June 6, 2011

More Terrible Than Death:
Drugs, Violence, and America's War in Colombia

This will be my first book recommendation on this blog, though I intend to do more in the future. The book is: More Terrible Than Death: Drugs, Violence, and America's War in Colombia by Robin Kirk.

This is the best best book I have read about Colombia yet. Discounting almanacs, textbooks and country specific encyclopedias, this is the third history book I have read on Colombia and it is by far the best. Robin Kirk is a human rights activist with long experience working in Colombia. She currently teaches at Duke University. You can read more about her as wella s find links to her website here:

and here

Don't be thrown off by the title, it isn't what you think. Kirk's focus only shifts to the US's role in the decades old Colombia conflict in the latter chapters of her book and the thing that is more terrible than death... it isn't what you may imagine at first. She opens the book by saying telling the reader that she has collected thousands of stories from victims of the violence in Colombia. She has produced thousands upon thousands of pages of official reports containing facts, figures and statistics. She tries to do neither here. She begins with a personal story of a Colombian friend and how his life became inextricably and brutally entangled in the conflict. She then pulls back and gives the reader an understand of the mechanics, the culture, the ritual of that circumstance. Then pulls back some more to explain how that culture came to be. Then again brings it to the personal level by telling the personal stories of the main characters in this decades old drama. As they evolve, as the conflict evolves, the stories build and overlap, touch and become one. She herself enters into the complex narrative midway through the book and some of the stories shift to the third person as we see her direct experience with paramilitary leaders, military officers, priests and victims of the conflict.

Her writing is crisp. It is full of imagery and she weaves the metaphors of Colombia into her book as if it were a myth. The specter of Communism is the basilisco (a fabeled dragon that was able to regenrate itself). The generations old blood fueds are "serpientes", coiling around each new son or daughter. The reader is held, spellbound, by her storytelling and lost in the personal dimension of the narrative. Names, dates and places are all here, but only to enrich the story of Colombia and lend context and greater understanding. In contrast with some of the other books (the most recent of them, Evolución del Conflicto Armado en Colombia e Iberoamérica) I have read, Kirk's writing never slows the reader down with facts or dates or figures because everything fits into a personal story and it is the people who matter, not the dates or the numerous acronyms.

Her depth of the knowledge is evident, her perspective tries earnestly to be neutral (to the extent that is possible) and her compassion for the victims of the conflict is powerful. Near the end of the book, as several of the narrative threads pulled tightly together, I was moved almost to tears, something I cannot recall being true for any other book in my memory. I read most of the book while riding buses through Bogotá or eating lunch in its many cafés and I couldn't help but to think of people I had met here who could just as well have been one of the characters. Or the man I pass on my way to jiu-jitsu practice who has no hands. Or the posters I saw in the South of the city pleading for the return of a loved one. Yet if you aren't here, this book will bring you here. It will transport you into this nation, bumping down a jungle road toward a meeting with Carlos Castaño or sipping coffee in the heat of a summer day next to the police chief as you know that the man hired to kill you waits outside. You will hear the salsa and vallenato of the taxis and discos through these pages, a soulful backdrop to a macabre tragedy.

The edition that I read was published in 2002, early in Álvaro Uribe's presidency, so she could not include the developments of the past nine years. Enormous changes have taken place since 2002, including major reductions in violence and kidnapping throughout Colombia, reduction in the export of cocaine (Perú has recently passed Colombia in tons exported) and the assassination of several of the major guerrilla and paramilitary leaders that play important roles in the book and in Colombia's recent history.

This is what history books should be. History is not facts and figures, names and dates fixed to places. History is the stories of the people who have lived it. That is what this book is. It is part myth, part reporting, and part storytelling. It is personal. It is powerful. It somehow captures, in my opinion, something essential about the Colombia of the second half of the 20th century. Here we have a nation infected by violence, a beautiful and resilient people suffering in a cycle of tragedy, and the refusal of the brave to surrender to this cycle.

May 2, 2011

Noam Chomsky Video

This video of Noam Chomsky is from is from 2006 (at least that is when it was uploaded) but his points are relevant today. Are we, Westerners, hypocrites? Do we, the West, fight al-Qaeda simply because they oppose us or because we believe ourselves to have the moral high ground? If it is the latter, we must question not only our other unrelated actions (Nicaragua, for example) but the way in which the War on al-Qaeda (previously called "the War on Terror) has been waged and waged against other ancillary parties.

