Almost two months ago now This American Life rebroadcast a show called “Held Hostage” that they had originally aired back in 2010. Per usual, the episode was made up of a number of “Acts” revolving around this theme of being held captive, and Ira Glass dove into the subject by beginning with a segment called “A Captive Audience” about a program on one of the principle  radio stations here in Colombia – Caracol Radio – that, every Saturday night from midnight to 6 a.m., broadcasts messages from the family and friends of kidnap victims in hopes that somewhere out in the vast jungles or plains of Colombia their friend or relative is alive and listening. It’s a really wonderful story (you can find a link to the entire This American Life episode at the bottom of this post) that manages to avoid the sweeping generalizations that typically characterize coverage of Colombia even today, but even so it is only a piece of the story, and in fact much has happened in the time since it was rebroadcast. So, leaving behind El Gringo for once, this is my own reaction to the story and an attempt to fill in what has been left out or what has happened since late February. A lot of the information that I have about kidnappings, the FARC, and the political situation in Colombia comes from reading or watching the news or talking with people who know more about these things than I do, but I was also lucky enough to be invited, as part of the contingent of US Fulbright grantees here in the country, to an informal political briefing at the US Embassy last month, where experts on these subjects spoke with surprising honesty and candor principally about the FARC, their impact, the problems they pose tp the Colombian government (and to the US government as well in its relatively long commitment to providing aid to Colombia), and the strategies the government and advisors from the US Embassy are using to combat their influence. One of the embassy workers told us that Colombia is without a doubt one of the most complex countries in the world, and while there’s no way I can wade through all of its complexities, after listening to the This American Life story I at least wanted to try to shed some light on a few of the forces at work.

Anyone who really knows something about Colombia will tell you that this country is in such a unique and complicated situation largely because it has something that disappeared from other nations around the world decades ago: a militant Marxist group that is still waging a war to overthrow the government. In other countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, you can find separatist militias or guerilla groups that distance themselves from the federal government in their respective countries by appealing to ethnicity, tribal ties, religion, or other markers of identity, but rebellious marxist groups – or other overtly political communist groups – generally died along with the Cold War. The FARC is one of the few, if not the only, exceptions. Their name stands for las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. They were founded in 1964, in the aftermath of an enormous wave of political violence between Liberals and Conservatives that I won’t even try to untangle, and they fashioned themselves as a militia that sought to promote communism and defend the rural, mostly agrarian, poor who unproportionally and undeservingly bore the brunt of the previous ten years of violence.

Given the startling inequalities in Latin America and the long history of exploitation, perpetrated by both external and internal actors (read Eduardo Galeano’s scathing but beautifully-written Open Veins of Latin America [Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina] for a primer), there’s always been a niche for groups with this sort of agenda, but most of them were either wiped out with the help of US money, planning, and/or military training at the School of the Americas or lost popularity. The FARC, however, survived by, among other things, taking advantage of Colombia’s impossible geography.

As they leave Ecuador and enter Colombia, the Andes split into three separate ranges that span most of the latitudinal length of the country: the Western Range, the Central Range, and the Eastern Range. (For reference, Bogotá, the nation’s capital, sits high in the Eastern Range.) The majority of the population in the interior of Colombia lives in the valleys between these ranges or in the area around and just to the north of Bogotá in the Eastern Range; a fair amount of the rest of the population is concentrated on the country’s Caribbean coast, which was host to some of Spain’s most important ports in the Americas. With its difficult terrain and lack of infrastructure, the Pacific coast is far less populated, apart from a smattering of relatively small port cities. The rest of the country – more than half of Colombia’s land – lies to east, where the Eastern Range drops off into vast plains and endless tangled jungles.

