JANUARY 9th: Into Colombia

9th January 2001 |

The ELN, still thought to be the more ideological bunch, specialise in kidnapping and extortion, with a special presence on the very roads I meant to travel. And paramilitary death squads add to the mayhem in the name of right-wing justice.

One could hardly approach this kind of situation without qualms. What is a biker to do? I did the sensible thing, and before going into Colombia from Ecuador I asked around. The advice I got was pretty straightforward.

The danger is mainly on the more deserted stretches of the highway, either between Pasto and Popayan or north of Medellin.
In these areas, where the ELN is active, ride early in the day and never at night, because guerillas like to get away under cover of darkness.
Watch for oncoming traffic, because its absence could signal a road block.
And keep asking the locals what’s happening.
I was visiting Ricardo Rocco, a passionate rider who lives in Quito and lavishes hospitality on every biker who comes that way, when I met Glen Heggstad, the gringo kidnappee from Minnesota.

He spent five weeks of hell as the guest of the ELN, and did his best to dissuade me from going to Colombia at all, but having failed at that, he said, “If I had to do it again, I’d carry a red cross. The Red Cross is about the only thing they respect.”
Well, I didn’t care for the idea at first. The ethics seemed shaky, and anyway I couldn’t imagine a guerilla saying to himself , “Oh, he must be one of those Red Cross bikers I’ve never heard of.”

But Ricardo was very taken with the plan, and made me a big red cross out of contact paper, so I took it along meaning to ditch it later.
Then, on my way to the border I began what became a long series of imaginary conversations with guerilla comandantes. “Yes indeed,” I would say, trying to ignore the muzzle of the AK47 nudging my ribs, “I really am a Red Cross volunteer. We carry urgent medical supplies and blood. Well, no I don’t have any with me at this moment, actually, but they’re waiting for me anxiously in Medellin…. ”
After a bit of rehearsing I had almost convinced myself it could work. Anyway, it was better than nothing.

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