d have driven, if poor, they'd have saved a few dollars and taken the much slower bus service. That was all I came up with, that my fellow passengers were likely of middle income, a decidedly narrower band than back home. Beyond that I drew blanks. A few of them regarded me with similar questions on their faces. What was this foreigner doing on a mini van to Monteria? A plump woman in her late forties took meditative bites from her arepa as she stared at the notebook I had taken from my bag. “Well,” I imagined her eyes said, “hope this one is not a journalist.”

Me too. I hoped that my habit for reading the papers, talking to strangers, and suspicious scribbles in a little black book did not qualify me for the country's third most dangerous profession. Braver men than I were doing the job. The reports coming out of Monteria--daylight grenade attacks, assassinations reminiscent of the worst cartel days, thousands of displaced people flowing from upturned villages into the regional capital--illustrated trends running counter to the rest of the country.

Colombia on the whole has experienced a dramatic reduction in murder rates over the past eight years, though on the ranching plains of northwest Colombia, violence was again on the rise. New cartels were flourishing, the papers said, and were responsible for the cocaine shipments flowing through the porous Venezuelan border and on as far east as the African coast to dodge American surveillance on traditional routes through the Pacific and Caribbean. Of course by the time drug strategies reach the papers they are are likely obsolete, but they hadn't hit foreign wires as of yet. While still in Barranquilla, I typed a few lines to this effect to a friend and Washington editor. He asked me if I thought I could write these things up in a dispatch and offered to introduce me to a colleague at the New Republic.

Sure, I said, I’d look into it. Cordoba was unavoidable on my way through to the Panamanian border. I was excited about the opportunity to write for a real publication, flattered that my second hand observations might be worthy of a dispatch. That was over a month ago. Part of the reason I had put off leaving Barranquilla for so long, Rosa’s fish stew had set back my departure another week, was that my stomach churned every time I thought about nosing around a lawless drug town asking questions about the men who make sport out of threatening journalists, trade unionists, and any politician not already on the payroll.

And for what purpose, to reprint in English that a new crop of cartels have filled the vacuum left by the decimation of the FARC and the disbanded paramilitary groups, whose rank and file have been absorbed into the emergent criminal networks? To say, look here, there is still a Colombian cocaine trade?

My fears mixed with the dissonance from an earlier conversation.

“You can do better than that William,” Maria said from our balcony table safe from the flower sellers and the touts down on the plaza San Diego. “All the world hears about is the drugs and violence here. There are so many other stories you can tell about Colombia.”

So said the young doctor from Bogota whom I had met in line on the cobbled streets of Cartagena while waiting to hear Martin Amis tell me I was interested in the wrong revolution. (If that’s so, Martin, why did your arguments wither against the residual Catholicism of this wealthy daughter of the capital?)

She was right, people want to hear about drugs. By the time I hit fields of Cordoba, the question was already settled. This was not an ethical stand, rather, I had waited too long to conduct any worthwhile investigation. I was down to three days left on my visa, the last week lingering in Barranquilla had killed the possibility of any serious reporting on the way through to the border.

Even if I convinced myself in time that I was eschewing professional opportunity for some nascent personal code, this was also the latest in a series of missed chances, failures with a chronology that traced a line back along the geography of my route home. Of course it was an inescapable coincidence that the route also happened to course from the country of primary cocaine production to the land of consumption and all the trans-shipment points along the way and that anyone with eyes and ears and a knack for economics sees the effects of supply and demand and the violent forms of competition that accompany any lucrative and addictive product on the black market. I had a feeling that no matter how many times I played professor at the party with my grating little dicho "No hay produccion sin consumidores" (There is no production without consumers) there was no escaping the story of drugs on the land and sea between Colombia and the United States. I was sure I'd find room. Failure and drugs go well together, after all, regardless of the revolution that consumes you.

Back in the van with a caffeinated driver. I remembered Henry’s comment that you know when you have entered paramilitary country because there are no more checkpoints. I had assumed at the time this was either was bravado or passed down wisdom from an earlier time. But now it had been over an hour since the last checkpoint, where an officer approached the driver’s window and asked us to produce our documents and alight from the vehicle where we were each patted down in turn.

