Love and Death in Colombia (My Story – Part IV)

(8 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Note:  I know, I know.  I haven’t published Part III yet and here comes Part IV.  Well what can I say?  I have an unruly mind and it won’t always go where I tell it to – sometimes it just goes where it will.  In this case it skipped straight to Part IV.  I’ll go back and do Part III later.  Probably.

“The mind is a monkey.” ~ Old Chinese saying

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For those who missed them, Part I can be found here and Part II here.

Having been chased out of Montgomery by hitmen, I found myself back in my hometown of Huntsville running a small karate school and going to school at the University of Alabama in Huntsville studying English and Art.  Heh – I was even vice president of the UAH chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the English Honor Society.  I was also an instructor in the UAH karate program.  Life was good…but maybe just a tad boring.

I could never make any money at karate.  My students always became my friends.  I could never see them as customers.  I charged a modest monthly fee paid on an ad hoc good faith basis.  I didn’t have the heart, or lack thereof, to go for the money.  I lacked the entrepreneurial spirit to package and hustle karate plans by contract as if they were used cars…so I limped along living an honest but spare existence.  Not mocking entrepreneurs, just confessing that I never had a gift for it.  I think, like many artists, I suffer from Mark Twain syndrome – I feel like I should be really good at business (perhaps because I can imagine success so vividly), but I’m really, really not.

Poor business man though I was, I had the convict’s advantage of seeing society as an outsider, which I paid for by not being able to find a job in any of the usual ways.  A six-and-a-half year gap in one’s resume requires more explaining than I’m inclined to do on most days.

Anyway, as an outsider it was clear to me what a cheap con job modern American life had become.  That ‘plastic’ existence we had rebelled against in the 60s had taken hold with a vengeance, overgrowing everything like some kind of soul-sucking fungus.  American citizens had given up much of what is real in exchange for cheap plastic goods and cable TV – settling for the illusion of a meaningful existence rather than the real thing, with everyone happily pretending that this patently unsustainable existence could go on forever and ever – and never, ever, ever would the chickens come home to roost nor the piper need to be paid, and the great karmic wheel would not eventually crush us all.  Everyone pretended together.  All so the filthy rich could stay dirty.  Correction, all so the filthy rich could get dirtier.

One consequence was that it had become much more expensive to live…I mean much more.  When I got locked up in ’71, one hippie with a job could support a small commune.  When I got out in ’78, we were well on our way of everybody working desperately for diminishing returns.  When the Nixonites crushed the hippies (with the help of the ‘silent majority’ who could not have made a worse choice for America), this was the path they paved.  (Historical Note:  The Nixonites morphed into the Reaganites who morphed into the neocons – so quit blaming the hippies damn it!  The only thing the hippies can be blamed for is not doing enough to stop it – the same thing we can all be blamed for today.)

I’d about had a bellyful of it all when an opportunity to travel to Colombia happened to come my way.  One of my students was a high school teacher and, as she explained to me, the city of Huntsville and the city of Barranquilla, Colombia were ‘sister cities’ and had an arrangement for exchanging teachers.  If she wanted to go spend a year in Colombia all she had to do was raise her hand and say, “me, me, me!”

I advised her to go for it.  She wanted to know if I’d come visit if she did.  I told her I absolutely would.  It occurred to me immediately that a guy with a taste for adventure and the ability to get along with outlaws could possibly make a buck or two way down yonder in the land of hoochie.  Barranquilla looked to be about 30 miles from Santa Marta, the unofficial capitol of the Colombian drug trade.

“To live outside the law, you must be honest.”

Bob Dylan in Absolutely Sweet Marie

A few words about drugs and the law.

Those of you who read Part I – Words Are Like Poison know that between the ages of 17 and 19 I was addicted to heroin.  I was so shocked by where that path led that I gave up narcotics for good.  Drugs were available in prison but I avoided them.  I smoked pot one time but it made me so paranoid that I had no desire to do it again.  I found the trick in prison was to be just paranoid enough…and while paranoia is your friend, anything more than the bare minimum was self-destructive and a waste of psychic energy…not to mention downright unpleasant considering that the bare minimum was something just shy of outright terror.  

