Sips from the Firehose

Feb 25

Back to Venezuela Via the Cocaine Highway

Posted: under Uncategorized.


It’s been 20 years since I took a job as wire editor, later managing editor, of the Caracas Daily Journal.  In all that time, I have not returned.  Part of that is because the circumstances under which I left were pretty heinous – I had been told that the stories that I had written, that I had allowed my reporters to write, had pissed off some very powerful, violent people.

Part of the reason was that, well, I have been living and working in Los Angeles for the last 19 years (it hurts just to type that), and somehow, I never got around to it.  I had always thought that I would return to Venezuela, after things had blown over, and my relatively minor sins had been forgotten.  Still, I had not really had the chance.  Until now.

We were in the border town of Cucuta, and we had a day to ourselves before we had to leave to go to Bucaramanga.   The reporters and editors at La Opinion had regaled us with tales of how wild the border crossing is; that the lines stretch for miles sometimes, and that the main industry in Cucuta is based on smuggling.  We decided to check it out for ourselves.

Side note: the newspaper’s driver, a heavyset bald guy known as "El Gordo" (the reporters would grin and laugh and chant "Gordo! Gordo!" every time he would appear to pick us up at the end of the day), was our introduction to the, shall we say, practical and unvarnished view of the endemic gasoline smuggling that takes place.  Our first day in town, Gordo pointed out the scruffy-looking guys hanging out on various street corners with grubby 5-gallon plastic containers.  I wondered if they were selling booze or some other kind of refreshment – hey, it’s a fair assumption. The variety of things sold on the street for human or animal consumption here makes the selection and prices at Wal-Mart look pretty crummy.  Always low prices? Ha. Try being able to fill up your tank – and yes, I’m talking about the gas tank on an armor-plated SUV, which is what the newspaper has as transportation, and which I’m guessing isn’t exactly competing with a Prius as far as fuel efficiency – for about 2000 pesos.

That’s about $1.  For 10-plus gallons.  Take a moment. Work the numbers.  Yes, that’s in and around 10 cents a gallon.

As El Gordo explained, the official government and industry-run gas stations are ghost towns. Nobody in their right minds goes there – mainly because gas costs about the same in Colombia (well, everyplace else in Colombia) as it does in the U.S.  That is, about 8000 pesos ($4) a gallon. Which, in a country where a college education gets you a job that pays about $6,000 a year, is a not inconsiderable sum.

This is why in every other city in Colombia, the streets are filled with late-model compact and subcompact cars.  On several occasions, we’ve had problems cramming our gringo-sized selves and our month’s worth of luggage and computer/photo equipment into the itty-bitty taxis and cars. 

One of the things that had pleasantly surprised me about Colombia was that although the streets are overcrammed with cars and traffic can be a nightmare (which, as an Angeleno, I’m actually rather comforted by), at least the cars are newer model cars with cleaner engines and better braking and handling than the old "lead sleds" I remember from my first swing through this continent. 

Like a cheesy 70s detective show…

The closer we got to the border however, the more the nature of the cars in the streets changed. The Cucuta area and the towns just across the frontier in Venezuela, is where old American muscle cars have gone to die. 

For me, it was like stepping back into time … things were just the same as I remembered them, the closer we got to Venezuela.  We were surrounded by hundreds of Chevy Caprices with fat mag wheels and jacked-up rear ends; sputtering Gran Torinos with oxidized "Starsky and Hutch" paint jobs; even old Dodge Darts and AMC Javelins with side panels looking like crumpled aluminum foil.

It looked like the heavy-metal parking lots of my youth.  Big gas-guzzling pieces of Detroit steel, all blasting music out of their Jensen subwoofers and Spark-o-Matic 6×9 three-way speakers.  Only this was some wailing narcocorrida, rather than a track off Screaming for Vengeance or Diver Down.

Some buried, but not quite dead, part of my Midwest white-trash gearhead semi-rural background felt rather at home in this landscape.  It was like the chaotic surging mass of cars all jockeying to get out of the parking lot after the concerts and football games of my youth, complete with the acrid fumes of half-burned gasoline from big-block V-8s and much cursing and hand-waving.

