Scribbled down to clarify a few things: the peace dialogues with the FARC

Anyone expecting a tome from me regarding the peace dialogues between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian Government is going to be disappointed. But bear with me, there’s a few things that need to be clarified. Since the Santos government is doing so appallingly badly at getting the message out there to the people, and the Uribe-backed opposition is taking every advantage available to them to undermine efforts, so much is being lost.

La paz en Colombia

La paz en Colombia

A peace agreement with the FARC is not a rampant pathway to impunity

Legitimizing the peace process does not mean that I am in favor, it’s about moving forwards

Those of us in the cities see the conflict as external to our reality, it’s not, we are all involved

No one will be completely satisfied with what is agreed in Havana

There is no impartial justice in Colombia

Do we think that the Colombian State represents the interests of the Colombian people?

There are crimes which are neither pardonable nor amnistiable

Are you wary of Transitional Justice? Do you want the killing to continue?

Colombia requires a complete cultural overhaul, to be able get to the very origins of the realities here

Radical outbursts on either side of the political spectrum are dangerous and wrong at such a time where everything is so delicately balanced

sand bags at a colombian military base

sand bags at a colombian military base

That is all, thank you

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the Colombian Conflict: Focus on the Macarena

There is only so much that I can share about this return to the Macarena. It was an academic trip, not journalistic, and thus perhaps the most interesting details will remain unwritten, but fear not, there is still plenty to consider.

Caño Cristales, Colombia

Caño Cristales, Colombia

I was here in 2012 and had the opportunity then to see Caño Cristales in all of its glory. On this occasion, we were here too early in the year – May – and there had been a significant amount of rainfall which obscured much of the famed red Macarenia clavígera plants. It serves as a reminder that a whole variety of factors need to be aligned to make the trip truly unforgettable. Water levels, sunlight and bloom amongst others.

the town of the Macarena, Meta, Colombia

the town of the Macarena, Meta, Colombia

As I previously mentioned, this was an academic trip and we were flown down to the town of the Macarena by the Colombian Airforce in a plane which resembled either an egg with wings or an oversized drone. You decide from the photos. The plane was an Israeli Arava STOL aircraft purchased in 1978. Originally the Colombian Airforce had three, two have since been retired…leaving just this one.

the Israeli Arava aircraft

the Israeli Arava aircraft

Life on the Fudra base where we were put up was surprisingly comfortable. My parents spent a vast amount of money educating me at a private school in the UK. Let me just say that this base was a huge improvement on what I experienced in north London. There was air conditioning, comfortable bunks, a snack bar and an airy officers’ mess. Of course, I know that life is not rosy on a military base in what was – prior to the peace dialogues with the FARC guerrillas – the principal military operations theatre for central southern Colombia here in the coca growing region of Meta. Clearly we were shielded from the harsh realities of life here.

a military piraña boat on the Guayabero river

a military piraña boat on the Guayabero river

What can I say about the interviews with the military, well, let me keep this brief for fear of revealing too much. Since I moved to Colombia full-time in 2007 there has been a significant change in the education, attitude and behaviour of the military. The people we interviewed, from the rank of General to grunt conscripts, are considerably more relaxed, more inquisitive and realistic about the possibilities for peace with the FARC.

Colombian soldiers at roll call at the Fudra base

Colombian soldiers at roll call at the Fudra base

However, there remains much to do with regards to coca eradication, the FARC’s involvement in extortions, communication is almost null in this area, the paucity of land titles and clarity over government-owned property will continue to cause major problems, illegal mining, legal mining, a weak justice system and finally, tourism to Caño Cristales (with an annual 5-6 month season) is not going to be enough to sustain the town of the Macarena.

one last shot of the caño cristales river

one last shot of the caño cristales river

Unfortunately, for the time being, I cannot share any further details from the interviews held.

If you are considering visiting Caño Cristales, please read my original piece, and the article published by Global Traveler USA magazine.

The Arava insignia, all the time, all terrain

The Arava insignia, all the time, all terrain

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Bogotá Stereotype No4: The Hijo Bon Bril

This Bogotá stereotype No4: the Hijo Bon Bril, probably makes no sense whatsoever to many of you. But, let me assure you now that the Bon Bril certainly exists and is stronger and more prevalent than ever in Colombian society! In fact many of you will know of a Bon Bril.

This phenomenon is hardly unique to Colombia, but, perhaps due to financial restrictions, upbringing and the omnipotence of strong machista Colombian mothers, the syndrome is more marked here.

But what is it? The keep it brief, the Hijo Bon Bril is technically a young professional upwards of 30 years of age and still residing at home with his parents…with no desire nor drive to move out and experience independence. At home there’s unlimited Directv, a 50 inch television, a full fridge at all times and all bills paid. What’s not to love?

How did the name come about? You can read this thoroughly detailed piece in Semana Magazine from 2007 for a deeper investigation, but it’s basically a term that has been built around a very effective publicity campaign for a type of sponge which may or may not last longer than the competition and pitched with the catchphrase below.

