The Miami Herald
May 13, 2001

Daily life in Colombia a bizarre existence

 Herald Staff Writer

 BOGOTA, Colombia -- You wonder what Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, creator of the magical-real world of Macondo, would have made of this recent newspaper story:

 When a farmer in the northern state of Antioquia refused leftist guerrillas' demands for protection money, the rebels herded 35 of his cows into a corral and blew them up with dynamite.

 Or this one:

 A world-class parasailer was blown off course and landed amid one of the roughest slums in the city of Cali. Jorge Hernán Abad was quickly shot to death by local thugs who stole his parachute-like device.

 Or this other one:

 Police raided a factory making fake 1,000-peso coins in southern Putumayo, a virtually lawless state that grows half of Colombia's coca. The counterfeiters' profit: 380 pesos per coin -- a measly 18 U.S. cents.

 As bizarre as those stories may appear to foreigners, they barely qualified as unusual for Colombians, almost inured to violence and corruption during decades of some of the worst political and criminal bloodshed in Latin America.

 The South American nation of 40 million people last year reported a world-record 3,900 kidnappings plus about 3,500 political killings and thousands more violent deaths, from car accidents to murders.

 ``We are so immersed in violence that we are accustomed to it,'' said lawyer and kidnap negotiator Tomás Moore. ``Terrible things are commonplace. Awful things are the norm. And every day things get worse.''

 García Márquez reflected some of Colombia's singular mayhem -- a civil war from 1948 to the early 1960s that left at least 100,000 dead is simply called La Violencia, The Violence -- in many of his novels and short stories.


 Colombians ``have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable,'' he said in his Nobel prize acceptance speech in 1984.

 But even García Márquez himself might cock a disbelieving eyebrow at some of the outrages occurring in Colombia these days:

   Army soldiers deactivated three booby-trapped landmines found in March on a dirt road, 150 feet from an elementary school with 350 students in the northern village of Versalles.

   Leftist guerrillas from the National Liberation Army attacked a police outpost near Cali recently with a horse bomb -- a pony loaded with explosives and tied up outside the cops' station. Car bombs, bicycle bombs and even canoe bombs have also been reported in the last six months.

 One television news program starts its evening broadcasts with the warning, ``This program may contain scenes of violence.'' It usually does, showing video of the bodies of peasants, leftist guerrillas or right-wing paramilitary gunmen killed in the conflict.


 Newspaper stories advise families driving to resort areas during vacation periods to carry only small amounts of cash and leave all jewelry at home if they want to pass unmolested through guerrilla checkpoints.

 Yet, at times, the warring sides have shown an unusual sense of civility.

 Recent letters from the largest guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, demanding that Cali firms pay ``revolutionary taxes'' (that is, protection money) opened with the phrase, ``Receive Cordial Salutations.''

 SATENA, an airline run and piloted by the Colombian Air Force, makes three weekly flights to San Vicente del Caguan, the biggest town in the 16,000 square mile swath of southern Colombia ruled by the FARC since 1999, as a result of peace negotiations with President Andrés Pastrana.

 Two jailed leaders of the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, are often let out of prison to join peace contacts between government and other ELN officials deep in the central Colombian jungles.

 Several prisons allow FARC and ELN guerrillas to practice close-order marching drills in the prison yards, using broomsticks for rifles as they sing their groups' songs and chant anti-government slogans.


 ``Many Colombians consider that this country has always lived in crisis, that violence is a constant in our history as a nation with which we must coexist,'' wrote El
 Tiempo columnist Carlos Caballero Argaez.

 Colombia's narcotics industry has provided its share of peculiar stories.

 One jailed leader of the ELN, a guerrilla group heavy on puritanical Marxist ideology, was revealed to have been betrayed to police by a lover who suffered an emotional crisis after a cocaine binge.

 The U.S. government has put Cali's América soccer team on its no-visa list because of its alleged ownership by front men for the Cali cartel's leaders, brothers Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela.

 And Colombian drug prosecutors sit on the board of a Bogotá soccer team, the Millonarios, after seizing the assets of other convicted drug traffickers.

 Common criminals have added their own unique touches to the country's plight.


 Taxi drivers who kidnap their clients at gunpoint and drive them around to several ATM machines to drain their accounts are said to be taking their prey on ``the
 millionaire's walk.''

 And while kidnapping is a constant worry for many Colombians, there's always room for humor in a nation that has displayed exceptional resiliency as it endures the

 A facetious survey published by the newsweekly Semana to establish whether readers fit the profile for kidnapping targets asked simply: ``Are you Colombian?''

                                    © 2001