No one seemed to mind the searches. Soldiers under the Uribe regime do no ask for bribes, and regular checkpoints alone have nabbed hundreds of rebel soldiers on their way to and from their families and their jungle outposts, there were less than 14,000 FARC guerillas fighting the government forces. Most of these plastic booted troops have been pushed from Colombian soil. The major guerrilla forces now operate from bases inside the boundaries of Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador.

Here on the ranching plains of Cordoba, the guerrilla forces had been beaten back even before Uribe’s campaign to restore national security. In the late 1980's the paramilitaries began to assert control in the countryside. Despite the fact the first massacres occured at the inception of the movement, like bloody focus groups for a new brand of violence and social control, I still met conservatives who maintained the paramilitaries were a good idea gone awry.

The country was abuzz early this the year with the publication of “The Gates of Uberrimo”, a book by Ivan Cepeda and Jorge Rojas documenting the history of the paramilitaries in Cordoba and the nexus of guilt by association of President Uribe’s extensive ties to the region and its paramilitary leadership.

The story starts with the rich men who ruled the immense green pastures sprinkled with gold leaf trees, the men who organized private militias to confront left-wing terrorism in the countryside. These outfits in turn evolved into internationally recognized terrorist groups themselves. They funded their operations through extortion and drug trafficking while they massacred thousands of peasants, many times with the complicity of the regular army, in the guise of eliminating the Marxist threat.

The career of Salvatore Mancuso personally illustrates the paramilitary phenomenon. According to local legend, the son of an Italian immigrant was just a wealthy rancher walking his property with a couple of his farm hands when he spotted three guerrillas approaching through the fields. Mancuso took a rifle from one of his men and waited for the soldiers to approach. They had come to take him for a ‘meeting’ with the local commander, which could have meant anything from a shakedown to kidnapping or even execution. As the guerrillas drew near, Mancuso raised his rifle and pointed it at the chest of the lead soldier.

“If you want to take me, you’ll have to haul off my dead body,” he said. “And before that happens, I am shooting this rifle. So, why don’t you tell your commander if he wants to hash out our differences, that’s fine. But we’ll do it right here.”

The guerrillas would have been wise to shoot him. The looks on their faces inspired the mantra he used time and again to rally his troops, “the enemy is also afraid.”

The year was 1992. Mancuso spent the next 15 years on a path to second in command of the AUC, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the nation’s major paramilitary organization. Mancuso became the strong man behind a movement with aims beyond the safety of rural landowners and organization of the drug trade. Mancuso sought to consolidate the paramilitary movement into a political force that would secretly reshape the leadership of the country. In 2001 he convened at his estate outside Santa Fe de Ralito with 50 prominent Colombian politicians and emissaries who signed a clandestine pact promising a new social contract for Colombia.

When the political tide turned against the paramilitaries, Mancuso helped negotiate the demobilization accords that left him temporarily unassailable in a government designated safe zone that encompassed his Santa Fe de Ralito estate. He could not escape justice entirely. Mancuso was the commanding officer over at least three major massacres, and by his own confession, delivered with the surreal professionalism of an 87 page Power Point presentation, hundreds more assassinations. In exchange for his confessions as part of the peace process his prison sentence was capped at eight years. Then in 2008, the Armani suited prisoner was suddenly extradited to the United States to be tried for drug trafficking. Mass murderers, it seems, can side-step the law in Colombia, so long as they don’t ship their cocaine into the United States.

Mancuso was only the the second most famous land owner in Cordoba. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the elusive figure of the Gates of Uberrimo, owner of a sprawling estate of the same name in the fertile Sinu valley. As Governor of Antioquia, he avidly supported the militia-like security forces known as Convivir ‘coexistance’ who absorbed into the paramilitary networks when the Colombian courts deemed it illegal for private security outfits to possess assault rifles and other heavy weaponry. Many of the signers of the secret pact at the Mancuso estate would become influential ministers and ambassadors in the Uribe administration when he took office the following year. Cepeda and Rojas lead the critics who have noted the web of connections associating numerous paramilitary figures to Uribe and his cabinet, though they are unable to place the smoking gun in the hand of the president whose father was killed by FARC guerrillas in a botched kidnapping turned shootout. If such a gun ever existed Uribe did a good job of hiding it. From the beginning of his first term as President he set about disbanding the AUC with tireless force and energy while at the same time waging unrelenting war against the FARC.