To disagree with Chomsky, the US uses terrorism and state violence to solve problems because the world court is largely inadequate. In short, might makes right on the world stage and the US is still the mightiest military power. It is a practical necessity to serve national interests.

The illusion of morality or justice is helpful in a federated republic. The United States isn't a democracy, but neither was feudal China. But here may apply the concept of the "mandate of heaven" first to rulers and second to nations themselves. The US has put forth the myth of "American exceptionalism" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_exceptionalism) to justify American interventionism, aid or violence abroad. A cynical reading of it is to see this American exceptionalism as a way to retain the "mandate of heaven" that allows the US to remain the hegemonic world power.

I am not saddened by Bin Laden's death. I am saddened by the deaths of more than three thousand innocents who died in the September 11th attacks. I am saddened by the cilivan deaths in Iraq, believed to be well over 100,000. I am saddened by the death and misery that has occurred in Afghanistan. Both sides have enough blood on their hands to drown a nation. I am sure the West has done some great things and some of them with good intentions. But to believe that justice or moral righteousness is or even should be our highest goal, is naive. What made use of atomic weapons on civilian cities alright for the US while the attack on the World Trade Center was not for al-Qaeda? It is not my intention to defend murderous religious extremists. Both actions were morally wrong but one was perpetrated by a global superpower. And might makes right, on the world stage.

What do you think? Are freedom and justice the true goals of the West or are they simply guises to hide their ability to maintain their status as world powers (and to retain the mandate of heaven) for as long as possible? Would the other options for dealing with al-Qaeda have been better?

February 28, 2011

Losing Oneself in San Nicolás de Myra

I had lived in Bogotá since September but I had only ventured outside the city for work and only a few hours at a time. I didn’t grow up in a city and though I have adjusted to city life now—Bogotá has around ten million inhabitants—I am still a country person at heart. The city here is congested, polluted, crowded, noisy, and most of my friends have been robbed at least once. I was ready to get out of the city.

The city grows naturally and unnaturally. Naturally, Bogotá is a banking center and home to numerous successful businesses. There is wealth and prosperity there. Unnaturally, it grows through the suffering of the countryside. Here in Colombia, when the people of a town are forcibly evicted by the paramilitaries or the guerrillas, they come to the major cities. In any suburb in the United States, you might see an ad for a lost dog or cat taped to a lamp post. Here the fliers are for lost sons. Or husbands or brothers or daughters. I saw another that day as I walked to the bus station. It was a piece of paper with a black and white photo printed on it. It was a photo of a husband who had gone missing. On it, his wife pleaded for any information about his fate.

One news story that stood out in my memory was a story in the national newspaper, El Tiempo, that made the front page section. It was of a woman whose daughter had been raped and murdered by the paramilitaries. When she went to look for the body, they attacked her as well. She abandoned her house, her job-- everything--and moved to Bogotá with nothing. Such is the way of things. “The disappeared” has grown to be an entire class of people only less seen than “the displaced”, who have fled to the Bogotá with nothing. These are social classes created by theft and by violence. Their homes were taken—or their families. The violence has seeped into the culture through these long years. It has many faces: the cartel hitmen, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC), the paramilitary death squads, the new and ruthless Bandas Criminales (bacrims). They eat and take and drink of Colombia. The city feeds on the violence in this way. People flow in like tears into the ocean. One drop at a time.

Like I said, I had been in Bogotá since September and I wanted to see something else outside of that concrete jungle. I wanted to see the mountains and the plains. I wanted to get outside the constant worry of nighttime petty thieves or aggressive, drug addled beggars, even if for just a day or two. I settled on a town several hours outside the city, through several mountains and across hours of beautiful, rolling hills. The town was San Nicolás de Myra.

I had been on the bus for several hours already when we stopped at a small way station to refuel. The temperature had risen considerably and the sun shown down brightly on this fly speck of a human settlement. Some passengers wandered off the bus to stretch their legs and when they began to board again, a new passenger sat down next to me and introduced himself.

“Hola. Mi nombre es Juan,” he said, as he extended a grimy hand for me to shake. He was a small man, maybe around fifty years old and life had not been easy on him. He was dressed in a cheap suit that looked like it had been worn continuously for weeks at a time. He had no left ear.

“Mucho gusto. ¿De dónde es usted?” I replied, asking where he was from after telling him my name. I was reluctant to dirty my hand by shaking his, but I didn’t want to seem rude. As we clasped hands, I noticed that he was missing his middle and ring fingers.

