This is another chapter from my abandoned book on Colombia of which I am quite fond. I did not have time to write a blog today. Thus, I am posting this old story.
I was going to call this story “The First Time I Was robbed in Colombia,” but that implies there will be a second time. This event of which I speak and the title of this story are not actually related in a strict sense, and I might change one title for the other without compromising my intended meaning. In any case, I settled on the title of “Los Ladrones”—“The Thieves.”
On the night of April 18, 2017, Alejandra and I were robbed at gunpoint while walking our dog. We were returning home via Avenida Liberador in El Cisne, in Santa Marta. We were no more than two hundred yards from the entrance to our apartment complex on the opposite side of the street. Just past where we were standing there was a small grove of trees and a break in the fence that lined the road opposite our apartment. The streetlight shone in such a way upon the trees that one noticed neither a break in the fence nor, and more importantly, the shadowed path leading to a barren field and the barrio on the opposite side.
It was at this point in our journey, having crossed this place for the second time and on our way home, myself being a little stoned, and Alejandra being a little drunk and talking on my new iPhone, that we were robbed. It was a classic “no dar papaya” moment. This idiom does not translate well into English, but the point is, “Don’t flash your money.” As we walked past the street lamp, two men emerged from the darkness. Both of them were young, well dressed, and clean in appearance. You could practically smell the detergent in their clothes.
The first man to emerge opened his jacket to show me a pistol, and said, “La plata…su cellular”—“The money… your cell phone,” while the other watched. The pistol was black and he showed me only the handle and half the barrel. I handed over a cigarette lighter, Alejandra’s wallet, about seventy dollars, and a cell phone. I gave the thieves these items as my wife realized what was happening.
She then screamed a host of obscenities in Spanish, the likes of which I shall not set down on paper. The thrust of her impromptu apologia was, “Give me back my papers!” followed by a string of obscenities that questioned both the thieves masculinity, the chastity of their mothers, and intimated that their buttocks were filled with all manner of disease and disgust. As one can imagine, such words did not fall on agreeable ears. The thief with the gun was most offended; whether or not he was the more sensitive of the two I cannot rightly say, but his reaction was one of classic denial followed by rage.
Pointing the gun at Alejandra, he walked toward us.
Without hesitation I lifted my wife from the ground and carried her across the street towards our apartment and a security guard station. As I did this my Spanish vocabulary continued to improve as I heard a string of curses leave Alejandra’s mouth, the ultimate of which, she told me several hours later, was, “My purse is a curse to them! God loves me very much. You will see!”
On the other side of the street we were greeted by a woman and three men on motorcycles, all of whom were both alerted and intrigued by the events occurring around them. One man on a motorcycle raced to the adjacent barrio in pursuit of the thieves. The woman consoled Alejandra like an abulita—a granny—and the two other men waited with us and pointed toward the direction of the two thieves saying only, “Ese barrio…” When the first man returned, he was empty handed, but he asked my wife’s name and intimated that her papers would be returned.
After approximately an hour of waiting for the Santa Marta police to not arrive, we returned to our apartment. At this point Alejandra attempted to contact the police again, only to be met with the cunning wiles of a logician on the other end of the phone. “Señora, if the thieves took your phone, how are you calling me?” the operator said. Yet my wife was prepared for such a riddle, and she responded in such a way that would have made Bilbo proud. “My neighbor loaned me his phone,” Alejandra replied. Being unable to verify this information and being naturally suspicious, the philosopher in blue simply hung up the phone.
An hour later two police officers arrived, and they offered to take us on the backs of their motorcycles to search for the thieves and deliver what I can only imagine is impromptu and rapid justice.
There is a part of me that is writing this story, that loves adventure, and that will live forever. This portion of my soul desperately wanted to go with the two police officers. But this part of me was tragically beaten into submission by that other part of me that loves sitting on my balcony and drinking beer, that waters our flowers and walks our dog, and which is closer to my heart.
It was at this point that I began to reflect.
My first thought—and I have always wondered how I would react in such a situation—was not to think. I remember very lucidly the moment the primer ladron emerged from the darkness. Without a word and prior to him showing me his gun, I felt a dark energy. It was negative, it was strong, and it was immediate, like a punch in the face. Imagine sitting in your car spinning your wheels upon the wet earth as a train approaches. And then there was the gun. Of course the importance of a gun, a pistol, una arma is felt without saying a word. And one need not speak, one need not know a language, one need not even know how to fire a shot. If one is bad, the arma may talk for you, to be both signifier and signified… to say nothing but death.
