Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá

Today is International Day of Peace, the 21st of September.  To commemorate this day, this year the United Nations suggests that we reflect on how the new Social Development Goals contribute towards building a culture of peace:

“The Sustainable Development Goals are integral to achieving peace in our time, as development and peace are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.”screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-10-28-03-am

One of the SDGs, #16, calls on the world community to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

 

In this blog post, I want to reflect on “building a culture of peace” by describing what it was like living for three years in Tuluá, Colombia, during a period of great conflict in that part of the world.  It was a time when that society seemed neither peaceful nor inclusive, where justice seemed to be arbitrary and distant for many, and when the institutions of the state didn’t fully function across much of the nation’s territory.  And it was a time that, nonetheless, of course was joyful and fulfilling for the vast majority of Colombians, an incredibly strong and resilient people.

The people of Tuluá, and of Colombia more generally, have lived in a state of civil conflict for decades, and the three years that Jean and I lived there were some of the most challenging.  Thankfully, we can see prospects of a brighter future for Colombia these days.

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This blog post is sixth of a series I’m writing in which I combine a brief brief description of a climb up one of New Hampshire’s 48 4000-foot mountains with some reflections on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.  Over the next months, 48 posts.

I climbed Mt Osceola, which is 4340 ft tall (1323 m), on a solo hike, on 10 June 2016.

 

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As I did, most peak-baggers climb both Mt Osceola and East Osceola on a single day.  I’ll briefly describe the first part of that day – the climb up to Mt Osceola – in this blog, saving the rest of that day’s hiking for the next article in this series, which will describe the construction of a water system for the marginalised community of “Cienegueta”, on the outskirts of Tuluá.

Here’s a view of both Osceolas from the Hancock Overlook parking area, east of Lincoln on the Kancamagus Highway.  (I parked there to climb Mt Hancock and South Hancock, in late August 2016, but that’s a story for another day.)  The climb up Osceola is from the other side of the ridge that can be seen in this image:

 

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Mt Osceola Trail starts on Tripoli Road, just west up from Waterville Valley.  The hike up Osceola was pleasant and uneventful.  A nice summer hike, not too hot, not too many flying insects:

 

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A few weeks ago, in my last article in this series, I wrote about joining Plan International and moving to Tuluá, Colombia as Assistant Field Director in Plan’s office there.  As I described, Plan was growing and changing very quickly, and the Tuluá Field Office was one of 13 offices that were piloting the changes that the organization was putting in place to handle that growth.  Because of that, and because of the leadership of the Tuluá Field Director, Monique van’t Hek, and her Colombian staff, it was an exciting place to be.  I learned a great deal during those years.

This time, I want to describe what Tuluá was like in those days.

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We arrived in Cali in early July, 1987, flying from Los Angeles where we had been quite startled by a minor earthquake that shook LAX while we waited to board our flight to Colombia and our new life.

Monique had sent one of Plan’s vehicles, an old Toyota Land Cruiser, to pick us up at the Cali airport.  The Cauca Valley was beautifully lush and green as we drove north, with tall sugar cane growing on the valley floor and high mountain ranges on each side.

Over the next hour and a half, as we admired the scenery around us along the road, I began to get a bit nervous, for a couple of reasons.  Despite having lived and worked for two years in Ecuador, just next door, and although I had been tested as fluent in Spanish in the Foreign Service Institute assessment in Quito just the year before, I was not understanding much of what our driver, Fernando, was saying!  His accent was strange, he was talking too quickly, and much of his vocabulary was new to me.  Also, Fernando’s habit of mixing the formal and familiar forms of the word “you”, even in the same sentence, really confused me: in highland Ecuador, where I had learned Spanish, you used one form, or the other, and never mixed them.  In fact, at least among men, the moment when you switched from formal (Usted) to informal (tu) was very specific… and usually took place when both parties were inebriated.  But I had just met Fernando, we weren’t drunk, and he was mixing tu and Usted, willey-nilley.  So I was having a very hard time understanding what he was saying, even which “you” he was talking about!  (This kind of informal use of the language was typical in the Valle.)