There’s a line in the movie, Let’s Go To Prison where John Lyshitski, the narrator, is explaining what it’s like to be in prison.  Paraphrased…

“You know that feeling when a cop pulls up behind you and pops his bluelight?  Well imagine feeling like that all the time and you’ll have some idea of what it’s like to be in prison.”

The movie’s hilarious BTW – much funnier than real prison, but with a familiar bite.  Somebody on that writing team did hard time.

Let’s Go To Prison – Trailer

Coming back to Draper prison in Elmore, Alabama where I had been locked up and clean for a year or more when a friend approached me as I lay on my bunk one day.  He told me he had enough dilaudid (the pharmaceutical equivalent of heroin) for us both if I was interested.  He was offering it to me for free.  I still remember how my heart leapt in my chest upon hearing it.  I declined, but the episode impressed me with how deeply I was still connected to my old addiction.

I eventually helped start the first drug treatment program in Alabama prisons.  We enlisted outside help and even had a loose partnership with Phoenix House in NYC whose therapeutic community program we used as a model.  Several of their people came down and spent time with us running encounter groups and teaching us how to do it.  It was very intense and I was involved in it for several years.

All during this time I was drug-free (as they say)…with the exception of caffeine, tobacco, aspirin, etc.  That’s the only way to kick an addiction – to just push away from it all.  Some remain sober for the rest of their lives, never taking a drink, a pill or a puff (more power to them), and for some it is the only way that works.

It didn’t take long for me once I got out of prison to decide that a life of total sobriety was, in the final analysis, too much like punishment.  And I eventually came to friendly terms with the most benign psychoactive substance I know – cannabis.

When I first got out I found that virtually everyone used some kind of drug.  They either drank, smoked or snorted coke…or all three – and these were lawyers, business folk and politicians…and a good many honest citizens too.  I drank a bit at first but was wary of alcohol, as I had seen the destruction it can wreak.  On the addictive scale it’s right up there with heroin, maybe not as powerfully seductive but more or less equally destructive, at least potentially…maybe even more so in some ways.  

I snorted the odd line of coke every now and again to be social (late 70s, early 80s) but always thought it was an unappealing drug.  Pot was the only intoxicant I could feel good about not dragging me back down into addiction – and I liked that, unlike alcohol, it sensitized me and opened me up instead of numbing me…not that there’s anything wrong with a little numbness now and then.

Now pot’s not for everyone, people who are happy sober should remain so and people prone to schizophrenia should avoid it, but for some people it’s a godsend.  It is a fine medicine and has the quality of curing what ails you.    What it doesn’t cure it makes easier to live with.  It is pure magic on arthritis and fibromyalgia, among other things, and for some it is the only thing that makes their lives bearable.

So again, I don’t recommend that people use pot, it’s a bad idea for some but for most it is benign and for many it is a small miracle.  I am in the latter group…especially as I grow older.  For me it is the ultimate relaxant and a highly effective pain reliever.  The accumulated aches and pains from aging and a lifetime of hard living would be unbearable without it.  Sure I could go to the doctor and get a prescription for narcotics that would mess me up 40 different ways, or I can smoke something like a blue magic strain that will give me a nice high and then relax me, easing me on down the road.  

(Of course this is all purely theoretical, what with cannabis being agin’ the law and all.)

Cannabis also makes people peaceful and stimulates thoughtfulness and creativity and so I am disinclined to see anything at all wrong with it – except perhaps in the case of those too immature or too mentally unstable to benefit from it.  I sometimes think that if more people smoked pot, the more peaceful the world would be.  Ask any cop who they’d most like to raid, a house full of drunks or a house full of potheads?  They will tell you right quick, the potheads – the heads won’t harm you but the drunks might well kill you.  Pot makes people peaceful, and that’s a good thing.

Which brings us to the law.  I guess I have to say I have an outlaw’s sensibility.  I love and honor justice and I respect laws that are just.  I prefer poisonous reptiles to unjust laws though…and so many of them are.

For instance, the law that said I could not bring a plane or boatload of some benign substance from say Colombia, to say the USA for profit struck me as the sort of law the breaking of which would harm no one.  I didn’t have a plan to do so…but I suppose you could say that I was open to the possibilities.  I was certainly curious about actividad numero uno en Colombia.

