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Dancing in a Cemetery A Novel about Colombia


Copyright Š 2015 Varouj Pogharian All rights reserved

Cover Illustration Copyright Š 2010 Carlos Cepeda All rights reserved

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic,or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

DISCLAIMER This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The narrative and dialogues are recreations based on historical events, news reports, and undocumented situations.

“All who served the Revolution have ploughed the sea.” Simón Bolívar (1783 – 1830), leader of South America’s independence movement, speaking toward the end of his life.

DEDICATION To the more than seven million victims of the Colombian conflict who continue to wait for the end of their horrible night.


Para mĂĄs de los siete millones de vĂ­ctimas del conflicto colombiano que siguen esperando por el fin de su horrible noche.


This book would not have been possible without the help from my many Colombian friends who over the years shared with me their stories and observations.

(An extract)

...Adán completed his three years at the Academy in the top ten of his class. It meant that he deserved an assignment in a major urban centre. A week before graduation, his name was moved from seventh to twelfth position. He was to be transferred to eastern Putumayo, an area infested with armed groups, contraband, criminality, and nascent coca cultivation. Evidently, the general in charge of Human Resources had been bribed to switch around the rankings. Adán was dejected and wanted his parents to pay the penalty so he could quit. His father agreed. “No, no, no!” his mother shouted. “The generals know that we have money and want a bribe. Son, the country is in the hands of criminals.” She sounded like her father-in-law. “It pains me to think of your future in a country whose values are upside down and where everything is held hostage to power, wealth, and privilege. I’m not asking; I am demanding that you stay in the police force and fight against corruption.” Sub-Lieutenant Peñalosa was briefed at the police headquarters in Bogotá. The Amazonian state of Putumayo was one of the richest oil producing regions yet one of the country’s poorest states. It had an abundance of water sources yet more than a third of the inhabitants in its 13 municipalities did not have potable water and were forced to drink from the rivers exposing themselves to diseases. The hospitals were third rate. There wasn’t a single university. Mocoa, the state capital, was considered safe but outside the city limits, which was where he was headed, there was a strong FARC presence. Adán flew to Mocoa in a police plane. The Putumayo River formed Colombia’s border with Peru and Ecuador. Not many people knew that the river was the main tributary of the Amazon River. As the plane descended, he looked out through the small window. The city lay at the foot of the Andes in the open valley of the Mocoa River with vast agricultural lands and oil rigs. The regional police commander for Putumayo was responsible to the Director General and at the same time was subordinate to the governor and also to the mayors. He was expected to meet with Adán before he assumed his new duties but he did not. He sent word that Adán should

proceed directly to his post. He had an awful reputation for humiliating everyone around him. The grunts referred to him as the hippopotamus for his size. Adán was just as happy they did not meet. A three-vehicle convoy set out to take him to his detachment. There were several police checkpoints along the way to control the movement of chemical precursors used in cocaine production. On the radio, Carlos Castaño was being interviewed. He wasn’t shy about admitting that the paramilitaries’ revenue was derived in large measure from the drug trade. Adán asked the driver if the police monitored the rivers for drug and contraband smuggling. “Navigation on the rivers is impossible because of the rapids. The traffickers, mostly guerrillas, float and portage five gallon barrels down the rivers. It’s difficult to control floating barrels.” A rainstorm worked its way over the mountains. The streams were on the verge of cresting. On paper, Adán was the second officer in charge of the twelveman detachment. However, the post of captain had been vacant for a year and a half. Being in charge meant that he had to pay out of his pocket for office stationery, photocopies, and even for some of the uniform items which needed to be ordered from Bogotá. His first order of business was to seek appointments with the municipal leaders to introduce himself. For the next few days, he studied the detachment’s administrative and operational files. He filled out ten different requisition forms to replenish the supply of bullets. The workload consisted primarily of incidents related to violence as a result of alcohol consumption, disorderly conduct in public, and incestuous rape. On the guerrilla front, the FARC’s Southern Bloc operated in Putumayo and Caquetá with 16 fronts and several mobile columns. The bloc had some of the organization’s most experienced fighters and was a power to reckon with. It attacked the oil infrastructure at will and controlled important nascent coca growing regions. The region’s bridges and oil infrastructure were under attack by the FARC. The police and military were required to escort the caravans of oil trucks to and from the wells and protect the pipelines. The accidental and deliberate oil spills were beginning to cause long-term damage to the environment. The FARC had made it very clear that anyone who helped the oil companies was a military target. In Orito, which had the highest production of crude, a counter-guerrilla

