I just sent out a story from the Associated Press titled "Amnesty International: Pastrana failing to reign in rightist militias," written by Jared Kotler (Thursday, 4 November 1999).
There was a quote there:
"Army tolerance for the militias continues, as evidenced by the presence in one town in Norte de Santander of a paramilitary roadblock just ''100 meters (yards) away from an army roadblock,'' fellow Amnesty official Susan Lee told reporters."
This got me to thinking about Colombia's Magdalena Medio region around the area of Barrancabermeja (see the map I have made and posted at http://www.prairienet.org/csncu/wilches.GIF).
This is where USO, the petroleum workers' union, is centered. Also, SINTRAPALMA (palm plantation workers' union) and FECODE (teachers' union) are strong here.
It is also at the epicenter of paramilitary violence and the area in which the ELN has traditionally had much of its support. It's wild country and quite dangerous, especially if you are working-class and living in northeastern Barranca, in the barrios populares. You are liable to get shot or tortured to death by the paras (see interview with para commander "Morantes" in http://www.prairienet.org/csncu/morantes.html that I translated from a Colombian weekly newsmagazine).
It's so hot in Magdalena Medio. One of the hottest places on earth insist the locals. Once in a while there is a gentle breeze. Make that once in a rare while.
Travelling down the river Magdalena on a chalupa (a small boat that holds about 15 people with an outboard motor that serves as a river bus) we are stopped at a naval base two kilometers north of Barranca. Everybody gets out and men line up against the fence to be searched, while women are gathered at the other side to be searched. We hand over our bags and our identification cards and the marines turn over the ids to the young officer under the tent with the Galil rifle on his lap sitting at a rickety table. Just another stop, yet another search. One gets used to these sort of amenities. All is quiet. Not a sound except for the river as it is going by. The marines look us up and down. One marine is tapping his rifle with his fingers. Nervous? Bored? I know I am nervous. I am always nervous at these stops.
The young officer picks up the ids one by one and seems to be checking the names against a thick notebook in front of him. Next to him is a civilian. He looks like a campesino, over fifty I would say, although it could just be that the sun has scared his face with age. He is wearing a dirty white sobrero. A couple of the buttons of his shirt are unbuttoned and I spot a handgun in his waist. He is casual, relaxed sitting next to the officer. Funny thing is, he too has a notebook. Everytime the officer checks his notebook, the campesino looks over his shoulder and then into his own notebook.
One of the marines has spotted me checking out the campesino and looks at me strangely. Then I think that he signals me to look away. He is very subtle, he does it with his eyes and his eyebrows and a very slight jerk of his head toward the river. I oblige. Is he being helpful? I get the sense that he is giving me a friendly warning, as if to say "Careful, hombre! Don't let anyone catch you checking out the tipo. Look away now." Some marines have been checking out the chalupa carefully.
The tipo is surely not military and damn sure not just plain ole civilian you know. The gun, the notebook... I ask myself: "Can it be a 'para' out in the open next to a Navy officer?" The answer seems clear enough.
Everybody has checked out... Except me...
A conscript comes up to me and tells me the officer wants to talk to me. It's about my U.S. passport. He doesn't know what to do with it. Not too many gringos around these parts [except maybe the CIA].
But he has to make sure I am a gringo.
He looks at me. The sun is hot. I am sweating.
- Do you speak Spanish?
- Where are you heading?
- I am going north.
- Puerto Wilches.
- Puerto Wilches?
- Yes sir.
- What are you going to do there?
- I am a geographer doing research on palm plantations.
- Where are you from?
- Are you a professor?
- It's dangerous around here, lots of subversives.
- I have heard.
- What do you think about Colombia?
- It's a beautiful country, very nice people.
- Be careful.
- Thank you.
He gives me my passport.
All other passengers are back in the chalupa looking back at me. I am heading back escorted by a marine that must be 18 years old, no more than that.
- Are you from Miami?
- No, Chicago.
- You like Colombia?
- Very much, very beautiful country.
- Be careful.
- Thank you.
I get in the chalupa.
The chalupero heads to the chalupa. I swear he palms some money to the NCO who had officiated over the search of the chalupa.
My fellow passengers are quiet. As we move away from the naval station I look around. I think I sense some relief on their part. Maybe it's just me. No talking. It's like we are stuck in an elevator. Fifteen passengers, the chalupero and his 10 year old kid.
North on the Magdalena. The noise from the motor covers everything except the noise from the water as it is cut by the chalupa.
Later I find out that I probably guessed right that it was a "para" back there at the naval base. They had been out and about lately. It was the time of the big massacres in Barranca. They were looking for subversives.
Colombian Labor Monitor