Colombian police last week seized over 12 tonnes of cocaine in the port city of Cartagena, one of their biggest busts in years. Meanwhile, 16 alleged drug traffickers were also arrested in Medellin and Panama. And I was recently threatened with a week in jail for not having my passport on me when stopped at a police checkpoint in the country’s south. The events might not seem related at first, but bear with me while I tie them all together.
I experienced my own particular spot of bother with the constabulary while travelling with a friend through the Valle del Cauca province near Cali. Maybe I shouldn’t really have been there in the first place: Valle del Cauca is listed as one of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s "do not travel" zones, due to the fact that the area continues to be the scene of an armed struggle between the government and the FARC.
Contrary to what you might expect, then, I can report that it’s a lovely part of the world filled with the kind of scenery you usually only see on the front of a packet of coffee beans. My concerns about travelling through a veritable warzone were quickly forgotten, save for the time when — as we drove to a nearby lake for a swim — our car was surrounded by a squad of soldiers in full fatigues clutching machine guns. With their free hand they were each proffering a "thumbs up" to the passing cars, a gesture that I was told is instilled in the military as something of a public relations exercise.
On such journeys, we were frequently stopped at military checkpoints. Despite the fact that they usually found us without our seatbelts and clutching open bottles of beer, the young soldiers who looked us over were rarely concerned by such offences. They had bigger fish to fry, and we proceeded unmolested.
One day, however, I was not so lucky. At yet another rural checkpoint, my friend’s car was again stopped and we were all asked to produce some identification. I handed them the two pieces of identification I had on me: my Australian driver’s licence and a photocopy of my passport’s photo page. I’d left my actual passport in my apartment in Medellin, reasoning that I wasn’t leaving the country and that it would only be something I could lose on my trip. A photocopy had sufficed in most places in South America, and I figured it would suffice again. This was a mistake.
After some frenzied Spanish which I couldn’t follow, my friends nervously informed me that my situation was "muy malo" (very bad). I was told that I could be "retained" for a week in a local jail while they verified my identity with the relevant embassy.
I was briefly overtaken by a bout of indignation. Why did I need my passport? I wasn’t crossing any borders, it was a drive through the countryside. I had a photocopy of my passport and a driver’s licence. That should have been more than enough.
The point, however, was inarguable. I was a gringo without the proper identification in one of the country’s most contested regions and foremost drug shipping routes. And I was woefully unappreciative of the fact that the policemen before me were probably entitled to be sticklers for the rules, considering how often they are targeted by the guerillas in the hills surrounding them.
Indeed, just the day before, two army officers stationed in a small town a few hours north were abducted on their way home from duty, unarmed and wearing their civvies. Their bodies were found two days later under a tree rigged with explosives, designed as a trap to kill the soldiers looking for them. In Valle del Cauca alone there have been four attacks on police outposts in the last few weeks.
This has a lot to do with the fact that Valle del Cauca is the de facto home of FARC. The organisation was founded here and maintains its strongest presence in the region. This is no doubt spurred by the region’s status as one of the centres of the local drug trade where the organisation makes most of its money.
As well as its isolation and proliferation of jungle, Valle del Cauca also contains the one highway in Colombia that reaches the Pacific Ocean, the very highway on which we were pulled over. The governor of Valle del Cauca said this week that the recent attacks on military and government institutions can be attributed to FARC’s desire to reclaim the strategically crucial Pacific Corridor.
Which brings me back to that 12 tonnes of cocaine found in a shipment of brown sugar in Cartagena. Its origin: Valle del Cauca.
Times have changed a bit, and the Colombian government now claims its current efforts to reduce violence and tackle the drug trade are not so much focused on the likes of FARC as they are on smaller criminal gangs which have sprung up in recent years. Due to the patently ruthless approach of the previous administration (backed by the US government’s Plan Colombia initiative), the influence of organisations like FARC and ELN has waned significantly over the last decade, with criminal gangs spearheaded by former paramilitaries now at the top of the government’s hit list.
Current president Juan Manuel Santos last week announced a "security plan" that places more responsibility for this battle with the police instead of the military, as well as pledging to continue efforts to collaborate with authorities in other nations.
The arrest of 16 men in Medellin and Panama this week represents the government’s biggest win since this plan was announced. The men are said to have been involved in an organisation that smuggled cocaine in oil cans, which were shipped overseas via Panama. Their destination: Australia.
Which is probably why I should have had my passport on me. In the end it turned out all right for me, though, because I was staying with locals who could vouch for me. I was given the option of proceeding on to my destination another few hours south and risking arrest at a less permissive checkpoint, or staying with my friends on their farm in a state of veritable house arrest. I opted for the latter. And, as we left, I gave him a thumbs up.
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