Upon your descent into Bogotá, gaze fixedly at the countryside and squint carefully to see where the tracer bullets, aimed at downing your aircraft en route from the evil imperial power in the North, are coming from.
If you are lucky, you might see a fully-fledged battle going on below between the Colombian military and the guerrillas or paramilitaries. Of course, note down on your moleskin writing pad your observations of the catastrophic state of the runway and the deadly looking aircraft at the neighboring air force base of Catam. Notice the brightly colored and prickly-looking weapons adorning each jet.
Remember, before three paragraphs are written, to slide in a comment about the godfather of international cocaine smuggling, Pablo Escobar, and refer to Colombia as a country emerging from the dark days of being a failed state in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Of course, these armed groups operating outside of the law are intent on kidnapping you for ransom and they’ll be huddled just out of sight waiting for the ideal moment to pounce. This is a gun culture here, so, make some comment about the police and their weapons and the prevalence of heavily armed guards.
Should you survive being taken hostage on the jet-way or at the baggage carousel, then expect burundanga or escopolamina blown into your face by a stubble-faced, aviator glasses wearing, medallion sporting taxi driver. He’ll take you on a paseo millionario and you will consciously empty your bank about for him. It’s inevitable.
Now, you may or may not have made it to your hotel. If you have achieved this milestone, compose something witty about the traffic, the careless driving and the shrill sounds of motorcycle engines wasping past. You are on edge, as if each one was a sicario from the 1990s ready to spray gunfire in your direction. Start noting down your observations now, and be sure to mention how relieved you are to have emerged alive from Bogotá’s infamous byways and highways.
Every Colombiano is a swarthy smooth-talking boulevardier, in the mold of former President Andrés Pastrana, but tanned, and definitely with a carefully fashioned moustache. Not only will he be able to recite extracts from Gabo’s finest works, he’ll whisper sweet nothings such as wanting: “to show you unearthly pleasures whilst smothering you in honey,” and will be a tremendous yet effortless dancer.
And every Colombiana should be seen as a raven-haired seductress, meek yet capable, and just waiting to bounce your gringo bones into bed. She may well be a toreador as well, for good measure, in which case she’ll be an insatiable vampy temptress in the sack.
Here’s how to write about Colombia
Colombia has a justifiably poor reputation. Explain why and put this into context, well before you decide to compose a whimsical metaphor about kidnapping and cocaine.
Don’t permit your editor to strong-arm you into making the full story all about the incredible “turnaround” of the country. Leave this as an additional piece of description, not the crux of the piece itself.
Netflix’s Narcos is not the only research you should do, nor should it be the sole point of reference for your knowledge of Colombia. The show succeeds in telling a story, but, get out there and speak to the PEOPLE.
Yes, there is considerable violence and there are protests in Colombia. Find out why the students are protesting, why teachers and nurses feel that their only option to be heard is by striking. Join a protest if you can to see, hear and feel the emotions.
Unless you are really taking risks, you are not the first intrepid reporter to make it to Colombia. It’s a well worn route.
Explore the current events in Colombia and understand that there is a voluminous amount of history behind them. Heard of Plan Lasso? Rojas Pinilla? The Frente Nacional? LOOK THEM UP for starters. Colombian history didn’t begin and end with Pablo Escobar.
There is still terrible violence afflicting Colombia and the senseless and systematic killing of social and community leaders is shocking. Are you doing an article on this? In most circumstances, the person that pulled the trigger is known to authorities, but who is the individual or individuals giving the orders?
Colombians have a victim mentality and this can be confounding, but, contextualize it, understand the national psyche, be sensitive and don’t be afraid of those who, in a rejection of your caution, throw the First Amendment freedom of speech argument at you, accusing you of PC gone wrong. Wounds are still open here, find out why? Do the old school leg work. This is not an example of “white guilt.”
We need more international coverage on the role of the elites in Colombia, the get-rich heritage from the narcos era which pervades Medellin, the corruption, the lack of transparency and why public figures never feel the need to resign during or after a shellacking of a scandal.
Contextualize and investigate in order to understand.
Stop perpetuating stereotypical narratives.
Coming to Cartagena is not to have seen Colombia.
This rant was inspired in part by a tweet about Haiti by Greg Beckett and then a page about Liberia called Sleepless in Monrovia, offering similar guidelines. I also hasten to add that I have been guilty of much of the aforementioned writing sins. But, there has been a before and an after with regards as to How to Write about Colombia, in my defence. Hopefully, a little of what is written here can help improve a standard of reporting on this country.
For further insights about Colombia, please tune in to the weekly Colombia Calling podcast. This can be found wherever you get your podcasts.