“Soy de San Nicolás,” he told me. He was from the town I was going to see and he was returning home after many years. I asked him why he had left and he responded first by looking away. When he looked at me again, he asked me if I knew the reputation of San Nicolás. I told him that I did not.

We are thieves, he told me. His eyes locked with mine as he told me that if I were wise, I wouldn’t get off the bus. That I would stay on the bus and ride it back to Bogotá as soon as I saw San Nicolás de Myra. We are thieves. We steal and take and rob until there is nothing left. I did not react. I didn’t know what to make of this strange warning.

Suddenly, he reached forward and grabbed a hold of my pocket. We steal your money. I pushed his hand off but his other went to my chest. We steal your life. I shoved him away again and we struggled for a moment as he thrust his index finger at my face. As I shoved him away, I noticed that he was missing two of the fingers on that hand as well. We will take what you love most. He instantly recoiled and seemed to draw into himself. He sat in silence and didn’t look at me for the rest of the trip. I read from the book I had brought, the short story collection Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, by Gabriel García Márquez. The magical realism of Márquez only heightened the sense of discomfort that the man next to me had inspired.

We finally arrived in San Nicolás in the early evening. It was a small town, even smaller than I had imagined. It appeared dusty and run down from the bus window. Ignoring Juan’s advice, I left the bus and headed out to look for a hotel. I felt in my pocket for my cell phone but it was gone. Had it fallen out on the bus? Was it in my backpack? I unzipped my pack to look inside. My book was also gone. I started to walk back to the bus but it was already pulling away. A crowd of people brushed past me as I stood up and I was buffeted back and forth, a little disoriented after realizing I had lost my book and my cell phone. Or I had been robbed.

It didn’t take long to find a cheap hotel in the town. It was a few streets down and back several blocks. It was only one story and nothing special. I reserved a room for the night, not sure then whether I really wanted to stay as long as I had planned. I tossed my bag on the bed. I was traveling light and so had not brought much. Just the basics. I was hungry and this rented room didn’t come with meal service, so I decided I needed to find a restaurant to get a bite to eat for dinner. As I passed by the hotel office on my way out, I asked the owner if he had a safe to lock up my ID while I was out. He took it and locked it in a drawer as I left and I handed him my room key.

I stopped into a restaurant a few streets down. It was hot and dirty. And empty of customers. When I asked for a menu, the waitress instead just pointed to a sign hung over the kitchen listing their dinner offerings. I looked over the prices and felt in my pocket for my bills, but my pocket was empty. I was certain I had put my cash in my right, front pocket before leaving the hotel. I had no money with me to buy dinner. I went back to the hotel to ask for my wallet back. Maybe the heat was getting to me.

The owner handed me back my wallet. It was empty. Empty of both my ID and any cash. He claimed ignorance. He claimed that I had given it to him just like that. The more insistent and angry I became, the more of the ignorant fool he played. It was getting me nowhere. I threatened to go to the police and he didn’t seem to care. I took the room key back and returned to my room, now unsure how I would pay for it. At least I had bought a round trip bus ticket and would still be able to get back to Bogotá.

Back in my room, my bag had been emptied out and all of my clothes were missing. I tore through the folders I had brought, looking for my bus ticket. It too was missing. I collapsed back onto the bed to think. Night had since fallen and the heat was oppressive there in San Nicolás. What had I gotten myself into? I realized that there wasn’t much else I was going to be able to do right then. I got up just long enough to lock the deadbolt on the door, then I lay back down to sleep without bothering to pull back the sheets or take off more than my shoes. The minutes dripped by in the heat of the tropical darkness.

I woke sometime in the night with a confused recollection of nightmares of loss and suffering. Half remembered images of searching for loved ones of nakedness of pain clouded my mind. Then the memories of the dreams melted back to my reality. My clothes were gone. All of them. And I became aware that the pain from the dream was now an intense pain in my mouth. I moved my tongue and realized that I was missing several teeth. My hand shot to my mouth to confirm what I feared and I felt empty, bloody holes where six of my teeth had been before. My head spun. I began to panic. I was completely naked and all of my clothes were missing. I found the towel in the bathroom and wrapped it around myself to cover my nakedness as I ran outside to the “office”. I found the door locked and the light off. The street was empty by then as well. I could see no option but to wait until morning. I returned to the room to sleep, or wait until morning. I had nothing left except the taste of blood in my mouth.

