Category Archives: Colombia

El Cartucho, Bogota

Above is the trailer for Stanislas Guigui‘s pending movie on the old El Cartucho district of Bogota.

Below are translations of my source materials for the book. Here is the 1991 El Tiempo article, “La Calle Del Cartucho: Oficina del Mundo Bajo” (Cartucho Street: The Underworld’s Office):

It is a world of misery where cardboard, marijuana, and crack are everything. They live in street carts or on the street. They eat a mixture of leftovers that a woman sells for 200 pesos and calls “combinado”. It is survival of the fittest. Carrera Once is dangerous even to street thugs and cardboard after midnight. There the underworld gathers.

During the day children and teenagers wander around under the effect of synthetic glue. They buy it for 50 or 100 pesos. They say it calms hunger and cold.

The men, consumed by poverty, endlessly smoke crack lying on the sidewalk. The air is stifling. Store owners throw hot water on addicts in an attempt to get rid of the smell. The homeland of the street thugs. It is 11 a.m. on August 16. “The Kid”, a white-skinned criminal native originally from Cali, takes a second drag from his Pielroja cigarette filled with crack. He says, “They killed Mastrangelo yesterday for being disrespectful, because here one must walk straight, no two ways about it. If they think you’re not paying respect…

The Kid, a lanky man with a beard of a tangle of hairs stuck to his dirty skin like leather, tells the last chapter in the life of Juan Guillermo Parra, one of many whose existence went unnoticed in a world of cardboard, marijuana, crack, and knives.

That’s the Cartucho Street in Santa Fe de Bogotá. A world of misery, hunger, and crime that starts at Transversal 9 and runs east, spanning down Carrera 12 to Calle 10 (see box).

In that stretch of street featuring foul odors, brick or adobe houses and recycling centers with damp interiors of lime walls are crammed with over a hundred cardboard recyclers, street thieves, and crack addicts.

The Kid, lying in the mud left by the rain last night, takes a third hit from his crack cigarette, holds the smoke in his chest, and continues, “I almost did not get any crack in today because you have to bring paper and bottles, and the owners do not like the smell. But I am not the only one walking around hopped up on crack all day.

From 7 a.m., huddled, reclining, or leaning on the walls of the recycling centers are fifteen or twenty ragged men, looking lost wit wasted faces, endlessly smoking crack.

The smell is so pervasive that sometimes, as if they were birds of prey, store owners throw boiling water on addicts to keep them off the sidewalks.

It is a futile effort because, unlike the drug dens that exist in other streets in the sector, smoking crack there is not hidden. It is normal. The glue dealers who manage stores have gotten used to the smoke. They even know that the money they paid to The Kid, the Conspirator, and others to bring loads of paper and bottles ends up in the pockets of the two women on the corner selling crack.

There a packet of crack costs 200 pesos. In the black market of Santa Fe, it costs 500 pesos. It’s the same with marijuana. Enough to get high for one day costs 50 or 100 pesos, while in other places in town it costs 300.

Silently, the drug dealers mingle among the crowd of cardboard recyclers on the corner of Carrera 12 and Transversal 9a. Their safety is in the hands of street kids, cardboard recyclers, and addicts, with the rare police sweep preceded by a word of warning: Cagada! Elsewhere trade is more open. On Carrera 11 between Calles 8 and 9 you hear “How much?” or “How many bags?” It is a scary drug market and also the main means of income for a forgotten society.

In this area a large bag of crack sells for 3,000 pesos. The buyer divides its contents in small quantities and resells it in El Cartucho or elsewhere.

The Kid, who has already put out the crack cigarette with saliva, says, “At 6 o’clock I go for a bag. If I did well, I’ll pay 7,000 pesos. I sell it or share it with friends.

The other side of this is the children and adolescents whose livelihood is pickpocketing. They are permanent addicted to synthetic glue, usually mixed with bazuco or marijuana.

Glue dealers buy commercial blue for 1,000 pesos a bottle and sell it in small amounts for 50 or 100 pesos on scraps of paper or in bottles. The business is lucrative. Each bottle earns 3,000 pesos in profit.

These are children who have lost all hope. They call them “pegantosos” because they huff glue all day. They say it calms hunger and the cold. They get high without knowing that in a few years their lungs will be totally destroyed.

On Carrera 11, closed to pickpockets and street children because it is the meeting place of the street gangs, is Casaloma, the top drug den.

Its entrance is a dark, damp alley. At the end is a room with cement floor where you see silhouettes of men playing dice, taking pills, or smoking crack. The smoke is so think you are hardly able to distinguish one person from another. Some men sit on the floor staring at the wall, corroded by time, undeterred by what happens.

In this black market, official complicity is evident. The Kid, who has relit his crack cigarette, points to an impeccably dressed man with green corduroy jacket and pants the same color, and says, “He thinks we do not know, but he’s a cop, the husband of a woman selling crack.”

But it is not alone. Every day at 4 p.m., two men arrive, recognized by the inhabitants of the cartridge, as agents of F-2, seeking vendors. They come for the tax. Each drug dealer pays a fee of 2,000 pesos a day.

Aware of what is happening there every day, the commander of the Metropolitan Police, General Fabio Campos Silva, promised to launch an investigation to identify those involved. Given the proliferation of dealers, it is almost impossible to identify anyoe. Because those who depend on the sale of cardboard paper and bottles supplement their income by selling crack and marijuana.

Sometimes the cardboard buyers make pacts with the crackhouses and buyers because they prefer to avoid being there. It also has a price, because whoever helps you will take a percentage in cash and drugs, and finally delivers the addict his part.

The sale of cardboard is one of the means to survive. Cardboard is considered a diamond in the rough. “They pay sixty pesos a kilo” says The Kid, who now smokes another crack cigarette, “And a bale of paper is 300. A glass bottle of champagne is worth 700, and aguardiente is 30.”

Those with better luck rent a wheeled cart for 100 or 500 pesos per day. For them, this is their only capital. A vehicle of this type is worth 7,000 pesos.

Generally large cardboard centers loan these carts for their own benefit, and pay a daily wage of 100 pesos to the collector. In the area there are thirty storage warehouses. “If one bottle is worth 700 pesos,” says The Kid, “one wheeled cart comes close to one million. That’s a business.”

Also abound is the sale of stolen goods as well as rusted objects in more than one hundred local shops embedded in the walls of El Cartucho homes.

When hunger is unbearable, go to the Calle 9 with Carrera 13. Doña María sells a combinado, an overheated mixture of leftovers collected the night before in the downtown restaurants of the capital.

It costs 200 pesos. It has everything: rice, lentils … but that requires true hunger, so today I brought my own pieces of chicken. The Kid opens his black bag full of greenish bones and small insects, and says God cares for him.

That is the world of El Cartucho, a society that creates men like Gabriel the Monster, who was killed in August 1990 by a stranger who shot him five times. The Kid says he was the law here. He had killed more than one, at least a dozen.

In a small corridor of Santa Fe a scrawl of graffiti on the white wall of a store on Carrera 12 which crudely summarizes the situation: “The home of the gangsters. Begging God …”

Every Wednesday the Metropolitan Police accompanies a woman in a van into El Cartucho. The people who sleep in wooden carts, where they also have casual sex with street women, wake up and flee in panic from what they always believe is a raid.

Not this time. The van’s cargo is loaded up with six canteens of lemonade, bread, and chocolate. Also shoes, shirts, and old coats collected by this woman who for years has come to this place for a chance to redeem those who have nothing.

The van is parked on Carrera 12 and the agents, the same ones who come on cold nights to sweep the area of criminals, shout and call out to these men consumed by misery to pick up what they have brought. The line is endless.

For them it is also the only chance to decry the hits and abuses they suffered from those who sometimes enter El Cartucho and mercilessly beat those who suffer the misery of belonging to the dredges of society.

Then those voices are heard: Officer, look how you left me for being out here, or see how that one guy was taken last night. Do you know where he is?

I think the janitor of the building thought I was crazy. He opened his eyes and looked at me open-mouthed. I had found a couple. I managed to hear: Oh, some crazy.

So I concluded that everything was fine and rested my fears about the warning I received on the night August 14th, when we were in El Cartucho with the police. Only go in with us. If not ….

The idea did not seem good to me. I took an old sack of gray cloth I used to clean the apartment to give myself an aura of dirt. Black and brown shoe polish made good stains. Then I plunged into a garbage dumpster and acquired the smell. I tore the pocket of my shirt and four buttons; only one remained.

I removed a piece of cloth from the bottom of my right pant leg. I unhooked the waist button and fastened it with a shoelace.

Shoe polish also served for facial makeup and the greasiness of the hair. I went to the park on Calle 26 and Carrera 7. There I began to wallow. Dirt on the face finished the job.

I walked down Calle 26 to Avenida Caracas. Women who saw me changed sidewalks or gripped their purses.

An accidental injury to my finger brought a new element: blood mixed with dirt.

I tried to enter a street cafe at Calle 23 with Avenida Caracas, but could not. The owner shouted, “Son of a bitch, out of here, don’t come fucking with people here.”

The fear was dissipated when a ragged man approached me and said, “What happened to you? You see what that fucking crack does. Go back home, you still have people who love you …

Still in disguise, I got the worst scare in my life when a blue-eyed man pulled out a large knife and asked: “What movie are you working on?” Without taking his eyes off, he stabbed the knife hard into a wooden cart and left.

From the 2003 Semana article, “El fin de una vergüenza” (The End of an Embarrassment”):

El Cartucho is finished. A five-year effort restored dignity to not only the hundreds of people living inhumanely, but also to all of Bogotá’s citizens.

This year the last house of the area known as El Cartucho fell, and wit it 40 years of shame was demolished. It was in downtown Bogotá, in the old elegant neighborhood of Santa Ines. It was named for the calla lily flower, the figure of which the two streets of its origin resembled.

