Public Hanging

This chapter originally appeared on the Expat Chronicles. See that blog post at A Public Hanging in South Bogota.

One of Christopher’s students, a waiter in a hotel, told him that he passed a dead body every day on his commute to work. Sometimes two bodies, but always at least one, in the Ciudad Bolívar slum in south Bogotá. Christopher decided to visit the neighborhood. He bought a bottle of aguardiente and took a southbound bus.

When he arrived in the slum, Christopher saw the poorest living conditions he had ever seen. The roads were unpaved at the time, and there were rows and rows of impoverished people densely packed into the area.

Then Christopher ran into Ricardo, the old leader of the M-19 training regimen in prison. Christopher offered him some of his aguardiente and they had a friendly reunion. Ricardo invited Christopher to see an example of the good work M-19 does in the city. He knew Christopher would not be spooked given his time in La Modelo. Christopher agreed and followed Ricardo to the site of the show.

It was around noon when they came to a large scaffold in front of a waiting crowd. The stage was built in front of a shanty. A solid beam rose above with a noose hanging from it. Two masked guerrillas pushed forward a blindfolded man. They put the noose around his neck and kicked him off the stage. He shook and convulsed for several minutes before dying in the noose, hanging above the crowd.

Christopher was not rattled, but he was not animated by the public execution by revolutionary guerrillas in broad daylight of the nation’s capital. It killed his mood to party. Before Christopher said goodbye, Ricardo explained the man they executed had been raping children from the neighborhood — both boys and girls.

At that time, police did not go into Ciudad Bolívar. The locals had no protection. Where the government failed to meet public need, the M-19 guerrillas filled the void. In providing some security, they gained political support among the same poor citizens their ideology advocated for.

In 1990, the 19th of April Movement (M-19) laid down their arms in a formal truce with the Colombian government. The guerrilla army demobilized and converted into the M-19 Democratic Alliance political party. According to this 1990 New York Times article, “Colombia Rebels Shun Arms and Win Votes”:

A surprise winner in Colombia’s elections on Sunday was a guerrilla group that only two months ago traded in its guns for the ballot box.

In a vote that may encourage Colombia’s other guerrilla armies to come down from the mountains, the M-19 party unexpectedly emerged as the nation’s third largest political force. In its first test at the polls, the party won 13 percent of the vote.

“For the first time in our history, a guerrilla group that abandoned its arms submitted itself to democratic scrutiny as a political party in a presidential election,” President Virgilio Barco Vargas said in a nationwide television address after the M-19’s strong showing on Sunday became clear…

“The M-19’s vote shows that groups who give up their weapons will find space in Colombian political life,” Ricardo Santamaria, who works in the presidential peace office, said.

Colombia’s two largest armed groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, remain on a war footing. On election day, the two groups carried out 20 armed actions, killing 16 people, wounding 20 and kidnapping five…

But euphoria reigned at the heavily guarded headquarters of the M-19, officially called the April 19 Movement…

Later this year, after almost 20 years of rebellion, the M-19 is expected to finally walk through the doors of government. Mr. Gaviria, the President-elect, has said he will honor a pre-election pledge to give the M-19 a Cabinet post.

The M-19 Democratic Alliance ultimately failed as a political party, but several of its more prominent political leaders continue in Colombian government today. Most notable of former M-19 guerrillas is Gustavo Petro, who spent over a decade as a liberal congressman, opposition mainstay, and perennial presidential candidate before being elected mayor of Bogotá. As mayor, Petro generated controversy by unilaterally banning bullfighting in the city. Soon afterwards during a waste management scandal, Petro was dismissed from the office by the Inspector General. He was later reinstated in what has thus far been seen as an ineffective term.

Years after the demobilization, Christopher saw Ricardo in the north of Bogotá. He was delivering pizzas on a motorcycle.

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