The other thing that made me nervous was, when I did understand what Fernando was saying, he was using words like asesinatohomocidiomasacre… (assassination, murder, massacre …)  as he pointed out various landmarks along the road as we drove.

Jean, who had not yet begun to learn Spanish, seemed content, happily looking at the beautiful landscape as we drove north, not listening to Fernando at all … while I was beginning to get nervous about what we had gotten ourselves into!  I couldn’t really understand the Spanish that a new colleague was speaking, and it seemed like we were going to live in a very violent place!

But then we arrived in Tuluá, and checked into the Juan Maria hotel – not before having the “Happy Bar” pointed out to us by Fernando.  The “Happy Bar” – called “La Happy” as can be seen below, in a photo of the place from our time there – was where much of Tuluá’s political violence, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, had been planned.  I guess Fernando thought we might have heard of it…

 

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Tuluá lies in the Cauca Valley, between two of Colombia’s three Andean ranges.  Just as Plan, in 1987, was an exciting NGO to work in, Tuluá, a large town in the Valle del Cauca Department, was a great place to live.  The climate was hot but, at 1000 meters above sea level, not too bad, not as humid as on the coast.  It was a medium-sized town (with some 200,000 inhabitants today, in 2016) so there were markets and an old theatre, even a decent ice-cream shop (Mimo’s).  And it was only an hour or hour and a half from Cali, Colombia’s third city, so we could go to Cali to shop or see a movie every month or so.  Beautiful Lake Calima wasn’t too far away, on the road towards Buenaventura, where Plan had another Field Office.

 

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And Tuluá seemed to be a joyful place, renowned for the quality of its salsa dancing and for the beauty of its women.  Tulueños knew how to have a good time.  In many ways, it was not a hardship posting for us…

So we had a number of visitors during those years.  Here is a photo of me and my mother, during a two-week visit she made to Tuluá.  This was a famous spot – the “Curva Del Violin” – a particularly sharp turn in the road towards Ibagué: “Go Slowly Or You Will Die” it says.

 

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But Tuluá was also famous in Colombia for political violence, having suffered particularly in the long and bloody conservative / liberal wars in the 1940’s and 1950’s (known as La Violencia).  And by the time we arrived, the situation in Tuluá was becoming very complicated.

In addition to a continuing level of political violence, armed rebel groups controlled areas in the mountain ranges on each side of the Cauca Valley: to the west, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (“FARC” – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and to the east, the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (“ELN” – the National Liberation Army).

With its origins in La Violencia, by 1987 the FARC had evolved, from being political revolutionaries with a social-justice platform, into bandits, extorting and kidnapping, in alliances of convenience with the drug cartels in some places.  (As I write this, nearly 30 years later, it seems possible that the long armed conflict with the FARC may finally be coming to an end, with the signing of a peace agreement to be ratified through a referendum.)

Meanwhile, the ELN seemed to be focused on extorting money from multinational oil companies by blowing up remote pipelines, causing enormous environmental damage.  Despite their Marxist rhetoric, neither the ELN nor the FARC seemed to have authentic political goals.

Low-level armed conflict simmered between the government and each of these two Marxist rebel groups, with occasional skirmishes around Tuluá (and other areas around the country.)  To complicate things even further, cocaine-processing labs were scattered in the foothills on each side of Tuluá, run by what came to be known as the “Cali Cartel.”  At least initially, from my perspective, there didn’t seem to be much conflict between the government and the Cali Cartel, who (at that time) were reputed to be businessmen who had merely diversified into narcotics.  In fact, they did own a chain of pharmacies in those days – Drogería La Rebaja (“Discount Drugstore”), even with a branch or two in Tuluá.

Of course, the rise of Pablo Escobar and the “Medellín Cartel”, and the massive conflict between the Medellín Cartel and the Colombian government would soon greatly complicate matters…

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So Tuluá  in those years (and before, and since) was a complex place.  But more broadly, the legacy of La Violencia from the 1940’s and 1950’s had, to some extent, normalised violence in society – particularly in Tuluá, but also in Colombia more generally.  The long-standing presence of armed rebel groups in the area around Tuluá, controlling significant areas, made working in those zones quite tricky.  And, while the Cali Cartel’s operations around Tuluá were much lower-profile than their more-violent peers in Medellín, that would change soon.