El Cartucho converged in the worst human dramas. Hundreds of people were killed there (it is difficult for authorities to know how many). Women, children, and elderly lived trapped by despair and oblivion, victims of drug, rape, and pain. During those years, all our indifference ended up contributing to this tragedy. State entities practically abandoned Cartucho residents and transients to their fate, although it was just three blocks from the Palacio de Nariño and an Army battalion barracks, and five blocks from Congress, the Mayor’s Office, and Social Welfare office, and directly opposite the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police.

There were many factors that allowed such deterioration. One of the leaders of the area already dead, Ernesto ‘El Loco’ Calderon, says that the eviction of the El Cortijo garbage dump shifted recycling activity to that sector. Around the same time, the marijuana and cocaine gangs found that the grand old houses of Santa Ines had become rentals. It was the ideal location for sites of consumption (crackhouses) and distribution of drugs, especially crack cocaine.

There lived a million-dollar economy in drug trafficking, garbage recycling, and the existence of thousands of indigents. In El Cartucho they lived day by day. The lease of a room is paid daily. The most common food, rice with pasta or ‘el miti miti’, costs 500 pesos. 200 pesos buys a piece of soap or tube of used toothpaste, and a crack cigarette (bicha ) costs 500 pesos. In the last decade illegal arms and false documents also flourished.

These dynamics ultimately trapped the 10,000 inhabitants who, according to the 1999 census by Urban Renewal, ‘lived’ in 602 properties in the neighborhood. In addition about 3,000 people, for various reasons, were there every day. El Cartucho children and school teachers coexisted along with graphic artists, market vendors, abandoned elderly, single mothers with their children, and recycling families who came to sell their collected garbage. Many were paid in drugs; they slept and ate right there. Also living in the area were homeless, thugs, and sobanderos around the building of Legal Medicine. Some public bodies launches social services, probably well intentioned, but with the serious consequence that sent a message of tolerance and ‘understanding’ in the face of dehumanization and criminal impunity. Various NGOs, religious organizations, universities, media, researchers — all with the most diverse motives — put the people to work in their activities. Without questioning the good will of some, the end result of all of them was still ‘living’ in El Cartucho. No one seemed shocked by its mere existence.

In 1998, the then-mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, made the political decision to radically intervene in the district. His main reason was that it was urgent to save the thousands of people trapped in there, especially children, women, and the elderly. You had to give them the life choices they had always been denied. It was also crucial to prevent crime and drug trafficking from continuing with ease and impunity. It was also necessary to recover the entire downtown area for city, where more than one million and a half citizens live, work, and pass by every day.

It was a decision that involved great risks, because public opinion was incredulous and filled with fear. In addition there were threats from the illegal sectors affected. Nobody had done anything similar in another Colombian city, and there were few similar experiences in the world, to know how to deal with such a situation.

The intervention of El Cartucho had two levels. On the one hand, urban renewal was completed this year. It involved complex censuses of the population, identify properties and their owners, submitting bids and compensation, and planning and building the Tercer Milenio Park. The other level was an ambitious program of social and humanitarian intervention, for which the diversity of social phenomena needed to be addressed had no precedent. In a context of zero tolerance for crime, respect for rights in the performance of duty, an approach to the population with full transparency was initiated.

In addition to special programs for the relocation of typographers, food sellers, and recyclers, a program to care for street dwellers who came in and out of El Cartucho was designed and implemented. In the last five years, under the two previous administrations, over 1,500 people who had made these streets home have been rehabilitated. Transient accommodations were built in various places, where specialized personnel attended to 1,000 families as a prelude to their relocation to normal neighborhoods of the city. Today about 300 of them have managed to buy housing. Amar centers launched for 850 children who were not attending school or daycare. Due to the conditions of their parents, nearly 600 children had to be removed from their homes (if you can call the dens where they lived ‘homes’) and protected. 800 elderly were placed in social programs. More than 3,000 people have found work. More than 5,000 were assisted in training and guidance in various trades.

In total, the city has invested more than 18 billion pesos in social investment for the people who came out of El Cartucho, in addition to 20 billion invested in rehabilitation for the capital’s drug addicts.
Today, incredibly, some voices are calling the recovery of El Cartucho a waste of resources, and reduce the effort to the simple aesthetic desire to build a nice park. They wonder if it was not better to have left the area as it was. Sure, it was easier, cheaper, and less risky. But it was inhumane.

Consumption and sale of illegal drugs and street life are both hallmarks of the great cities of the world, a product of uprooting, disruption, and social and family violence. That is why we citizens must be alert and defend these social achievements against the risk of new ‘Cartuchos’ popping up around the old one or elsewhere in the capital. It was correct for the authorities to intervene to the full extent of the law, but also with social and humanitarian responsibility, against sectors where this social scourge is detected before it becomes unmanageable.

This year Bogotá may say that it no longer has a ghetto hell in its bowels, where a child once died in the street, curled up in a fetal position, and no one noticed for two days. And a four-year-old boy was castrated. Instead there is a park where children may play, the elderly can bask quietly in the benches, and the only remaining Cartuchos are flowers as a testimony of the shame the city lived with for four decades.


Alejandrina la Salsera

Photo credit: El Universo
Photo credit: El Universo

From the 2011 El Universo article, “Alejandrina Hernández, una voz que te alucina en Hachís Bar” (Alejandrina Hernandez, a Voice that Amazes at Hachis Bar):

I swear it. If you listen to Alejandrina Hernandez sing and watch her on stage, you will be amazed. She seduces you with her voice of flowers and thorns. It happened in Montañita, a bar of high waves, wind, and magic.

That night I greeted my friends at the iconic Hachis Bar without one drop of liquor in my blood. In that bar is where the Hachis All Stars, the resident band, began to sing “El cuarto de Tula” and a black singer, after warming up with a shot of tequila, sang that Cuban anthem with passion before changing to a blues song of anguish.

In that vein a night of blues, salsa, and bolero wore on. The people at Hachis Bar were amazed not only by her voice, but also by the expressive power of her stage presence. For that authenticity you get your fill of happiness and nostalgia, caresses and broken hearts.

The next afternoon I spoke with Alejandrina, who was born in Esmeraldas, prefers not to disclose when. His parents were from Tumaco, an Afro-Colombian city.

“My life was never easy,” she admits. “It was really difficult to get into music because as a child I had to work. Work or sing.” She remembers when she was very young, at 6 p.m. every night it was magic listening to distant boleros from the jukeboxes in the bars of her Esmeraldas neighborhood. In Guayaquil at age 13, she dared to sing on Radio Cristal in an amateur competition. She sang Desden and won second prize.

Living in Cali at 18, she sang ballads on some radio stations. But it was never easy to survive as an artist, so she studied cosmetology.

Her life has been coming and going between Ecuador and Colombia. In 1987, after living with her daughters far from music on the islands of San Andres, Colombia, she decided to move to Bogota to present her blues which she only sang to her daughters. She worked at a hair salon and frequented a bar in the Zona Rosa until 1992, when the reggae band Mango invited her to sing.

There she met keyboardist Carlos Vives, who also had his band, Distrito Especial. He invited her to sing in his show. “That night I was nervous. The bar almost did not let me enter because they thought I was begging,” she says. “The show started. I said I sang reggae music and started with a ballad from Donna Summer. I let loose. I don’t know where the inspiration came from, but the people were enchanted. ”

That night opened new doors for her. She acted in a musical at the TTB theater in Bogota. He sang ballads on the soap opera, En Cuerpo Ajeno, which starred Amparo Grisales.

She started singing at various venues and even had her own bar, Subterraneo, and band of reggae, Cuban, and Colombian music. After singing in El Zaguan del Viejo Conde with Gerardo de Francisco and his wife Margarita FranciscoLa Gaviota from the soap opera, Cafe, con aroma de mujer – she was invited to work on the group’s CD that was being recorded. Everything was fine but that project was discontinued suddenly, along with Alejandrina’s will to continue.

“One day in 1996 I felt very sad and said, I do not want to keep singing.” Then she became a craftswoman and began to travel Colombia. She settled on the island of Jambelí, El Oro, where she lived until recently at the La Casa de la Luna hostel. Now, she is again on tour singing because she wants to record a CD and also write songs for other performers. For six months she has been in Montañita singing her covers, and also the blues which are a portrait of her life.

“I have a strong story to tell that puts any soap or film to shame, for the experiences that I have overcome to succeed. But I never let the pain, sadness, abandonment, anger, or others’ hatred or aggression stop me. I always said, ‘One day will be my day’. And when I was sad, I sang. Music is a therapy that cleanses my soul. My life is music,” says Alejandrina with a smile that highlights the wrinkles on her dark face.

Every weekend Alejandrina Hernandez enchants people at Hachis Bar. Especially when singing her Walkin’ blues: “Errante vagabunda por el mundo voy/ Sin puerto que me ate/ Siempre libre soy/ Peregrinando por la vida/ Dejé de lado los dolores/ Y he guardado los placeres en un rincón del corazón/Llevo la música en el alma/ Y un buen blues para cantar/ Y también llevo marihuana por si me tocara llorar/ Oh sí, alegre por la tierra voy/ Oh sí, cantando alegre estoy/ El camino que ha quedado atrás/ No lo puedo encontrar jamás/ El camino que quedó de lado/ Hoy no lo puedo recuperar.”

I swear Alejandrina Hernandez’s voice enchants you. If you do not believe me, go to Montañita and, once you are hypnotized, drink a beer in my name.

En Cuerpo Ajeno theme song

“Gaviota”, theme song from Cafe, con aroma de mujer

Alejandrina singing in Montañita, Ecuador

See more of Alejandrina singing in Montañita.

Puente Aranda Fire

Photo Credit: Asobel
Photo Credit: Asobel

This article is reprinted here because it could not be found on the Associated Press archives website. I own no rights, and once it is published in the AP archives I will link to its new home from the book.

The Associated Press
December 14, 1982

Two burning storage tanks that held four million gallons of gasoline forced the evacuation of 8,000 people from nearby homes and a military base Tuesday, but the government said later the fire was under control.

President Belisario Betancur’s office issued a statement Tuesday night saying fire fighters had brought the huge blaze under control, and they were spraying other tanks to keep them cool while the fire burned itself out.

