Obviously the title of this piece is unfair. Colombia is far more than an international crime story’s definition of brutality. Most people in Colombia not only have nothing to do with such criminality, and resent the stereotype, but they cannot understand the same rumors people hear about and fear in their day-to-day lives. They live honestly, the vast majority: teachers, business people, store owners, simple workers. Children. Life being lived beyond mere survival does not really differ, no matter where you are.
But Colombia today also has the sort of organized crime that used to fire the imagination of books and movies (and still does, now on television): supposedly honorable, more or less corporate criminals who’s indifferent cruelty has far more to do with profits and gains than anything so meaningless as the patriotic assumption of the entire nation.
Here, look at this:
Beautiful, isn’t it? This is Colombia. Do you know what the title of the piece where I found this picture is called? “Kidnap Risk and Personal Safety in Colombia.” (https://www.worldnomads.com/travel-safety/south-america/colombia/kidnapping-in-colombia-are-you-a-target). Is that what this image inspires for you?
How about this?
Look! School children, all walking together. It’s a nice day, they seem to have no fear. The title? “Colombia: Too Dangerous or the Next Tourist Hotspot?” I suppose we can all understand the tension involved in such a question. Rumors and the few pieces of international reality that form the nation in other people’s minds, anywhere else in the world, cannot help but add that question mark to the end of any statement about Colombia.
But what is the nation, really? Is it mostly this
or is the vast majority of the place split between this
I would like to find out.
In 12,000 BC numerous indigenous tribes shared the gigantic piece of jungle that would become South America. A land of great beauty and resources, these tribes, including Chibcha
were eventually put under the control of the flourishing Inca Empire, given their tribal independence, but now subjects of two or three ruling kings.
Civilization continued as normal–the sometimes barbaric tribal practices of cannibalism and human sacrifice being seen as part of a deeper faith in humanity, and the occasional wars brutal but very fast, the death counts relatively low. Life went on this way for more than 10,000 years. And then, in 1499, the Spanish arrived, seeking fortune, new land, conquest, and the idea of holy relics scattered about the earth imbued with the magic powers of the Tree of Life.
The Spanish from the start began slaughtering the natives. Something rather unprecedented occurred in response. Several of the numerous tribes living anxiously apart in the jungles banded together under a unified declaration of war, what was once nearly one hundred different tribes following the leadership of two tribal kings. This meant nothing, and had very little consequence to the Spanish conquerors.
Alonso de Ojeda,
had already made a name for himself by the time he arrived in Colombia. After a questionable history, one which cannot agree on when and where the man was born, what is known is that he went to sea at a very early age. In fact, his first major commission came in 1493, when he traveled as a second mate under Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas. By 1494 de Ojeda was put in charge of recovery missions, searching for those lost both on the first voyage as well as the second. This enabled de Ojeda to build alliances both with fellow Spaniards as well as natives, ultimately giving him a crew and command of his own.
By 1496, while back in Spain, de Ojeda was sent on a mission by the Catholic Monarchs, and ordered to find, conquer and convert a new land. By the time he left on this voyage he was joined by two other famous sailors of the age, the cartographer Juan de la Cosa, who was the first European to design a world map including portions of the Americas,
(in 1510 he was killed by indigenous people), and the navigator Amerigo Vespucci,
for whom this whole newly discovered region of the world was named.
It wasn’t until 1525 that the first Spanish settlement was officially established at Santa Marta by another conquistador, Rodrigo de Bastidas.
Over the next few hundred years guys like this kept coming and going between the lands, establishing the different nations under their own ideas–Venezuela, Panama, Guyana, Santa Cruz, and numerous other spots in Central and South America. None of these men stayed for long, always seeking larger and more distant fortunes, until, in their old age (which was usually into their mid-40s), they were retired to governorships in one of the several places they had helped found. The priests were in charge anyway. This, after all, was in the midst and up until the very end of the Spanish Inquisition. The slave trade was booming, gold was worth more than it ever had been, and the sheer love of adventure of the more and more young explorers made the whole leafy continent a fabled land of fountains of youth and the Midas touch.
