Where Colombia screwed up

Roger Garfitt

The response of the girl on Passport Control at Heathrow was typical. ‘Where have you just come from, sir?’ she asked as she took my passport ‘Bogota,’ I replied. ‘Oh, Christ!’ she said, and handed it straight back, as if it might still be charged with danger.

I have spent much of my time in Colombia over the last five years. Only once have I experienced anything like danger. It was during the Drug War, when a bomb went off in the next street. I had called at a friend’s flat to collect something, and was browsing along the book-lined walls when the noise of the blast came through them as if they were rice-paper. For a moment the world went into negative. Everything that had seemed substantial, so securely there, myself included, felt transparent. The only solid thing was that sound. A little closer, it said, and you and your friend and all her books would be shredded on the wind.

One evening I happened to see the Justice Minister coming home from work. Two police outriders came zipping up the street on their Yamahas, followed by the Minister’s limousine, closely followed by a white Toyota Landcruiser. As the Minister’s car slowed to turn into the block of flats where she lived, a whistle shrieked and the doors of the Toyota flew open. Bodyguards leapt out, their submachine-guns held up in the air, and ran with the limousine down into the underground car-park. Thirty seconds of drama on the other side of the street. Another thirty seconds and the traffic was flowing normally. The lights changed to red and the old cigarette-seller on the corner waved her pack of contraband Marlboros at the waiting cars.

Living in Colombia is like that. Danger is not ubiquitous. Nor, unless the drug barons mount a bombing campaign, is it indiscriminate. It has particular targets whom it keeps in its sights, shadowing them wherever they go. The rest of us just glimpse it occasionally, on the other side of the street.

What is inescapable is the emotional toll of living in a country where one violent episode seems to trigger another. Colombians are resilient, they have a gallows humour. But I can see the darkening tones in my friends’ work, can hear the dismay under their late-night conversations. They pick at the tangled knot of the last forty years, trying to discern, in the words of the title of a recent book, En que momento se jodio Colombia – ‘Just where Colombia screwed up’.

Huge crowds follow the coffins to the graveside, wistfully waving white handkerchiefs, which have become a symbol of peace. Every so often there is a political initiative that amounts to no more than that. At the moment a Constituent Assembly, elected on a very low poll, is drawing up a new constitution. The awkward truth, frequently underlined by Alvaro Gomez in the days before he became one of the Assembly’s three presidents, is that what Colombia needs is not new laws but the will to apply them.

There are signs that the will may be developing. Extensive frauds have been uncovered in the social security system, and in the public services of Colombia’s main port, Barranquilla. The newspapers are exposing corruption with more determination than they have shown for a long time. Even the Congress and the Senate have caught the spirit of reform, offering to surrender privileges that led to a trade in favours and politically secured jobs.

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