“Residents in the area of Puente Aranda can be calm because there is no need for alarm or concern for their personal safety,” the statement said. It added that a safety ditch surrounding the storage facility used by Esso and Texaco also would keep the fire from spreading.

The Modelo prison, which is about 500 feet from one of the burning tanks and holds some 3,000 inmates, was not evacuated. Earlier in the day, many prisoners screamed to be let out and military police were sent in to prevent a riot, radio stations reported. They said military police also were patrolling abandoned residential areas to prevent looting.

Betancur’s statement said there was sufficient gasoline for motorists, but long lines of cars formed at service stations and many stations closed when their supplies ran out.

Fred Jacobsen, director of public relations for Esso, said trained fire fighters were battling the blaze and they had “a plan of action … for using chemical spray to combat such a fire.”

“There is a possibility that the walls of the tank might give way a little, opening cracks and allowing the flaming material to fall upon the surrounding area,” he said. “However, this would not be serious since the problem could be attacked immediately.”

The fire, sending flames and smoke high over the city, will be allowed to burn itself out and could last through Wednesday, the minister of mines and energy, Carlos Martinez, said in a broadcast interview.

The cause of the fire was not known. The Bogota daily El Tiempo quoted army Gen. Bernardo Lema as saying sabotage by leftist guerrillas may have been the cause.

But officials said the blaze may have started when a passing army truck backfired, with a puff of flame from the exhaust touching off a fire at a tanker truck loading near one of the storage tanks that burst into flames. They said the tanker truck also burned.

Eight employees at the storage facility were injured when one of the Esso tanks burst into flames at 11 p.m. Monday, the Bogota Fire Department said in a news release.

The second tank, about 180 feet from the first tank and also belonging to Esso, burst into flames about an hour later. There are 10 tanks in all at the facility, each with 2 million gallons of gasoline. The area also includes about a dozen big tanks of propane gas.

About 3,000 soldiers and their their families at an army base adjacent to the tank farm were evacuated. Police forced an estimated 5,000 people in nearby houses to leave the area during the predawn hours.

The storage tanks are at Puente Aranda, about five miles east of El Dorado International airport and about three miles west of the downtown area of this city of 5 million people.

Read more about the fire in Spanish:

Justice is Slow in Colombia — Not Enough Judges

palacio justicia bogota colombiaThis article is reprinted here because it could not be found on the Associated Press archives website. I own no rights, and once it is published in the AP archives I will link to its new home from the book.

The Associated Press
July 13, 1981

Justice Is Slow In Colombia — Not Enough Judges

BYLINE: By TOM WELLS, Associated Press Writer

Colombia has about 30 million people and only 1,000 judges. Justice, therefore, is slow and it is not uncommon for people to spend years in jail just waiting for a trial.

A case was disclosed two years ago of a man who waited 10 years in jail only to be found innocent in the end.

As of last Jan. 1, about 1.8 million people were in jails waiting to be charged or waiting for trial, the assistant minister of justice, Santiago Diago, was quoted as saying in a locally published interview earlier this year.

The problem of slow justice recently came to the fore in the publication of an open letter from prisoners of a Bogota jail, saying they’d prefer the death sentence to their present condition.

The fact that the country has only 1,000 judges means that each judge has an average of 1,800 cases, making it impossible to deal out “swift and sure justice” as the constitution requires.

Like most Latin American countries, Colombia has a form of Roman law, under which a person who is arrested is presumed guilty until proven innocent — the opposite of English common law followed in the United States and other Western nations.

It is not uncommon for the driver of a car to be jailed arbitrarily if involved in a traffic accident in which someone died. It is of no concern to the police or the system of justice right away that the jailed person may have done nothing wrong.

Under Colombia’s system a judge has up to six months to decide whether someone should be charged or not. Some lawyers say privately and anonymously — they do not want to antagonize judges — that the six months rule is not adhered to.

Once a person is actually charged, he faces a long period, perhaps years, in jail waiting for a trial by a jury of three.

Presently there is no bail in Colombia. This is because judges, lawyers and even defendants understand that once let out on bail the accused would never show up for trial.

Next year, under a new criminal code, judges will be allowed to set bail. But lawyers claim privately that what bail means is that the wealthy or at least those able to afford bail will go free, and that the poor will remain in jail waiting for trials.

The open letter published by Bogota newspapers was signed by more than 100 prisoners in Bogota’s Modelo Prison who said the death sentence would be preferable to indefinite waiting for their cases to come up.

There is no death penalty in Colombia. The Modelo Prison (Spanish for Model Prison) has been described as overcrowded and filthy. Allegations of brutality have been made against some of its security personnel.

“Here in this jail there is the most horrible human degradation,” the prisoners’ letter claimed. “Ninety percent of the people jailed here have not been tried. It would be better to impose the death penalty to end the agony.”

Few Colombian lawyers want to become judges because of low pay — averaging the equivalent of about $500 a month.

So those lawyers taking judgeships are usually those with down-and-out practices, lawyers maintain. Six judges have been murdered by gangsters in the last year, apparently for leaning too hard on Colombia’s illicit sale of marijuana and cocaine to dealers from the United States.

Diago, the assistant minister of justice, was quoted as saying in the interview that there is actually an oversupply of lawyers in Colombia, but that few are to be found in provincial towns where they are badly needed.

Many lawyers hope to rise in politics, and there is not much chance of them doing that away from the big cities.

Colombian Skinheads

colombian nazi skinheads
Photo credit: Semana

Here is a video on the different factions of the skinhead scene in Bogota:

Christopher would not have known which breed of skinheads he had his encounter with. But what garners the most curiosity from gringos about the Colombian skinheads are the racist, neo-Nazi skinheads. Here is the 2011 Semana article, “La noche de los nazis criollos” (Night of the Creole Nazis), translated from Spanish:

With swastikas, effigies, hymns, and threatening speeches, 122 people gathered in a hall in downtown Bogota to commemorate the 122nd birthday of Adolf Hitler. A SEMANA team spent three hours of madness and fanaticism with them.

The meeting is at the entrance to the National Library, amidst the typically lonely weekends of Bogota’s central district of Las Nieves. While the Catholic majority of the city prepares for Palm Sunday, guests arrive to commemorate the birthday of Adolf Hitler.

They call themselves Tercera Fuerza (Third Force) . They dress in dark clothes; some wear coats to protect against the persistent drizzle and cold of Bogota. With shaves heads and polished boots, which do not hide their apparent militia status, one of the leaders admits SEMANA journalists to enter the lounge of a hotel only accessed by invitation and which is guarded by police.

His name is Diego and they call him “Comandante”. The man takes his role to heart and does not allow the photographer to do his work until everything is ready. He is young with a shaved head, manicured hands, a tiny mustache, and a strong smell of aftershave that reminds of the old barbershops. “It’s a tribute to the birth of our great leader,” he proclaims, and then answers a call on his cell phone. “Yes, ‘Cuchito’, yes, yes, everything is ready,” he says with almost reverent respect.

On either side of the enclosure a couple of pictures of Adolf Hitler rise, accompanied at the bottom with the slogan of Nazi Germany: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (One people, one empire, one leader). 122 years have passed since his birth, the same number of guests at the meeting. Two red flags flanking his figure with the unmistakable swastika in a white circle.

Creole nationalism

Diego wears his black uniform, adorned with various logos, with obvious pride. One is the imperial eagle of the now-defunct National Socialist Workers Party. Moving up is the Third German Reich. On another are the letters T and F, also with the old German script.

He says they are “a cultural association” that defends “a cultural heritage and ethic, love for our nation, and belonging to the National Socialist family”. He clarifies that they only use violence to “defend the ideal, not to impose it.” They describe themselves as anti-capitalist and anti-left, “hence we are the Tercera Fuerza”, he concludes.

They are not considered illegal. They benefit from Articles 19 and 20 of the Constitution, which guarantee freedom of opinion and the right to express thoughts and opinions. That allows them greater freedom to be associated with National Socialist groups in Latin America, unlike Nazi supporters in the south of the continent, where restrictions are much stronger.

They are ruled by a triumvirate that makes decisions and organizes them into various departments. They develop projects on different fronts: propaganda, economy, defense, recruitment, and selection. El Comandante says they have 8,000 members – a clearly exaggerated number – in Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Pasto, Barranquilla, and Bucaramanga.

The leadership meets twice a week and indoctrination is done with readings and film review. They also have military-style physical training held in parks or through activities such as hiking and camping. La Orden (The Order), as they also call themselves, sustains itself with fixed monthly dues charged to its members.

Prospective members must complete an entry form (in which the picture, of course, is required). They claim only to accept those profiles from “the right people, free of vices, who lead honorable lives – at least working or studying – with no criminal record or having caused public scandals.”

But who is Comandante? A legal expert who works as his company’s security coordinator. He works his hours, is unmarried with no children, and lives with his mother.

From 5 to 80

The doors to the hall open and the audience gradually arrives. The vast majority who pass through the door are no older than 25. Some men attend in suits and dark ties, and most wear red swastika armbands. Women wear elegant dresses, with lots of straight hair dyed in bright colors in unconventional cuts.

Children also attend, holding their parents’ hands. “We are people of a community participating in our activities. We are more comfortable if we let our own children get together, as opposed to playing with the kids of strangers,” says Diego.

Then “Cuchito” appears, who refuses to reveal his identity. “Isn’t it amazing to see so many young enthusiasts?” He is pleased. He explains that these people are mostly middle- to upper-class with higher education. “They are honorable and from a good socioeconomic background, although we do grassroots outreach in neighborhoods of all economic levels,” he says.

“We hope to have 100,000 members in five years, so we can establish a political party. Otherwise, we’ll just keep spreading our message,” he says, without shame.

The ‘denial’

A screen that serves as a backdrop to the meeting projects some of the Führer’s speeches in German, translated in barely visible subtitles.

There are only white people in the hall. Cuchito scrambles to explain the blatant racism. He says that is “racialism”, in which he says all the races are battling the Jews. And then he expounds his anti-Semitic position with the “denial” argument, that the Holocaust was exaggerated. He contemptuously calls the murder of six million Jews in the Hitler’s Nazi concentration camps “Holocuento” (Hollow-story).

