New Internationalist

Half truths and lies

Web exclusive

There’s more to Colombia than the dark descriptions beloved of the international media. Benjamin Ball meets a man determined that his country should get the credit it deserves.

Benjamin Ball
Jericó, Colombia. Benjamin Ball

The old Land Cruiser descends slowly in second gear. The paved, serpentine road clutches perilously to the bulbous green mountains, and Samuel, looking at me from the driver’s seat, says journalists must tell the world about the many good things in Colombia.

‘If a speck of ink falls on a clean sheet of paper, people don’t see white paper; they see a stain,’ he says.

Samuel is a straight talking 68 year old who is comfortably well off without being ostentatious. Together with his wife, Luz Marina, he is my travelling companion and guide as we travel from their home in Medellín to the beautifully kept town of Jericó, three hours drive away.

‘If a speck of ink falls on a clean sheet of paper, people don’t see white paper; they see a stain’

Samuel ruminates on the misrepresentation of Colombia in the international press. It is a simplification, he says, a half-truth that accentuates thorns without digging up roots.

In animated Spanish, Samuel recounts a dinner conversation in Madrid, which began when a woman asked Luz Marina where she was from.

‘Ah, we don’t like Colombians here. Too many drug traffickers,’ said the woman.

Samuel turned and filled the small room with his response:

‘You, madam, are displaying your ignorance. The only reason there are drugs in Colombia is because people in countries like Spain are willing to pay such exorbitant prices for a buzz.’

The woman’s husband intervened and Samuel asked him, in a calmer tone, what he did for a living. A banker.

‘What happens to a bank if all its customers decide to withdraw their money?’ Samuel asked.

‘The bank closes.’

‘Correct. If foreigners stopped buying cocaine from Colombia, there would be no more cocaine.

‘And another question: how many Spaniards have died fighting to stop drug trafficking? In Colombia, the list of people who have been killed for speaking out, or acting against the interests of drug lords, fills a book thicker than Don Quixote, so please forgive me if I lose my temper, but you must understand that their blood belongs to Spain as much at it does to Colombia.’

Drugs and kangaroos

Our car continues its descent and we wind down our windows and take off our jumpers. The warm air smells green; a combination of cascading streams, turned earth, flowers, and mountains of wet grass and thick forest. The horizon is high above our heads. Occasionally the smoke of a passing diesel truck transforms the air from green to black. Mounds of coal beside the road add to the effect.

The drug trade has infiltrated every sector of Colombian society, even though the majority of Colombians do not grow coca or consume cocaine

In the valley below is a town where, last week, 72 coal miners were killed when a gas leak caused an explosion two kilometres below the grass and flowers. Colombia is the world’s third largest exporter of coal, after Australia and South Africa. It is also home to 90 per cent of the world’s emeralds, and more species of orchid, lizards, birds and palm trees than any other country. Over half the cut flowers sold in the United States are grown in Colombia, but even the sum of all these resources, plus abundant gold, silver, platinum, sugar, fruit, palm oil, petroleum, textiles and coffee, cannot match the clandestine commerce of Colombia’s biggest export.

Cocaine was first produced here in the late 1970s. In the 30 years since its inception, the drug trade has infiltrated every sector of Colombian society, even though the majority of Colombians do not grow coca or consume cocaine. Many people in Australia are astonished when I tell them that, in the two years I have spent living, travelling and working in Colombia since my first visit in 2003, I have never seen or been offered cocaine.

Cocaine did not cause Colombia’s problems or armed conflict, which has its roots in radically unequal land ownership and a historical vacuum in political representation

In Colombia, people are disappointed when I tell them I don’t own a pet kangaroo.

Of course, if a tourist looks for cocaine it quickly appears. It’s a disappointing fact that cheap drugs and cheaper sex attract many travellers to Colombia, and although I haven’t seen the white powder, it is impossible for a curious visitor to avoid seeing its insidious effects.

A historical vacuum

Ten days before the mining explosion, seven children in Castillo, a poor suburb of Medellín, were gunned down and killed while playing soccer in a park. The youngest was seven years old; the oldest was 12. Young men from a neighbouring suburb killed the children so they wouldn’t become ‘soldiers’ in a rival gang. On the Medellín Metro I overhear women describing a gunfight in their suburb that occurred the previous night.

‘It wasn’t much,’ said a woman nursing her infant daughter. ‘It only lasted 15 minutes.’

Killings are a normalized part of life in poor, urban areas, and city slums are the fastest growing Colombian habitat. Ten per cent of the population – 4.5 million people – has been violently displaced from rural lands in the last 20 years, mostly peasant farmers and indigenous communities who are uprooted from relative wealth to face absolute precariousness.

