Gamarra and the Press-Gang

Seated around the plastic tables on a slightly raised section of patio our feet remained dry. Dona Alba served us our food, prepared hastily in the back, and then came  back to check on my father in law. His demeanor had changed instantly to one of contentment as we turned off the highway and started down the 12km track of rutted secondary road from Aguachica to get to Gamarra, his hometown.

I could tell immediately that his confidence increased and there was a certain amount of pride brimming that he should be returning here to Gamarra, albeit for a night, with his youngest daughter and her husband. Incidentally my wife had not visited this town in 24 years.

Not to speak ill of Gamarra (certainly not Gomorrah), but, one must recognize its place in the department of Cesar and indeed in Colombia. This is prime land for cultivation, rich in alluvial sediment, ideal for huge crops of African Palm, bananas, other inevitable cash crops and with large deposits of oil and gas beneath the earth’s crust. It is geographically important as well.

Gamarra is also situated on the banks of the Magdalena River, the mighty fluvial thoroughfare that served as the indigenous people’s highway in pre-Hispanic times, and for Bolivar on his mission to liberate northern South America, even deep into the Republican era the river played an important role. Now, river transport has ebbed and the towns that thrived along its banks have seen their affluence and importance wane.

Gamarra is more recognized for two things: the first being a major point for the transshipment of cocaine out of the region across the country. On one side we are in Cesar and on the other side of the river we are in Antioquia. There has been violence here in the past and given the number of soldiers and policemen stationed along this way, you can assume that there is still aggression.

And secondly, and much more folkloric, Gamarra is known for having the highest number of black magic witches in Colombia.

Herein lays one of the key issues for which my mother in law never wanted my wife to return to Gamarra to visit. Should one of the witches have spotted my wife, and taken offense at her beauty, they could have cast a spell. My mother in law believes this, as does my father in law and so my wife has grown up alongside such beliefs. I hasten not to call this superstition, because in my mind, if everyone is on board, then the energy of this belief coming from so many people has to count for something? No?

So, my father in law’s mood had changed. He was happy to show us his town. People knew him. Shop owners asked after his father (longtime resident now hospitalized in Bucaramanga), chairs were proffered in haste when we decided to enjoy a cold beer in the local tavern. Introductions were hastily made.

It was there as we sat enjoying the cool breeze that followed the rainstorm when the Colombian military swung into the main plaza. They pulled their truck up and parked across the road from us. Soldiers alighted and lined the corners dutifully.

Saturday night and most young men and boys in Gamarra were out on their waspish motorcycles, zipping from bar to bar, girlfriend riding pillion. And when they approached the plaza, they were all stopped.

Initially searched and then made to dismount, these boys were asked for their military service carnet. Some were able to show that they were in education, others had wormed out of mandatory conscription in some way or another, but a few had no paperwork.

Parents arrived with an alacrity unknown and unseen on any given day in a Colombian small town. Cell phones were out, signals jammed across the starry night sky as favours were called in and shady negotiations came into play. To a certain extent this was successful as some of the likely lads were then released from custody in the back of the military transport and permitted to go home.

Others weren’t so fortunate.

They had been press-ganged.

Immediately I recalled history lessons at school about drunk locals in port towns in England waking up on board ships bound for who knows where…but this practice is surely history now?

Talking to Dona Alba and others nearby, hushed of course so as not to attract attention, I was able to fathom that this happened relatively routinely in all towns and cities across the country. In fact I had seen this in the Candelaria in Bogota. The military would be sent out to check all documents for young men of a certain age and if the paperwork did not add up, then they were conscripted. Of course, bribes could be paid. In this particular region the going rate for paying your way out of military service would be in the region of $3,000,000.00 pesos (US$1,700).

You’ll admit this is a great deal of money for a low income rural family.

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