This convention is not new. In fact, it is the third such reunion in the same place. “These are people who rent the room three hours, drink a glass of wine, and eat a few snacks. But when they get started, the atmosphere gets heavy,” says one of the waiters. Just then the first “Heil Hitler” greetings echo.

And while it is not the the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in Munich, Germany, where Hitler attempted his first coup d’etat, it is in spirit. It is in the hymn, “The Flag on High“, it is in the appearance of some of the attendees and the rather gloomy background, an atmosphere that recalls those chilling times of the twentieth century when Pan-Germanism and the messianic anti-Semitic vision of a diabolical leader led humanity to a war that killed 60 million people.

Immediately afterwards they sang with fervor the verses of “Cara al Sol” (Face to the Sun), anthem of the Spanish Falange, which many know by heart. And after a resounding “Heil Hitler”, they toast glasses of sweet Spanish wine with an ice cube.

Procedures last for about two hours. A new recruit, with the naive candor of a freshman, talks about how proud he is to be in the movement and the support he will give to his son, “a white baby”.

A youth also addresses the audience and salutes the image of the Führer, while another questions the role of equality assumbed by women today who, according to him, naturally should be caring for the home. In another speech, even the Nule brothers are criticized. A triple “Sieg Heil” answers the audience, out of rhythm.

A new cry is shouted: “¡Viva Colombia! ¡Viva España!” (Long live Colombia, Long live Spain!) The proclamation comes from veteran Spanish journalist, Fabio Roca Vidales, a 78-years-old Falangist militant. Later he is given the honorary title of Commander-in-Chief of the association. He enthusiastically accepts before exclaiming “Heil Hitler”.

In closing, Comandante releases his fiery oration. Our movement is “peaceful but not pacifist,” he warns. And he finishes: “If laws, certain politicians, and dark forces of power censor us and silence our voice, as has happened in many other countries to our comrades, TF is willing to take up arms, go underground, and die together as National Socialists, in a trench with a rifle on our shoulders.”

The curtain comes down. It is ten o’clock at night. For three hours Hitler had room to return from beyond. An opportunity that in several countries would not only be a scandal, but a crime.

Watch Semana’s video of the event here:

In 2014, “El Comandante” was murdered. From the El Espectador article, “Asesinan líder neonazi en Bogotá” (Neonazi leader murdered in Bogota):

Alfredo Devia, aka “El Comandante”, was killed last Tuesday night in the Santa Isabel de Bogota. Devia was the leader of the neo-Nazi organization, Tercera Fuerza. According to the las2orillas website, he was killed “in retaliation after collecting extortion money from a small business in the area.” Apparently, the deceased was linked to illegal group, Los Rastrojos.

The body of “El Comandante” was found inside a Mitsubishi Nativa SUV along with another man who has not been identified.

Devia is credited with the creation of the Tercera Fuerza, a group inspired by skinhead movements in England, made up of young nationalists who have been involved in several episodes of violence in Bogota.

Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

juan ramon matta ballesterosJuan Matta Ballesteros bribed enough guards to open seven gates to escape Bogotá’s La Modelo penitentiary the same day Christopher arrived. He witnessed the ruckus as he was arriving.

From the 1985 New York Times article, “Colombia Seizes Suspect in U.S. Drug Aide’s Death” (before Matta Ballesteros bribed his way out of La Modelo):

A man believed to be the leader of a major cocaine trafficking ring, who is also a key suspect in the killing of a United States drug enforcement agent in Mexico, was arrested in Cartagena, Colombia, on Tuesday, drug officials announced here today.

John C. Lawn, the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the man arrested by the Colombian National Police, Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, was one of four top suspects in the murder of Enrique Camarena Salazar, the American drug agent abducted in February in Guadalajara.

Two other suspects, Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carillo, were arrested last month. Mr. Lawn said the fourth suspect, Miguel Felix Gallardo, who is still at large, was a ”subordinate to Ballesteros” and had been ”directly linked” to the drug agent’s murder.

Mr. Lawn said at a news conference today that Mr. Matta Ballesteros was one of the ”most significant cocaine traffickers in the world” and the head of the so-called Padrino trafficking organization, which supplies cocaine to the United States, especially the Southwest. It operates in Peru, Mexico, Colombia and Honduras, he said.

Escape From U.S. Custody

A Honduran national, Mr. Matta Ballesteros has been wanted by the United States law enforcement authorities since 1971, when he escaped from the Federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He had been serving a three-year sentence for passport violations and illegal entry into the United States, Mr. Lawn said.

Drug agency officials said Mr. Matta Ballesteros was also wanted in New York on Federal charges of conspiring to import and distribute cocaine. According to an arrest warrant and complaint, he took part in a conspiracy between 1976 and 1982 to import five shipments of at least 660 pounds each from Colombia to the United States by way of Guadalajara.

”From Guadalajara, the Padrino organization funneled the cocaine into New York, Miami and Los Angeles,” the Drug Enforcement Agency said.

Mr. Lawn said Mr. Matta Ballesteros had offered the Colombian police who arrested him a payoff of $450,000 to ”unarrest him,” which they declined.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, which Mr. Lawn said provided the Colombians with information that helped lead to the arrest, is working with the Justice Department to seek extradition. Other nations, he said, will also seek Mr. Matta Ballesteros’s extradition on different charges. The D.E.A. is also investigating bank accounts around the world where Mr. Matta Ballesteros is believed to have deposited drug money. 3,600 Pounds of Cocaine Seized In the last nine months, drug agency officials said, they have seized 3,600 pounds of cocaine, $16 million in cash, three properties and several planes from the Padrino organization. They believe the ring is able to smuggle up to 60,000 pounds of pure cocaine into the United States annually. In addition, they said, the Internal Revenue Service has outstanding liens on the group worth $26 million.

Drug officials have said that one week after Mr. Camarena and his Mexican pilot were reported missing in February, they gave the Mexican authorities information that Mr. Matta Ballesteros was in an apartment in Mexico City and that they sought Mexican help in arresting him. But the Mexicans delayed acting for two days, they said, and Mr. Matta Ballesteros escaped, probably because of a tip.

Mr. Lawn said today that he was initially disturbed by Mexico’s failure to cooperate, which he termed ”at best, inaction – at worst, complicity,” but that he was encouraged by recent efforts by the Mexicans to help.

In testimony today before the House Judiciary Committee’s crime subcommittee, Mr. Lawn acknowledged that corruption had impeded efforts to attack drug trafficking in Mexico. As as example, he said, Mr. Caro Quintero – who has provided the Mexican authorities with information since his arrest – had said he had 700 to 800 local, state and Federal officials in Mexico on his payroll.

1986 Washington Post article, “Colombia Keeps Up Fight Against Traffickers; U.S. Antidrug Cooperation Expected to Continue as Power Shifts in Bogota”:

Paying about $2 million, Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros bribed 18 prison guards and walked to freedom through seven doors of a Bogota prison in March. Accused of narcotics trafficking in the United States, and wanted as well in Mexico for the murder last year of a U.S. narcotics agent, Matta Ballesteros had been the most important accused drug dealer that Colombia had managed to put behind bars.

His escape to Honduras — his native country and one that does not permit the extradition of its nationals — set back Colombia’s antidrug effort and triggered the resignation of the director of prisons.

The Matta Ballesteros episode underscored what Colombian authorities are up against as other major traffickers continue to evade the law’s grip here by using bribes, intimidation, cunning or assassination…

After escaping from La Modelo and slipping out of the country, Matta Ballesteros was quickly apprehended in Honduras. From the 1986 New York Times article, “Suspect in Murder of Drug Agent Is Seized in U.S. Trap in Honduras”:

Springing a trap at dawn in Honduras, the United States today arranged the capture and arrest of a key suspect in the murder of an American drug agent in Mexico, law enforcement officials said tonight.

The suspect, Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, is viewed by law enforcement officials as a leading international drug trafficker with close links to the Medellin organization in Colombia.

”This is one of the most significant fugitive arrests in recent years,” said Stephen Boyle, a spokesman for the United States Marshals Service. Mr. Matta, he said, had proven to be a prized and elusive target.

Concern Over Military Corruption

The arrest is also significant because it was made at time of mounting concern about corruption in the Honduran military. The New York Times reported in February that the Honduran Army was involved in drug trafficking and that Mr. Matta, who is Honduran, maintained close ties to senior military officers.

A reputed multibillionaire, Mr. Matta had escaped from an American prison and bribed his way out of a Colombian jail. He has been lively freely in Honduras, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.

But his freedom abruptly came to an end this morning in front of his house in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, when he was seized by Honduran military officers. The officers later forced him onto a plane bound for the Dominican Republic.

Arrest in U.S. Airspace

The Marshals Service announced tonight that the Dominican Republic immediately put Mr. Matta in the custody of marshals and that he was put on a commercial flight for New York. Officials said he would be formally arrested when the plane entered American airspace and then held in custody for arraignment in Federal court. It is unclear what charges he will face or where or when the arraignment will take place.

Administration officials said in February that the Honduran military was stung by American criticism, and that the chief of the Honduran armed forces, General Humberto Regalado Hernandez. protested to American officials, arguing that the military as an institution was not corrupt.

Soon after, American officials challenged General Regalado to back up that assertion with concrete action: a move against Mr. Matta.

An Administration official said the issue of arresting Mr. Matta had been under discussion with Honduran authorities since last year. He said, however, that the talks gained momentum after the press reports on corruption in the Honduran military.

Abrams Praises Honduras

Elliott Abrams, the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, praised the Hondurans tonight for their role in the arrest and said, ”This could not have happened without General Regalado and it was a brave thing to do.”

Mr. Matta, Mr. Abrams added, ”is tied into the Medellin cartel, he’s a billionaire and he kills people.”

Mr. Abrams said that in the last two years, General Regalado had pressed the United States to reopen its Drug Enforcement Administration office in Tegucigalpa. The office was closed in 1983, but the agency is now moving to return to the country.