So in theory, the right-wing militias were disarmed in the middle of the decade. On the ground it is less clear this is the case. The paramilitaries and the guerrillas had filled the void left by the disbanding of the Medellin and Cali cartels in the 90’s, and creating another opening in the drug business made it difficult to snuff out these groups entirely. Many of the AUC combatants were recycled into criminal networks still active in the drug trade and perpetrating the selective assassinations and displacements that have taken the place of massacres as the preferred method of intimidation and control in local governments and throughout the countryside.

Any lingering thoughts I had about my own half-assed investigation of the resurgent underworld in this remote cow capital extinguished when we reached downtown Monteria after nightfall. The other passengers got off the van before the city center. Had I known better I would have joined them.

I gave the driver the name of one of the two hotels I had found listed for Monteria in the national road atlas and tried to remain confident as he wove through the downtown streets that seemed to grow progressively darker with each turn. Few of the sparse street lights functioned, and unlit or heavily curtained buildings rose like dark monoliths blotting shadows onto the sky.

My view was bound to the twin cones of the van’s headlights. Street level shops were shuttered, the streets deserted, a few stray dogs nosed through the trash heaped onto street corners. I hoped the driver was taking me through some disused section of city on a shortcut. On a block as dark as the others, he slowed, then slalomed down the center of the empty road so that the angled headlights might reveal my hotel’s address.

The driver pulled to a stop. Either he counted the streets wrong or the atlas was mistaken, the Colombian address system is among the most efficient in the world. An address consists of three numbers, street, cross street, and the number meters from the intersection to the door. There wasn’t a door 40 meters from what he insisted was the corner of 3rd avenue and 5th, just roller shuttered shopfronts with no signs of a hotel on the floors above. He suggested my guide had the wrong street, and experience led him a few blocks to the only establishment that did not require the aid of headlights, a lone bulb was sufficient to illuminate the garish sign with uneven pink and black stenciling, all spelled out save a rabbit in tux and tie. A couple of high heeled loiterers of determined profession if indeterminate gender prowled the concrete within the parabola of yellow light.

He tried convincing me this was the place to stay in Monteria, but I refused to get out of the car. I was not going to pay by the hour for a night in a love motel, or risk mugging by the Amazonian hookers on the way to the door. The driver shrugged, then returned to the first address where he told me to get out, he was done for the night.

I offered him several thousand pesos to take me back across the river to the suburb where he had dropped off the others. He said no, he was not a taxi service, that he was going home in the other direction. As I thought of the words to beg him for some kind of help, the number for a taxi in this deserted city, he switched on the interior lights and I when caught sight of the festering rage in his bloodshot eyes I could only scramble for the door with a gracias senor and a buenas noches. I jumped to the curb with my backpack and without a plan.

The city was darker than any other urbanscape in my mind, though it was far from the pitch black I had imagined from inside the van. Light did spill from the upper windows of the mid-rise buildings. A working street light at the corner of the next block gave definition and measurement to the space in between and would illuminate anyone approaching from that direction.

More startling than the darkness was the quiet. I could hear the van for blocks after it motored away from the curb, it was minutes before the purr of the engine finally receded into nothing. There were no trains rumbling in the distance, no hiss of steam or exhaust from the buildings, no gurgle of generators, no voices or footfalls, the city was more than asleep, it was entombed. The only sounds were an intermittent breeze rustling the garbage and a far off punctuation of the dogs’ bark and reply. At least it wouldn’t be easy for unheard robbers to sneak up across the undisturbed vault of sidewalk, I decided, as I shuffled up the street.

Not more than twenty paces from where I started there was an unmarked door wedged between the rolling shutters of the neighboring storefronts. The address, blocked from street view by a small overhang, matched the one from my book. Perhaps in the darkness the driver misjudged the distance. I rang the bell and a young man answered the door. Yes, this was a hotel, he informed me. Yes, of course they had room.

The receptionist took my information at a desk crammed into a hot and narrow passageway in front of a clear plastic door to stairs leading up to the guest rooms. The doughy young man had the tips of his hair frosted and a hint of glitter on his face, an unlikely look in a cowboy town. I could tell by the way he looked at me after I began to speak that he wasn’t accustomed to seeing gringos, and that he welcomed the change. When I handed him my passport, he glowed beneath the glitter.

