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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