Law enforcement officials said that Howard Safir, associate director for operations at the Marshals Service secretly traveled to Tegucigalpa to negotiate the plan with senior Honduran military officers. The matter was diplomatically sensitive because the Hondurans are intensely protective of their sovereignty.

Last-Minute Hitch

According to law enforcment officials, the plan to arrest Mr. Matta nearly came unhinged this morning when Honduran military officers arrived at his house to find he was not there. As they stood out front, one official said, they were surprised to see Mr. Matta returning from a weekend trip. He was promptly arrested.

American officials have been actively seeking Mr. Matta for years. Those efforts intensified after the killing in 1985 of Enrique Camarena Salazar, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Mexico. John C. Lawn, the head of the agency, said in 1985 that Mr. Matta was one of the four top suspects in the case.

Mr. Matta has not been indicted in the murder of Mr. Camarena, but American officials believe that he was one of those who had ordered the murder in response to damaging seizures and arrests put together by the American agent.

In May 1985, American officials believed that they were on the verge of bringing Mr. Matta to the United States to face Federal drug charges, but he was arrested in Colombia. Mr. Matta was later jailed, but is said to have escaped by paying a bribe estimated by American officials at $1 million to $2.5 million.

He then returned to Honduras, where he was also wanted on several charges, including murder. After a brief time in prison, he was set free in murky circumstances. Shortly afterward, he bought a house in Tegucigalpa, where he has moved about openly and befriended senior military officers and politicians.

Denies Drug Involvement

Since press accounts of his activities appeared this year, Mr. Matta has given several interviews in which he denied any involvement in the drug trade.

In 1985, Mr. Lawn said that Mr. Matta was the head of the Padrino organization, a cocaine smuggling organization that he said was moving 60,000 pounds of pure cocaine into the United States each year. At the time, he said, the Internal Revenue Service liens against the group amounted to $26 million.

Mr. Matta first became a fugitive from American charges in 1971, when he escaped from Eglin Air Force base in Florida while serving a three-year sentence for passport violations. More recently, he has been indicted on drug charges by Federal grand juries in Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The arrest of Mr. Matta by Honduran authorities was known early this morning. But the involvement of the Marshals Service and the plan to spirit him to the United States were a secret.

This afternoon, Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, praised the Hondurans’ action at a hearing on drugs and foreign policy.

At the hearing, the committee also heard testimony from Osvaldo Quintana, a Miami businessman who is chief witness in the Federal drug charges against Colonel Jean-Claude Paul of Haiti.

Mr. Quintana said that Colonel Paul had been involved in a failed drug deal with him, and that the colonel had once taken a sample of cocaine through customs at a Haitian airport.

Watch Drug Wars: The Camarena Story:

Los Priscos

Christopher was locked up in La Modelo with Los Priscos, the paisa gang of assassins who carried out the Medellin Cartel’s most high profile murders in Bogota.

Click the pics to enlarge.

Los Priscos - bosses and managers
Los Priscos – bosses and managers
Los Priscos – jailed assassins
Los Priscos – dead assassins

This from Semana’s “Como Los ‘Pescaron'” (How They Caught Them):

The country, which seemed resigned to impunity for motorcycle murders, was surprised last week with a story that sounded like a burst of bullets. The investigation into the murder of Justice Hernando Baquero Borda has succeeded and, finally, there are arrests.

Although the criminal mastermind was obvious from the beginning (the member of the Supreme Court had coauthored the Treaty on Extradition), national tradition signaled that, again, it would be months or years and the crime would fade into oblivion unpunished.

But even if there was no doubt given the motive, hope of capturing the perpetrators was remote. However, the audacity of the assassins, who left the crime scene littered with clues, encouraged investigators to launch an undertaking that soon had another asset. Public indignation led eyewitnesses, who in these cases are usually reluctant to give any information, helped develop sketches of the killers.

The investigation initially depended on two points. The cynicism of the gunmen, who felt safe in guaranteed impunity, was such that they did not use helmets or ski masks; one of them went walking around the neighborhood after the shooting and, during the escape, two of the motorcycles used in the crime were abandoned. That helped to build accurate verbal descriptions of those involved in the crime on July 31 in the north of Bogotá.

The shock of the murder and witnesses’ descriptions led to the creation of an investigative team. At first the investigation fell under typical criminal procedure, but given the complexity of what happened, a group quickly formed of DAS personnel and Justice Department investigators.

The origin of the motorcycles (one was left at the crime scene and the other found in a parking lot in front of the Shaio Clinic) led the investigation, first to Corozal and then to Cartagena. The first town was where the false paperwork led to the capital of Bolivar, where the two vehicles was bought. From there, the suspects’ track was found. Establishing points of sale and finding papers yielded the first names.

The first was that of a commercial establishment: the Maremoto warehouse of Cartagena, from where the Yamaha DT 175 cc bikes came from. The second name to appear was Jorge Ivan Montoya Toro, a former employee of the Belmotos parts store in Medellín, and the third was Castor Emilio Montoya Peláez, alias Quimilio, expert mechanics with criminal background. In phone calls between them, the motorcycles were organized. Montoya Peláez, from Medellín, asked Montoya Toro in Cartagena to buy them. They agreed on 720,000 pesos and both vehicles were sent to Medellín after formalities and paperwork were falsified.

For these tasks in Corozal, Montoya Toro contacted Luis Felipe de Oro Yepes and received two hundred thousand pesos, according to the record.


Once the history of the motorcycles used in the crime was discovered, the next step was to look for their owners. Investigations in Cartagena and Corozal finished with the arrests of Montoya Toro and Oro Yepes, after which all suspicions pointed to Medellín. Meanwhile in Bogotá, police developed verbal descriptions of the murderers.

With the name of Castor Emilio Montoya Peláez and his alias, Quimilio, detectives began to search the slums of Medellín to get details on the man who, by phone, had requested the purchase of the two bikes. What they heard was bad and, for that matter, encouraging: “Quimilio is a gangster by anybody’s definition,” they said. And they knew he belongs to the gang called “Los Priscos”, whose kingdom is in Aranjuez, a neighborhood of winding streets and leafy trees whose innocence inspired the novel, “Yours is My Heart”, by sixties writer Juan Jose Hoyos.

Aranjuez today is not so beautiful but, among other problems, the headquarters of “The Priscos”, who became strong in a place known as “The Hole”, where investigators searched for those who shot Justice Baquero Borda.

The existence and danger of Quimilio was established, as well as his relation to David Ricardo Prisco Lopera. The latter, 29, a “laborer” according to his personal data, is actually the head of Los Priscos, a large gang of youths and category offenders with sophisticated weaponry for any mission, from kidnapping to robbery and motorcycle assassinations. The den of Los Priscos was an excellent strategy, which is why despite many raids by the police and army, its members have not been arrested.

Outside of The Hole is where Quimilio and Prisco were seen in a blue car, looking to hire assassins for an important job in late July, when the bikes were already en route to Medellín. Hired on behalf of Prisco by Quimilio, everything was pointing to Baquero Bordo in Bogotá, where bikes traveled aboard a truck with the four gunmen: Elkin de Jesús García, Gonzalo de Jesús Hernández, Luis Mariano Herrera Guzmán, and Victor Miguel Vásquez. The attack came just eight days after these four men arrived in Bogotá, during which they followed every step of the judge, until they felt ready to shoot.

The arrest of this last man (Víctor Miguel Vásquez) in Medellín yielded an orange jumpsuit and thick jackets in his home (witnesses mentioned ‘yellow rubber overcoats’) and, with the help of police sketches, investigations led to the names of all four gunmen.

However, only Vasquez could be arrested because his three partners were turning up dead in a series of murders interpreted as a reaction to roundup. When detectives began to get close to the crime bosses, the perpetrators started dying. Elkin de Jesús García, 23, who they called “Monín”, a dangerous boy recognized by gangs and whose skill on the motorcycle had made him a motocross competitor, was shot and killed October 4 in Medellín. Then followed Jesús Hernández and Luis Mariano Herrera, who were left in pastures on the outskirts of the city. That’s how the “kill and be killed” sentence was fulfilled to avoid them from talking. Víctor Miguel Vásquez was saved from that end, and he is now incarcerated in La Modelo prison in Bogotá.

The search for David Ricardo Prisco Lopera and Castor Emilio Montoya Pelaez is the next step of the investigation. They are so far the top bosses of the network. They seem to have the key to who is higher in this motorcyle murder, for which the successful investigation until this point has resulted in a surprise for a country cynical about gunmen impunity…

The book abbreviates the 1987 El Tiempo article, “La más temible industria del crimen”. This is the entire article translated:

With the death of the boss, José Roberto Prisco Lopera and 12 of his accomplices, along with the arrest of seven more, the terrifying Los Priscos organization has been dismantled. The assassin gang was responsible for multiple crimes such as journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza, Justice Hernando Baquero, and Coronel Jaime Ramírez Gómez.

DAS chief Miguel Alfredo Maza Márquez revealed that the investigation was such a success because the gang played an active role in those murders and was the most powerful organized crime industry in the country.

According to the organization chart, brother José Roberto and David Ricardo Prisco Lopera were the bosses of the gang, the first killed last week with three of his partners, Jaime Sánchez Salazar, Nelson Armando Pineda Delgado, and Luis Eduardo Bermúdez Arango, on Avenida 127 with Calle 43 in the north of Bogotá.

The middle managers were Jaime de Jesús Muñoz Garcés, alias “El Pillo”, and Castor Emilio Montoya Peláez, alias “El Chivo”, both of whom are hiding from authorities. Arrested and in jail are assassins Victor Manuel Vásquez, José E. Montoya, Irley Omar Gutiérrez, Mario H. Fernández Silva, Jhon Jairo Cortés, Pablo E. Zamora R., Javier Homero Gutiérrez, and the intermediaries Maria Ofelia Saldarriaga and Pablo Enrique Zamora, alias “El Rolo”.

Over the course of six months, after the assassination of Cano Isaza, a “settling of scores” occurred in the organization, in which Elkin J. García, Luis Restrepo A., Gonzalo Hernández Q., Harvey E. Gil M., Alvaro García, Luis M. Herrera G., Jaime Sánchez S., Nelson Pineda, Luis E. Bermúdez, Iván Dario Guisao, and Rubén Dario Londoño were killed.