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At a national level, things were becoming  very dangerous.  This graph, which I clipped from a newspaper article of the time, shows the murder rate between 1955 and 1988, rising inexorably to levels more typical of areas of declared war.

 

I remember visiting the local hospital, gathering data about child mortality for Plan’s program in health, and discovering that two-thirds of all deaths, from all causes, year-after-year, were from murder.  Two murders every day, on average, in this small town.  I’m not sure that there are very many places, outside of areas of declared war, with those kinds of statistics.

One night, early in our time in Tuluá, Jean and I were trying to get to sleep.  She leaned over and asked me why there were fireworks every night… I hesitated before correcting her: that was gunfire we were hearing.

The local newspaper, El Tabloide, like many of its kind around the world, seemed to delight in splashing photos of the victims across their front pages every week.  I kept notebooks with clippings from El Tabloide, some of which I’ll share here:

 

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These are terrible headlines, describing a very violent place.  But I certainly don’t want to leave the impression that our three years in Tuluá were a horror-show of violence and conflict – Jean and I hugely enjoyed our time there, and I learned a lot from the great Plan staff that I was lucky enough to work with.   They were smart, hard-working, great people, and we look back on those years very fondly…

At the time, and even now, I often felt that the view of Colombia, and Colombians, by my own country was terribly unfair.  While most of the causes of the terrible situation in Tuluá, and across Colombia, were to be found in the history of the country, actions by the United States certainly contributed and made things worse.

In particular, the so-called “War on Drugs” was destabilizing Colombia and contributing to increasing levels of violence.  Attempting to suppress the supply of narcotics into the US by military means greatly increased the already high levels of violence in Colombia (and elsewhere), affecting guilty and innocent alike.  And, of course, the only effective course of action would have been to suppress demand for narcotics, not the supply: as long as the demand exists, the supply will come, from somewhere.  Suppressing supply without dealing with demand, as any economist will tell you, only ends up increasing the price and, in this case, enriching a violent mafia.  But fighting the “War on Drugs” inside the United States was not politically acceptable, so the US chose to move the conflict to Colombia, and beyond.

One illustration of the immorality of this policy came in January of 1990, when the Mayor of Washington, DC, our capital city, was arrested after having been video-taped smoking crack cocaine:

 

 

Of course, we can’t blame the situation in Colombia entirely on Marion Barry, or on the US-sponsored “War on Drugs.”  But it seems clear that the demand for narcotics in the US, and Europe, was contributing to the rapidly-escalating levels of violence in Colombia.

It was the people in Tuluá, and Colombians nation-wide, who were suffering the trauma and loss of these events.  Their pain was immense in those days, and it’s a tribute to their resilience in such horrific times that their country has, to a great extent, emerged in much better shape today.

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The town’s mayor for much of our time was the charismatic, very smart, Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazábal.  One of Colombia’s premier authors, he had written a famous novel set during La Violencia in Tuluá – Condores No Entierran Todos Los Dias.  He was a very effective mayor, quite populist, and he got things done.

Plan was able to work well with him: here’s a photo of the two of us at the (apparently quite jolly) inauguration of a sewer project in La Marina:

 

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(Gustavo Alvarez went on to serve as Governor of the Valle Department, and later spent time in jail, convicted for having had financial dealings with the Cali Cartel.  More likely, I’m guessing, he was set up; it was a complex time.  These days he is a well-known radio personality and continues to write.)

The Condor referred to in the Mayor’s book was the bloodthirsty informal leader of Tuluá’s Conservative gangs in those days, a true story.  In one episode in the novel, the Condor is poisoned, and nears death.  Much of the Tuluá community gathers to celebrate, entertained by several members of the Cedeño family, Tuluá’s renowned musical clan.    The Condor recovers, however, and has the whole Cedeño family killed.