One of these notable conquerors is Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada
a man whom it has been suggested may very well have been the model for Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9781853260360&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used).
Quesada was an impressive man, a successful lawyer and politician in Spain for whom the lacquered world of high art and political corruption was not enough to appease his tastes. He had a yearning for the new, and was caught up in the stories about the mystical city of El Dorado, the city of gold, whose location was purportedly known only to the leader of the Musica people, one of the diminishing tribes that the Spanish had been torturing and enslaving for the past 30 years.
An insane trip followed, nine hundred conquistadors searching through the jungles for a place that did not exist. Only 166 of them survived, most killed by disease, hunger, wild animals, and the unfortunate desperation of the starving eating something they were not aware was poisonous.
Another power-mad explorer was Sebastian de Belalcazar,
who also founded Ecuador. Belalcazar was pure conqueror, ignoring the dictates of those in higher command, and even re-conquering areas–notably in Colombia–that some of his Spanish predecessors had claimed as their own. He was not adverse to murdering anyone, whether an angry or pleading native, nor a huffy or desperate crew member. While also seeking El Dorado, Belalcazar began going to war with other voyagers like himself, mad and on the same quest. He eventually ordered the execution of the governor of Peru, Jorge Robledo.
For this unsanctioned murder, Belalcazar was himself sentenced to death. Outraged by what he considered an unjust sentence from the Spanish crown, he huffily boarded a ship back to Spain, convinced he would have his justice by arguing just how foolish everyone else in the world was. He did not make it back to Spain alive.
The same style of conquest, spread neverendingly, from the tip of South America all the way into what is part of the present day United States of America, rampaged through the region, Spain merciless in their presumption. They were far more radically religious than the British, who conquered what would become the US, and the French (who seemed to merely put on a show of extreme Catholicism by this point, more concerned about British and Spanish navel power than whose God was then in charge of the heavens). It seems that Spain’s aim was to spread their might and eventually claim every habitable portion of the world. What they did not count on, never having truly experienced the social collapse such events could inspire, was a revolution.
and Francisco de Paula Santander,
were located in neighboring Venezuela, but since no place was truly free, and all people across all vague national boundaries were under the same control of rampaging Spanish conquistadors, it was a foregone conclusion that the oppressed would side with a charismatic leader who could challenge the crown. Simon Bolivar proved to be that man.
Born within days of the end of the American Revolution in 1783, Bolivar would grow to be one of the most accomplished generals in worldwide military history. As an upper class child in Spain, Bolivar was weened on the ideas of the French Revolution that continued to sweep throughout Europe, and the growing blood-thirst of such concepts of freedom developed a man who, while venerating the majesty of leaders like Napoleon Bonaparte, was able to separate individual greatness from power mad personal politics. The revolution had a far more profound effect on the world than merely the battles of churches and themes that all wars of the past could ultimately be narrowed down into. No, Bolivar, like so many other leaders of this age, believed in a new idea of absolute freedom. This made him a traitor to the nation of his birth.
Over several years there were revolutions and counter revolutions that changed the leadership of Venezuela seemingly month after month. Bolivar, enraged by the constant reshuffling of imposed laws on Venezuela (a huge area which, at the time, encompassed modern day Bolivia, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru, as well as Columbia and the eponymous state) finally issued what has come to be know as a “Decree of War to the Death:
“Venezuelans: An army of your brothers, sent by the Sovereign Congress of New Granada, has come to liberate you. Having expelled the oppressors from the provinces of Merida and Trujillo, it is now among you.
We are sent to destroy the Spaniards, to protect the Americans, and to reestablish the republican governments that once formed the Confederation of Venezuela. The states defended by our arms are again governed by their former constitutions and tribunals, in full enjoyment of their liberty and independence, for our mission is designed only to break the chains of servitude which still shackle some of our towns, and not to impose laws or exercise acts of dominion to which the rules of war might entitle us.