When in the early 1970s the United States tightened up drug enforcement along the United States-Mexican border and the Mexican state launched a major drive against its domestic producers, the epicenter of marijuana production in the hemisphere rapidly shifted to Colombia, especially to the Guajira Peninsula and the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. By the end of the decade, Colombia accounted for about 70 percent of the marijuana reaching the United States from abroad. Between 30,000 and 50,000 small farmers along Colombia’s Caribbean coast came to depend directly on marijuana cultivation for their livelihood, while at least another 50,000 Colombians–including seasonal pickers, transporters, guards, and bankers–made a living from it.

The trade proved to be an important source of new wealth for the Caribbean coast, providing the population with income, comforts, and a degree of economic stability that they had never before enjoyed. The Caribbean port cities of Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Riohacha, in particular, experienced unprecedented prosperity.

Source

The downside of course was the violence that came with the drug traffic, which was much more associated with the cocaine traffic.  There was a saying in Colombia, maybe here in Tennessee too, I don’t know, that the marijuana business was conducted with a handshake while cocaine business was conducted with a gun.  There’s a lot of truth to that.  There’s more money in coke.

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It is important to note that the violence is not caused by anything other than the illegal status of the business.  Without that it would be like any other business – just the usual thievery.  

So to summarize my thoughts, I don’t believe drugs are harmless, but they are all different and some are more harmful than others – but they are all far less harmful than drug laws and the catastrophic drug war that has been an unmitigated tragedy for countries around the world.  No one should be in prison for drugs.

I believe we are extremely hypocritical about drugs.  We all use them in some fashion – people always have and likely always will.  We share a powerful drive to make ourselves feel better and to alter our consciousness, it’s human nature.  The fact that a doctor writes a prescription doesn’t change the property of a drug, it just says that some officially smart guy said you should use this drug.  But if I smoke a joint from time to time so that I don’t lose my mind, that is wrong and should be punishable by law.  It’s crazy.

Our courts and our prisons are jammed with people whose only fault is a compulsion to alter their consciousness in unapproved ways.  Reacting as if they were heinous criminals is nothing less than madness and it’s high time we quit it.

So I believe in harm reduction and treating drugs as a health issue, not a criminal or legal matter.  The strongest and best weapon we have to deal with any legitimate problems caused by drugs is education.  We need to emphasize education and stop throwing people in jail. And we need to provide counseling and treatment on demand.  Those things combined would actually do some good…for a damned change.

Take my case for example, if harsh penalties including the prospect of multiple years in cruel and horrible dungeons wouldn’t prevent me from trying heroin, what could have?  The answer is knowledge.  Knowledge I could trust.  As it was, I had been told it was bad – but I couldn’t trust my source. They said pot was just as bad.

We should stop drinking the Kool-Aid and buying into the anti-drug hysteria.  We too easily allow ourselves to be manipulated by cynical, greed-driven, selfish bastards who know no shame, observe no limits and who care for no one but themselves – conservatives in other words.  The whole misbegotten ‘drug war’ is just another dirty trick on the rest of us – just a big-assed bogus excuse to be ‘war profiteers’ in ‘the homeland’ and a chance for the big boys to profit from the fact that certain very popular drugs are forbidden.  And when I say big boys, I mean CIA and their ilk – the real power behind the American drug trade.  Enough!  We need to start acting sensibly, and we should begin by repealing prohibition, putting the crooks (and the CIA) out of business and implementing harm-reduction policies stressing education and treatment.

Back to the action.

As my journey to Colombia approached, I found myself thinking of Joe Kennedy and the unexpected twists and turns of outrageous fortune.

Glenn Frey – Smuggler’s Blues

I flew from Huntsville to Miami to connect for my flight to Barranquilla.  On the flight down I boned up on my destination.  I learned that Columbia has been locked in a bitter civil war since 1948.  Our government, of course, was and still is on the wrong side.  We’re quite brilliant that way.  I defy you to show me a civil war we can’t get on the wrong side of.  We need to turn this stupid country around – and I don’t mean Colombia.