“Si dura mucho, es Bon Bril”

So, when you are stuck behind a sidewalk-blocking group of four or more Oficinistas (Bogotá Stereotype No1) meandering their way aimlessly back to work after a long lunch at the nearby corrientazo, remember that male or female, someone in their midst will undoubtedly be a Bon Bril offspring. You can find people even nearing forty and still living at home, taking advantage that after a hellish commute on the Transmilenio their mamita will be there to heat up or even prepare a dinner for them and turn down their bed.

Of course it’s cultural and there are economic benefits to the practice of stubbornly remaining in the comfort of Hotel Mum and Dad, but I find myself questioning the effects placed on relationships. It makes me recall the Marriage Course that Alba and I were obliged to attend to be able to get hitched in the Catholic Church and that one of the first things the philosopher giving the course said: “Remember men in the audience, your future wife is marrying you and not their mother in law.” And yet, if you are a woman and you get involved with a Bon Bril you are in effect in direct competition with the suegra. In fact, I have heard of a case so extreme that when an Hijo Bon Bril informed his mother that he was planning on moving out to get married, the mother in question spent the entire afternoon weeping on her bed, face down. It could have  been out of relief and happiness, but I doubt it.

Do you know of any extreme examples of the Hijo or Hija Bon Bril? 

Read about the other Bogotá Stereotypes: No2 the BiciNazi and No3 the Carro Escolta 

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Humbled in an Quito Prison

Having interviewed Wally Broderick just a few weeks ago for Colombia Calling about the state of Colombia’s prison system, it sparked several memories of the few occasions upon which I had entered, as a visitor, the Garcia Moreno Prison in Quito, Ecuador.

The Garcia Moreno Prison, Quito, Ecuador

The Garcia Moreno Prison, Quito, Ecuador

Wind the clock back to 2004 and I was working as a freelance social projects coordinator and expedition leader for a British outfit with my base in Ecuador. One of the warm-up activities to which we would subject our keep of British Gap Year students coming out for some much needed exposure to the world, was to gain access to either of the male or female prisons located in that capital city and show them the horrors within.

The idea behind this was to open their fresh young eyes to the reality of drug smuggling in the hope that they might not stray into this pastime whilst we were responsible for them. So, we would make contact with British or Anglophone inmates and set up a visitation hour.

I’ll admit that entering the Garcia Moreno Prison was never a comfortable outing to lead, so often does one read of hostage-takings, uprisings or even as has been revealed recently in Colombia, dismemberments and disappearances of visitors. I never fully relaxed until we were all out and in a truck heading back into Quito, especially if we led groups weighted with more women whilst in the men’s prison.

On the first visit we were fortunate to contact an elderly Dutch inmate who had been imprisoned for allegedly having drugs inserted into the computer parts he was shipping back from Ecuador to Holland. His story, while well delivered, presumably from having convinced himself of his innocence over time, was less than credible. During the 40 minutes or so he spoke to us about the unpleasantness of life on this inside, a friend entered. Also in his 60s, this stout German admitted that he had managed to avoid becoming a target of the ne’er do wells in the joint by propagating the rumour, effectively so, that he had been a personal bodyguard to Chile’s General Pinochet. I suppose that so nefarious were Pinochet’s actions and so widely known across the continent, this kept people at bay despite the German’s advanced years.

Seeking out Ian from England, we were invited to his cell. Gifts of lewd magazines and cigarettes made, Ian would tell us how he was now a proud Ecuadorian since the lady he had been seeing during conjugal visits had given birth to a little girl. He would never return to the UK he would state. He said that since conjugal visits had been permitted – something relatively recent in 2004 in Ecuadorean prisons I believe – the cases of rape had decreased significantly.

Pabellon B, Garcia Moreno Prison

Pabellon B, Garcia Moreno Prison

Did Ian show any regret or remorse for his actions of having tried to smuggle cocaine out of Ecuador and to the UK? Not an iota. He was, just as his friend from New York, now as convinced as ever that they knew the system even better and how to beat it once they were out. “I even have smuggling contacts in Greenland,” the New Yorker ventured after giving us class A1 on shifting drugs.

Briefly a father and son smuggling team from northern England appeared. They seemed too out of it for conversation.

Whilst being given the full tour of each wing of the prison, we momentarily passed through an incongruous looking area with fresh paint, hanging baskets with blooming flowers, a sizeable grill in the corner providing decent-looking hamburgers and where each cell appeared to have been fitted with a television.

Peering into once cell I could see that the game was on. I knew at once which one. The FA Cup game Manchester United vs Exeter City. A third round replay after a courageous 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, this was glory tie for the low-ranking Grecians but business as usual for the ridiculously talented United. Having graduated from Exeter University in 2000 the local side occupied and continues to occupy a place of affection in my heart.

“That’s my team!” I expressed excitedly to the prisoner slung along his bunk.

“Ah Manchester United, very good team,” responded the prisoner.

“No the other one.”

“The shit one?” He looked at me suspiciously as one looks at a madman.

Later I was informed that this area of the prison had been specifically designed by and for high-ranking actors in Ecuador’s drugs trade. If only I knew a little more about the individual with whom I had shared but a few words.

I had been humbled by a man deprived of his liberty.

Exeter City went on to lose 2-0 at home

I have since read that the prison was closed in 2015 and you can now take a 30 minute tour of the buildings. Certainly this would be chilling, but nothing on the experience we shared with the groups when its inhabitants lived there.

 

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