Moved by your misfortunes, we have been unable to observe with indifference the afflictions you were forced to experience by the barbarous Spaniards, who have ravished you, plundered you, and brought you death and destruction. They have violated the sacred rights of nations. They have broken the most solemn agreements and treaties. In fact, they have committed every manner of crime, reducing the Republic of Venezuela to the most frightful desolation. Justice therefore demands vengeance, and necessity compels us to exact it. Let the monsters who infest Colombian soil, who have drenched it in blood, be cast out forever; may their punishment be equal to the enormity of their perfidy, so that we may eradicate the stain of our ignominy and demonstrate to the nations of the world that the sons of America cannot be offended with impunity.
Despite our just resentment toward the iniquitous Spaniards, our magnanimous heart still commands us to open to them for the last time a path to reconciliation and friendship; they are invited to live peacefully among us, if they will abjure their crimes, honestly change their ways, and cooperate with us in destroying the intruding Spanish government and in the reestablishment of the Republic of Venezuela.
Any Spaniard who does not, by every active and effective means, work against tyranny in behalf of this just cause, will be considered an enemy and punished; as a traitor to the nation, he will inevitably be shot by a firing squad. On the other hand, a general and absolute amnesty is granted to those who come over to our army with or without their arms, as well as to those who render aid to the good citizens who are endeavoring to throw off the yoke of tyranny. Army officers and civil magistrates who proclaim the government of Venezuela and join with us shall retain their posts and positions; in a word, those Spaniards who render outstanding service to the State shall be regarded and treated as Americans.
And you Americans who, by error or treachery, have been lured from the paths of justice, are informed that your brothers, deeply regretting the error of your ways, have pardoned you as we are profoundly convinced that you cannot be truly to blame, for only the blindness and ignorance in which you have been kept up to now by those responsible for your crimes could have induced you to commit them. Fear not the sword that comes to avenge you and to sever the ignoble ties with which your executioners have bound you to their own fate. You are hereby assured, with absolute impunity, of your honor, lives, and property. The single title, “Americans,” shall be your safeguard and guarantee. Our arms have come to protect you, and they shall never be raised against a single one of you, our brothers.
This amnesty is extended even to the very traitors who most recently have committed felonious acts, and it shall be so religiously applied that no reason, cause, or pretext will be sufficient to oblige us to violate our offer, however extraordinary and extreme the occasion you may give to provoke our wrath.
Spaniards and Canary Islanders, you will die, though you be neutral, unless you actively espouse the cause of America’s liberation. Americans, you will live, even if you have trespassed.”
This statement inevitably shuffled down into the rampaging masses and the ‘fight to the death’ became so literal and exclusive that it was impossible to avoid the inevitable human atrocities that surge in a state of absolute war.
People were massacred and full scale war with Spain erupted all throughout the Americas, from what is now Texas, through Mexico, and all then way down into the deepest southern ports of South America. Spain was being exiled. Outside of the continental US, Spain was even more hated than Great Britain. It was the end of an era.
The conquest of the land moved rapidly, and each portion began declaring their subsequent independence from one another under the guiding influence of Bolivar, now called by many “The Liberator.” In 1825 the nation of Bolivia was founded, one of the few countries to be directly named after an individual.
By 1830, in ailing health, Bolivar decided to step down as dictator of the vast area he and his revolutionary forces had occupied for so many years. He had imposed liberal policies and inspired in the next generation quixotic ideas of freedom. And as he disappeared into illness and oblivion, he watched nearly every one of the smaller states he had helped liberate fall into rival, warring factions, lost in the same petty power struggles that were a part of the 19th century culture every other place in the world. Upon stepping down in Columbia, he delivered the following remarks:
“Colombians! Today I cease to govern you. I have served you for twenty years as soldier and leader. During this long period we have taken back our country, liberated three republics, fomented many civil wars, and four times I have returned to the people their omnipotence, convening personally four constitutional congresses. These services were inspired by your virtues, your courage, and your patriotism; mine is the great privilege of having governed you.
The constitutional congress convened on this day is charged by Providence with the task of giving the nation the institutions she desires, following the course of circumstances and the nature of things.