And this concept of death at this moment was not an intellectual concept but something real from which you must flee as fast your feet will carry you. That is what I felt and nothing more, a desire to be free. Yet immediately following this was a feeling of burden, of stress, of being beaten down. That tired, hangdog feeling you get after paying your taxes. When you know that something unjust is happening and you are powerless to stop it. A feeling of relief followed this, as I ran across the street with my wife in my arms. I carried her like children do when they test their strength on the playground hugging another’s waist and grunting as though the other person were a sack of unruly potatoes.
All the while she screamed injustice. A deep scream that can come only from the lungs of a woman, and only one who knows what is like to be hungry. To have a thief take your last dollar with which you would feed a child. To be forced to find money where there is none, to look for water when there is only sand, to feel that empty rattle of loneliness—that was the scream of my wife. It was not for the ears of the thieves or for mine or for the people. It was a cry to God for justice.
Being a lawyer trained in the cunning ways of the American judicial system, I am naturally inclined to turn to the state for answers, to trust in the rule of law, to know that if such ladrones exist it is only by grace of pure statistics—that is, they must exist, and a certain number of people must be robbed each day. Lawyers, judges, criminals, plaintiffs, and defendants all learn sooner or later that our—and by that I mean the American—judicial system is flawed. Yet scratch most of them and they will wax philosophic and tell you something about “the rule of law” and that “our justice system is the best and most perfect one can have.”
But what does this mean in that moment when a gun speaks? As my wife most elegantly stated, “They deserve nothing!” And now I too have begun to question if indeed, at least for us if not for the universe as a whole, that there is indeed a Rubicon that one might cross after which all is changed. Prior to this moment I had always conflated my sense of justice with a notion of forgiveness. A favorite question of mine is, “Is Judas, or was Judas, beyond redemption?”
From friends and family, the natural response to me is that I am confusing God and justice or God and the state.
My reply to this is simply, “What’s the difference when both hold the power to balance the scales when death is a stake?”
Yet Alejandra’s point is that the moment when one points an arma at another person, all is lost. That is, your blood is cold, your heart is black, and the thief deserves nothing.
So how does the story end? This is Colombia—“Chibchombia,” as Alejandra proudly says (a corruption of the words “Chibcha,” a local indigenous language group, and “Colombia”). On the night in question I can tell you that all ended quietly. I went to sleep, and the next morning a news crew found Alejandra in the city discussing the lack of protection and describing the ladrone’s gun as “muy linda” and then laughing, telling me, “I will never leave. I want the bad people to know me and know I am cool. And I fear nothing.”
Remember, when describing how I felt when the ladrones first approached, I said I felt a dark energy. Without question the arma possessed an energy; yet whether such energy was of its own origin or from that of the ladron I cannot rightly say. The first possibility is the easiest to describe. That is, the gun was a vehicle for the negative energy of the ladron. He had a thought manifested in an intent and carried forth in an action. The negative energy, the low vibrations, call it what you will, began with the ladron and terminated in the arma. This implies the arma itself is a nothing, which is the secondary argument of the gun lobby in the United States: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”
The second possibility is much more nuanced. That is, the arma possessed a negative energy independent of the ladron. The cold manufactured steel, hard plastic, polycarbonate gun was a thing of evil. But was it evil, sui generis, or did it acquire this malevolence from another more evil still? As though Sauron had used the pistol for target practice, driving down Ruta 25, roaring at 100 km/h, firing round after round into the boundless Magdalena. Did this ladron acquire this negative arma, and under its spell and in a cruel twist of fate manifest the evil latent and inherent within it? Perhaps my Lord of the Rings analogy is stretched a bit thin, but is it really so absurd to state that an object can possess negative energy, and convey that energy to its owner?
Consider the Hope Diamond. The fact that I capitalized it correctly indicates a reverence in words seldom found in reference to an inanimate object, save perhaps Sacra Biblia. Yet there is more to the Hope Diamond story, as we all know. The legend behind the stone indicates that it was stolen from a Hindu temple in what was then British East India. A curse fell upon each of its owners, and, to a person, all met with an unfortunate demise.
There is, of course, an extraordinary vein of adventure running through this story from Rudyard Kipling to Indiana Jones. There are those among us raised on the idea that movies and books are but entertainment and not repositories of ideas, and who will doubt the veracity of this legend due to its perceived fancifulness; but to them I posit two important points. First, there is but one place on earth where a diamond like that might be found—India. And second, the diamond’s worth and beauty are evident to all. It is not a great leap to consider it a gift worthy of a god? I will stop my argument here, because its conclusion is not relevant, but I note the veracity of both premises.
Yet my goal behind this stop in my train of thought was to add a piece of evidence to support the idea that the ladron was not inherently bad, and like a good Hobbit had a small piece of him tucked away that remained wholesome. I bring this point up and I wish to stress it because it coincides and supports my other experiences in Colombia. And I do not mean solely my experiences with individuals like these ladrones, but every Colombian, to a person, and every place.
And this particular event occurred in a very special place in Colombia. Not just Santa Marta, the beautiful city by the sea, but the land on which she sits. There are a large number of indigenous people living here in this part of Colombia, from outside Santa Marta to La Guajira and all the way up the Sierra Nevada. This mountain range is not part of the Andes and is the highest reaching and fastest rising coastal mountain range on earth. In fact, its rate of ascent is second only to the Himalayas. On clear days, from Ruta 25 you can see the two snowcapped peaks of Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar, which are the two highest peaks in Colombia.
The Kogi, a local indigenous group, believe that these mountains are the center of the earth, and what happens here is most important. All must be in balance, and when one thing is taken, another must be given. The idea of value is inherent within this principle. Thus, the more one takes the more one must give back, or balance will be lost. For example, the Kogis are famous chewers of coca leaves. When kept in the mouth (you don’t actually chew the leaves), coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. The traditional method of chewing coca leaf, called acullico, consists of keeping a saliva-soaked ball of coca leaves tucked in the cheek, together with an alkaline substance that assists in extracting cocaine from the leaves. This alkaline substance is often powdered lime, which is made by burning sea shells, which the Kogi collect from the Caribbean coast.
Thus, the Kogi will mix in a little bit of the seashell powder with the leaves into their mouths, and when it mixes with their saliva a chemical reaction occurs and releases tiny amounts of cocaine alkaloid into their blood stream. It’s been studied for centuries and has never been found to be harmful—it’s like having a nice hot cup of coffee in the morning.
Both the Kogi on the bottom of the mountain and the Kogi on the top chew coca, but they each have a dilemma. Because coca only grows well in the higher, more lush mountain air but the white powder is obtained from sea shells found on the beach at the base of the mountain. The shells are roasted over a fire and then pulverized into a fine powder. Thus, the Kogi on the mountaintop and the Kogi at the mountain’s base are forced to cooperate in order to maintain the balance inherent within the coca trade. And this simple leaf is essential to the life of a Kogi, both man and woman. I cannot write further on this subject at the moment though it begs further attention. Additionally, as a consequence of this trade, one will find many places in Santa Marta and the wilderness looming above her that the Kogi consider sacred.
Every object in the Museo de Oro in Bogotá or in any other museum in the world that is from Tayrona National Park or labeled in some way was unearthed and stolen from the indigenous people in this very place. These objects are very often the most ornate and intricate in the collection, being of the finest quality gold and depicting species of animals found only here and nowhere else on earth. And all of these objects were created and given by the indigenous people to Mother Earth, Pacha Mama, not as gifts, as one might give a thousand pesos to a homeless person, but as an offering and gesture of both respect and love to maintain balance in the universe.
The Kogi are but one of many indigenous peoples in Santa Marta, which is a very special and unique place aside from the high density of indigenous inhabitants one encounters over six hundred years of Spanish and now Colombian folklore. From the beginning, Santa Marta and its drier sisters to the north in La Guajira have been famous last resorts of all manner of scoundrels, smugglers, and those in their company.
Add to the mix that this part of Colombia, this section of the costa, is very near Aracataca, the birthplace and first home for Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Whether or not they have ever read a word he has written, everyone immediately shouts “magic realism,” and the literary work most often mentioned next after this famous phrase is, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude. The beauty and at times fancifulness of this marvelous tale are beyond debate, but what many often overlook is that Gabo, though a famous novelist of the “magic realism” genre, was first and foremost a journalist. And when you read One Hundred Years you are reading the history of Colombia. The mythic town, Macondo, is here in this area, unmarked and unbounded like the mythic Yoknapatawpha County of William Faulkner looming on the edges of maps and the many dusty roads.
Less than a week later I was walking my dog with Alejandra within our apartment complex when we noticed a group of children and mothers rush to the top of a hill, followed by a series of loud “booms.” My first thought was that the neighborhood was at war, and I imagined myself like Anthony Bourdain falsely trapped within a beautiful city. But then I saw the fireworks—all golden lights racing across the sky and illuminating the night and raining stars upon the dry mountains. The display lasted for nearly fifteen minutes and then the children and women dispersed shouting “Otra vez, otra vez, otra vez!”—“Again, again, again!”
The next morning I went to the tienda adjacent my apartment to purchase eggs, Coca Cola, and cigarettes. To the clerk I said, “Good morning, how are you?”
He leaned closely and whispered, “…son muertos.”
“Un Coca Cola grande, cinco huevos, y media de Marlboro y…” I ceased speaking when I finally understood his words.
He leaned closer to say, “Ellos….los…los…estaban esperando…muertos.”
“What?” I said.
“Los Ladrones, senor,” he repeated once more, “son muertos”—“The thieves, sir, are dead.”