“Oooh, jess! I want to go to USA!”

I asked him where he wanted to go.

“New York...Miami.”

I asked him if he liked Monteria, and what there was to do in the ranching capital of Colombia. He gave an exaggerated shrug.

“Well,” he said, “Nothing happens here. But there are worse places.”

It was true, there were worse places than the dark and garbage piled corners of this regional capital, evidenced by the displaced families, unseen and unheard, but who according to the papers arrived daily from the surrounding towns and countryside.

I asked him if there was a restaurant in walking distance. He looked me up and down, rolled his eyes, shook his head.

“Better if I order you a pizza to your room.” he said.

I took his advice, unsure if the streets of Monteria would have been any less terrifying with functioning street lights.

I felt safe in the tiled eight by ten foot room in a city faceless save a flamboyant hotel clerk and a mustachioed pizza delivery man. The window opened into an interior air shaft, so I had no light to contribute to the ink blot skyline, nor could I look out and listen for pulse on this comatose city. Monday morning was a few hours away, and surely the streets would be gridlocked with cars, the sidewalks thick with vendors and pedestrians so that tonight would seem like some half remembered dream.
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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Barranquilla XVII: Mourning Joselito

Dawn was just breaking and was she was already in mourning. Nancy sat alone--not even Ruiz was up yet--pensive at the courtyard breakfast table in a black satin gown. Fat Tuesday on the Colombian coast is a denouement, still a party, but with a theme well suited to reflection.

The final send off parade was not another manic celebration along the wide open swath of the industrial corridor, but a funeral procession within the narrower concrete banks of the Calle 84.

Within hours of the last revelers staggering home, or falling on the wayside of the once a year phenomenon of streets turned open air nightclub, women in black veils lined the raised sidewalks to weep for Joselito.

According to legend, Joselito was a coach driver who was found passed out drunk in his carriage the last day of Carnival. His friends put together a make-shift coffin and toasted Joselito with cane liquor before drawing his coach through the streets. Thousands of last-legged celebrants, laden with the guilt of their own overindulgences, stricken with grief for the unknown man whose fate was worse than hangover, fell into line unaware of the joke being played. Hundreds of years later Barranquilleros still recreate the mock procession. No one mourns more devoutly than Nancy Meyer.

I made my own coffee in the kitchen and joined the somber matriarch. She attempted a smile, but her mouth could not push back at the wrinkles weighing down her cheeks; her eyes were dulled with sleeplessness and the recent humiliation of her dethroning in the bleachers. Her face was a mask of somnolent reflection betraying the tens of thousands of hours at trial before the mirror, in cross examination of every new blemish and imperfection, the accumulated testimonies in the case of beauty versus time. I noticed what seemed a new flaccidity of jowl, a new ring on her neck recording her sixty fourth Spring. The coming year would leave her a half century past her reign as Queen Carnival.

I hadn’t returned to Villa Meyer until yesterday evening, and had yet to hear what happened to Nancy and Diego after their scuffle in the stands at Saturday’s parade. The sergeant at the police tent had assured me they were not in the habit of arresting the elderly. Nancy seemed to have enough on her mind without me asking about her ignominious departure.

“Diego has returned to Bogota.” Nancy said.

“Is he alright?”

“A papaya given, a papaya taken,” she said. It was a Colombian expression, with so many uses I was never sure of the meaning. In this case, an admission that she had allowed herself to play the fool, or perhaps there was another papaya.

We sipped our coffee and listened to the breeze blowing through the mango and almond trees, ripping at the dead palm fronds and rustling the plastic on the trash heap the next courtyard over. In the distance I could make out the churn of river-stained surf.

We lingered in our thoughts as the grey light of dawn gave way to morning sun that rose hot and sharp over the coastal hangover. As I thought of the words to thank my host for her hospitality, I saw the confidence rebuilding in the grooves of her face. She put her cup on the table and took my hand into hers. What power those eyes must have held forty years ago. The old puma’s stare no longer mesmerized.

“You know there is room for you here, my love.”