The Los Priscos organization started to emerge after the murder of Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonillo. Coincidentally, one of the Los Priscos bosses was killed in the same setting on Avenida 127 in the north of Bogotá.

The occurrence of multiple crimes using the same methods told authorities of common elements and actors, enough to lead investigators to the theory that these were the same people in a string of crimes.

Authorities learned that, although many crimes occurred in different settings, the involvement of specific people and the typical procedures (motorcycles in broad daylight) pointed to coordination from Medellín by Los Priscos, who also operated as Los Quesitos and Los Magníficos.

One of the first conclusions was the verification of Los Priscos’ involvement given the similarity in which the murders were carried out.

There are other details like the organization and involvement of many people, as well as the standard procedures of assassins using motorcycles and cars for attacks in broad daylight.

The prudent preparation of the crime and setting, the sky-high bounties, the reliance on impunity, execution of great precision, assured means of escape for the assassins, and similar transport were the details that called the attention of the authorities.

From the surprising and cruel attacks from this organized crime, a detailed knowledge has developed from the techniques used by the criminals in every instance. The links uniting that tragic path are known: remote planning, the preparation of the scene, the selection of the shooters and reinforcements, the city where the attack was planned, the methods of disappearing, the acquisition of the criminal instruments, the location of the hotels, the techniques of getting close and identifying the target, the escape routes, and the ultimately bad luck of the killers (many of them were executed without mercy and abandoned on public roads).

In addition, there were coinciding points between the murders of Guillermo Cano Isaza, Hernando Baquero Borda, Tulio Manuel Castro Gil, Jaime Ramírez Gómez, Mauro Alfredo Benjumea, Alvaro Medina Ochoa, Gustavo Zuluaga Serna, and the attack on congressman Alberto Villamizar.

In all these cases Los Priscos set the stage, taking precautions not to leave any clue to give themselves away, such as gloves, bulletproof vests, hoodies, handbags, and backpacks.

In each case automatic weapons were used, especially the .45 caliber pistol and Uzi submachine gun along with grenades, all illegally brought into the country.

The vehicles were legally acquired at agencies or dealers and rented in other cases. The Mazdas and Yamaha 175 cc motorcycles were purchased in specific neighborhoods of Medellín with false documentaion.

Modus operandi

Ordinarily they spread out from Medellín toward the capital by plane, with layovers in other cities, before getting to know the routine and familiar settings the victims.

The key players stayed at hotels like Dann, Bogotá Plaza, Cosmos, and Continental, where they registered with false identities and documents. The shooters arrived in cars or motorcycles to stay at cheap, transitory hotels or rented apartments.

The attack on Alberto Villamizar was carried out by the brothers Javier Horacio and Yrley Omar Gutiérrez Uribe (both arrested), Luis Alberto Agudelo, alias “Dulcineo” (dead), Edison Harvey Gil Muñoz González, alias “Moquis” (dead), and Jhon Jairo Cortés Marin, alias “El Flaco”, the last two of whom are also linked to the murder of Cano Isaza.

In the cases of Hernando Baquero Borda, Alberto Villamizar, and Cano Isaza, an intermediary for buying cars and motorcycles was identified in Castor Emilio Montoya Peláez, alias “Quimilio”.

In the homicide of Hernando Baquero Borda, Elkin De Jesús García was deeply indicated as one of the most skilled assassins among Los Priscos, a motocross champion in various Medellín circuits.

His identification from witnesses and statements led to others involved in the crimes, such as Luis Mariano Herrera Guzmán (dead) and Gonzalo de Jesús Hernández (dead), who authorities established helped in acquiring motorcycles for Víctor Miguel Vásquez, Jorge Iván Montoya Toro, and Luis F. de Oro Yepes.

In the murder of Cano Isaza, Luis Eduardo Osorio Guisao, alias “La Guaca” (dead), and Alvaro García Saldarriaga, alias “El Zarco” (dead), were identified as masterminds with their accomplices Edison Harvey Gil Muñoz and Norbey de Jesús Alvarán Valencia.

The first two were killed, their corpses found outside Medellín handcuffed inside bags, the same fate which met with Alvaro García Saldarriaga, who shot Cano the night of December 17.

Cano’s killing

It was established that days before the crime a white motorcycle was seen parked at the El Espectador building at lunch hour, when Cano used to go out.

The driver of the journalist mentioned they were being followed by this motorcycle, but Cano dismissed it. The driver noted the face of the driver and ultimately gave a detailed description.

Another red motorcycle was seen by witnesses in front of the newspaper’s offices at Calle 22 with Avenida 68 hours before the attack.

From that motorcycle he shot Cano with an automatic weapon. These two motorcycles kept a permanent watch on Cano’s movements and, of course, they also had a Mazda to get them out of town.

The day before the crime, two suspicious young men with backpacks visited the newspaper headquarters. Employee descriptions established that they were Castor Emilio Montoya Peláez and Edison Harvey Gil Muñoz, who were also involved in the Baquero Borda and Alberto Villamizar cases.

With a base of operations in Medellín, where Cano’s murder was planned, it was verified that the author of the shootings was the assassin known as “El Zarco” or “Gigio”, who in real life was Alvaro García Saldarriaga, killed in Palmira (Valle) on February 18, 1987.

Additionally, the driver of the white motorcycle was identified as Luis Eduardo Osorio Guisado, alias “La Guagua”. His identification led to accomplices Norbey De Jesús Alvarán Valencia, Alvaro García Saldarriaga, and Edison Harvey Gil Muñoz.

Differences over money arose between “La Guagua” and “El Zarco”. The boss of Los Priscos chose to eliminate the rivals, who were killed in the Quimbayo de San Jerónimo hotel (Antioquia).

Jack Tamboer

In1988 El Tiempo ran a two-page special on Tamboer in their Sunday edition, “Podrirse en Bogotá” (Rotting in Bogota). See pictures and the full text translated below.

Jack Tamboer bogota colombia El Tiempo

Tamboer teaching English
Tamboer teaching English
Jack Tamboer
Jack Tamboer
Tamboer's cellmate "El Payaso"
Tamboer’s cellmate “El Payaso”

What is with the new guy in La Modelo? John Tamboer has four years to answer that question. From being a cowboy in Montana to marijuana smuggler, Tamboer is the unknown face of the extradition treaty on the other end of Carlos Lehder’s delivery to justice in the United States.

Nobody messes with the man called, “El Gringo”. He seems rough and he has money. He distributes it strategically to buy protection. The other inmates believe he is immensely rich and powerful; perhaps some kind of “godfather” in the United States. Everybody assumes he is the American counterpart of the cocaine baron, Carlos Lehder Rivas. That idea, although incorrect, is almost true. After all, Lehder was sent to the US to face drug charges. And the Americans sent “El Gringo” to Colombia.

When he tells people he was a small-time dealer, a messenger used as a bargaining chip in a game of international diplomacy, no one believes him. It would be completely implausible.

John Lincoln Tamboer – “El Gringo” – thinks a lot about Montana, the vast expanse of lonely prairies dubbed, “Big Sky Country”. He imagines himself in that land, looking at the clear horizon, without a sign of man or civilization. Perhaps he imagines riding horseback wearing his cowboy hat. For a long time he never saw anyone who was not wearing boots. That was life: honest work in the world of the real man, the Wild West.

His cell measures five feet by nine. Another inmate, known as “El Payaso” (Joker), sleeps on the bottom bunk. On the walls are posters of automobiles, horses, women, and Marlboro ads.

Tamboer sleeps on a mattress less than four inches thick. His pillow is a piece of foam and he has no sheets. At 8 p.m. every night a metal door closes automatically, and Tamboer tries to sleep while El Payaso listens to salsa on the radio.

The door opens again at 5 a.m. He buys food at an inmate restaurant in the yard, teaches English, and writes letters. There is not much more to do.

He avoids the dirty showers. There is no hot water. At night, after exercising, he bathes by dipping his hands in a bucket of water and splashing the water over his body. The water is so cold it hurts his fingers. He washes his clothes in the same bucket. He has three shirts, two pairs of jeans, one denim jacket, and one sweater. He sprays chemicals to kill the pests in the cell. His toilet is a hole in the ground in the corner.

Four thousand men are crowded into La Modelo prison, the old national prison of Bogota, built to hold one third of that. Most, like Tamboer, have not been tried and are awaiting their day in court. They wait entire years, if they survive.

This is the universe of Tamboer: “A distorted world of danger, murder, evil men and overwhelming boredom,” he wrote once wrote to a friend. He survives by closing down something within himself, drowning fears and emotions, and hardening like a scar.

“I’ve seen a dozen people stabbed here,” told a reporter and photographer from Tropic who visited him. “You laugh. A piece of garbage. Soon we’ll be free! I think I’m no longer a good guy.”

Carrot and stick

Americans are commonly locked up in jail. There are at least twenty in Colombian prisons. Each one is living their version of the movie, “Midnight Express”, in which a young, American smuggler is left to rot in a Turkish prison. Just like in the movie, Americans diplomats try to get them out of jail.

But not Tamboer. His government sent him from Boston to Bogota, making him the first American extradited to Colombia for drug trafficking.

He had hope. Months passed, then years. And still there was no trial. On May 18, everything was supposedly ready, but the trial judge delayed the trial again because only eight lawyers were presented and there are nine defendants in the case.

“I’m very sorry, it’s a problem in the system,” the judge told Tamboer. “I’m used to it,” he replied.

Tamboer – 56 years old hailing from Fort Lauderdale, Maine and Montana – is a rancher, sailor, pilot, and drug smuggler. Much has happened to him over the last 15 years. He abandoned his wife for a younger woman. He lost his ranch in bad business decisions. He began smuggling drugs across the Caribbean. He was caught, convicted, and began a new life. Then things became even more bizarre and Tamboer learned a new concept: extradition.

