When I first arrived to the Jose Maria Cordoba airport here in Medellin, I noticed a number of signs in the airport and on the way into Medellin that read “Colombia es Pasion”. I didn’t give it much thought until I saw a professional cycling team sponsored by that tag line on my ride this morning, so I began to think about it in more depth. “Colombia es Pasion” is a marketing initiative developed by the country to help attract more visitors to this beautiful part of the world. It’s not an easy task, since for the better part of the last 50 years the very soul and image of the country has been shaken to the core by a revolutionary battle controlled by the FARC, as well as the ever-present and well-known drug cartels that began in the 80’s and turned the nation into a complete war zone.
The FARC, or Fuerzas Armadas Revulocionaries de Colombia formed to throw off the Colombian government in the 1960’s. They began funding themselves by stealing cattle, then advanced to terrorizing small villages and extortion. Additionally, they are most famous for kidnapping which hit its peak in the late 90’s. Colombia at one point was the Kidnap Capital of the World. Mari was telling me that for years you could not leave the city as the FARC would literally set up tolls and stop most cars; you would give them your ID and if you had something of value, you went for a little walk until you got bailed out (yes I still have ransom insurance, you never know). It became commonplace and people for years knew where the hot zones were and would just not travel to those areas. My Uncle Horacio’s farm was in one of the hot zones and the family didn’t travel there for the better part of 10 years.
When I came here a couple of years ago, we all took a family trip to that farm which is about 45 miles outside the city. I rode my bike there and with about 8 miles to go, Jorge who was following me asked me to get in the car. I said “It’s only a few miles and the road is nice, I can keep going.” But he said no. Reluctantly I got in the car. About 3 miles down the road, a few military guys were standing in the middle of the road with automatic weapons pointing at the car, yes automatic weapons! Anyway we pulled over, they searched us and let us go on. Obviously I had questions for Jorge, why did that happen?
Once Alvaro Uribe was elected president, he made it his mission to do away with the FARC. What happened to me was a standard happening throughout the whole country. Rather than the Colombian government fighting tooth and nail in the jungle and not getting very far, Uribe set up a program to choke off the supply to the FARC and slowly kill them off, almost like rat poison compared to a rat trap. The army set up road blocks all over the country, and if you are traveling with supplies, guns, camo clothing or anything relatively close to something that can help the revolutionary movement, it gets confiscated. Now the FARC is hungry, sick, with very little clothing and are slowly dying off. Furthermore, Uribe set up a program for FARC members that turn themselves, in the government will help them and put them back with their families and pay for medical expenses. Thousands of cold, sick, hungry FARC members have turned themselves in and more do so every day. Today the movement is at the tail end of its existence.
The Medellin cartel was very closely tied in with the FARC back in the 80’s and 90’s. What Mari was telling me was that during those times people in Medellin were not only landlocked within the city, they very rarely went out as day to day life became so dangerous. The cartel was basically in charge and anyone who got in their way was eliminated as well an any innocent bystander close by. Mari told me literally hundreds of police officers and every judge who went against the cartel were killed. Death in Medellin became commonplace and the culture slowly began to change. But as seen today in Colombia, as well as in our factory, hope and passion usually come out ahead.
“Colombia es Pasion” could not be a better statement. After years of confinement, life has changed completely in Colombia. Thanks to the efforts of Uribe, as well as the US Government, the FARC as well as the cartel are all but eliminated. New anti-drug initiatives, education, military training and a desire of the common people to take back their country has brought Colombia back to where it once was. Colombians, being such a passionate, full of life society did something to bring back who they were and I see it here every day when we go out to eat after work. Restaurants are packed every night, people are dancing in the bars until all hours (from what I hear), one can now walk the streets or ride bikes without much worry at all. This weekend my whole family and I are going to a farm outside the city that used to be a hot zone with no worry. Hopefully the only walking in the woods I’ll be doing is to go for a hike with my family who finally got their country back and are able to live as they once used to.
Colombia es Pasion, how true it is.