Fearing that I may be regarded as an obstacle to establishing the Republic on the true base of its happiness, I personally have cast myself down from the supreme position of leadership to which your generosity had elevated me.
Colombians! I have been the victim of ignominious suspicions, with no possible way to defend the purity of my principles. The same persons who aspire to the supreme command have conspired to tear your hearts from me, attributing to me their own motives, making me seem to be the instigator of projects they themselves have conceived, representing me, finally, as aspiring to a crown which they themselves have offered on more than one occasion and which I have rejected with the indignation of the fiercest republican. Never, never, I swear to you, has it crossed my mind to aspire to a kingship that my enemies have fabricated in order to ruin me in your regard.
Do not be deceived, Colombians! My only desire has been to contribute to your freedom and to be the preservation of your peace of mind. If for this I am held guilty, I deserve your censure more than any man. Do not listen, I beg you, to the vile slander and the tawdry envy stirring up discord on all sides. Will you allow yourself to be deceived by the false accusations of my detractors? Please don’t be foolish!
Colombians! Gather around the constitutional congress. It represents the wisdom of the nation, the legitimate hope of the people, and the final point of reunion of the patriots. Its sovereign decrees will determine our lives, the happiness of the Republic, and the glory of Colombia. If dire circumstances should cause you to abandon it, there will be no health for the country, and you will drown in the ocean of anarchy, leaving as your children’s legacy nothing but crime, blood, and death.
Fellow Countrymen! Hear my final plea as I end my political career; in the name of Colombia I ask you, beg you, to remain united, lest you become the assassins of the country and your own executioners.”
Alas, what he most greatly feared and continued to warn about until his dying day later the same year at the age of 47, came graphically, horribly true.
For an intensely dramatic re-telling of Simon Bolivar’s life see Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780224030830&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used).
It is the past that will continue to consume me as I write these pieces, and the length of each one seems to grow longer and longer. This has more to do with the vast interest of every place on earth, it seems, than with whatever point the author had preconceived was what he wished to express. Colombia, for its part, having a national hero as iconic as Simon Bolivar
(the last picture is in Central Park in New York City, emphasizing the truly international influence of this great man of history) is a great honor to write about.
The next fifty years or so in Colombia devolved into what so much of America on both sides of the Equator would soon become: a bitter partisan battle between self-named Liberals and self-named Conservatives, each attempting to hi-jack the glory of former leaders’ names to their own cause, muddling history into opposing versions of increasingly vague and revised facts. This is the phenomenon that makes so much historical writing elusive, biased and inaccurate. This is the mindset that has destroyed the very idea of ‘truth’ and transformed it into a buzzword used to justify differing opinions.
Colombia’s experiment with Democracy went about as successfully as any other nation attempting public rule, eventually descending into civil wars followed by repeatedly overthrown military coups. In 1899 the “Thousand Days War” erupted over the opposing parties’ ideas on the construction of the Panama Canal.
The reasons behind this act of barbarity are actually quite easy to comprehend. See, each party, left and right, had radicalized into absolutist tyrannies. With us or against us. The young had been being trained since the 1880s in these new political religions, and the inside manipulations of both the Catholic Church and the burgeoning socialist movements wound up using Central and South America–and the Panama Canal itself–as the testing ground for what would build in later years into World Wars I & II. The death toll over these “thousand days” was well in excess of 100,000.
Things would get much, much worse after the Second World War, a time in Columbia known as “La Violencia” (how many other nations have an era specifically referred to as “The Violence”?)
These years, more than thirty of them, were marked by an absolute collapse of Bolivar’s ideas of freedom, overtaken by the same greed and power hunger that has consumed so much else that people once excluded from their lives as the provisions of hope.
In 1948 the then most popular liberal candidate for President, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan,
the former mayor of Bogota, as well as Education Minister and Labor Party Leader–and also a Communist, although one who publicly repudiated guerrilla tactics and shouted charmingly for peace –was assassinated. Immediately following this, with unrest overflowing into the streets and conspiracy theories afoot about the death of the man who would have become the next president, riots exploded. Called “Bogotazo,” these destroyed most of downtown Bogota, and it has yet to be fully repaired to this day.