History of Colombian Civil War/Internal Conflict

Map-of-NE-Colombia

On the map, Northeastern Colombia looks like an inverted turkey drumstick.  In the above illustration, I’ve floated an enlarged chunk of the NE part of the country over the larger map to provide better detail for where this story takes place.  You’ll notice four historic cities running SW to NE: Cartagena, known for pirates and its involvement in the cocaine trade; Barranquilla, Colombia’s first port city where I lived and which is also associated with the drug trade; Santa Marta, the oldest city in South America notorious for the ‘Santa Marta gold’ that is grown in the nearby mountains but involved in the coke trade as well; and Riohacha, which sits on the infamous Guajira peninsula, transshipment point for anything and everything to points unknown.

My teacher friend met me at the airport with one of her two roommates and we rode a cab back to their place, my new home away from home.

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Calle Sequenta, Carrera Noventa – this is what I had to tell cabbies to be brought back home from wherever I roamed in my explorations.  While my teacher friends attended to their duties each weekday, I’d range far and wide experiencing, observing and absorbing the flavor and spirit of Colombia.  

On one of my excursions I found myself wandering down a street in a working-class neighborhood.  I had stopped into an outdoor café and ordered a bite to eat.  As I waited for my order to be filled a large group of young girls in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms came in and took up seats all around me.  They were obviously talking about me though it was mostly unintelligible to me.  I grew increasingly uncomfortable as my order came, some of them were openly flirting with me by then.  I wolfed down my snack and beat the hell out of there walking as fast as I could.  I could just picture trying to explain with my primitive Spanish that I had no interest in young Colombian schoolgirls to some irate parental type.

At one point I stopped to try and get my bearings and noticed that there was revolutionary graffiti everywhere I looked.

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Once again I had a flash of how hard some things can be to explain without a proper grasp of the language…but I wandered unmolested and without incident finding my way safely back home.

Our apartment was a subdivided portion of a much larger Spanish style hacienda right on the corner of 50th Street and 90th Avenue (not a direct translation).   It had shutters instead of windows so that in the evenings and mornings the offshore breeze could blow through the house cooling things down to almost bearable…for a time.  When the sun got up good it seemed to kill the breeze, so when you needed it most you were out of luck and one simply baked through the day.  The breeze was always nice though, while it lasted.  

I got the impression that we were something of a neighborhood scandal, one unmarried gringo living with three gringas in heavily Catholic and somewhat prudish Colombia.  Ai Caramba!

My friends taught at a school referred to as the American school, the primary purpose of which was to prepare privileged Colombian children for academic success in the US colleges for which they were bound.  The school officials and the students’ parents were very deferential to visiting teachers.  One of the privileges extended was swimming rights at the luxury El Prado Hotel.  It was there that we met British expat Michael and his Colombian wife, Mercedes who recommended a visit to Rodadero, a beachside resort town to the Northeast.  Consulting a map, I saw that Rodadero was very close to a place on my personal list, the infamous Santa Marta.  We made plans for a weekend trip.

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So the weekend arrived for our trip to Rodadero.  We rode a bus to the train station where we waded into the chaos and confusion that was SOP at that important and always-crowded transportation hub.  After getting the run around at several different windows, we were approached by a cabbie who explained that he was from Rodadero and looking for fares so his journey home could be profitable.  He offered to take us for what it would cost for the train and convinced us without much difficulty that we’d be much more comfortable that way.

And so we piled into the cab, the three women in back, me up front with the driver, and we were off.  Or we were until we reached the outskirts of town where we were forced to stop at a military checkpoint.  We were ordered brusquely out of the car.  I was marched separately away and into an adobe building.

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One of the soldiers ordered me to take my shirt off.  I just looked at him like WTF?  He jabbed me viciously in the stomach with the barrel of his machinegun.  I unbuttoned and removed my shirt.  I don’t have to be told thrice.  He ordered me to take my pants off.  I started to do so as I was feeling particularly agreeable at that moment, but the cabbie hurried over deftly passing out highly folded peso notes surreptitiously to the soldiers who gestured for me to put my clothes back on.  I quickly complied and we were out of there.

Our Spanish-speaking member asked the cabbie what the police/soldiers (the distinction blurs in Colombia) were looking for.  He grinned and said quietly and simply “coca-eena,” which is the sound of cocaine en espanol.

