Breakfast with the FARC : New Worlder

Even with an ever-improving system of roads it’s a six hour drive from Cali, Colombia to Parque Arquelogico Nacional Tieradentro (Tierradentro National Archaeological Park) where, since the 1930s, Latin America’s only examples of ancient cave tombs have been unearthed and preserved. Dozens of tombs, dating back 1,400 years, have been excavated and many have been opened up to visitors. Colombian tourism officials tout the area, in the Cauca department of Southern Colombia, as a tourist destination.

What they tend not to bring up is the fact that while Tierradentro and the surrounding villages have been considered safe in recent years, this region is dotted with “red zones”—areas where the Colombian government concedes that local FARC guerilla groups are in control. If you ask Google Maps to take you from Cali to Tierradentro it will route you straight through some of those red zones.

I ignored Google Maps and arrived in the town of San Andrés de Pisimbalá (which everyone simply calls San Andrés) at dusk, just in time for the no-seeums to begin prowling my ankles in search of dinner. I also arrived just in time for the news that the Tierradentro site had been closed by the government at 2 pm the previous day after four bombs with a total of 16 sticks of dynamite, were discovered buried at a shallow depth in the ground in front of the cinder block school in San Andrés.

Guerillas make their enduring presence felt

As peace talks between Colombian government officials and FARC representatives saunter into year four (they began in November of 2012), FARC guerillas are still making their enduring presence felt.

The confident, casual, almost blasé chatter in San Andrés was that “the illegals,” as guerrillas are often called, had planted the bombs in the dead of night.

The confident, casual, almost blasé chatter in San Andrés was that “the illegals,” as guerrillas are often called, had planted the bombs in the dead of night. The four bombs were reportedly wired together and armed with a remote detonation device. Presumably, there was a guerrilla somewhere within eyeshot just waiting for soldiers to congregate around the bombs before pushing the button. After more than 50 years of conflict with the FARC and various other guerilla groups, however, the Colombian military is familiar with tactics like this and they did not take the bait. Instead, soldiers fanned out into the hills around San Andrés to flush the guerrillas far enough away to render any detonation device useless.

In San Andrés no one ever says the word FARC, the acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. However, it’s presumed that that’s who the guerrillas, rumored to be 300 strong in the region, are affiliated with. Eva, the charming local woman who runs La Portada Hotel and Restaurant, the only game in town for visitors to San Andrés, told me that five years ago guerrilla activity and violence were common around the town, which is little more than a collection of dusty streets, a handful of ill-stocked tiendas and a mission medical center.

There is no internet and no ATM. There used to be a noteworthy adobe church with an unusual thatch roof that was built by the Spanish in the 1700s, but that was burned down, I was told, by disgruntled members of the local Páez (or Nasa) indigenous group who piled up the split bamboo pews and lit a match during Semana Santa holy week Easter celebrations in 2013. Some locals think disgruntled indigenous people may be aiding and abetting guerrillas in actions like the bombs which were planted.


A year of peace, shattered

Apart from the burning of the church, Eva told me that San Andrés had been peaceful for the past year. Now residents seemed to be waiting to see how the military would respond to this fresh guerrilla gauntlet beyond just closing a nearby tourist attraction.

I was annoyed by the closing of the Tierradentro archaeological site for a number of reasons. The site is a highlight in the country and I’d saved it for last as I headed south to Ecuador. So far, more than 100 tombs have been discovered at Tierradentro, each one scooped out of rock creating grottos up to 30 feet deep. In some you can still see geometric red and black wall paintings and figures carved into pillars that support domed ceilings. The oldest tombs may date from the seventh century A.D. In 1995 the area was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a “unique testimony to the everyday life, ritual and singular conception of burial space of a developed and stable society.”

The other reason, far more grave than my own disappointment, was the worried tone in Eva’s normally sing-song “Glenda the Good Witch” voice. The change in her demeanor brought on by this fresh FARC action was both saddening and alarming.

I went to sleep in San Andrés fearing I would not be able to see anything at Tierradentro. I awoke to the unexpected news that the Tierradentro site had been re-opened along with an equally unexpected warning from Eva that it would be far, far smarter to wait a day before visiting. I was puzzled by Eva’s stern, stubborn insistence. Then I noticed the soldiers posted in town. They had not been there the night before.

That’s when the first explosion happened

I sat down in the simple, open air La Portada restaurant, just a block from where some of the soldiers were positioned, and ordered breakfast. I needed coffee before deciding what to do. That’s when the first explosion happened. I assumed the soldiers were detonating one of the bombs from in front of the school, then it became clear that the noise had come from somewhere in the steep, rocky, jungle-and-banana-farm-covered hillsides that surround San Andrés. Eva practically dragged me by my ear as she hustled me into the protection of her enclosed kitchen like a mother hen. We picked at cold scrambled eggs in silence as Eva’s cell phone rang with calls from her children living elsewhere in Colombia. The news was out.