The Cedeño family was real, and young Daniel Cedeño, who played piano, is named in that episode; years later, Daniel became Jean’s Spanish teacher!  So, obviously, the novel was fictionalized in places…

 

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Daniel Cedeño and Jean

 

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Monique van’t Hek stepped down as Field Director in Tuluá, and I followed her in that role in July of 1989.  It was an easy transition, as the office was running very well and I’d been Assistant Field Director for two years, so the staff knew me.  I would serve as Field Director until late April of 1990, when we moved back to Ecuador where I would become Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador, working from Plan’s Regional Office in Quito.

In August, 1989, Luis Carlos Galán, the liberal candidate for President, was assassinated by the Medellín Cartel at an election rally.  He would have probably won the election of 1990, and would have become President.   The government of Colombia then declared war on the Medellín Cartel, leading to similar conflict with the Cali Cartel in the area around Tuluá.

The situation in Colombia then became even more unstable, with all-out war between the cocaine cartels and the government.  Armored helicopters began to fly from Tuluá to bomb  cocaine-processing laboratories in the foothills to the west of town; Jean and I could watch them fly overhead, and could see smoke rise from the attacks.  Three months after Galán’s assassination, on 27 November 1989, Avianca flight HK-1803 was destroyed by a bomb planted by the Medellín Cartel just after departing from Bogotá, bound for Cali.  107 people perished.

(During those days, with the situation growing increasingly dangerous and unstable in the country, Plan organized three days of security training for Field Directors in Colombia.  This was a good initiative.  We met in Cali.  On the first day, the trainer explained to us that there are three words, in Latin, that will calm any dog that is attacking us.  He moved on, without giving us the words, as I raised my eyebrows.  On the third day, as we wrapped up the workshop, I asked him to share the three Latin words with us, but he just ignored me… so I still don’t know those three important Latin words!)

And then, to top it all off, conflict between the Colombian Army and the FARC, in the mountainous areas around the town of Trujillo, to the west of Tuluá, erupted.  Tuluá itself was militarized, with tanks on the street and a nighttime curfew:

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My farewell party was planned for these days, but such events were banned during the emergency.  We asked for an exception, and permission was granted by the Mayor.  The party went on for most of the night, with the loud music, salsa dancing, and joy that typifies Tuluá.

 

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At some point in the early hours the next day, still dark, there was a loud knock on the garage door of our office, where we were celebrating, and in came an army patrol in camouflage, painted faces, machine guns, and a combat radio.  They relaxed when we explained that we had permission for the party …

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In the years after Jean and I left Tuluá, the Medellín Cartel was dismantled, with the killing of Pablo Escobar.  The Cali Cartel then rose to fill the vacuum created, of course, since the demand for cocaine had not been reduced, which again led to an escalation of violence.  Then, a few years later, shadowy right-wing paramilitary groups emerged across the country, fighting against the violence and kidnappings carried out by FARC and ELN and other rebel groups in rural areas… these same paramilitary groups in turn also became sources of violence and oppression in the population.

It was really only when the Colombian government established a degree of control, under President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), that the situation began to normalize.  While many, inside the country and overseas, strongly criticize President Uribe for human rights abuses, a majority of the Colombian people supported his actions, as they had had enough of the violence and terror that they had suffered, to various degrees, since the political violence of the 1940’s and beyond.

Returning to the theme of this year’s International Day of Peace, it was only when the institutions of the state began to function that peace could be imagined, even if only on the horizon.  And today, with the prospect of a permanent peace with the FARC (which, by the way, is fiercely opposed by former President Uribe) things seem brighter in Colombia, for the people of Colombia.

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Before beginning to describe my time at Plan’s Regional Office in Quito, working across the Andean Region and as a Senior Manager for Plan International, one more story needs to be told about my time in Tuluá: the water system we built for Cienegueta.  That’ll be the subject of my next post here…

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Here are earlier posts in this series – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:

  1. Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
  2. Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
  3. Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
  4. Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
  5. Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá.