Robert Carver

Short Walks from Bogota, by Tom Feiling

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Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the New Colombia

Tom Feiling

Allen Lane, pp. 266, £

Ten years ago a cartoon appeared in the Independent showing the New World Order — Bush and Blair peering at a distorted global map with only one entry for South America: over Colombia was written ‘Coke-snorting bolshie gorillas’. Back then the Farc guerrillas were on the edge of the capital Bogotá, the country had the world’s highest kidnap rate and ‘failed state’ was considered its next realistic destination. Then even the title of this book would have been ironic, as to walk anywhere was to risk mugging or murder.

Tom Feiling, a British journalist and film-maker who has written a previous book on the cocaine trade, knew Colombia in the bad old days. Speaking good Spanish, well-read in the country’s troubled history, with a network of excellent contacts, he decided to go back and see if the ‘New Colombia’ lived up to the hype.

For Colombia is now a free-wheeling success story, the Farc beaten back to remote jungle outposts and kidnapping a thing of the past. Colombia is the ‘C’ in CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia,Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) a developing country group that hip, savvy investors are pouring millions into, with a booming economy that is going to create a whole new democratic reality.

Well, that’s the hype. Feiling’s conclusion is more ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper’. Colombia still produces more cocaine, exports more whores, fakes more euro notes and plants more landmines than any other country. The army ambushes and kills the police when paid to do so by drug cartels, while any soldier killing a guerrilla used to get a bounty worth about £1,000: so cripples, mental defectives and simple passers-by were grabbed from the streets, dressed in combat fatigues, and bumped off in the remote jungle to improve the headcount and boost wages.

The Colombian army has the worst human rights record in the western hemisphere. The Farc are up to their necks in corruption and the drugs trade, with their own cocaine labs hidden in the jungle; and the paramilitary death squads have killed more than 210,000 according to the government’s own figures, and are still ‘disappearing’ people. This compares with 3,000 killed in Pinochet’s Chile and 10,000 in Argentina’s ‘dirty war’.

Colombia, of course, has beautiful scenery, hospitable people, fabulous mountains, great walking, birdlife, more bio-diversity than any other country and more freshwater lakes and rivers than the USA and Canada combined. But you still have to be careful catching a cab in the capital or you might be taken for ‘the millionaire’s ride’ — from cashpoint to cashpoint with a gun in your ribs until your account is empty. Or end up as an NN (a Nigun Nombre, or No Name corpse), rubbed out by death squads, then chucked in the river or buried in a shallow grave. Being a pioneer is never easy.

The best British travel writers like Norman Lewis or Bruce Chatwin give the reader more than simple travellers’ tales. Feiling is of their company: he has read widely in the region’s history, politics and anthropology and weaves a great deal of pertinent information into his narrative. He gets off the beaten track, going to places few outsiders ever go to — Mompos, Leticia, Cabo de Vela, Valle du Par — and speaks to ordinary people rather than just politicos or metropolitan sophisticates.

In much of Colombia the state has been for long simply absent. The British banker David Hutchinson was held hostage by the Farc for ten months and was marched all over the country in daylight. ‘We never saw one policeman or soldier,’ he comments. Now, army and government have returned to many places. But there are still 5,000 murders a year in Bogotá alone, and 180,000 robberies since 2007.

Yet Colombians are ‘the third most happy people in the world’ according to the Happy Planet Index. They have to be, claims one woman: ‘If they don’t keep smiling no one is going to pay them any attention.’ ‘Colombia is in ridiculous disorder,’ says a Japanese emerald baron down to his last few millions due to the world recession. ‘Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear’ reads the graffitto in Journalists’ Park.

This is a brilliant, penetrating and highly readable account which carries complete conviction. ‘What are the stories round here like — nice or nasty?’, a woman who lost her children to paramilitaries asks a fisherman who is pulling his empty nets from the river. ‘Both,’ he replies.