brigade was being set up. There were also plans to expand the military bases near oil wells in Puerto Umbría, Puerto Caicedo, Piñuña Negro, and La Hormiga. The bloc’s 48th front with about 500 fighters had camps inside Ecuadorian territory where it operated under the protection of an Ecuadorian arms dealer. The guerrillas sometimes wore Ecuadorian Army uniforms which, according to a deserter, were easier to obtain than the uniforms provided by their secretariat. There were several intelligence report that the 48th front was delivering cocaine to Guayaquil for transportation to Central America. It wasn’t unheard of for the front to also sell cocaine to their enemies, the AUC. Adán was surprised to learn that the FARC performed functions which should have been exclusively the state’s. Among them were the protection of the environment, controlling deforestation, fluvial pollution, delinquency, and regulating commercial activities. He studied a recent twopage bulletin put out by the 32nd front which set out rules for co-habitation in rural communities. Through fines, the group attempted to curtail gossip, maintain hygiene, for example by controlling dogs, and prevent fistfights at social gatherings. Stiffer penalties were levied against anyone who without prior authorization brought a stranger or a new prostitute to the area, bought or sold a property including a cow, or did not adhere to curfews. Cellular phones, a recent invention, and cameras had to be registered and their use was restricted. They set limits on the proportion of coca cultivation vis-à-vis food production. They controlled all aspects of the rural population’s movement. For all intent and purposes, they had established an independent republic. What model of life does the organization plan to propose in the eventual post-conflict era, he wondered? On the second Friday, he took two patrolmen with him to call on some of the establishments. The two patrolmen were nervous. “We’ve never done this before, sir,” one of them said. He knew that if their presence on the premises were to displease anyone of importance, they would be the ones to be transferred, suspended, or fired. “Wasn’t community-based policing drilled down during your training? That’s exactly what we are doing.” They parked in the lot of a large restaurant surrounded by tall trees. A waiter greeted them on the open terrace. The dining hall was

crowded. The manager came out and shook only the hand of the officer. Lieutenant Peñalosa introduced himself and his two patrolmen. People in the restaurant looked at the three policemen as if they were thieves who had to be kept under watch. They assumed something was wrong. The manager offered Adán, not the patrolmen, a table inside the restaurant to sit down and enjoy a meal. Adán declined. There was a disturbance at the bar counter. A girl was shouting at two men sitting on stools as her friend tried to calm her down. One of the men pushed her and she fell. The manager rushed to the counter. Adán got to the girl and helped her get up. The two men on the stools were unperturbed. Adán instructed one of the patrolmen to take the two girls to the back. He politely asked the men to stand up. They stayed seated with their backs to him. One of them who was drunk told Adán to get lost and continued to drink. Adán couldn’t back away. Without raising his voice, he again asked the men to stand up and face him. The manager standing next to him started making excuses. “I need to search both of you for a concealed weapon,” Adán said. The second man swivelled and lunged at Adán. Adán was prepared and took a quick step back before moving forward to put a headlock on the attacker. The drunk got into the melee and landed a hard punch on Adán’s forehead which caused his cap to fly. Adán put a hard knee to the face of the man in the headlock, dropped him, and punched the drunk on his abdomen. Both adversaries lay on the floor. The restaurant patrons shouted obscenities not at the two men but at Adán. The situation needed to be diffused urgently. The patrolmen stood still in disbelief with the two girls behind them. Adán shouted for handcuffs. They said they had never been issued a pair. The two men were helped up by other patrons. Adán took their names, picked up his cap and walked to the girls. He looked at their ID and jotted down the information. They were 13 and 14 years old. The two men left the restaurant accompanied by a small group. He told the manager to be at the police station in half an hour. People were still shouting obscenities at him. The restaurant manager entered the detachment cautiously. Adán’s head still throbbed from the blow. “The restaurant’s owner is the senator from Putumayo,” the manager said.

