‘Colombia: cocaine, crime and corruption – separating facts from fiction’, Tribune, September 10th 2012
Life is stranger than fiction - but there’s more money to be made from fiction. The criminologist Nils Christie has calculated that depictions of organised crime, in films, TV series, games and comics, are currently worth more than organised crime itself.
It’s a point that often came back to me last year, when I spent nine very peaceful months travelling around Colombia, a country renowned like no other for its supposed criminality. Pablo Escobar has been dead for almost 20 years, but for most British people, Colombia remains synonymous with the late cocaine trafficker.
Far from slipping from public view, he has become a modern day legend, as I found out when I joined a guided ‘Escobar Tour’ in Medellin. Medellin is a much safer city than it was in Escobar’s day, but it is still at the heart of the cocaine trade, a victim of our love/hate fascination with real-life crime. The tourists, almost without exception, were young Britons. Most of them were on their gap year, and many were casual cocaine users.
The British and Colombian governments might claim to be united in fighting a war on drugs, but on one side of the Atlantic, half a million Colombians work in the cocaine business, while on the other, half a million Britons regularly spend their Friday nights consuming the fruits of their criminal labour.
One night, my friend Ricardo invited me to have a drink at his house in Bogota. When I told his mother that I was writing a book about Colombia, she said she hoped that I would tell the truth about her country. The vast majority of Colombians have nothing to do with the cocaine business, she stressed, and are tired of being treated as pariahs.
Cocaine users aside, Marta held the UK in high regard and talked at length about how wonderful Princess Diana, and King Juan Carlos were - Colombians’ impressions of our country are often as misinformed as are ours of theirs. When I asked Ricardo what he thought of the British, he said he’d always been a bit wary of us. “You seem,” he said tentatively, “a bit violent.” I was about to say ‘Funny, that’s just what we think of you lot,’ but I held my tongue. “I mean, there was the Falklands War,” he went on, “and then you have so many football hooligans.” I assured him that football hooliganism went out of fashion in the early ‘90s, when hoolies started getting into ecstasy. As for the Falklands, well, that was 30 years ago.
But a bad name is hard to shake off. I first went to Colombia as a backpacker in 1999. On one of the few occasions I spoke to a Colombian, other than to ask for a beer or when my laundry might be ready, he thanked me for visiting his country. It had a bad reputation abroad, he said in broken English, and it was good that I had defied it, for Colombia was a wonderful country.
I certainly thought so. I spent three weeks in blissful ignorance, wandering the old city of Cartagena and lounging in a hammock in the Parque Tayrona, an idyllic national park bordered by the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. The rum was cheap, the cigarettes cheaper and I left wondering what all the fuss was about. Not having the Spanish needed to read the papers, news that the FARC guerrillas were encircling the capital and that the government was in real danger of being overwhelmed had completely passed me by.
One A level Spanish course and five years later, I started working for the TUC’s Justice for Colombia campaign. From the comfort of an office in London, I was given a crash course in the Colombian elite’s decades-old persecution of popular organisations, the rise of the FARC and the violence meted out to anyone who criticised or challenged the government, whether in or out of khakis.
Until then, I’d had no idea that Colombia was the most dangerous country in the world to be a member of a trade union, or that foreign multinationals with investments in Colombia’s coalmines and oil fields had contracted paramilitary death squads to put down opposition from their workforces. Suddenly, Colombia’s awful reputation seemed fully deserved - and not because it was the biggest producer of cocaine in the world.
When I found about the mass graves in La Macarena, where over 1000 Colombians were thought to have been buried after being killed by the army or paramilitaries, I wrote an article. It was met with a polite ‘no thanks’ from the foreign news desk of every one of the broadsheets.
Perhaps, in the years to come, the legions of British undergraduates enrolled on media studies courses will be writing essays about how the ‘disappearance’ of 100,000 Colombians received next to no coverage in the British media. As it stands, the murderous persecution of Colombians who dare to criticise their government has received a fraction of the press coverage that Pablo Escobar once did.
Once back in Colombia, I met some foreign correspondents for British newspapers. They told me that unless I had a story about drug lords or guerrillas, I was wasting my time pitching stories to their editors. All eyes were on the bloody drug wars in Mexico, or Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, who had been shooed into the part of comic Third World dictator after first Saddam and then Gaddafi were bumped off the pantomime stage.
With the honourable exceptions of the daily Voz and the weekly news magazine Semana, the Colombian media doesn’t cover the on-going assault on trade unionists, critical journalists and popular organisations either. And besides, most Colombians get their news from the TV, whose news coverage is as slick, authoritative and paper-thin as the US channels it takes as a model.
The two main channels’ coverage of the conflict is centred on the FARC and the US-funded, Colombian-implemented ‘war on terror’ being waged against them. Neither seems interested in how the war on terror in Colombia has provided cover for an authoritarian crackdown on all opposition to the government. On the one occasion I saw the president criticised on TV, it turned out that I’d inadvertently tuned in to a Venezuelan current affairs programme - in contrast to Colombia, Venezuela is a country where the government’s opponents have no problem finding a platform.
Critics of the Colombian government get little air time, partly because so many of them have been killed over the past 30 years, but mainly because those who have escaped the assassins’ bullets are regularly branded FARC sympathisers.
Colombian TV execs have their excuses: the armed actors, whether from the left or from the right, have little respect for the freedom of the press to cover the conflict as they see fit. As a result, the number of journalists killed in Colombia every year is only surpassed by that of their Iraqi and Afghan colleagues.
But much of the blandness of Colombia’s media landscape is down to ownership, since the two main TV channels are owned by the same two conglomerates that dominate the Colombian economy. With countervailing opinion effectively censored, the dominant voice is that of the Bogotano elite, which has little knowledge of, or interest in what is at heart a rural conflict. From their urban enclaves, they can afford the luxury of thinking that if only the FARC could be defeated, Colombia would be well on its way to becoming a southern version of Miami.
Since the paramilitaries killed the comedian Jaime Garzon in 1999, you can’t even find a good laugh on TV. Garzon was a wicked satirist, whose death only confirmed the violent intolerance of the paramilitaries he took such fierce delight in lampooning. With Garzon gone, Saturday night entertainment is left to comics who make Benny Hill look cutting edge. The space that might be filled by discussion programmes, documentaries, and dramas with some basis in real life is given over to endless farandula – celebrity gossip – and telenovelas –soaps.
Travelling the countryside, I was struck by the extent to which Colombians depend on their TVs, for it is practically their only source of news and entertainment. This makes control of the airwaves all the more important for those determined to cow the voters into submission, and explains the appeal of escapist fantasy.
In Britain too, fantasy threatens to seduce our attention from messy reality. The cocaine business, and the organised criminals who control it, are often described in archaic terms, with drug ‘barons’ spreading a deadly ‘plague’ of drug abuse, against whom only drug ‘tsars’ can do battle.
If it sounds like a modern day morality play, that’s because it is. It makes the world easier to understand for people who like their world view in black and white. It also makes for great video games. But it bears little relation to the war on drugs, or the reality of the conflict being fought in Colombia.
Tom Feiling’s Short Walks from Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombia will be published by Allen Lane on August 30th. See www.tomfeiling.com for more details.