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My Petty Crime: Arrested by the Colombian Army

April 6, 2012

(Originally posted in February 2011. Reposted in respnse to Open Call: Arrested for a Petty Crime?)

 Colombia had a system of national identity cards,  called cedulas (which an accent over the ‘e’  I don’t know how to place with this keyboard that I’m using) which everyone 14 years of age and older was required to carry.  When I obtained a visa ordinaria, allowing me to live and work in Colombia for one year, I was issued a cedula de extranjeria, a foreigner’s  identity card.  It was a small (2″x2″) thin booklet with pasteboard covers that contained my photo and fingerprints, and taught me I was 1.73 metros de altura, had eyes of cafe, a nose recta, and castano colored hair (castano has a tilde over the ‘n’ and means ‘walnut’). I preferred to carry it rather than my US passport, because it was more compact than my  passport, which in those days was larger and longer than US  passports of today, designed to fit the inside breast pocket of a suit. I didn’t have a suit and my jackets had no inside pockets. If you stuck it in your hip  pocket, it extended out,  inviting theft or loss. If  I put it in my front pants pocket, it crumpled every time I sat down. So I left the passport at home and carried the cedula.  Once in a rare while I would forget my cedula and would be paranoid the whole day,  ducking into coffees  shops if I saw a cop or  crossing the street when I saw soldiers.

The Republic of Colombia was technically a constitutional democracy with an elected president and a legislature, However,  Article 121 of the Constitution allowed the president to declare a state of siege at any time for any length of time, suspending habeas  corpus, imposing a curfew, and allowing military tribunals to try civilians  Not coincidentally, the police and military forces received double pay during  the estado  de sitio.  Combat-ready troops routinely patrolled the streets of Bogotá and other large cities.  So there was a wee bit of a gap between the theory and the practice. 

Life in Bogotá quickly enlarged my limited Spanish vocabulary with such terms as estado de sitio (state of siege), toque de queda (curfew), and esculcar (the verb  ‘to frisk’).  Contra la Desorden bellowed the bold black headlines of El Tiempo, the most respectable newspaper in the country: Against the Disorder. Once a bomb exploded in the doorway of the offices of El Tiempo and the nest day the streets of downtown Bogotá were flooded with troops,  zipping around in jeeps with machine guns mounted  on the rear, and foot soldiers stopping and frisking pedestrians at random. That seemed a little irrational to me: why would the bombers be among pedestrians strolling the streets the next day? Suppose they didn’t revisit the scene of the crime–or only drove by in cars? And would you know them because they wouldn’t have proper identification on them? The show of force was understandable, I suppose, but it seemed like locking the barn door after the horse was gone.  One evening after concluding my last class at 8:00 PM, I walked about six blocks to meet my girlfriend whose last class at another language school ended at 9:00. I was repeatedly confronted by small groups of  soldiers with automatic weapons leveled at my midsection, to stop and show my hands, then my papers. Fortunately, my “papers were in order” and I was allowed to walk another 75-100 yards before the routine was repeated.

I liked the fact that Colombia was a Catholic country because all the major religious holidays were national holidays. They had 18 to 20 national holidays every year.  Corpus Christi,  Feast Day of St. Peter & St. Paul, Day of the Annunciation, Day of the Ascension,  Day of the Assumption,  and Day of the Sacred Heart, and more, were all national holidays.  Damn those Anglo-Saxon puritans and their killjoy Protestant work ethic!  My students also taught me that when holidays fell on a Tuesday or a Thursday, no one came to work or to class on the adjoining Monday or Friday,  because that day was the “puente” (bridge) that created a four-day weekend.