Colombia’s geography becomes relevant when you consider that less than 3% of the population of the country lives in the plains and the jungle – in that incredibly expansive area that comprises over half of the nation’s landmass – and that, because of the incredibly low population density as well and the challenges that the geography and sheer size of these regions present, few signs of the national government exist: people live in scattered municipalities that lack everything from hospitals and schools to electricity and roads. In essence, there is a void in these areas – a void that would usually be filled by the government, but which the FARC has exploited: in return for refuge and support, the FARC has historically moved into these municipalities and offered them the some type of benefits that they would receive from the government. Of course the FARC do not have the resources to recreate the sort of infrastructure that one would find in the more densely populated areas of the country, but they have shown an interest and invested in large swaths of the country that have historically been ignored by Colombia’s presidents and lawmakers because their sparse population means that any on-the-ground “victory” could never translate into political gains or meaning blocks of votes. (President Andrés Pastrana even went so far as to offer the FARC a safe haven in the demilitarized zone of San Vicente del Caguán from 1998 to 2002 in a rather explicit acknowledgement of the governments almost non-existent presence in these regions.)

That, then, is an incredibly brief look at the FARC’s rise and at the manner in which they goined a foothold in Colombia. Stayed tuned in the next few days for the second part of this story, where I’ll try my best to take a look at the FARC’s history of kidnappings and at eveything that has happened over the past couple of months. Unfortunately I can’t get that link I promised you to work, but I highly recommend that you head over to the This American Life website and check out the episode “Held Hostage”, which you can find and listen to for free in their online archive.


The morning after a rare snow storm at Laguna de la Plaza (altitude: 14,100 ft) in El Cocuy National Park.

Happy 85th Birthday to…

Gabriel García Márquez

Stargazing and sipping cactus wine in the pint-sized Desierto de Tatacoa (Tatacoa Desert).

Hiking through the desert's "grey zone".

A duck-shaped rock: sign of alien activity?

The area's tiny observatory. The desert is known for having the best stargazing in Colombia.

El Cuzco: the desert's "red zone".

The sun setting behind one of the desert's massive cacti.

As my memories of what El Gringo recounted to me over a month ago age and fade, I will try to wrap up the re-recounting of his Christmas break adventures. I don’t doubt that I will skip or misremember things – and I’ll choose to leave out his few days in the colonial port city of Cartagena – but I will do my best in describing what my friend told me was the most spectacular leg of his month-long journey: his week in La Guajira, the wild desert peninsula that juts into the Caribbean Sea at the top of the South American continent.

Pilón de Azucar

View of Pilón de Azucar (the Sugar Loaf) from the hilly cliffs north of Cabo.

Cabo de la Vela

…couldn’t wait to stand up after those two-and-a-half hours on washed-out dirt roads in the covered bed of a pickup, but I gotta tell you – it really was gorgeous: this deep-blue bay with perfectly white beaches stretching all up and down it. And we slept right there in a little open shack wrapped up in these amazing hammocks that the native Wayuu make. I even stayed there a night longer on my way back down while every else rushed back along the coast so I could do a little exploring. I planned to head to the little beach next to this hilly peninsula called Pilón de Azucar, but I took a little detour up some small mountains nearby and ended up spending the afternoon up there exploring the crazy rock formations and enjoying the absolutely unbelievable views of the ocean, of the town, of…

An aquamarine inlet at the top of South America.

Punta Gallinas: The End of a Continent

…cold beer couldn’t have tasted better after that 5-hour truck ride through the desert, this time on wooden benches in an open pickup bed on “roads” that were more like cattle paths – or up there goat paths. We even got a taste of the things – goats I mean, a nice local delicacy – when a family invited us to get down out of the truck and take part in the feast they were having before burying a great-aunt’s remains. Verdict: a little tough but not half bad, especially when you’ve been under the sun as long as we’d been. So of course the ocean couldn’t have felt better either – and couldn’t have been more beautiful: we tumbled down huge dunes onto a practically virgin beach with delicious waves, all of it surrounded by the orange rocks and cliffs of the desert. We really…

…time we went out in the truck we kicked up thousands of giant, strangely-marked flying grasshoppers on our way to wherever we were going: more beaches or the actual Punta Gallinas, which is the northern-most point of South America. There’s an abandoned concrete building there with some animal bones in it, then there’s the “faro” (lighthouse), which is really just some steel beams slapped together with a light on top. We watched an incredible sunset there, and with the colors and the desert and the abandoned building and the fact that there was no one else in sight besides a small herd of goats – and plenty of the monstrous grasshoppers – it felt a lot like the end of the world. So we…