She squeezed her hand to feel for Diego’s replacement. Why wouldn’t she entertain the possibility with the lost gringo, out of step with time and reason, on a sojourn to understand a place where she fancied herself royalty. I was an older man for her after all, Diego was seven years my junior.

Clasped in the dry scales of her hand, I entertained the possibilities of lingering at the Villa Meyer--Irene’s outrage, Ruiz’ redoubled looks, the upstairs bedroom. Had Diego made love with the woman five decades his senior? It seemed implausible that the shadow of a boy was capable of such a delicate production as intercourse with a sexagenarian, but then I could not have imagined the unannounced explosion of energy that propelled him off the bleacher and into the gut of his foam spraying antagonist, or his furious protest at his and Nancy’s arrest on the parade grounds.

The spell was broken when the doorbell rang. Irene was at the front gate, she had either crashed with someone in town or stayed up all night. By her red eyes and flushed face I guessed the latter. She grumbled morning and went straight for her bedroom.

Moments later a guttural roar shook the house. Irene burst back through the bedroom door and headed straight for the computer where her sleepy eyed youngest daughter was watching a video. She grabbed the child’s arm and began shaking her.

“Everything is a mess. What is wrong with you? I didn’t raise you to be a pig!”

The little girl, who couldn’t have been awake more than a few minutes, protested her innocence. Irene slapped her across the face.

“Don’t talk back to me. You need to learn how to act like a girl.”

I ducked into the room which looked about the same as it had on the first night when five of us shared the two mattresses. The mess, dirty clothes and empty DVD boxes on the floor, an overflowing ashtray by the bed, was mostly Irene’s.

By the time I reemerged with my backpack, Irene was finished with her youngest daughter. The little girl whose name I had already forgotten, children are an afterthought during Carnival, was curled into a ball crying in the corner. I wondered if she was old enough to know that mommy’s cocaine addiction and not anything she had done was responsible for the outburst.

“You are a good girl. You are a very good girl.” I said it several times as I patted her on the head. It was all I could think to say.

I paid my respects to the matriarch in mourning, thanking her for everything. I would not have experienced Carnival had it not been for Nancy Meyer. I tried to give her the press pass she had insisted so vehemently I get, but she smiled and shook her head.

“That is for you, mi amor, so you’ll remember to return to us.”

She bid me a speedy return, in time to celebrate another Carnival.

“When you do, I have a niece for you. She is a good girl, she will make a good wife.”

I returned to the city in time for a family lunch at the Najar’s, Rosita and Elena were eager for a report on Carnival with the Meyers. The two families were plausibly within concentric circles of gossip, so I spared the salacious details. It was scandalous enough to the old maid and her ancient mother that an old and single woman like Nancy was still out on the town in any capacity. Elena smiled and shook her head whenever I mentioned the elder Meyer.

“No, no, no” she said as she chuckled into her lap. The joke would have been funnier if she had known about Nancy’s twenty something lover, or their parade exit in handcuffs. The comedy for her was a woman who did not know when to accept the limitations of age.

With the whole Najar clan back, stuffed into their living room, there was not enough couch space to accommodate the toll of sedation induced by mama’s fish soup. Rosita must have sensed my hesitation before the long road to Monteria. Since their Carnival renters had left that morning and they did not have a new tenant, she suggested I take back the apartment.

“Wee-liam! Stay! As long! As you want to!”

My eyelids were too heavy to contemplate the next move, though the journey had been condensing in my mind for weeks. Across the jungle to Panama, up the spine of Central America to Mexico and Texas, from New Orleans to Natchez and finally the Trace home.

First I needed a nap. I handed Mama the bills meant for the bus ticket and shuffled into the tenant’s apartment where I fell back into the uneven mattress and afternoon dreams of death and lost time.
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Monday, August 9, 2010

Barranquilla XVI: Calle 84

Our thirty odd travelers and four Colombians absorbed into a tributary of celebrants two blocks from the main channel of the street party. Traditional wood-benched Chivas buses, rented by well heeled Barranquilleros as bars on wheels for Carnival, stalled in the party-clogged streets. A few of the riders jumped down to coax the foreign girls onto their buses while their girlfriends splashed us with handfuls of flour.