I looked forward to the week-long vacation Holy Week offered, a chance to get out of hectic big-city Bogotá (a city as big and as gritty as Chicago) and to some tranquil sunny  small town in the countryside. My girlfriend (let’s call her Sandra) and I took a long-distance bus some 10 or 12 hours to San Agustin , site of a major archeological park southwest of Bogotá.  The site has now been declared a World Heritage Center but it wasn’t as well-known in those days. And the streets of the small town next to the ruins had unpaved dirt streets.  It was still part of  the Colombian Andes,  steep green mountains covered in shrubby brush, with a low  overcast,  high  humidity, and cloudy skies.  It was more tranquil,  closer to nature,  warmer and sunnier than Bogotá, more relaxed and slower-paced.  We explored the ruins on foot, taking notice of varied, massive statuary reportedly  dating from 1000-1200 AD . One memorable  one was of an owl devouring a snake held in its beak, very reminiscent of the ancient  Azteca symbol of an eagle perched ona cactus  with a snake it its beak. Another was of a pan-pipe playing priest with a woven headband.  The baths were decorative channels carved into the riverbed,  an artistic expression that elaborated on nature without cutting the umbilical cord, so to speak. The carvings were still an integral part of the riverbed and the flow of the water.  My only disappointment was the lack of printed information about the ruins. No brochures, handouts, booklets and books about the culture of the  ancient people s who created these wonders.

One day Sandra and I got caught in a thunderstorm walking back to town. The rain was warm and refreshing. Returning to our low-budget hotel, she wanted to dry off and take a nap. I felt like changing into dry clothes and having a coffee at the coffee shop across the street. There I sat sipping my tinto double. In Colombia, “cafe”means cafe con leche, coffee mixed with an equal amount of hot milk. If you want black coffee, you must order “tinto” traditionally served in a demi-tasse cup. If you want a full cup of black coffee, you ask for a tinto doble.  There I was, minding my own business in this cafe with only about one-quarter of the seats occupied, when a dozen armed soldiers burst in with M-16 (or was it M-15s? Or Kalashnikovs? I don’t know) leveled. Up against the wall, everybody! I suddenly remembered the national  elections  were one week away. They lined all the men in the place against the back wall. They ignored the women. They frisked each of us men and demanded to see our cedulas.  No problem, I thought . I had no contraband and my cedula was right here in my pocket…oh shit, no it wasn’t! Must’ve forgot it when I changed out of my  wet clothes. The commanding officer said something to the effect of “you got it or you don’t” and six of us who didn’t were marched out to the main intersection of town where  they didn’t have a paddy wagon but a dump truck parked in the middle fo the intersection surrounded by a a ring of soldiers facing outwards, standing at parade rest. We  were made to climb up into the bed of the dump  truck (I am not making this up). I was the only gringo among the 15 to 20 men corralled in the dump truck, a fact the other men thought very amusing “You too?? We thought this only happened to us!”  A crowd had gathered to witness this and several of  the men were calling (in Spanish) to people,  “Hey! Tell Maria Victoria to bring my cedula! Third drawer on the right  in the  living room !” and “Go to my house! On top of the dresser in the bedroom! Tell Pilar to bring it !” So I decided that couldn’t hurt . Spotting two  boys about 12 or 13, I pointed to the hotel a block away, and said  “Esa hotel alla! Cuarto 14! Hay una gringa mona! Dile que me traiga la ceula! Por favor!” They took off running.

Soon the hotel manager and Sandra came running with my cedula . The manager engaged the   Commanding Officer  in an animated dialogue I couldn’t  overhear, but the upshot was the officer gestured to me to get down off the truck and go free.   Whew! I wasn’t looking forward to a Colombian jail. I asked the hotel  manager what happened to those men who weren’t lucky enough to have someone fetch their cedula on short notice. He said they were jailed overnight and  released in the morning with a warning. At least they weren’t hauled to the dump on the dump truck. I felt bad for them,  but others, Colombians, who had people fetch their cedulas were also turned loose.  And I hadn’t invoked my gringo citizenship to get favored treatment (something, as a matter of principle,  I vowed to never do in Latin America, ever). A quiet town, an archeological site, Holy Week, national elections, soldiers, a dump truck. What a combination. In Colombia in the 1970s you never quite knew what to expect next.



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