One big difference – this "cola" (Spanish for "line" or "tail") is a permanent fixture on the border. Our driver veered sharply around the buses that foundered amidst the traffic, heading for the right side. At the time, I was rather against this move, as the "curb" on the right side of the traffic lanes is populated by seriously skeevy characters.  The aforementioned gas smugglers with their jerry-rigged funnels – a 2-litre plastic Coke bottle, a siphon hose and some duct tape, and you’re good to go, apparently.  And currency traders waving fistfuls of cash. 

We wondered openly what would happen if someone tried to rip off one of the currency exchangers. It would seem to be a great opportunity to do a smash-and-grab – the wads of 50,000 peso notes and Venezuelan bolivares were, to our eyes, like ribeyes in a pitbull pen.  El Gordo just looked over at us, eyes bugging out in disbelief at our naivete.  "Nobody ever tries that," he said flatly. "They would be dead from a thousand bullets before they took a step. This is all controlled by the paras.  All of this." He waved his hand vaguely at the stores located about 50 yards off the street – in an area that in the U.S. we would call an access road.  The stores had huge stacks of sacks of potatos in front of them – last-minute purchases for the Venezuelans, who come across the border in search of easily transported, and non-spoiling, food items.

"Even the ants crawling on the food over there take their orders from Don Berna," Gordo said.  As you will see if you follow the link, Don Berna is the legendary head of the AUC – the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia.  Basically, the paramilitary squads that sprang up in the 90s to try to combat the narcos and guerillas, and have since morphed into something far, far darker.

Anyway, the massive traffic jam before the bridge was worsened by thugropreneurs. That is, thugs with dented, beat-up cars who lurked in the center-lane turnarounds and darted into traffic ahead of people, and then demanded 1,000 pesos to move out of the way.  This is why Gordo was hugging the right rail – where we took advantage of the currency traders to get a better-than-official rate on exchanging our Colombian pesos for Venezuelan bolivares.

Another side note: When I arrived in Venezuela in 1988, the exchange rate was about 4:1 – that is, about 4 bolos to the dollar.  By the time Christmas rolled around, the exchange rate was about 50:1.  That’s a 1,500% devaluation in less than a year.

Still, I was taken aback by the bills in 500,000 denominations.  I think there’s some new movement afoot to redenominate the currency, in much the same way that Mexico did with the peso a decade or so ago.  It makes paying for things a little freaky, too – can’t quite figure out what the real cost of things is.

I’ve included some video of the madness of the traffic back-up.  At one point, I looked around at all the trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles crossing.  All of which could have big sacks of white powder on them.  Some of the trucks had some very hard-faced men behind the wheel, with other hyperalert guys sitting in the passenger seats.

It is quite clearly impossible for anyone to even pretend that this border crossing is under any sort of control whatsoever. I mentioned this to El Gordo, who again laughed at my Gringo Naivete. "It’s a Saturday morning," he said.  "The narcos know everyone is going across to go shopping and visit relatives on the weekend, so that’s when they send the coca across.  Any of these trucks could be full of coca.  Hell, maybe they all are."

"But aren’t there guards there to try to bust people?" I asked.  I went on to explain that there were all kinds of official stories in the papers about big drug busts on the borders.

"Oh, please," Gordo said. "They only get the little independent coca smugglers, and then only when they don’t pay the bribes.  These guards know better than to actually try to enforce the law. They seize a truck full of coca from El Pulpo and their entire family gets killed.  Besides, they get paid really well."

True enough, once we made it across the one-lane bridge, the Venezuelan border guards didn’t even bother to look before waving us through.  In a bit of symbolic irony that I would get thrown out of the Creative Writer’s Union for even trying to us, the alleged drug-sniffing dog was asleep.  All four paws in the air. Snoring.