The stream bottlenecked between two trucks of out of town policeman parked just beyond the reach of the street lamps on the 84. I could not make out their faces in the shadows, whether they were good cops or bad, relishing another opportunity to grab the batons and riot shields stacked inside the vehicles and bludgeon through a wall of drunks, or just happy to be drawing wages on a balmy Caribbean night, listening to the dance beats over the murmuring crowds.

The stream thickened then coagulated as we neared the sidewalks and parking lots along the main strip of the zona rosa. The scene on the raised banks of sidewalks along Calle 84, the now dry riverbed for one of Barranquilla’s fiercest arroyos, was reminiscent of the Venetian Carnival, where the flesh managed to pack to within centimeters of the canals without spilling over into the water. Slow moving cars with open windows and trunks doubled as sound systems, blasting competing notes of salsa, meringue and vallenato up into the crowd. A slightly older set emerged from the cabs and pushed through the wall of bodies to the doors of the night clubs, which seemed like madness, unless by experience they knew the interior passageways were less crowded and sweat soaked than the street party outside.

From a distance the crush of people along the 84 appeared as writhing chaos. Closer in, the atoms of individual parties were distinguishable within the larger celebration elemental. A Doctor Fernando type held the center of each nucleus. His arsenal of booze kept the dancing electrons bumping back to within arms length so that he could pour rum and aguardiente straight from the bottle and down their throats. More surreptitiously, slender vials passed between the fast moving particles along the edges. Flirtatious friction further charged the outer valences as dance partners jumped back and forth from neighboring parties. Occasional free radicals in twos and threes slashed through the outer rings, young men spraying their foam cans in the air and mashing handfuls of flour over heads and faces in the crowd.

Covered in flour, filled with powder, the unbroken mass danced a grind to the proximate rhythms, shouting epithets in honor of Carnival gods.

We wormed our way down the edges of the party to where Carlos knew a spot on a less crowded block fronted by a deep parking lot there were still pockets big enough to accommodate our group. The little Colombian pumped his fists in the air as he rode atop the shoulders of Shawn and the even more enormous Bruno, a rugby prop from France who with his free arm poured streams of aguardiente down his own throat. I trailed with the rest of the Irish contingent in the wake behind our twin crowd breakers.

When we arrived to our destination at the tail end of the street party, a trio with flour bags and foam cans sliced through our group. The guys received the customary handful of flour to the face, though the women got more thorough treatment; the temptation of real flesh in this land of surgical augmentation was too much to resist. I noticed the lead flour man, short and muscular, didn’t bother with Sarah’s blonde hair. He kneaded his flour covered palms into the burgeoning symmetry of her chest.

The Irish boys also noticed the display. Mark shielded his girlfriend and both he and Liam grabbed the offending groper by the wrists. The little body builder lashed free, and after another dip in his bag he jumped up to slap a handful of flour into Liam’s head, and another in Mark’s face.

Shawn, now alerted to the chalky hand prints on Sarah’s chest, set our Maestro to the ground and wrenched the flour tosser around to face him.

“Fuck’s wrong with you mate? Keep your hands off the girl.”

Tranquilo, es Carnaval (Easy, its Carnival),” The flour man replied. He then ripped at his bag and as he mashed two last fistfuls of powder into the Irishman’s face his fat fingers dug into Shawn’s eye sockets.

Shawn grabbed the the flour man and flung him backwards. His head pin-balled off elbows and thighs on his way to the concrete.

The two accomplices sprang between Shawn, and their downed comrade, shouting and gesturing at the bigger man who stood seething beneath his fresh mask of powder. Liam and Bruno, whom the Irish lads hadn’t known more than a couple of hours, stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with Shawn.

The downed man sprung up from his ignominious dive. The combination of cocaine and public humiliation had popped out the veins on the little body builder’s neck and at his temples. Rage bulged his bloodshot eyes and flared his nostrils as he pointed his finger at the Irish boys.

“Are jew crazy, gringos locos?” he shouted.

Then he turned and pandered to the crowd behind him where a dozen young men now flanked his associates.

As quickly as the crowd grew behind the Colombians, the foreign ranks thinned. Our only common link was to our little host whose entire body screamed danger. Bug-eyed and hands trembling, he hopped along the back line of the crazy gringos and tugged Shawn, Bruno, and Liam at the elbow, repeating over and over, “We go. We go. We go.”