“The law is equal for everyone.” “You don’t know what you’re up against.” “Are you saying, that a senator is exempt from the law?” Adán took the names of the restaurant’s two patrons. He handed the manager a citation for selling alcohol to minors. The radio operator brought a sandwich and a cup of coffee. The elderly spinster had taken a tremendous liking to her new boss. He had overheard her on the phone describing him as the son she would have wanted to have. Handsome, tall, piercing black eyes, high arching eyebrows, and polite yet firm. “We have so many bad-mannered and shameless people in this country. Uneducated, too. I’ve seen on the news that in America, anyone who raises his voice to a policeman is put on the floor and handcuffed. And if he continues to be a nuisance, he is immediately shot in the head.” The radio operator returned after a few minutes. She was flustered. “The general in Mocoa wants you on the radio right away. He’s very upset” “What you did this afternoon is unacceptable!” the hippopotamus shouted. “What gives you the right to disrespect an elected official especially a senator? You should have known that the restaurant is owned by a senator. I don’t care if there were children drinking whisky. What were you thinking? Our society has a hierarchy and corresponding levels of respect. This is a country of privileges and influential last names. If we lose sight of the hierarchy enjoyed by those who make the law, we are fucked. Will you be giving a ticket to our Director General for not putting a signal light next? You should have been respectful, polite, and decent like the majority of the police, and demonstrated that police are friends of politicians. One thing is the law, the other is accepted norms. They’re two very different things. Do you understand me? I’m going to have you transferred to hell where you can show your testicular strength fighting the guerrillas.”

Midweek, a colonel and an assistant from the Internal Affairs Unit arrived from headquarters to interview Adán. One of the patrolmen who had been at the restaurant developed a nosebleed and was rushed to a clinic. Adán was surprised to learn that the investigation was not about him but about the hippopotamus. A radio station in Cali had received an intercepted recording of their conversation. The national media had picked up the story. The next day, Clemencia called her son to say how happy she was with the outcome of the incident. “That man spent a few years in Córdoba. People spoke badly of him. He’s an appendix of the paramilitaries, and was heavily involved in social cleansing and the protection of drug traffickers. What is he still doing in the police force and holding the rank of general no less? I’m so proud that you stood up to him. Maybe you’ll be able to clean up the mess we are in as you promised your grandfather.” Before she hang up, she told Adán that if he wanted a promotion to captain, he would need to get married first. “Where did you hear that?” Adán asked. She was right. To get to the rank of major and up, officers also needed the support of a congressman or senator. To reach colonel and general, they needed to show beyond any doubt that they were good Catholics and demonstrate that they had a stable family, meaning one wife who was the mother of all their children. “Everyone hears things. There are no secrets in Colombia.” The following week, Adán went on foot patrol with two of his men. In an alleyway, he saw young people being loaded on a police truck. A sergeant ran up to him. “My lieutenant,” he spoke in a low voice. “Once a month, we have a dragnet in order to boost our statistics. At the same time, we help the military find recruits for military service.” “You mean the people on the truck haven’t committed a crime?” The sergeant hesitated.

“None that we know of.” “Release them immediately!” Adán ordered. A small crowd which had gathered witnessed both the arrest and release. Adán walked into a fast food cafeteria with two of his patrolmen. A few of the diners gave him a nod. He sensed that people were talking about him. He paid for the three meals before accepting the food. A couple walked up to him and shook his hand. “My wife and I wish you the best of luck with your assignment in our community,” the man said. His wife had a broad smile. “He’ll be a picaflor, a hummingbird,” she said when they returned to their table. “He will hover over the town’s flowers and feed on the nectar as he chooses.” The following Sunday, with his mother’s words still ringing in his ears, Adán went to mass. A young priest started an energetic sermon on forgiveness. “Who among us doesn’t have an enemy? Raise your hand.” An old woman stood up with the help of a young girl next to her. The priest asked her to explain why she didn’t think she had enemies. “Because all the sons-of-bitches are dead.” The woman’s granddaughter was embarrassed. Adán recognized her from the crowd which had watched him release the prisoners. Her name was Carmen Alicia. She was a physiotherapist who treated oil workers to overcome their stress. She would become the young lieutenant’s wife before he made it to captain. When the radio operator heard the rumour that Adán was getting married to Carmen Alicia, she was troubled. Her friends in Puerto Asis had described her as wild. At 13, she had been sent away to a boarding school in Puerto Asis run by nuns. On Saturday evenings, a radio program featured a boy who sang beautifully. His voice carried Carmen Alicia away. She started writing the boy letters which she gave to a friend outside the school’s walls to deliver to the radio station. The friend brought back the singer’s replies.

They giggled together and she daydreamed. After a few months, she was shocked when her friend announced that she was the one who would marry the singer. Carmen Alicia escaped from school and eloped with the 15-yearold. They found a drunken priest in a nearby village to marry them. Within days, the marriage was annulled and she was forcibly returned home, stigmatized. She received affection only from her grandmother while she waited for someone from outside Putumayo to marry and take her as far away as possible.


Dancing in a Cemetery - A Novel about Colombia (EXTRACT)