"The students are throwing rocks at the police," the taxi driver said on the way in from the airport. "It's dangerous, the government has called out the army." I felt like my luck was holding and slammed the video camera together but by the time we made it through the traffic, the students had already swept through the neighborhood. They left in their wake revolutionary slogans on every public building for several square miles. One read, "URIBE 100% PARACO" and accuses the president of being a member of a paramilitary organization, a death squad leader.
President Alvaro Uribe Velez, the former governor of Antioquia state and President Bush's closest ally in Latin America, has faced revelations that the most senior members of his administration collaborated with right wing death squads. Antioquia, the northern state where Colombia grows billions of dollars of agricultural exports both legal and otherwise, is Uribe's home state and also the center of the paramilitary movement. Antioquia and the paramilitary groups there are going to be the next stop on the trip. These organizations, which haven't really disappeared, are responsible for the some of the worst human rights abuses in the Americas.
The first night, I crashed in a really threadbare hotel in Barrio Candalaria, fled it the next morning, then relocated to the fantastic Hotel Dorantes around the corner. The Dorantes was the home to Colombia's bohemian theater and literary scene and now presides over the neighborhood as a hang out for artists and actors and travelers. Colombians live there as well and the old building with its high ceilings and skylights has the vibe of a cultural institution.
I start making the calls to the three local contacts. First among these is a Bogota-based Chilean photographer, Carlos Villalon, who knows Colombia well. Carlos has shot powerful stories for National Geographic and the New York Times among others. Although we've never met, Carlos wrote back in a few hours. We agree to get a coffee in his neighborhood, La Macarena, and talk about how we are going to get the story.
Bogota is built under the blades of two high mountains and is wreathed in clouds. At six thousand feet, it takes some time to adjust and the air feels a little thin even though it is heavy with rain.