Liam turned halfway to Carlos, and then back to Shawn, waiting for a cue from his friend that it was ok to split. Though Liam’s face was expressionless, I was sure the worst case scenario was locked on repeat in his mind. He didn’t get the out he was seeking. The other two lads ignored Carlos and focused on the other short Colombian in front of them.

The remainder of the disparate travelers heeded Carlos’ alarm and resisted the temptation of spectacle. We melted away in twos and threes. I grabbed the girl next to me, another wandering San Franciscan named Veronica who was transfixed by the coming showdown. I whisked her to the far side of the parking lot where we could watch from a perch of concrete embankment just beyond the arc of street light.

We turned to see the little body builder strut between the rump of the Carlos crew and crowd behind him. He continued his taunts in English so that the foreigners could be sure of the stakes.

“Fucking Americans! Don’t you know you’re in Colombia? We are going to keel you tomorrow. We are going to fucking keel you fucking gringos! Tu puta madre me la chupa!”

For many Colombians in the interior of the country, Gringolandia was a vague, transnational supercontinent that encompassed most every nation in the non-Latino, European derived world. I have told Colombians I am from the USA who enthusiastically replied they had relatives in Paris or Sydney. Among costeƱos, like their neighbors on the Caribbean rim, gringo had more specific associations with the United States. It takes a far higher level of language skills than most locals possess to pick up accents in a second language. The English speaking foreigners became American by default.

But the Irish guys didn't know this, and Bruno, still at Shawn’s side, could have only caught snippets of the heavily accented vitriol. Not that it mattered. Both sides were sufficiently powdered, inside and out, and any insult from the muscle man was enough fuel for a fight.

“What’d the little cunt call me?” Shawn asked, turning his head back to whom he assumed was Carlos and the rest of the hostel at his back. In fact he had turned on the only empty space on a sidewalk elsewhere thick with bodies. After his frantic attempt at intervention, Carlos had melted away along with the rest of us. Even Mark had disappeared, wisely escorting Sarah into the anonymity of the crowd. Only Carlos’ cologned drenched business partners stood at a distance behind the gringos. With no need to fear the impending race war, they could afford to be spectators. They did not make any signs of alignment to the gringo cause.

Liam, still stoned out of his mind, clenched a bottle and made an awkward chopping motion with the intention, so he claimed, of splashing the Colombians with the remainder of his beer. He didn’t judge the distance between himself and the opposing line, and unfortunately the taller sidekick leaned forward just in time with the downward snap of Liam’s hand. The lip of the bottle smacked across the bridge of the Colombian's nose.

Silence. A strange silence, because music still pounded from oversized speakers and in every direction the party churned on. Yet for a long moment, what must have seemed an eternity to the three Europeans, a whisper would have been enough to break the spell. Everyone within 50 yards of the confrontation stood hushed and still, enraptured by the insanity of the gringos either too crazy or too stupid to turn and run.

“You threw a fucking bottle at my head?” The tall flour man stepped forward and asserted himself in Liam’s face. Then he turned to Shawn, then back to Liam. He swiveled a third time and threw a sucker punch that landed square on Shawn’s jaw. The attacker coiled to launch a sprawling hook. Shawn easily ducked the second punch. Only then, with an open shot on his attacker, did he seem to appreciate the scenario. Instead of leveling his assailant he grabbed at the shirts of his old friend and new acquaintance and the three took off in a dead sprint for the street.

The mob waited for a second, then their little Napoleon shouted, “Kill the Americans!”

The crowd at the edge of the sidewalk parted for the honorary Yankees. Sympathetic revelers waved them forward as if they were runners on the home stretch of a marathon. As the boys jumped down into the street, a taxi driver attuned to the situation opened his back door. One after the other they dove head first into the back seat. The French giant was still airborne as the cab cut away from the curb.

Bruno’s legs dangled out the back door, providing the opening for two Colombians to jump into the moving cab and grab at the bodies in an impossibly crowded backseat. The second attacker could not get enough of his torso in the car and his dragging feet pulled him out onto the curb. After a brief scuffle the second attacker tumbled out backwards onto the concrete.