Extradition is critical in the war against drugs. Not one of the top bosses of the “Medellin Cartel” – responsible for almost 80% of the world’s cocaine market – is in jail. The mafia kingpins have achieved immunity by assassinating judges who dare to oppose them. They kill soldiers, statesmen, and journalists. If, by mistake, a cartel member is actually imprisoned, well-calculated bribes make the prison terms comfortable.

The only thing the cocaine barons is being shipped to the United States, where justice is not so easily subverted. The United States and Colombia signed an extradition treaty in 1979, but it wasn’t used for years. The cartels exerted pressure on Colombian politicians and many citizens opposed extradition for nationalist reasons, arguing that Colombia should not allow a foreign power to intervene in the judicial system. That argument lost merit in the spring of 1984, when the cartels assassinated the Minister of Justice. Meanwhile, the United States knew that Colombia would be more than willing to send their traffickers north if the United States sent a few south.

Colombia gave a list. One of the names was almost completely unknown; it was only known that his passport had been found in 1978 on a plane loaded with marijuana.

The Americans had no problem getting rid of John Lincoln Tamboer. It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

And as a matter of policy, it worked. After an American judge ordered his extradition, the first Colombian drug traffickers began arriving in the United States. The process culminated last year when Carlos Lehder was captured and promptly shipped to Florida.

Later, the game exchange ended. Last summer, influenced by the carrot-and-stick tactics of the cocaine cartels, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled the extradition law unconstitutional. The cartels triumphed. But Tamboer remained in Colombian prison.

Passport on the plane

On the night of September 10, 1978, a DC-4 cargo plane landed on a mile-long runway in the middle of a cotton plantation near Valledupar. The cargo was to be marijuana. One million pesos had been distributed among the appropriate authorities to ensure that there were no problems.

But they had not paid everyone. Or maybe some honest police officers decided to take action. One group, led by Lieutenant Juan Ernesto Trujillo Pacheco, advanced through the darkness toward the runway.

When he was near the plane, Trujillo ordered his men to open fire. It was chaos. Five smugglers were caught. The suspects began to complain. It was assumed that everything was arranged. One prisoner offered two million pesos to Trujillo, payable immediately. Trujillo refused.

Inside the plane, Trujillo found 37 bundles of marijuana, about 270 pounds. In the cabin he found some documents. Something caught his eye: a US passport belonging to one John Lincoln Tamboer.

It would have been just another drug seizure, which everybody would have forgotten, except for what happened hours later. The truck carrying the police and prisoners broke down en route to Valledupar. Trujillo and a sergeant, Juan Carlos Salamanca, continued with the prisoners on foot in the middle of the night. They walked for two hours before stopping to rest. One of the prisoners asked permission to urinate. Trujillo granted it, and kept sight of him as he walked away from the group. Trujillo suddenly heard gunshots. When he turned around, he felt pain in one leg.

Sargeant Salamanca fell dead with two bullets in his brain. Trujillo was crawling away. The murderers disappeared. Trujillo’s report identified them as Rodriguez and Mejia.

During that fateful night, no officer saw anyone who looked like Tamboer. But days later, under interrogation, one of the arrested traffickers looked at the passport photo and confirmed he had seen the American on the plane.

That was all that incriminated Tamboer, and a judge issued an arrest warrant. Nobody, of course, expected him to return to Colombia.

Marijuana on a boat

On one point, Jack Tamboer had achieved everything he wanted. “The American Dream. The truth is that nothing went well.” He had a 2500-acre cattle ranch in a valley of the western mountainous of Montana. He rode horses and worked hard. For fun he took his son to the airport to watch the planes, and occasionally they went to a boat show. Planes, boats, horses, guy stuff. Tamboer was always attracted to the sea and the mountains. He wore a cowboy hat and had an anchor tattoo on his arm.

He met his wife Ursula in New Jersey. They moved to Montana in 1963, began working on the ranch, and started buying the surrounding land for years. In the early 70s, Tamboer decided there was not enough space and began looking for a bigger property in the plains. He found it in the town of Chinook.

“Our marriage was really solid,” remembers Ursula. “He was responsible and trustworthy.” Then he met Roxana, a divorced, 24-year-old Chippewa Indian. “No one would have said she was not a pretty woman.” Tamboer was 42. “A time of confusion for anyone,” she says.

Ursula learned of the affair a year later, and suddenly everything she and Jack had worked for – their entire existence in Montana – was a sham. They tried to save the marriage by leaving the ranch and moving to Fort Lauderdale. They bought a boat and started cruising the Bahamas with her son, Mike. One day Ursula found out that her husband was making frequent long distance calls, and she realized that their marriage was over.

Tamboer went back to Montana for Roxana. With the family fortune he entered the business of buying and selling land, where he lost thousands of dollars.

He went back to Fort Lauderdale with Roxana, where they were married. He got a job selling sailboats, but he could not forget the mountains.

“I was broke,” Tamboer remembers. “What did I do? I decided to return to ranching. Needing money to start, I transported a shipment of marijuana in my boat for a somebody. Boom. I was arrested.”

The official record reveals that on January 7, 1982, Tamboer and his brother-in-law, James Stanley Espeseth, were arrested at sea on Tamboer’s boat, Land’s End. They had 2600 pounds of marijuana on board. Tamboer said he was not the owner, he was only transporting it.

Tamboer does not give many details about his sudden criminal tendencies. He calls his 1982 smuggling attempt an isolated incident. His ex-wife, Roxana, told “Tropic” that Tamboer transported drugs several times in the late 70s, but he was never a huge smuggler. At that time, she said, smuggling was easy. Almost all the adventurous boat owners in Fort Lauderdale participated in one way or another in the drug trade. They drank beer, listened to Jimmy Buffet, and brought drugs back and forth across the Caribbean.

“We knew many people who were involved and they turned out fine,” she said. “No one thought it was a crime.”

Caught in line

Tamboer’s opinion has not changed much. “I do not think carrying a load of marijuana is the world’s biggest crime.”

Tamboer and Espeseth pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and were sent to federal prison at the Eglin Air Force base. Tamboer completed a 21-month sentence. Roxana occasionally visited him in prison. One day Tamboer saw something strange in his young wife’s behavior. She broke the news. She found another man, much younger. “Easy come, easy go,” says Tamboer.

Once granted parole, he moved to Maine and to live on a boat. He and Roxana fought a tough battle for divorce; she was pregnant during the trial. Dejected, he did not know which way to go. Finally, after several months he and a friend obtained a bank loan and began importing sailboats from Hong Kong to sell. “Strictly within the law,” he says.

In July 1984 he applied for a new passport. He was told he could receive it by the end of the month. On August 2 he drove from his residence in Maine to the passport office in Boston, and took his place in line. A man approached him. “Are you John Tamboer?” The man showed a badge. A federal agent. Tamboer thought he would take him to the front of the line.

“You’re under arrest,” the sheriff said. “Why?” “We will tell you at the station.”

Tamboer was handcuffed. He was informed of his right to remain silent, and taken to a government office nearby. Upon arrival, the federal agent told him, “You are under arrest for extradition to Colombia.”

He could not understand. He was taken to the county jail. He thought, “This must be a mistake. How could they do this?” After all, he had already paid his debt. He had served his sentence. He had rights! The US government would not send one of its citizens to rot in a dirty prison cell in Latin America. “But what if they would?”

Small-time player

The judge denied bail. Tamboer, who had no difficulty getting bail before, could not believe it. The indictment against him in Colombia was nothing special – just a drug charge punishable by three to 12 years in prison.

But it was not long before Tamboer found out that the extradition process has inflexible rules, starting with the absence of bail. According to the law, he was a fugitive from justice in Colombia. No one can expect that a fugitive appear before a court.

He also learned that rumors are admissible evidence in court for extradition. Years ago, on an afternoon with plenty of rum, Tamboer had the indiscretion to reveal all his secrets to his former brother-in-law and partner in illegal activities, James Espeseth.

Testifying for the government, Espeseth said that Tamboer told him of the incident in Colombia years ago. Tamboer was the navigator of an aircraft raided by the Colombian police. The plane would carry marijuana from Colombia and drop the packages into the sea off the north coast of Cuba, where they would be picked up by a boat. But police in Colombia had not received adequate payment and the aircraft was riddled with bullets. Tamboer ran to hide in the jungle with nothing in his pocket except a pocketknife, when he realized he had left his passport on the plane. He was in hiding for several weeks before returning to the United States. Espeseth could not recall the date when this happened.

Tamboer’s lawyers argued that no one knew for sure if the attack he was speaking of was the same as the one on September 10, 1978. They also called into question the credibility of the Colombian authorities. Finally they appealed to simple rules of conduct – if Tamboer were sent to Colombia, they said, he would be killed by the cocaine cartels in protest against extradition.

“Mr. Tamboer will be prosecuted, judged, and subjected to grave injustice. Nobody can guarantee that he will even live to see a trial in Colombia,” the attorneys wrote to the court.

The attorney Martin Weinberg still feels perplexed by the case. “What’s the point in choosing this poor and decent human being? To show good will of the United States in extraditing its own citizens? He was a small-time player. He is not a major drug trafficker. ”

Robert Mueller, assistant Attorney General handling the case, stated that “small-time” and “small amounts” are a matter of personal opinion.

“There is a big difference between what is considered serious in Miami and what is serious in the rest of the country,” Mueller said.

The importance of Tamboer had no legal relevance. The court had a duty simply to state that he was wanted in Colombia, and that there was “probable cause” to believe he was the perpetrator (probable cause is sometimes defined as “more than likely”). Mueller said that from a legal standpoint, Tamboer’s case was as straightforward as sending a fugitive financier to Hong Kong or a mobster to Italy . Between 1975 and 1986, according to statistics from the Department of State, the United States sent at least 50 of its citizens to face charges abroad.

“I gave him the same treatment as any other extradition case. There was no excess or severity. I knew it was an important case because we were trying to bring drug traffickers from Colombia,” Mueller said.

They were not interested in Tamboer’s complaints about the Colombian legal system. “Whoever deals with narcotics and gets involved outside the United States is subject to the legal procedures of the country where he is accused, even if they are not as civilized as ours.”