The next morning I found the hotel owner in his office and through my toothless, slurred speech I explained what had happened (all while wearing only a towel). He lent me a pair of shorts and a tattered T-shirt. I told him I would be back later to pay for the room, knowing that though I had nothing to pay with I had nothing to come back for. I had to get back to Bogotá. But how? I had no bus ticket, no ID and no money. I nonetheless headed to the bus station, thinking I could figure something out on the way.

The bus station was as small and dusty as every other place in San Nicolás. But there were crowds. I stood in line and watched the crowd around me. It seemed not to move at all and only grew longer behind me as more townspeople packed into the cramped office. It was increasingly hot and increasingly crowded. There was a boy, maybe ten years old, who appeared to be alone and I caught him staring at me. He moved around the room but his eyes were fixed on me. I watched him suspiciously. His tiny hand deftly reached into a man’s pocket and pulled out the wallet yet he never took his eyes off from me. I was close enough to reach him. I seized his arm that he held the wallet with and yanked him closer to me, intending to return it to its owner.

He hissed and only pulled himself closer to me. His other hand flicked out, holding something metallic, like a pair of metal shears. Before I realized what was happening, he had fixed it on one of my fingers and in the next instant all that I had left was a bloody stub where my right index finger used to be. I was in shock. He disappeared into the crowd after I lost my grip. Blood was pouring out of my hand and the people around me recoiled. I remember feeling dizzy and weak and then all went black as I assume I lost consciousness.

The next memory I have is of lying in a hospital bed. I opened my eyes slowly and scanned the room around me. It was bare and the paint was peeling from the walls. I tried to move my tongue against my teeth to feel the holes once again, but my tongue was also gone. I remembered the bus station and my hand moved to feel for my finger but I found nothing. I groped my hand around and tried to move my right hand. I felt bandages instead. My right arm had been severed at the elbow and I had been left with only a stump. My heart jumped and I struggled to sit up, only to realize that both of my feet had also been removed. I thrashed wildly and cried out, incoherently, insansely. I had to get out of there.

Hearing my guttural cries, a woman dressed in white—presumably a nurse—entered the room with no sense of urgency. She pressed me back down onto the bed with one hand. I noticed that she had only one eye… she was smiling at me and didn’t seem concerned. She looked into my eyes with interest. Before I could speak, she spoke first.

“Qué lindos ojos… me encantaría tener unos así…” (what lovely eyes, I would love to have some like those) she said with more desire than I was comfortable with. Her smile was the last sight I remembered as a needle touched my arm and I feel asleep again. Her smile was the last sight I ever saw. After, there is only darkness. And loss.


The preceding story was a work of fiction but the plight of the displaced and the disappeared is no fiction. Colombia is second only to Sudan in the number of people displaced from their homes due to armed conflict. Recent years have seen a rise in the number of people displaced internally by armed conflict in Colombia, pushed out of their homes by despicable acts of violence, millions have migrated to cities in other regions, losing everything and being forced to eek out a meager existence on the streets or relying on the kindness of distant relatives. After years of reductions under President Uribe, the number of kidnappings too rose sharply in 2010. These are done sometimes for political reasons and sometimes for ransom. Here are two new articles, one concerning the displaced and the other the disappeared.

The Displaced


KATY CLARK: In Colombia the government says the country’s long guerrilla war is winding down, but the number of Colombians being forced off their land by warring factions is actually rising. Last year, 380,000 Colombians were uprooted, and many of these Internally Displaced People, or IDPs, have little chance of ever returning home. John Otis reports from Bogota.

JOHN OTIS: At a shelter in a South Bogota slum, students at a bread-making class trade jokes with their teacher. It’s a rare moment of light amid grim circumstances. These peasants were forced off their farms by guerillas, paramilitaries or drug traffickers. Now they’re trying to pick up new skills to rebuild their lives here. Colombia is home to more Internally Displaced People, or IDPs, than any other nation except Sudan. According to human rights groups, about four million Columbians, nearly ten percent of the population, have been displaced since 1985. Most fled after they were accused by either Marxist guerrillas or paramilitary death squads of collaborating with the enemy. Colombia’s president says he’s winning the war against leftist guerillas, and tens of thousands of right-wing paramilitaries have demobilized. But in remote areas guerrillas as well as re-armed paramilitaries are now fighting for control of drug trafficking routes, and they’re forcing even more people off their land. Marie-Helene Verney is spokeswoman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Colombia.