Sunset in Palomino

Palomino: Jungle, Ocean, River, Mountain

…decided to take a quick nap after we got back from spending a good part of the day at this slanted rock face up in the jungly mountains covered in waterfalls and ice cold swimming holes. There was still a fair amount of light left when I woke up, so I got out of my hammock and decided to walk up the beach in a direction I hadn’t explored yet. The other way was gorgeous enough, and the river that came into the ocean there was absolutely perfect for swimming – and if you were lucky you could even look up and see the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada – so since I was leaving the next day I figured I should go down to where they told me there was another river that came out of the jungle that comes right up to the…

“I left my apartment this morning to pick up some fruit at a little produce store a few blocks away, and on my way I caught a glimpse of what looked to be a nasty scab on the forehead of an older man who rushed past me. I thought nothing of it until I passed another man with a smilar dark swath on his forehead. I was unsurprisingly quite surprised to pass two people in the space of a matter of minutes who looked like they had bashed their head on something not too long ago, but this is Bogotá, and I’ve certainly seen stranger things in my short time here.

“At this point I was just around the corner from my apartment and loaded down with a week’s worth oranges and bananas and strawberries and granadillas. And at this point I glanced across the street at a woman standing on the curb trying to wave down a taxi. And at this point I saw yet another black mark right in the middle of yet another stranger’s forehead, and as I stopped and stared, and as the black splotch came into focus, I realized what day it was: the day after the end of Carnaval (only the Carnaval celebrations in Rio rival those of Colombia’s Caribbean port city of Barranquilla), which I suddenly remembered was Ash Wednesday, and which meant that the black marks that I was beginning to see on the foreheads people all around me were in fact crosses.

“The Catholic Church doesn’t seem to have much of an obvious influence on daily life around here – at least on the daily lives of the Colombians I tend to pass my time with. But there’s no way to deny that the influence is there, and definitely that is has been there. I notice how people on the bus cross themselves whenever we go by a church or an altar. I saw the coverage of the enormous mass of people who gathered at the national cathedral in the middle of the city to view the two drops of Pope John Paul II’s blood that have been touring South America as furiously as an ’80s metal band. I hear how even the seemingly unreligious – who haven’t gone to church in decades – talk about God whenever things aren’t going their way. That’s just to say that there’s at least a drop – or two – of the Catholic church hanging around.

“But even knowing all that I just couldn’t get used to seeing black crosses on the foreheads of every 5th or 6th person that crossed my path – even students and professors at the university where I work. The land of Gabriel García Marquez indeed.”

Mangostinos (Purple Mangosteen)

The Low Down: These delicious fruits border on the mystical, in some parts of the world because of their countless rumored medicinal qualities and in others because they’re just about impossible to come by: until a few years ago there was a ban on importing them into the US because they can only be grown in certain tropical environments that also provide shelter to some nasty pests, and when they finally did make it to Yankee shores they were the things of four-star restaurants and people with plenty of disposable income, going for around $45 a pound, or about $10 for one plum-sized fruit – and there’s barely any meat in the thing at all. (Thankfully in Colombia, when they’re in season you can pick up a pound for about $2.50.) But once you crack open the thick purple outer skin – watch out for its staining red juice – you get to what people say is one of the most delicious fruits in the world. The juicy white “cloves” of fruit surrounding a central pit – usually hidden in the largest clove – must be what refined tasters call delicate: sweet (but not too sweet) and fragrant with a taste that could be said to be like a slightly tangy plum, but even that doesn’t do it justice.

For: those who think that eating the right fruit can make you immortal, Republican presidential candidates with disposable income, anyone who can scrounge up $10.

Not for: the un-delicate, those who think eating fruit for dessert is bogus, those who still use the phrase “freedom fries”.

El Gringo’s Verdict: Until they disappear off the streets and out of the markets as suddenly as they appeared at the beginning of the “season” a month or so ago, El Gringo’s fruitbasket will never be without these marvelous fruits.