The town’s extraordinary location seems an allegory for the resilience, ingenuity and joy that Colombians summon in the face of hardship

Cocaine did not cause these problems, or Colombia’s armed conflict, which has its roots in radically unequal land ownership and a historical vacuum in political representation. Rather, it fuelled existing tensions with a flood of dollars, guns and munitions, creating a culture of impunity that is impossible to police.

Benjamin Ball
Jericó, Colombia. Benjamin Ball

Of course, these are the shades of Colombia that Samuel is tired of seeing in the international press, and rightfully so, because the energy, generosity, pride, exuberance and hospitality of Colombia’s people are the memories that tourists are most likely to take with them from a visit to Colombia.

The moral of the story

We stop for delicious fruit juices and empanadas beside Colombia’s second largest river, the Cauca, where Samuel tells a story explaining why drug money exerts such irrepressible power.

Writing about Colombia’s problems is insufficient if the issues are not properly explained in an international context

A colonel of Colombia’s border police was put in charge of a notorious trafficking route in the Guajira region, on the Caribbean coast, says Samuel. He was a moral man who would not allow drugs to be trafficked through his post. Within a week of arriving in the town, the colonel received a visit from a man who put several thousand dollars on his desk, explaining that it was his commission for a shipment of drugs that would leave the local port that weekend. The colonel refused to take the money.

‘Look, I’m being nice,’ said the man. ‘The drugs will leave whether you take the money or not.’

The colonel was adamant. The next day he went to a local bar where he drank a beer and woke up several hours later with a bleeding head and his ears placed inside his shirt pockets. The colonel returned to Bogotá and another, more amenable police colonel was sent to the town.

Samuel’s words, like the fabric of many Colombian stories, are incongruous with the calm, overwhelming beauty of the landscape around us, and the good-humoured friendliness of the people we meet as we make our way through it.

An unselfconscious perfection

Our road follows the Cauca, where cascading trees provide a leafy tunnel, before we begin a 2,000 metre climb towards the peak of one of the imposing mountains that hem in the river valley. Towns in this region of Colombia are invariably found on the heights of ostensibly impenetrable peaks, and Jericó, situated above the clouds, is no exception.

The town is colourful, pristine, lively, and uniquely Colombian. Its unselfconscious perfection feels like the set of a period film, and its extraordinary location seems an allegory for the resilience, ingenuity and joy that Colombians summon in the face of hardship. It is no coincidence that Colombia is the home of magical realism.

Hand-carved wooden windows, doors and balconies adorn the homes, and each has its own vivid colour scheme. I am not surprised to learn that a paint company sponsors the Jericó council and promotes local tourism.

Benjamin Ball
Jericó, Colombia. Benjamin Ball

Samuel’s ancestors were amongst the founders of Jericó, and his pride and joy in sharing this town with me is palpable. Over a typical lunch of beans, pork belly, avocado, chorizo and rice, I ask what good things in Colombia should be written about in the international press, and if it isn’t important to write about the many problems facing the country, too?

‘The people,’ says Luz Marina. ‘You need to write about the people.’

The worst of Colombia is unimaginably ugly, but it is not the fault of the Colombian people. The guns are not made here, and the drugs are consumed elsewhere

And Samuel adds that writing about Colombia’s problems is insufficient if the issues are not properly explained in an international context. Pointing fingers is easy, but it doesn’t help foreigners understand Colombia; it just makes Colombians misunderstood.

We stroll the cobblestone streets and speak with local people who greet us from their open windows. I’m invited inside a public building where I find a childcare centre. The children have already gone home, but the flowering pot plants, the small, mosaic swimming pond, and the brightly painted banisters and wooden play equipment all ripple with laughter and hope. The janitor tells me that the childcare workers and parents paid for all the decorations and play equipment, mostly by selling empanadas and sweets. His pride in the place that he cleans each day is immense.

And this, I think, is Colombia at its beautiful best. This is the Colombia that Samuel wants to see in the international press. The worst of Colombia is unimaginably ugly, but it is not the fault of the Colombian people. The guns are not made here, and the drugs are consumed elsewhere.

As we return to Medellín, I tell Samuel that I’m not sure how to pitch a story about a colourful childcare centre in Jericó to New Internationalist, but I promise to give it a shot.

Benjamin Ball is a photo-journalist. His documentary on forced displacement in Colombia, The Uprooting, can be seen online: www.theuprooting.com

Comments on Half truths and lies

Leave your comment