MARIE-HELENE VERNEY: What we’re seeing is the creation of new groups, smaller groups, and these groups are creating really a level of instability and violence in — again in these very remote areas of Colombia.

JOHN OTIS: Paramilitaries are also accused of joining forces with legitimate business interests to seize large swaths of land to mine gold and produce palm oil for Colombia’s booming biofuels industry. That’s Jorge Rojas of the human rights group Codhes. He says that big palm oil projects almost always produce legions of displaced people. One of the newly displaced is Maria Elvia Mendez. She lives in a rundown building housing IDPs in Bogota. She used to live on a coffee farm in the southern state of Huila, but gunmen threatened to kill her so she fled in March. “If soldiers pass by your farm, the guerrillas accuse you of spying for the government,” Mendez says. “But if the guerrillas pay you a visit, you come under pressure from the army and the paramilitaries. It’s an impossible situation. Your life is up for grabs.” The Colombian government has set up shelters for the displaced and it provides food, health care, education and small monthly stipends. But officials insist the problem has been exaggerated. Armando Escobar is in charge of the government’s displacement programs. He claims that many poor Colombians are registering as displaced to scam the government out of benefits.

The Disappeared


While the upcoming release of five FARC political hostages has been widely publicized, the more than 200 civilian victims of kidnapping in 2010 have been "forgotten," says Pais Libre, a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting victims of kidnapping and their families.

"We think that those kidnapped for economic extortion are forgotten. There is a perception that kidnapping for economic extortion has ended. That is not true. Actually it increased 32% in 2010," Claudia Llano, a representative of Pais Libre, told Colombia Reports.

Out of the 282 reported kidnappings last year, 57% are attributed to common criminals, 23% to the FARC, 12% to the ELN and the remaining 7% to neo-paramilitary groups, according to a report published by the organization last week.

November 28, 2010

hate blows a bubble of despair into

by E. E. Cummings

hate blows a bubble of despair into
hugeness world system universe and bang
-fear buries a tomorrow under woe
and up comes yesterday most green and young

pleasure and pain are merely surfaces
(one itself showing,itself hiding one)
life's only and true value neither is
love makes the little thickness of the coin

comes here a man would have from madame death
nevertheless now and without winter spring?
she'll spin that spirit her own fingers with
and give him nothing (if he should not sing)

how much more than enough for both of us
darling. And if i sing you are my voice,

October 28, 2010

El Peatón

The tone of this blog has been rather abstract, literary and full of densely layered psychological and symbolic meaning. I intend to inject some action into these paragraphs with an incident that I have alluded to in recent postings but never divulged fully. I am omitting certain key details, such as exactly where and exactly when the incident took place and the reason for these omissions will become obvious as you read this account. Anonymity and a delicate dose of fiction, as I mentioned in my previous posting, can be an effective shield. If the story is to be told, it must be from under that shield. I was inspired to share this story from editorials I read in two separate newspapers here in Bogotá today, each lamenting the dangers of the pedestrian bridges around the city and the numerous robberies and violent assaults that take place there each night after the sun goes down. El Tiempo hasn’t posted today’s editorials in their web archive yet, but here is a related story of a women being robbed, beaten and stabbed on a pedestrian bridge not far from here.
http://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/CMS-7737054Now that I have set the context, let us begin the story.

I take the Transmilenio everyday as I move about the city. I practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at night, I have friends who live on the other side of the city from whose homes I sometimes return at night, and I have been out later for job interviews several times. The area where the Transmilenio, that hybrid metro-bus system, let’s me off late at night when there is limited service is what has seemed most dangerous as the streets are dark, trash strewn and populated by an odd cast of ugly hookers, drug addled vagrants and petty criminals hustling what they can. But ironically it wasn’t through one of these slums that violence found me this night, it was late at night on a pedestrian bridge near the Transmilenio. These pedestrian bridges, frequent ambush zones, as the news article attest, are high in the center to accommodate the largest vehicles, and have long ramps on the side that wind back and forth. The perfect site for an armed robbery.

I am moderately vigilant during the day but I am hyper-vigilant when I walk at night. I saw the man on the bridge in front of me before I got on and I suspected he might be trouble before I got close. I also saw the two men behind me and took note of their quick pace as they rushed to catch up to me as I made my way across the bridge. As I had reached the top of the bridge but had not yet crossed the road, the man already on the bridge moved to intercept me as his two accomplices neared from the other direction. They had me at a choke point. The drop was maybe thirty feet to a paved sidewalk area below. Few vehicles pass this point at night and even those that did would be in little position to notice much less help thwart any crimes happening above them. We were as alone as we could be in a city of eight million inhabitants.

