When I decided to write this piece about the changing face of Colombia, I reached out to my friend Cristian. I wanted to do some research and get some context about what it was like to live in Colombia in the height of the Civil War. As we began to talk, it quickly became apparent that the story was not about Colombia, the story was Cristian himself.
Cristian was just a baby when his mother was forced to flee with him back to Colombia. She had moved to Venezuela in the late 70s as an economic migrant, getting a job as a maid for a powerful family.
“At that time Caracas was a very modern city, it was rich with petrol and a lot of Colombians moved there for work.” “As if out of a scene from Telenovela, my mother fell in love with the son of the boss of the house. She fell pregnant and from this relationship I was born. My father was a womaniser and was already married but he bought her a car and an apartment. He even got her driving lessons, but my mother just couldn’t learn, so they gave her a driver.”
It was from here that things started to change.
“They would ask her, ‘oh can you do me this favour?’ Somebody is going to take you here and you need to deliver this to someone.” “She was young, pretty and innocent and had no idea about what was really happening.”
“At some point someone who appreciated my mum in the family told her that they were Narcos and that my Grandmother was the head. She was known as the ‘Queen of Cocaine’ and had been in jail in Canada, Germany and a few other places. It was then she realised they had been using her as a drug mule. She confronted them and they opened up to her, telling her to be careful and showing her the ways they used to transport the drugs.”
“Then one day my mum received a call saying that she had to leave. My Grandmother, Father and Uncle were getting arrested and she needed to get out. Not only were the police onto them but they had enemies that had exposed them and they could go to her apartment looking for money and kill her.” “She didn’t have a lot of money except the apartment. She got what she could and bought a plane ticket for me and her and fled back to Colombia.”
Most of Cristian’s family was arrested, their houses and cars were seized and they became bankrupt. “All the money that had come so easily was gone, and my father was sentenced to 20 years.”
Cristian’s mum bought the only place she could afford, an old run down wooden house in a poor area of Cali. In it lived Cristian, his older sister and his Grandma. It was in the peak of the Colombian Civil War in 1984/85, with the Cartels, Government and Paramilitaries all fighting for power. At this point there were approximately 9 kidnappings a day and in Medellin alone in 84 and 85 over 5000 people were murdered.
Despite the problems in Colombia and in Venezuela Cristian’s mum had no choice but to return to Venezuela to find work. Like most economic migrants she would send home money every week to put food on the table and pay for schooling, speaking to her children on weekends over the phone.
“It was quite tough but it was a happy time, even though we were poor. We didn’t have a TV, just an old radio and my Grandma would cook cheap meals for us. I didn’t have toys, I just played on the ground.” “I remember though wanting to get out. Being very little and being clear that I wanted to not live in that country because of everything being so complicated and with bad news everywhere.”
Even though violence was everywhere, Cristian remembers a defiance towards it.
“Even though I grew up in a very dangerous area, and there would be some times in the day you weren’t allowed outside, people knew each other and would try take care of each other. But when u saw someone running or a big argument in the street, you would have to go inside as you don’t know what the result will be.”
“People would still have parties and bring out huge speakers into the street and have it at full volume. You could feel it vibrating through your house 4 doors down. It could go all through the night, so even if you had to study or sleep you would build up a resilience to it and just focus on what you had to do.” “Usually there was always a fight at the end as well. You could expect people with machetes fighting, someone getting hurt or worst case there would be a shooting.”
The inequality in Colombia bred movements such as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and other paramilitary groups during the 1960s. This combined in the 70s and 80s with the drug cartels and a corrupt government meant Colombia was in desperate trouble and the economic divide continued to grow.
“Colombia has always been a victim of social injustice. We are only now getting a middle class. You were either very rich or very poor.”
This allowed people like Medellin Cartel Boss Pablo Escobar to flourish. Despite shipping incredible quantities of drugs, he also built schools, football fields and housing for the poor and was elected into office. “Colombians have always looked for heroes that represent their values and where they come from.” “People had a complete disbelief of the Government, they assumed they are all corrupt. They didn’t trust politicians. People were like we have a really corrupt Government and between having a really corrupt Government and a Mafia Chief at least he is doing something.” “It was very confusing and very bizarre to be around it, especially with the news of all the people dying.”
As Cristian grew up he realised he needed to study extremely hard to remove himself from poverty. “I didn’t want to be another Colombian struggling.” Cristian worked hard and managed to get a grade good enough to attend a public university. Towards the end of university he decided to go into business with a friend. He took a loan out on his mother’s house to buy a medical centre that provided vaccinations. They purchased a small amount of vaccinations from a man in Bogota with a discounted supply. They had them tested to ensure that they created anti-bodies, they proved to be effective and they began using them.
“Then all of a sudden, we had the special forces coming to the medical centre smashing doors. There was media with cameras outside. They checked the vaccines and said they had been stolen from the Government and the original destination was for the Military. It was for the soldiers in the jungle and for the poor people who are prone to getting yellow fever and other diseases. We were found to be in possession of stolen vaccines, even though we had the certificate of authenticity from the seller.” ”We were not the only centre, it was everywhere, but we had the most media coverage.”
Despite not being responsible, the damage had been done. The cartels had claimed another victim. At 23, Cristian, who had worked desperately hard and was trying to help the people of his community, was ruined. He was left with a mountain of debt and the fear they would take his mother’s house. “I had no option, I graduated in secret and immediately left to Chile.”
11 years on and Cristian now lives in Australia. He continues to help the people of his community in various ways. A person’s story is always more interesting than the smile in front of it, especially if you take the time to listen. Whose story will you uncover?
© The Universe’s Bike