Oh yeah – El Pulpo means "The Octopus."  He’s the local narco-baron, and his tentacles are squeezing every aspect of life in Cucuta. He travels in a motorcade of at least 7 heavily armored SUVs, escorted by machine-gun toting motorcycle assassins and – according to the locals – many local police. His predecessor got too big for his britches about 10 years ago, and apparently the Cali cartel dispatched a swarm of helicopters to rocket his hilltop compound.  The cops were dragging pallet loads of money out of the smoking ruins of the house … all of which somehow never made it into the evidence room.

The Aguilas Negras just this week announced what amounts to martial law in Cucuta – they say that they will no longer tolerate drunks, children or loud music on the streets after 10 p.m.

These are the guys that now grow the coca. They have figured out how to evade the aerial spraying – since the spray floats up, they bait the DEA planes with coca plants on the tops of ridges. The planes waste their chemicals on the sacrificial coca plants on the hilltops, while the richer harvest below escapes.

Or, they smear the base of the coca plants with a sticky mixture of molasses and honey. Somehow this prevents the DEA plant-killing spray from penetrating and killing the roots of the coca plant – although we joked that the honey must attract the ants, and if the ants start munching on all the coca plants, you’ll quickly have "super ants" that are tossing buses and trucks around.  The narcos also cover their coca plantations with banana leaves when they get word that the DEA planes are planning a spraying expedition over their area … and they always seem to have the best information as to when their quadrant has been scheduled for a dousing.

The week that we were in Cucuta, the talk of the town was of a big cocaine refinery getting attacked, looted and burned in the jagged mountain ridges south of town.  Meanwhile, much of downtown Cucuta is full of shiny new stores, chock-full of expensive consumer goods … that nobody buys.  There is a famous music store, where the front window has about 9 full-on drum kits; nobody yet has ever purchased a trombone or a sousaphone from this store.

These places, and the neon-lit clubs and bars exist mainly to launder the massive stacks of money cramming the line of trucks that come back from Venezuela after dropping off their goods.  It’s another one of the open secrets of Cucuta; everybody knows it, but they all shrug and look nervous & exhausted (or bemused) by the situation.  The corruption from this massive cross-border drug trade is so unbelievably pervasive that for any local authority or group to try to stem it is to try to bail out the tide.  Besides, many of the paras are at least peripherally connected to high levels of the Colombian government – we heard a lot of anger coming out about the cozy relationship between the Feds and the AUC-alikes.

Back to the travelogue.

We crossed the border into the narrow, grubby town of San Antonio.  Immediately, the difference between the two countries leaped up and smacked me – right in the nose.  The gutters, sidewalks, streets and shoulders of the road were choked with mounds of disgusting rotting garbage.  OK, I’m not going to say that the streets of Cucuta would stand up to a Marine white-glove test. But man, one of the things that I remembered most about my time in Caracas was the sheer filthiness of the city.  Walking back to the metro in the rain was always an awful experience – the storm sewers would inevitably overflow and cocker-spaniel-size slimy sewer rats would slither out and clamber over the rancid piles of garbage that were just thrown randomly into the streets.  I don’t know what it is – maybe Venezuelan garbage men are always on strike? Is there some fault in the national character? 

Gracias, Sr. President

Whatever it was, the garbage continued on for mile after mile, bottles and tires and wire and burnt-out couches just dumped on the side of the road as we wound our way up into the Andes.  Which was where we started seeing an even more pernicious eyesore: for about 20 miles, every other rock and vertical surface was whitewashed.  Over that was splattered the word "Sí."  As in "Yes." 

This was a leftover from Hugo Chavez’ attempt to get the constitution of Venezuela changed so that he could basically be president-for-life, just like his hero, Fidel Castro.

Also, I was shocked at some level to see the signs extolling Chavez and Che Guevara.  Back in ’88 (and yeah, I know you’re going to get sick of that phrase pretty soon – deal with it), it was illegal just to sell Che’s books on the street. Remember – this was the waning days of Ronnie the Commie-hater Reagan, and Venezuela at that time was pretty much owned and operated by the U.S. State Department, in cooperation with ExxonMobile and Royal Dutch Shell.  The whole cult of personality thing going down in Venezuela these days has a distinctly creepy feel. It’s not quite at "Dear Leader"-North Korea stage – yet – but they can certainly see that particular blighted neighborhood from where they are.