After peace talks between Colombian government officials and representatives of the FARC began in 2012 the two sides settled into a kind of wink-wink détente: the guerrillas kidnapped and killed fewer people but their leaders continued to make money as the drug lords they’d become. In 2014, The Latin Program at the Wilson Center estimated that the FARC had control over “several hundred thousand” coca growers in southern Colombia. Ties between the FARC and Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas had been uncovered and leaders of the guerilla group, which was originally formed on a platform of socialist ideals aimed at bettering the lives and prospects of Colombia’s poorest, were suspected of earning tens of millions of dollars a year as their slice of the pie for protecting jungle cocaine labs and securing safe passage for tons of cocaine headed north.

On the other side of the negotiating table, the détente allowed the Colombian government to make political hay by claiming credit for the decrease in violence in Colombia. A January 2015 report from InSight Crime, a foundation that studies threats to security in Latin America, predicted that Colombia was about to wrap up it’s most peaceful year in three decades and that’s been good for business, tourism and the legacy of outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos.

The two sides have had only spotty success with ceasefires and negotiations have continually snagged on the issue of who should and should not be subject to punishment for past crimes. Recently the two sides have resolved some of the thorniest issues and many believe a peace treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC is inevitable. Still, at press time, no official agreement had been reached.


Stuck in the middle

Following the initial explosion above San Andrés, gunfire rang out from the hillside west of the town toward the hillside south of town and then, of course, vice versa. As Eva poured more coffee she said “the illegals” were on the south hillside while soldiers occupied the west. As the soldiers stationed in town raised their automatic weapons and used their scopes to scan the facing hillside, Eva muttered “we are stuck in the middle.” She seemed to be tempted to add “again” but her good manners prevailed.

Eva said the “illegals” were on the south hillside while soldiers occupied the west and poured more coffee.

Sporadic exchanges of gunfire continued over the next few hours. A woman who lives in a small house across the street from La Portada sprinted over the dusty road to join us in the kitchen. She clutched her cell phone, sipped tea and upped the nervousness quotient in the room substantially.

Over time, even the neighbor woman calmed down a bit, perhaps remembering how this all-too-familiar drill goes: FARC members take action, military arrives, crackdown ensues and citizens get stuck in the middle. Again. In the midst of it all, an old man limped up the dirt road into town and made a beeline for a bench in front of the town’s concrete Cultural Center. This was clearly “his” bench and despite the fact that this morning it was surrounded by solders with weapons drawn he sat—oblivious, defiant or both.

Eva had become my danger litmus test and her growing calm was contagious. I could feel the whole atmosphere gradually relaxing until about 3:00 pm when a convoy of SUVs and small pickups traveled into town at breakneck speed. The vehicles flew around a corner and up the street that leads to the school, dust swirling behind them. I followed behind the new arrivals on foot along with most of the inhabitants of San Andrés, anxious to understand this fresh insurgency.

The spin begins

At the school, Gina Parody, the Minister of Education and an oft-mentioned possible Presidential candidate, got out of a vehicle looking like she’d just come from a GAP ad campaign shoot (fitted white shirt, printed capris, hot pink loafers with matching belt).

Parody, a few staff members, high ranking military officers and members of the media were soon surrounded by respectful but insistent teachers, students and other residents hoping to air their grievances about the impact of continued guerilla violence on their lives. Officers told local young men to put their shirts on and patted babies’ heads while keeping a keen eye on the VIPs in their care.

After 30 minutes of impassioned pleas from locals met with stony faced assurances from Parody, an officer boomed “one minute”. The question “one minute to what?” was soon answered by the sound of the extracted bombs being detonated in a valley nearby. Despite the soldiers’ pleas for the crowd not to worry, many residents grimaced at each explosion. The choreographed and dramatic media moment over, the politicos and their military detail left just as fast as they’d come as if the underlying problem had been destroyed along with the bombs.

By dinnertime the events of the day felt weirdly forgotten, like a play we’d all seen which would not be reviewed or discussed but would likely be repeated. The brightly-painted chiva bus which plies this route arrived in its usual cloud of dust and dropped off passengers. A lone guayacen amarilla tree in front of La Portada dropped its bright yellow blooms one by one like tears.

The next morning I was allowed to eat my breakfast in the dining room. Though I was glad this particular violent episode was over, I missed the camaraderie of the kitchen. Eva came out and told me that she felt it was safe to visit Tierradentro, then returned to her chores.