He explained, as we resumed our journey, that the police had hoped to find coke on us so they could demand bribes for our release.  He was also eager for us to understand that we’d have to repay him for the bribes, or regalos (little gifts, which is perhaps a nicer way of thinking of it) he’d handed out on our behalf, around 15 dollars or so as I recall.  We assured him we’d tack it onto the bill.

The road to Rodadero hugged the coast and ran through some wild and desolate country, ocean on one side, jungle on the other.  For long stretches, the only observable life was that of the fishing eagles.  At one point we were mesmerized by a long-running view of a majestic pair of twin waterspouts that danced for us just offshore.  

After a long while we came upon a fishing village in a place where the road ran between the ocean and some sort of inland sea.  Pueblo Viejo, or Old Town, consisted of a long row of bare wood one-story shacks built on land so flat and low they appeared to be in imminent danger of flooding.  The shacks were on our right paralleling the road and looking back over it at the beach, where small fishing boats lay belly up, and the rolling waves of the Caribbean ocean beyond.  

The cabbie suggested we stop for refreshments and pulled up in front of a particular shack where he got out and knocked on a piece of plywood which was raised from inside to reveal a window where orders could be taken.  He huddled in conversation with the guy who had raised the plywood flap.

Some curious onlookers had emerged a few buildings down from where we awaited our refreshments.  One guy stood out from the crowd.  He was short, dark, well-coiffed, elegantly dressed and dripping in gold jewelry.  He wore dark wraparound sunglasses and looked like some sort of misplaced Latin disco king.  He was also obviously flirting with my female companions.  I flashed a friendly grin.  He gave a just perceptible nod of acknowledgement.  About then our driver returned with cold bottles of beer for all and with a final nod to disco-man we hit the road for Rodadero.

Steep mountains loomed in the distance as we approached our destination.  Once in Rodadero we scored a hotel room, a large brown paper sack full of pot and a connection to the drug trade all in rapid succession.

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In Part V, I will write about the reemergence of disco-man, meeting the Cuban connection, meeting the head honcho, my trip into the mountains to see a marijuana farm, and the sordid and twisted tale of fifteen thousand pounds of Santa Marta Gold.

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(To be continued…)

Peace Out!

OPOL

32 comments

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    • OPOL on October 15, 2008 at 10:30 pm
      Author

    And viva Colombia!

  1. I have two family members (father and cousin) who married Columbian women. At completely different times, to women from different class positions, but from roughly the same area. Don’t know the karmic connection there.

    Am enjoying your story  so far which seems to be a combination Boy’s Own Adventure series/personal memoir/philosophy manual.

    • Valtin on October 16, 2008 at 12:25 am

    I’ll have to print out, as it’s hard for me to read long pieces on the screen.

    I really liked the parts on drugs and this society. The anti-drug laws are so irrational as to defy reason (if that makes any sense).

  2. Gabriel Garcia Marquez makes a cameo?  Or is that in the next part?

    I’m really enjoying this.  Keep it coming, ok bro?

    • RiaD on October 16, 2008 at 12:38 am

    ♥~

    • Edger on October 16, 2008 at 2:58 am

    That ‘plastic’ existence we had rebelled against in the 60s had taken hold with a vengeance, overgrowing everything like some kind of soul-sucking fungus.  American citizens had given up much of what is real in exchange for cheap plastic goods and cable TV – settling for the illusion of a meaningful existence rather than the real thing, with everyone happily pretending that this patently unsustainable existence could go on forever and ever – and never, ever, ever would the chickens come home to roost nor the piper need to be paid, and the great karmic wheel would not eventually crush us all.  Everyone pretended together.

    Probably the best description of life in the amusement park that I think I’ve ever seen.

    And thanks for being you…

    • Robyn on October 16, 2008 at 3:27 am

    …and coming back for III later occurs when you discover that III is indeed two or more parts in and of itself.

    Trust me on this.

  3. This is great!  I want to have adventures, too.  Duffle bag is packed.  Walking to the door.  Hitting the road.  Whoops, my knee gave out.  

    To be twenty again.  Or forty.

  4. …This is great.  Now I can go to V.  Thanks OPOL!!!

    Love how you pull up the idiocy of the US status destructus.

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