The street was too clogged with bodies and cars for the taxi to make a clean get away. With a half dozen men closing on the traffic constricted vehicle, the driver swerved into the oncoming lane and screeched a u turn that narrowly missed sideswiping the crowd filling out to the edge of the opposite curve.

Surely such a scene would have drawn attention from the police, but I couldn’t see a uniform in either direction. Neither did the mob. With Liam, Shawn and the Frenchman out of the way, the pack of taxi chasers scanned the crowd for another target.

“Where is the other one?” shouted the muscle man, scanning up and down the sidewalk for the boyfriend and the blonde with the powdered chest.


At first I couldn’t see what he was pointing at. Not Mark and his girlfriend, they should have been long clear of Calle 84.

Then I saw them. A flour besmudged couple made their way up the channel of the road.

Were they insane?

No, apart from North European ancestry, the two foreigners edging along the street only superficially resembled the Irish couple who had wisely fled the scene. The man was too short to be Mark, too gangly, and even at 100 yards it was evident his woman lacked the measurements worthy of a street riot. But they had the same coloring as the Gaelic pair. With the competing sound systems and the thousands of wasted revelers spilling out of the lots to the edge of the sidewalks above them, the approaching Canadians were completely oblivious to the half-dozen cocaine riddled beserkers flying in their direction.

The sequence slowed down in my mind. The wheels of justice turned. For a moment I enjoyed the illusion of fleeting equilibrium in our rapidly expanding universe. The wheels of justice were grinding, and I was in perfect position to watch the scumbag editor’s moment of reckoning.

As the pack closed to within 20 strides, probably still shouting kill the Americans and something about what they would do with their grieving mothers--I was well out of range to hear the particular epithet--I watched it dawn on Ian McKay that he was the target of their venom and that the Maple Leaf sown onto his day pack was not going to save his ass this time.

There was no time for mediation, to plead a case of false identity, nor was their honor in his last moments. He made no move to protect his lovely girlfriend. He had probably just been pouting about her pulling him from the safety of their comped hotel room. He just threw up his hands and lowered his chin into his chest. He twisted towards the curb and lowered into a half squat so that the whole of his body reflected his existential terror of the oncoming plow.

Only one detail, or lack of one, saved Ian from more than the humiliation of soiled shorts and the initial blow from the wedge of attackers. The lovely Vanessa had just a hint of convexity under her tee shirt. It was such contrast to Sarah’s bosom, that no man, tit man, ass man, straight or gay, could have possibly mistaken the two blondes. The pursuing general, noticing the disparity, called off the attack. The danger had passed I walked closer to the scene so as to get more details of the aftermath.

I hugged the distraught Mrs. McKay. She hugged me back and whispered something in my ear as the bystanders peeled her shell shocked husband off the concrete and sterilized his wounds with searing splashes of cane liquor.


Alas, Barranquilla is not a city of Justice or Karma. After the heroic cab driver threaded the needle’s eye and delivered the Irish boys to safety, the mob petered out. I imagined the rest on my solitary walk back to the hostel. Veronica had found what she had been looking for, a smooth faced and quick-footed Colombian whose ostentatious dance moves were superfluous to his going home with the 26 year old American.

Back at the hostel, the Irish-French contingent were the heroes of the night. They recounted the play by play of the fracas between congratulatory shots of rum and and pulls from bottles of Aguila beers, the same label which had nearly induced a lynching.

"He left himself open,” Shawn said as he shadow boxed on the sectional couch. “I could have dropped him after that hook, but then they would have killed us."

“You’ve been in a few fights in your life?"

“More than a few,” Shawn grinned.

“Where did you go?” another of the vanishing spectators asked Mark.

“Me? I’m too pretty to fight.”

With every angle of the street fight hashed and rehashed, it was wasn’t yet 2 AM. Bruno, who remained stoic throughout the glory session, suggested there was still time to hit a nightclub.

I mentioned Frogg’s Leggs. The Irish lads were in, even Mark was up for it. Sarah, our Helen of Troy in the near riot, had gone to bed. The Colombian boys, still a touch too fragrant, offered to drive. Maybe Carlos was there ahead of us. No one had seen him since the confusion of Calle 84. Shawn asked me to tell him once more about the pre-pays and again we ventured into the night.
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