My reaction to threatening individuals on the street has been to watch their hands for weapons. Usually, the only object I spot is a bottle or a cell phone, but not this night. The man in front now had a knife in his hand and a quick glance behind me revealed another knife in the hands of one of those two men. My own knife, a 3 inch iodized black Benchmade folder that will lock open with a snap of the wrist, was clipped to my pocket. I never go anywhere in this city without it.

In my front right pocket I had my wallet with my credit cards. In my back left pocket, I kept a second wallet with an empty Visa debit card and a thousand peso note, in the hope that I could someday satisfy or distract a thief with it. I did not like the odds I was up against on this night. I looked at their faces and I didn’t see the fear that I often see in the faces of such people who are about to commit some crime. They were not new to this. Their faces said to me “we have done this before, we have stabbed and robbed men for far less and your blood matters not to us”. I had little doubt that they would injure or kill me if given the chance. I did not intent to give them that chance. Perhaps I am foolish or just unwise, but I don’t feel much fear in these situations and I never panic. My thinking becomes very cool, quick and calculated in these moments of urgency. I feel stronger and the expectation of violence feels almost pleasurable sometimes. I am not sure which should be more frightening in reality, this feeling within myself or the danger around me.

All three of them were almost on me, but their pace had slowed. I didn’t wait for them to ask for my money, I announced it, as I reached into my back pocket for the decoy wallet. “Voy a sacar mi cartera… aquí está…” –I am going to take out my wallet… here it is… -- I said to them as I produced my wallet and offered it to the unarmed man. My other hand had already palmed out my knife and my thumb was in the hole that snaps it open in an instant. Their attention was on my wallet at the moment though, and not on the blacked black that was concealed in my right hand.

I held to him lower than we comfortable, which compelled him to bend forward to reach for it. Both of his companions were close by with their weapons in my direction, but for a moment the unarmed man was between us. As he bent forward to take the wallet from my outstretched hand, I snapped my own knife out and twisting my entire upper body around, bringing my blade with my arm in a whip-like motion that caught him across the throat. The blade of my knife cut deep into his throat from one side to the other and his veins and arteries were wide open before he knew what had happened. A single spurt of blood shot to one side at first, then as the pressure dropped an instant later, the entire front of his throat just poured blood. I did not have time to contemplate the vacant look of shock in his eyes as he clutched his neck and fell forward. I moved quickly enough to avoid him and the blood as well as I could.

The other two men were obviously the more dangerous. One of them was momentarily blocked by the body of the thief whose throat I had just slit, so I moved to disable the other man first. When facing a knife, you can either fight at a distance and attempt to cut his knife hand every time he enters to attack your center of mass, or you can close the distance and engage him from inside. The first option requires patience and space, neither of which I had. So I closed the distance before he could put his weapon to use. When closing the distance on an opponent wielding a knife, the most important detail is whether his knife arm is on the inside or the outside of your body. Either way presents options for effective counters, but they are different. In this case, I charged at his center so that his knife hand was to the left of my body. Judo is a martial art that focuses on the use of leverage and balance to control and ultimately through an opponent. Judo is normally practiced in a heavy uniform ideal for gripping. This man was wearing the next best thing: a leather jacket. I switched my own knife to my left hand as I closed with him, leaving my right hand free to grab his jacket lapel. My other hand, now holding the knife loosely, just had to block his knife and guide his knife arm to complete the throw. The throw I performed is called

morote soei nage.

By pulling his lapel strongly towards me, turning my back to him, dropping to a squatting position while pulling him over my shoulder, I succeeded in pulling him completely over top of me. I had done this throw thousands upon thousands of times on the mats while training in judo and had some success with it in tournaments as well. The difference being that in this case when my opponent was pulled over my head he didn’t slap the mat below us. I finished the throw facing the edge of the bridge and the man in the leather jacket continued in a parabolic arc over the end. I didn’t watch him hit the pavement thirty feet below, but I heard a sickening thwak as what I later imagined was his face slamming into the ground. Only maybe five or six seconds had passed in total, but now the odds were much more in my favor.