Morris “Bud” Jacobs, formerly State Department spokesman and former cultural attaché in Colombia, says Tamboer received a fair deal. “Undoubtedly, there were no extrajudicial pressures involved. America has no interest in sacrificing the interests of American citizens to meet foreign policy goals.”

The December 11, 1984, Judge Robert B. Collings determined that there was probable cause to consider Tamboer guilty of the charge of smuggling. He approved the extradition.

A month later, the first Colombian drug dealers arrived in the United States. Tamboer, meanwhile, stayed in the United States pending appeals. He had few visitors in prison. He had not seen his son, then 22 years old, since before his prison sentence at Eglin. The memory of Roxana continued to torment him, and he contemplated suicide.

The appeal was denied in June. The guards came for Tamboer. They handcuffed him and shackled his ankles.

“It was basically time to give up.” He wondered, “What do they do there? Do they beat you on the head and shoulders? Do they lock you in a dungeon?”

The book quotes an abbreviated version of the 1985 New York Times article, “Dispute Rises in Colombian Drug Extradition Plea”. Here is that article in its entirety:

Seven years ago, on a remote airstrip in Colombia, the police seized a DC-4 airplane loaded with marijuana as its crew fled into the jungle. On board they found a passport in the name of John L. Tamboer, a United States citizen from Portland, Me.

Mr. Tamboer denied he had been on the plane and said he did not know how his passport got there. But Colombia has requested his extradition under a 1982 treaty with the United States, and Mr. Tamboer, who would be the first American sent to Colombia under the treaty, has become the focus of a sensitive diplomatic and legal dispute.

Its outcome could effect America’s ability to break up drug smuggling from Colombia, which the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency says supplies the United States with about 74 percent of its cocaine and 80 percent of its marijuana.

‘An International Chess Game’

Mr. Tamboer’s lawyer, Martin G. Weinberg, contends that the Federal Government is merely offering the 53 year-old Mr. Tamboer as a ”sacrifice” to insure that Colombia will extradite some Colombian drug smugglers wanted by Washington. ”He is a mere pawn in an international chess game,” Mr. Weinberg said. Mr. Weinberg admitted that Mr. Tamboer, who describes himself as a self-employed boat broker, served time in prison in the United States after being arrested with a boatload of marijuana in an unrelated incident. But in documents filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the First District, which will hear Mr. Tamboer’s case early next month, Mr. Weinberg asserted that ”Mr. Tamboer would be killed” if he was returned to Colombia to face trial.

Pressure on Colombians

Since last winter, when Colombia extradited four of its citizens to the United States on narcotics charges, the Government of President Belisario Betancur has been under intense pressure over the extradition issue. Drug traffickers threatened to kill five Colombian or American officials for every Colombian extradited to the United States.

But a State Department official denied that Mr. Tamboer was being singled out. The official said that although Mr. Tamboer was the first American wanted by Colombia whose case had gone before the courts here, Bogota has asked for the extradition of other Americans.

Colombia first asked for Mr. Tamboer’s extradition in June, and he was arrested by Federal marshals in August after he applied for a new passport. Then, in December, a Federal magistrate in Boston certified that there was ”probable cause” to believe he had been smuggling drugs aboard the DC-4 in 1978.

Key testimony against him at the hearing was provided by his former brother-in-law, James S. Espeseth, a cattle rancher from Montana. He said Mr. Tamboer had once told him he had been hired as a navigator for a flight from Colombia to a point off the coast of Cuba where marijuana could be dropped to waiting boats.

Mr. Espeseth told the court Mr. Tamboer said that his ”airplane was shot out from under him and he had to flee into the jungle,” leaving his passport in the plane.

Judge Cites Secretary of State

In January, Federal District Judge Walter Skinner in Boston declined to stop Mr. Tamboer’s extradition, agreeing with the earlier court ruling. Judge Skinner also found that under United States law he could not make a ”humanitarian” exception for Mr. Tamboer. The Secretary of State is in a far better position to decide if Mr. Tamboer’s life would be jeopordized by being sent back to Colombia, Judge Skinner said.

It is this ruling that Mr. Weinberg has challenged in the appeals court. He said he had confidential information that drug traffickers in Colombia would kill Mr. Tamboer ”to discourage” the Federal Government from sending other Americans back to Colombia for trial.

And this from the 1985 Los Angeles Times article, “U.S., Colombia Cooperate in Uphill Drive Against Marijuana, Cocaine”:

The walls of buildings in this port city, a hotbed of the drug traffic in Colombia, are scrawled with the slogan, “Extradition Is Treason.”

But the front pages of Colombian newspapers headlined with approval the recent arrival of John Lincoln Tamboer, an American who was extradited from the United States. He is to stand trial here on a charge of killing a policeman in a drug-smuggling case.

El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper, said in an editorial that the return of Tamboer shows that the extradition treaty that went into effect in 1982–in the face of strident political opposition here–really benefits both countries.

Tamboer’s extradition is an example of the cooperation that has developed between the U.S. and Colombian governments on drug control since April 30, 1984, when a young gunman on a motorcycle killed Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who was cracking down on the so-called “drug mafia.” …

The Cue Ball Incident

This chapter originally appeared as a blog post on Expat Chronicles titled “The Mick’s Prison Murder.”

Inside the prison, there was a carving industry that had piqued Christopher’s interest. Inmates carved wood, stone, and other items into Buddha statues and other decorative crafts. Christopher decided he wanted to take up carving.

One day after a soccer game, Niche offered Christopher a billiards cue ball. Niche had heard Christopher was buying different items to make into handicrafts, so he offered him this cue ball. Christopher agreed to buy the cue ball and gave Niche 500 pesos (worth 6,600 pesos in 2014 after inflation, or $3.23). Niche was a great soccer player, but he had a taste for bazuco. With that money, Niche would have spent the night smoking crack.

The next morning, Christopher was going to morning count when he noticed something out of order in his patio. One of the caspetes had a billiards table, but the usually busy table was empty of people. Christopher saw fifteen billiard balls neatly racked, but no cue ball. Christopher realized that Niche had sold him a stolen cue ball. Making things worse, he had stolen it from a caspetero. Caspete managers are the most powerful men in the prison.

The showers were a primetime for killings, but the morning and evening counts were also dangerous times. They were good for killing because all the inmates were down in the patio, so it was too crowded to see anything.

Just after being counted, Christopher was approached by the caspetero owner of the pool table. Caspetero told Christopher that he had received information that Niche sold him a cue ball the previous night. Christopher lied, telling Caspetero that he had sent it down to Patio 1 to be carved into a Buddha. Patio 1 was on the other side of the prison from Patio 7, so it would be difficult for Caspetero to check on the ball. Christopher added that he did not know it was stolen when he bought it, but now it was already being carved up.

That night while Caspetero was following up in Patio 1, Niche found Christopher outside his cell just after the evening count and before lockup. He was panicked and wearing multiple jackets. A Colombian prison trick from that time was to wear several jackets when in risk of being stabbed. If a knife hit punctures the fabric of a few jackets, its force is considerably reduced before it hits skin, thus increasing the chances of the victim’s survival.

Niche, on his knees and on the verge of tears, begged Christopher to give him back the cue ball. Christopher demanded the money. Niche invoked their friendship and soccer comradery. He complained that he was going to be killed. Christopher insisted that he would put the cue ball back on the table himself. Niche pleaded, insisting he had to give it to Caspetero personally. Christopher argued that he would put the ball on the table publicly, so he would be in the clear. But Niche kept begging until Christopher relented and gave back the cue ball.

The next morning, just before the count, Caspetero cornered Christopher on his landing with a knife. Caspetero was going to stab Christopher. Scared, Christopher insisted he gave the cue ball back to Niche and that Niche was supposed to put the ball back on the table.

Niche never gave the ball back to Caspetero. Instead, he sold the cue ball again. And all this time, Caspetero was losing money from his unused billiards table. Not only was Caspetero losing money, he was also losing face as the entire patio knew what was going on. Niche did not even bother to steal a cue ball from a different patio.

Christopher convinced Caspetero he did not have the cue ball, in no small part due to his agreement to help Caspetero kill Niche. Christopher and Caspetero took knives into the patio every day for a week, looking for Niche. But Niche was not around. An inmate in La Modelo has to be counted, but there were ways to avoid appearing in public. Christopher guesses that Niche was hiding in another patio, and he put his face through the bars of Patio 7 just in time to catch the attention of a prison guard to be counted. Then he would run straight back to his hiding place. However Niche managed to stay away from Patio 7, Christopher and Caspetero realized Niche was not coming out.

Christopher and Caspetero could have tracked Niche down to the crackhead lair he was hiding in to kill him there. But they wanted to do it in public.

Caspetero paid a prison guard to find Niche, pull him out of his hiding place, throw him into Patio 7, and look the other way. It was done the same day. Niche entered the patio wearing several jackets, clinging to the wall. Christopher says this is a common scene in Colombian prison. When somebody knows they are going to be stabbed, they stay against the wall walking sideways, frantically looking from side to side.

Christopher and Caspetero ran at him from opposite sides. Niche could not put up much resistance before taking stabbings from both of his attackers. Christopher says blood flew in all directions as they pounded away with their knives on Niche’s chest, stomach, arms, and shoulders. Christopher stabbed and stabbed, but Niche’s jackets were preventing the knives from penetrating too deep. So he and Caspetero kept stabbing. They left Niche on the ground hemorrhaging blood.

Niche survived the attack. He could not move in his infirmary bed, but he was alive. The official count of stab wounds was 29. But because of the jackets, they amounted to little more than flesh wounds.

Christopher learned that Niche was alive in the Salón Rojo from Tachuela, who gave him the news over lunch. Christopher was worried that Niche might survive and come for revenge. As Christopher says, “There are no small enemies in the nick.”

Tachuela was moved to help. He volunteered to finish the job for free. One day during the evening count, Tachuela slipped into the Red Room and cut Niche’s throat while he lay in bed. And it was over.

Christopher never found out what happened with the cue ball. He later acquired another. But instead of carving it into a Buddha, he painted a map of the world.