I attempted in vain to move my blazer hem over the mayonnaise stain that now marked my lower crotch on my beige chinos. The President offered his hand:
“Thank you very much for your company today.”
He did not appear to notice. What a relief. Given the limited space on Colombia’s Presidential jet, I was saved the sheer embarrassment wrought by violent turbulence on the journey from Cali back to Bogotá. Attempting to keep my cool:
“You are very welcome Mr President.”
What a buffoon. Me, not the President. What a day.
Earlier, booted, suited and clean shaven, I was subjected to nothing close to the full body cavity that I had expected. A few x-rays and identity checks and I found myself in what looked eerily similar to the compounds as depicted in the series The West Wing. Ushered down a hallway to the Press Office and then briefed on what was to come next.
We hurtled in a minivan, weaving our way through Bogotá’s congested roads en route to Catan, the airbase from where the Presidential jet leaves. Each time we passed a church, Javier, a presidential cameraman would cross himself. Fervent Catholicism or praying for deliverance from an attempt on the President’s life? We would be collateral damage. It is not out of the question given that President Uribe had survived various attempts on his life.
In the VIP waiting room a TV played to nobody. Bigwigs and top brass were deep in conversation, too busy to notice a freelancer with very little business of being there at all. More interestingly, the film showing on the television was Clint Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire, a film about an attempt on the President. I looked around to see if anyone else could see the humour, but alas no like-minded souls. In fact, looking around me I was quite upset to see that there were no heavily moustachioed, aviator glasses wearing bling be-medalled generals looking set to topple over from the weight of their fantastic epaulettes, and lurking in the wings, twitching in excitement at the idea of a coup d’etat.
It was then as we boarded the plane that I was informed that we would be heading to the city Cali and not Buenaventura, an impoverished port city on the Pacific coast. Presumably this happens all the time. They change the flight plans for security reasons and only everybody else on the plane besides me is aware of this.
The steward must have been well prepared for dunces such as I, no right to be there, along for the ride. Before I could look suitably stupid, he ushered, nay, led me by the elbow to two rows from the back, well out of sight and mind of the President and more importantly, less likely to create an international incident here wedged in between deadly looking men with earpieces and camouflage clad paratroopers.
What to do? I looked in the pouch. No magazine, not even safety advice. Across the aisle from me a Paratrooper major was reading Tom Clancy’s Shadow Warriors. From where I sat I could see liberal smatterings of the acronyms CIA, DEA, AUC and then of course, FARC.
I cannot see the President from here. The expensive seats up front run lengthways, but I can see Mario Montoya the Commander in Chief of the Colombian Army leaning in and talking in a measured and calculating manner. You can see that he is giving and ensuring undivided attention. Out of the window on the right wing are the numbers 1041. Such is my excitement I note the number down, I am determined not to miss a trick and to observe everything.
Something is pressing on my mind. I know what exactly it is. But, I am reluctant to ask and reluctant to tell. This is Colombia’s Air-force 1 and I am certain to get in more trouble here than on an ordinary airline. It seems so trivial, but really, could this get me in trouble? I have not turned off my mobile phone. Wretched things. I am concerned, but this rapidly vanishes as a platter of cheese and biscuits fit for a President are placed on my tray-table. I note though, that while I am left to drink my coke out of the can, the President gets a glass.
The pilot comes over the intercom to inform us of our descent into Cali’s Air-Force base. This place is effectively the Top Gun for Colombia from where campaigns into the southwestern jungles are launched. As we hit the turbulence on the way down, the Special Forces operatives are handing live magazines down the aisle to one another. Everything is just too surreal.
We disembark and the President and top brass greet the local dignitaries, the mayors of Buenaventura and Cali respectively and some others. We are bustled towards a waiting minivan and then whizzed across the compound to an auditorium that looks like it was built for a US high School drama class. Built with US money no doubt.
And just as I think that this day, only just seven days into my Colombia adventure in 2007, could get any more fascinating and bizarre, I am informed that all the of the people in the back six rows of the auditorium are former FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrillas from the Frente 30 of the revolutionary group who have turned themselves in for reintegration into society. They number 137 in total and all bar 1 are men. Subsequent interviews confirm that they are all from the impoverished sections of society in Buenaventura, have little interest in politics and took up their placement in order to secure food and a support network for their families. Joining the FARC was a career decision not a lifestyle choice.
The whole scene looks like that in an inner city US high school. The architecture, the principal and senior teachers at the head table on stage with the flag behind and in the audience slouch the student body, disinterested and clad in Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent T-shirts.
The President speaks of opportunities, homes and jobs. Security for their families and the eventual reuniting with their children and wives and partners. These boys, I call them boys, for this is what they are, perk up at the mention of free housing, a weekly payment plan and being with their families. Some of them do not look to be sixteen, but they will never admit to this otherwise they are considered as minors and will be placed in government care and will not receive the benefits of their demobilisation. Then there’s a hiccup.
If they do not have legal documentation confirming their name or their marriage or the names of their family, they cannot claim full benefits. How many here will have these slips of paper? Often the FARC destroy them, often they are lost, more likely if they do possess a document it has been forged. This talk of legal documentation results in 9 or 10 walking out of the meeting.
The questions continue. What becomes clear is the hierarchy established within the FARC. Only the commandants are speaking. They are surrounded by their men, and their men look to them for answers. They are confident, self assured and speak well. This is an issue that Maria Eugenia Pinto and her team in charge of the Reintegracion have to address. How to make these boys understand that they are individuals and must no longer lean and rely on the support network established within the ranks of the FARC.
Chatting with several members while the President and top brass are off in a secretive Security Council meeting, the usual conversation arises. Am I a gringo? No. I am from England. David Beckham? No, I don’t know him personally. Can I spare some money? I am afraid not. I turn the conversation on them.
Why did you decide to join in the first place, and what made you turn yourselves in?
“The FARC promised us food and work and provisions for our families. For poor people from Buenaventura, there are few options, the FARC or the AUC (the rightwing paramilitaries, now supposedly disarmed and demobilized). Unemployment is high in Buenaventura.
“Who likes to live in war? Who wants to be marching in the jungle always?”
The situation in Colombia does not become clearer as I had hoped it might after this experience. At best it becomes a lighter shade of murky. What one comes to realise is that the conflict that exists, while it displays itself with guns, bombs, drugs and kidnapping, is more akin to a geographical manifestation of inequality inherent in the paucity of opportunities on the marginalized fringes of society. How can you stop or even reason with a civil conflict where people join up out of desperation for work rather than ideologies and party lines?
As we boarded the plane back to Bogota, and having talked with an Army Major responsible for keeping these boys busy during their reinsertion period, I felt downhearted yet could see glimmers of hope. But when would this hope become a reality, one decade from now, two, or longer? These boys have a long hard road ahead of them, we can only hope and pray that they stay the course, otherwise what options are open to them?
(This article was written when I first arrived in Colombia to live in 2007. Things have changed since then, President Alvaro Uribe Velez was still a popular figure (he is no longer in power), Mario Montoya is no longer head of the armed forces and Jorge Noguera (ex head of the DAS internal security agency) who I sat next to in the auditorium, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison due to a phone-tapping scandal. Juan Manuel Santos who was Minister of Defence is now President.)