Many people have asked me to recount some of my various life experiences. A memorable one was a trip to Colombia with clients and to embed the clients with the FARC Western Front. This was in February 2017.
The arrival in Colombia was balmy and wet. I walked off my Avianca flight from San Salvador in a hot and muggy Cali, Colombia. The air was warm, and it was raining intermittently. I had befriended a Canadian on the plane, a man from Vancouver who came every year to Cali for the paragliding. His grey hair and wiry frame never betrayed his adventure seeking lifestyle. The murders, he said, never stopped him from getting good air. He had the carefree attitude that one would expect from someone who vacationed in a crime and violence ridden part of Colombia. We chatted until we cleared passport control and customs and parted ways, he for the cliffs outside of town and myself for the next leg of my journey.
My flight to Tumaco didn’t leave until early the next morning and I would be spending the night in the Cali airport. It rained incessantly throughout the night. It was not the kind of rain you saw in Southern California, it was a true tropical downpour with the heat and humidity never waning as sheets of rain poured down on the terminal windows. There were a few other weary travelers in the run-down terminal, there was nowhere to sleep but the hard-plastic chairs could be strung together to form some sort of a cot.
The following day I boarded the twin turboprop plane for my 1-hour flight to Tumaco, Colombia. Tumaco is a city atop mangrove forests near the border with Ecuador. This small city would be my point of departure for an adventure into the jungle with Marxist Guerrillas. The Colombian government was in negotiations with FARC to complete their disarmament and the peace deal that was set to end decades of fighting which had costs thousands their lives and had maimed many more as the jungles had been turned into war zones.
FARC “Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia” was considered by many to be a terrorist organization, or worse (to some) a narco-terrorist organization. I think the latter term was applied largely to capture the attention of puritan gringos in the United States. Nothing will get a Southern Senator to sign off on a shipment of helicopters quite like Narco-terrorists.
The western region was the final region to be pacified under the peace deal. My clients and I were there to watch as FARC finally gave up their arms, left their camps, and entered UN Camps. The flight was uneventful, and we began to descend into Tumaco. Tumaco truly was an island, jutting out into the Pacific Ocean west of Panama, it had ragged edges where the mangroves extended their rooty fingers into the sea. It was connected to another island, and then to the mainland by a two-lane bridge. The airport was not much to look at, it doubled as a commercial airport and a military airfield and barracks. The aprons off the runway were mostly occupied by Blackhawk helicopters and assorted military equipment. Soldiers were languidly walking about in the tropical sun, none seemed to be in a hurry to be anywhere.
I always insist on being first on the ground before any clients arrive. This allows me to make an unbiased risk assessment and to find my way around the city and find our lodging. More importantly I could find the best restaurant with the coldest beer to seem smart when the clients would ask me for food and a watering hole only hours later.
The Hotel La Red was really nothing to look at it. It sat across the road from a beach which led east to a cove known as Playa Del Morro. The cove was encircled by cliffs but had a mouth not much wider than a small truck which led out to the sea, beyond the opening was a small shark tooth shaped island which shot skyward from the murky sea. The cove was, by daylight hours, full of locals swimming and splashing about in the water. As is common in South America the beaches were full of locals playing soccer.
–Playa Del Morro, Tumaco, Colombia-
I walked across the courtyard to my room to unpack the one bag I had taken with me. I had been briefed that we would be staying in the jungle, and I could take only what I could carry in my large backpack. As is typical with these assignments the security manager is the last to know anything because he or she is an afterthought. No doubt the entire trip had been planned, tickets purchased, plans laid, and this was sent across the desk of an executive who had some passing knowledge of Colombia and this person had insisted on security. My usual over-under is 5 days before departure.
This wasn’t the first or the last time I was told “You will be roughing it, bring a tent” only to wind up in a hotel. The same thing happened later that year when I went to work in Puerto Rico. We were told we would be sleeping outdoors, people had brought camp stoves, solar panels, and all other kinds of camping items. When we landed in San Juan I wound up sharing a room at the Marriott with grappling and MMA legend Dean Lister (a story for another time).
I unpacked an assortment of gear, jungle friendly boots, hammock, tent, mosquito net, bug repellent, water filter, chem lights, medical kit, compass, protractor, knife, head lamp, lots of batteries, and what seemed to be a clumsy supply of various accoutrement that were at best unwieldy in their waterproof bags.
I hustled to the hotel restaurant to taste the local fare. My expectations rested greatly on the cup of Colombian coffee I had ordered. Outside of cocaine, coffee is the most notable Colombian export. When the steaming cup arrived, my disappointment must have been palpable to the wait staff. The coffee looked like dishwater and tasted rather the same. I assumed it was instant coffee but would not have bet my day’s wages on that, or whether it was even coffee.
I went to the airport and picked up the clients and our Colombian fixer. They had just arrived from Bogota and were truly a mixed bunch. A fedora wearing Swedish cameraman, a Swedish-Kurdish journalist, and a Swedish-Colombian fixer. There was little to no chance for blending in as Tumaco is largely Afro-Colombian in demographic makeup. Although combat operations had largely ceased, petty crime and police corruption were still rampant.
Many know that FARC was a massive destabilizing force in Colombia, but by this point they had committed fully to the peace process and were disarming. During my briefing to clients I informed them that the jungles were still extremely dangerous as two aggressive and dangerous guerrilla groups remained; the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional) and a cobbled together group of right-wing paramilitary groups, such as Los Rastrojos. Los Rastrojos were a nasty bunch, they had made their living through illegal gold mining and smuggling drugs. Los Rastrojos were considered by many to be the heirs to the Cali Cartel, and they behaved as such. The indigenous people had born the brunt of their violence being exploited by the illegal mining operations. Many of the smaller rivers had been poisoned by chemicals from these illegal operations and our second trip would be deep into the jungle to meet with these indigenous tribes and attempt to find the Los Rastrojos mining camps (more in a later post).
The ELN was an effervescent group which mixed old fashioned Marxism with Liberation Theology. Many forget that South American Communism was very different than Eastern European Communism. The anthi-theism of the Bolsheviks was not shared by their South American fellow travelers. Central and South Americans still held tightly to their Spanish imposed Catholicism in many ways and it infused their Communism with a strong theological tint.
After the briefing the team retired to their rooms. I stayed up a fair part of the night studying maps, and going over egress routes, memorizing the team’s blood types, and a long list of other essentials. We had an early call time as we would be traveling up river by boat to meet the FARC commander and his unit.