Over the next ten years, the nation in utter chaos, more than 200,000 people were killed by opposing military forces, anarchists, and the organized crime operations that rapidly emerged in a nation with no discernible laws.
In 1957 an ambitious effort at peace was suggested by two former Presidents, the Conservative Laureano Gomez
and Liberal Alberto Lleras
who attempted a unified “National Front” between the two parties, including a sixteen year plan of alternating the government between Conservative and Liberal every four years, giving each side an opportunity to put into place their most important proposals for the development and improvement of society. Want to guess how this went?
Think about the cutthroat nature of political partisanship–not just today, in this easily distracted era, but at any time when such thoughts of controlling civilization have started wars. When one side is in charge, the other side does not seek improvement or consensus. No, they always seem to be at war with one another–a war over ideas, and the minority’s childish need to undermine every effort, to debase public confidence and trust, and then to somehow believe that once they regain the majority that society will somehow fall into line with their opposition and embrace the conniving, manipulative methods they used to retake the government. And yet what is ultimately done is the imposition of a total loss of faith in civilization itself, leading us to the Colombia we have all heard about today:
There are years and years of revolutions and counter-revolutions we could go over, as well as indigenous terrorist organizations that have no interest in religious supremacy. Colombia is steeped in violence and crime, and this remains all that we from elsewhere seem to ever hear about. We could talk about their corrupt leaders and crooked military; we can discuss the slimy, backstabbing deals made with criminal empires by outside nations (including the United States, who has also helped engineer past coup attempts), as well as the selfish radicalism of business people who are more than willing to cripple the nation if it means a higher interest rate for their off-shore bank accounts. We can go on and on and on and on (and on some more, even) about all this horrible nastiness and tragedy and we could still find new avenues to explore. But this seems to be all that I write about when looking to discover life in someplace other than what I know. And so, for Colombia, I would like to do my best to end on a high note, not one appealing, necessarily, to the tourists who flock to the land thinking about Scarface and Breaking Bad. I want to acknowledge the genuine decency of so many people in this fraught nation.
For all of the terrible events throughout this grand nation’s past, there is still so much joy to be found. These are wonderful people (other than those, I suppose, who simply are not.) And the rumors and reputation of Colombia are mostly unfounded. Remember this, finally, as western politics continues to overwhelm all perceptions, and eastern politics sullies it even further by imposing doubt upon doubt–remember one last thing before I go, to continue reading about Brazil, another vast and complicated nation (expect that piece in about two days). There is a gang of criminals that has become a hot button buzz term in the United States under the presumption of the currently ruling administration. It is these guys mythologized under the term ‘MS-13.’
The pictures above, of course, are staged. You can see the guys under arrest. You can see the guns lined up and placed for an image of maximum exposure. The guy in the middle, the central figure, apparently, is the scariest looking person here. But what does this really tell you about these thugs?
MS-13 is not a Mexican gang. They are not even a particularly wide-spread threat. They are not hovering around the US borders (and only enter Mexico on business, some of which is, admittedly, attempted recruitment in the poorest neighborhoods). But MS-13 is really a Colombian gang:
Do you see these guys? Notice anything in common with the earlier photos? Yes. They are failures. They are no different than any other street gang in poor, oppressed regions, where crime pays much better than unemployed homelessness. And without the influence of fathers and mothers for many of these individuals, of course they have no guidance, and will instantly adapt to any crude form of family life a gang such as this might offer. But for all the creepy images propagandists can find:
the fact remains that none of this is based in reality. MS-13 is simply a group of criminals, like any other place in the world. They are not an organized army. They are not even much of a threat, to speak of, but merely violent children lashing out against a world that has proven time and again that it cares nothing for them. Here is MS-13, in the real world. This is all they can expect. It is not about a war on drugs, or the fight against terrorism, or anything so grand and presumably noble. This is all they are:
Thank you for your clarity, Colombia.