More on this trip in a day or so … as well as some video and a slideshow.

UPDATE: Filing this blog post through the blogging feature of MS Word 2007 has invoked some drastic formatting problems – basically, most of the photos didn’t show up, the captions were all wrong, and the photo sizes were way, way too wide for the columns.  So I’ve yanked them, and will be doing multi-file updates to try to allow y’all to see what it is that I’ve been talking about.  Also, the photo credit on the shot of the Aguilas Negras didn’t come through – that photo was from Cambio, as you will see if you click through the link.  I highly recommend checking out the story that goes along with that photo – it’s a great description of how bad the situation on Colombia’s eastern border has gotten – for those of you who speak only Gringo-ese, the headline basically translates as "Birds of Prey."








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Jan 29

Manizales, Colombia – La Patria Newspaper

Posted: under Uncategorized.

It’s not often that you get to play with a piece of steampunk genius like the Ottmar Mergenthaler Linotype. This thing was a work of Rube Goldberg art … if you’ve ever seen one in operation, it groaned and hissed, clanked and whirred …

Manizaleslapatrialin This one sits in the lobby of the La Patria newspaper, here in Manizales, Colombia.  This is a growing town, carved out of the Andes. Just getting here was a chore … we couldn’t fly in here on Sunday from Bogota because the weather was bad.  And by bad, I mean that the clouds that swirl around the knife-edge volcanic peaks hereabouts were impenetrable.

So we were given the choice of waiting around the airport in Bogota until the weather cleared up – which, they warned us, could be an hour or could be a week – or flying to Pereira and taking a bus through the winding mountain roads to Manizales.

Mindful of the fact that we were scheduled to begin a training session the next morning bright & early at 8 a.m., we chose to take the bus.

Pictures from that adventure will be posted later.  We were operating on about 7 hours of sleep in 3 days by that point, so perhaps our decision-making process wasn’t the sharpest.  Still, we made it here in about an hour and a half.Linotypemanizales  Unfortunately, it was at that time that we discovered that contrary to their earlier representations, the bus company had no intention whatsoever of taking us to the airport like they had promised.

No, they were going to unceremoniously dump us off at the bus depot on the outskirts of town, where there lurked any number of skeevy-looking characters, eyeing us up like well-marinated flank steak.  We chose to bribe the driver to take us to the hotel, and checked in, to collapse on the bed for three hours.

Strangely, once again we found that for some reason, the Public Works departments here in Colombia seem to think that street and sidewalk repairs should properly be conducted late on Sunday nights. I dunno – maybe it’s best then, because that’s when there is no foot traffic?  Maybe that’s when they can work safely without having their equipment stolen the minute they turn their backs?  Man, I’m at a loss on that one.

Anyway, the first sessions here have been a little sticky – our Spanish was a bit rusty and the sleep deprivation didn’t help – I found myself stammering and wondering what the hell word it was that I was desperately clawing my memory banks for, unable to even remember what it was that I was trying to say in English, because of the dissonance of the various languages all bouncing around in my head.

Still, the staff here is eager to learn, and they have been enthusiastic about what the future might hold.

But for now – here’s a blast from the past – something I had never seen before – a linotype keyboard with the accents on the vowels and the tilde over the ñ


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Nov 27

Leaving Colombia

Posted: under journalism.
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Our training sessions are finally done, we got great reviews from all the newspapers we visited, and we’ve learned tons about Colombia and all the changes that have taken place here.  The last six years have seen a sea change in the security situation – and the fact that you can now actually drive between cities, that you can go out at night without worrying about having a burlap sack stuffed over your head – has meant that business and society here have managed to rebuild. 
Yesterday, talking with our driver, he told us stories about the 500 cabdrivers/informants that Pablo Escobar used to have roaming the streets of Medellin, the Hiroshima-like mushroom cloud that hovered over the chief of police’s house after 1,000 pounds of dynamite went off, the solid gold chess set given to a favored underling, and on and on … I’ll write more about those sad subjects later.  But the point is that The Bad Old Days are something that people take great pains to point out are far, far in the past.