I ended in a position to now face the third attacker, who was on my other side. I rushed into him before he could slash or stab effectively with his knife. I was on his outside this time though, in contrast to the first man. I did what is known as “jamming” him, as I tackled his knife side and clutched his weapon arm to my chest as I charged into him. I knew his natural reaction would be to tear it free and I was not in a position to apply most of the jiu-jistu shoulder locks I knew. But simple shoulder pressure from that point, a staple of Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, worked beautifully. As I kept control of his knife arm, I torqued my body into his shoulder. This put a lot of pressure into his shoulder joint and should have been able to bring him down. But somehow he changed his stance and fought out from it and I lost the pressure. For the first time in the encounter, I experienced the smallest measure of apprehension as I felt myself begin to lose control of my opponent.

But then I realized that as he was focusing on wrenching his arm free, his footing was now unstable. I quickly switched my hips and pulled his arm off my chest for just long enough to sweep his legs out from under him. He hit the bridge with his back and head like dead weight, and I followed him down. I swung one leg over his body and the other leg I braced against the side of his head, with his arm between my thighs and his elbow beneath my hips. I had what is known as an arm-bar in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In practice, we are taught to raise our hips slowly, exerting pressure our pelvis against the elbow joint. I did not move slowly but instead squeezed my knees together and thrust my hips up as hard as I could manage. I felt his elbow dislocate as I did and his grip on the knife was released. I didn’t care to stay on the ground for long, so as soon as I felt him release the knife, I scrambled to my feet and kicked the knife away. The first man was lying unmoving, his face sideways and his eyes open and unblinking, so I ignored him. The man whose arm I had broken began to curse and clutch his arm. I stood over him. It felt so easy to lift up my leg, lift it up as high as I could, and bring the heel of my shoe down on his face. Then again. And again. I kicked him in the throat. I stepped on his head and felt his skull bounce off the surface of the bridge. After several more stomps, he stopped even the blood choked gurgling noise he was making and lay still, so I let him be.

I had some blood on my shoes by them, which I was not happy about. I also noticed then that I had blood on my knife. I wiped the blade off on the pants of first man, then closed it and clipped it back onto my pocket. I picked up the decoy wallet again and replaced it into my pocket. After the event is when I felt winded and shaky. My legs shook, my hands shook and even my back and chest seemed to shake. I think clearly when I am in danger, but afterwards I feel the effects. I left the bridge and decided not to take the bus at all. I walked off my anxiety and I felt almost normal thirty blocks later as I neared my apartment building.

You can understand why I don’t want to provide too many details about where or when this event took place, and even, for those who don’t already know me, who I am exactly. If anyone who is reading this lives in Bogotá, I must caution you against using the pedestrian bridges at night (or in the early morning hours too). And I must also caution any thieves reading this: I will still be using those pedestrian bridges at night. You have been warned.

October 20, 2010

The Passport

A light rain had passed away perhaps a half hour before but the clouds remained, obscuring the dying light of the early evening in Bogotá. It rains or drizzles most days in Bogotá and when it isn’t raining we have the protection of somber gray clouds. On this night, darkness seemed to descend quietly, gently, earlier than usual and I was left with an unsettling feeling of emptiness. It was not only emptiness, but the sensation that something meaningful was coming to an end. I absentmindedly ran my fingers over my knife, clipped to my pocket, a hole in the blade for my thumb to snap it open in an instant. The rough ridges along its edge reminded me of the bloody violence I had done with it. They reminded me of its potential. I felt hollow again. The flea market is full of color and life in the morning. But later it dies a slow death. Endings: On Sundays the street people congregate around several of the plazas to sell the garbage that they find or steal during the week. This is where tonight’s story begins, on the edge of this zone of desperate poverty.

I wandered slowly through what passes here for a flea market (though the term is perhaps more appropriate here than elsewhere) running my eyes over the worthless detritus swept from the city by this wave of scavengers. Earlier in the day, it is a real market and there are items for sale that have value. But by the end, everyone who has someplace better to be has left, anything worthwhile has been sold and all that is left is an odd assortment of broken, forgotten, mismatched junk. There was a computer keyboard from the 1980s, a broken piece of a telephone, hundreds of tiny porcelain figurines, cables and connectors that may have been torn from an abandoned building, and tattered and mismatched clothing of all descriptions. Certain scavengers seemed to specialize in just cell phone accessories and their dirty and mismatched wares were laid neatly on blankets. There were no tables. Everything was arrayed on blankets that could be rolled up when night fell and would later serve to keep the vendors warm while huddled against some building.