So here is a photo from the Minas de Colombia, a kind of wholesale emerald, art and golden artifacts store.  I’d like to write something about how my joking around with the fuse to the dynamite is symbolic of the changes that we tried to make down here with the newspapers, of the way that we went around trying to tell them to blow up their old business models – but that might be abusing a metaphor too much even for me. 

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Nov 22

Porque No Te Callas?

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In case all you gringoes up in Gringolandia missed it, last week the controversial (I use that adjective, because a diatribe this early in the post of negative adjectives just isn’t nice) Hugo Chavez got slapped down by King Juan Carlos of Spain.  During a meeting in front of God and TV cameras, Chavez was being his usual ridiculous, Mussolini-esque self, interrupting the Spanish minister and playing the fool.

The King leaned over and snarled, "Porque no te callas?"  – "Why don’t you just shut up."

The Spanish-speaking world erupted.

Many love the King for saying in blunt language what they wish someone would have said a long time ago to that blubbery-lipped bozo.  Many hate the King for what they see as typical peninsulare/gachupine arrogance, a resentment that stretches all the way back to the colonial days.

All I know is that in Ibague, the bubbly young girls on staff told me about this video, and searched YouTube until they found it, and now I can’t get that damn song out of my head.  So here it is – and kudos to the Flash animators who stuck Hugo and the King’s heads on these dancers/kung-fu fighters/chickens.  The fact that they got this up within days of the incident – and that the song that they set this music to was already a hit (and one of the fave greetings that the hip kids in San Salvador use to greet each other is "Porque no to callas")… well, the mash-up talent is definitely catching on in a global way.


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Nov 22


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The video below is of small children playing on the spinning benches in the play area (I hesitate to call it a park) next to the Planetarium, which is itself next to the Botanical Gardens.  We wanted to go to the gardens, because it supposedly had an "orchidareum" of all kinds of rare and hard-to-find orchids.

Fun fact about Medellin that you probably didn’t know: Every year they have a huge "Festival de los Flores" – a testament to the fact that the climate and rich volcanic soil allow them to grow mass quantities of flowers for export.  And yeah, I know where your head just went, and sure, they probably do still grow all manner of other valuable plants in & around this area, but let’s not dwell on that right now.

The botanical gardens were a disappointment, because the air there was awful – about 2 carbon-monoxide points shy of locking yourself in the garage with a running car.  Really.  I swearta Christ, it was a real throwback to my days in Caracas, when just walking down the street was an assault on the sinus cavities, and it was common to see people standing on the streetcorners, waiting for the bus, eyes as red as tomatoes, weeping muddy tracks from all the soot and diesel particles.  So yeah, the gardens were not exactly the peaceful, verdant refuge I had hoped for – although there were some wacked-out beauty queens getting their pictures shot standing next to fanged sacrificial goddess statutes.  There’s something symbolic in all that, but I don’t have time to get into that just yet.

I wish that I had an entire afternoon to write about all the wonderful people we’ve met down here, the great places we’ve stayed, but the schedule here has been completely insane – I have tomorrow as a full day yet at El Tiempo – the most advanced paper in the country, and one that could teach most American papers a thing or two about convergence.  And then after that, I have to sweat out a huge article about Schibsted for the NAA, and right after that, I’ve scheduled a slight nervous breakdown on the plane back to the U.S. – probably about the time that the Homeland Security goons at Miami airport take a gander at my passport, note that I’ve spent a month in Colombia, after several trips to Russia and some time in Amsterdam, and hit the red call button for the heavyset matron with the surgical gloves…

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Nov 13

Blazing into Cartagena Harbor

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This is video shot from a speedboat entering Cartagena Harbor. It’s calmed down a lot, but only a couple of years ago, the narcotraficantes and the Colombian Navy were playing a deadly game of tag here.

The video is extremely bumpy because of the high rate of speed; the boat captain was still a little nervous about going through some of the narrow channels, and past some of the small islands.  If the video isn’t too jerky, you can see the remains of some of the fortifications that have been thrown up over the years.  The harbor at Cartagena has been fought in, over and around for nearly 500 years now, since the Spanish used it as their main loading area for all the melted-down Inca gold and Sir Francis Drake made a bold attack on the big fort (see the pix up at my Flickr site) by marching his men down the peninsula. 

The island we went diving off of is called "Isla de las Piratas" or pirate’s island; there are allegedly sunken hulks of Spanish Galleons littering the coast here. 

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Nov 09

The Road to Barranquilla

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…and no, this is not some forgotten Hope & Crosby "Road" movie, co-starring Ginger Rogers & Betty Grable.

This is a "Guest Post" by Janine, and I’m running it here because it’s well-written and also because I’m so frickin’ burned out right now that I would have great difficulty stringing together an account half as coherent as this about some of the surprises we’ve encountered here during our "World Tour 2007-8" of Colombia for Andiaros and the government agency SENA.  Earlier today, I was able to show the roomful of very young journalists here just how easy it is to use the TypePad software to post something to a blog (BTW – the pic that appears there was take about 2 months ago, in Moscow, at a restraurant located on "Clean Lake" across from the Moscow offices of OLMA.)

Anyway, here’s Janine:

This picture was taken by Dave through the window of a military checkpoint that we hit on the way to  Baranquilla, a medium-sized city about an hour’s drive from
Cartagena.  WDsc00684_0810
e hit a nasty rainstorm on the way here so it took us
nearly two hours. As we drove, our driver told us about how the road was
impassible only a few years ago because of the Guerillas/Narcotraffickers.
Now there are Colombian military stations every several kilometers along
the way that protect the road and have made it possible for people to make
the drive without fear.

To help us appreciate how things have changed, he told a personal story
about a bus trip he took to Bogota a few years ago. Part way there, the
bus was stopped by guerrillas who boarded the bus and demanded everyone’s
Cedulas (the national ID). They then consulted the laptop they carried
with them, looking up each person’s name in a database to see if they were
related to anyone rich enough or powerful enough to make them worth
kidnapping.(Dave and I noted this was an impressive use technology, albeit
for all the wrong reasons.)

As the Guerrillas checked IDs, they had one of the children on the bus go
around and collect everyone’s shoes, which he explained they did routinely
to make it harder for anyone to run away, especially when they are being
led through the jungle at night and stepping off a path in the dark could
cause serious damage to bare feet.

But what really amazed us about the story, was that apparently the
guerrilla’s radio discussion about the bus was picked up by the
US-supported Colombian army, which then called for a Black Hawk helicopter
to be sent to help them. That radio message was in turn intercepted by the
guerrillas, who took off once they realized they’d been discovered and
that the helicopter was on the way. (An interesting case of spy vs. spy,
and a moment that I think represents well the turning point that led to
these roads being so much safer.)

Unfortunately for the passengers on the bus, the guerrillas had already
poured gasoline all over the inside of the bus, which they planned to set
on fire before they left. They didn’t take the time to burn the bus. but
the passengers had to  ride to the next town in a bus full of gas fumes so
strong it made most people sick. Still, I’m sure they all agreed it was
better than being kidnapped and walking barefoot through the jungle.

Today, he said he drives down these roads without fear, happy to see the
Colombian military on the side of the road. And I have to admit, Dave and
I both appreciated the soldiers a bit more after his story.

For my part, I’ve been amazed by how much more peaceful things are here
than they were just 6 years ago the first time I came to Colombia.
Everyone we’ve talked to about security has commented on the improvements,
how President Uribe has made such a difference by cracking down on
corruption and guerrilla activities, and how great it is that they can now
go out at night and travel the roads around the country without fear.

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