To me, everything I saw by this time held negative value. It was utterly useless to me, would take up space in my life and carried the risk of disease as an additional danger in some cases. At least those were the calculations that ran through my head. The people peddling these trinkets and pieces of refuse were dirty and listless, no doubt enduring years of invisibility or outright disgust at the hands of the rest of Bogotá. Curiously, I sensed no feeling of community or comradeship among these people who shunned each other, or just gazed silently and who on other days seemed to wander the streets alone.

It was dusk when I passed through and most of vendors were in the process of rolling up their blankets and moving off throughout the city. Many had already left. On the edge of this curious gathering I glanced over yet another blanket filled with small electronics, porcelain figures, old records, tattered paperbacks and one item that caught my eye. It stood out from the rest immediately. It was rectangular, red and about the size of a paperback but thinner. The official seal of Colombia was embossed on the cover.

It was a Colombian passport. I stopped. Perhaps it was the “officialness” that caught my eye and held my attention. Or maybe it was just something about the mood that hung in the air. I reached down and thumbed it open. A man with short, neatly trimmed curly hair stared back at me. He was born in 1969. In the photo, he didn’t look so different from me. I read his name and forgot it. I glanced at the man selling the passport but he wasn’t interested enough to even pay attention to me. It was not his passport. Had he stolen it? Had he found it? Impossible to say, but it seemed to hold as little value for him as all of the other odds and ends held for me.

At one time, this document had been valuable to someone. This was a representation of someone’s identity. With this document the man in the photo was permitted to travel the world. With this photo a man could prove that he was a person, a citizen of a nation, and not a nameless and dislocated vagabond. Perhaps this is why the street scavenger didn’t value the passport. He had no identity. The concept of identity, of belonging, had slipped away from him.

I did not move. I did not release the passport. I was captivated. First, it was the fantasy of buying it and assuming that other identity. Becoming someone else would be leaving behind who I am or it could be just stepping into that other skin. It would be like being invisible. What would you do if you were invisible? What did these invisible people on the street do? The comparison is not adequate though. The identity of this man on the passport represented freedom to me in that brief instant but the very concept of government issued identification is one of bondage. Colombia has a system of national identification cards, la cédula, that is far more rigid and inclusive than the United States. To name someone, to identity them, to force them to produce this name and personal data on demand: is a manner of control. In the most basic sense, we assert our control over the world by naming, by applying language and labels to everything around us. It is no accident that this was the power ceded by God to Adam in Hebrew myth, because by naming all the creatures of the Earth he could assert his dominion over them. Likewise, in many cultures the true name of a demon or other evil spirit is the means to defeat it.

With that passport I would be Colombian. It offered me protection. It offered me escape. The red faux leather cover was different than my American passport. Would the red hide the blood? The passport was undamaged and untarnished, and the paper was only slightly aged by the years. It felt light in my hand. Endings. Beginnings. I was at the seashore and the ocean lapped at my feet. It was cold and reminded me of the vastness of the ocean. The seaweed had been brought up by the tide and lay stinking all around me. From within the tangled mess of rotting plant matter, I saw a conch shell, untouched by the action of the waves. I plucked it from the knotted cords of green and brown and held it to my ear. I looked into the endless ocean and the crashing waves as I listened to the conch. It whispered in my ear, “Colombia… Colombia… Colombia…” as softly as if it were the amplified sound of my own inner ear. As I held the conch to my ear, blood began to slowly drip from it. Threw its twists and turns there came a trickle of warm red liquid. This is what it offered me. The blood began to spill onto my hand and run down my arm. Right then I made the decision to be rid of the conch. I didn’t throw it back to the depths but instead dropped it at the edge of the water, among the seaweed. Perhaps the next wanderer would see the value as I had.

The passport now out of my hand, I felt its pull. It could grant me my darkest wishes. Fear and desire seemed to hang over it. I looked back at its current owner but he seemed to not comprehend the value of the object between us. He looked absently at the few scattered people passing or maybe a stray dog in the distance. I straightened back up and returned to my world. If I wasn’t careful, I could drown in those dark waters. I headed back home in the dying light of a Sunday evening. I absently ran my fingers over the black metal of my knife, folded neatly in my pocket. The hollow man was there on the ground behind me. Between the potency and the existence, between the essence and the descent: fell the shadow. Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act: fell the shadow. This is the way it all ends. This is the way it all…