Last month, my friend Amelia and I spent a week on a farm in the southern Colombian department of Putumayo, where our primary objective was to locate a cocaine processing laboratory in the jungle. The farm was inhabited by a family of economic migrants from a neighboring province tasked with looking after a herd of cows on behalf of the farm’s proprietor, who elected to reside in less oppressive temperatures when not serving jail time on narcotrafficking charges.
For the first several days of our stay, Amelia and I concentrated our efforts on slumping across the family’s outdoor patio table and interrogating them while they made cheese as to whether cocaine processing labs were air conditioned. As for the coordinates of the nearest lab, the answer was consistently a wave of the hand and an “está retirado”—“it’s far away,” which was incidentally the answer to most of our other questions, as well, such as how to get to the supermarket or to Bogotá.
Amelia and I persisted with our interrogations, figuring that the wave of the hand in regards to the processing labs was merely a bluffing technique acquired after decades of civil war, and that “están retirados” was probably a common response by farmers to visiting guerrilla or paramilitary delegations in search of their opponents. We eventually won over our first informant when the family’s 20 year old son—referred to as “el Gordo”—collapsed under questioning and offered to take us to a lab he had stumbled upon the other day.
The excursion was scheduled for late afternoon such that Amelia and I might first travel to the nearest town for ice cream. After a number of failed hitchhiking attempts with different forms of farm machinery, we boarded a bus to Villa Garzón which was promptly pulled over by the anti-narcotics police, who were unresponsive to our observation that it was hot. When they were also unresponsive to our proposal that they relocate to their northern border—where Amelia and I had recently crossed into Venezuela for a month without stamping ourselves out of or into Colombia—we descended from the bus and positioned ourselves on the side of the road with outstretched thumbs. This behavior resulted in our having to have our socks inspected for cocaine and then re-boarding the bus when there was no other traffic.
We avoided the checkpoint on the return trip from Villa Garzón by inserting ourselves into the car of an officer in the Colombian military, who originally consented to drive us only as far as the road was asphalted but gradually succumbed to realities on the ground, such as suggestions every 500 meters that he drive us another 500 meters. New additions to the category of retirado thus included the farm and the officer’s lunch; notable exceptions to the category were landmines planted in coca fields by the FARC.
According to the military officer, landmines served to complicate the process of manual coca plant extraction, which the Colombian government had decided was potentially less destructive than aerial fumigation of plants and surrounding items like livestock and Ecuador. The officer argued that the recent spontaneous amputation of limbs belonging to two of his colleagues had also been destructive, and applauded US financial contributions to Colombian demining operations.
A 2009 document on the website of the US State Department lists a variety of “explosive remnants of war” and a string of organizations working “[t]o reinforce official U.S. Government efforts to help make the world safe from all of these threats”—efforts which might be further reinforced by signing international mine ban treaties already endorsed by all states in the Western Hemisphere aside from the US and Cuba, and by refraining from supplying the state of Israel with cluster munitions. Other State Dept. documents reiterate the role of the US in helping to purge the world of “hidden killers,” a term that does not appear to apply to the biological agents that Washington proposed incorporating into Colombian fumigation techniques.
Hidden killers had been confirmed as a matter of subjective interpretation in the Western Hemisphere in 2002, when Undersecretary of State John Bolton accused Cuba of masterminding a bioweapons program in defiance of the Biological Weapons Convention. Not mentioned in the accusation was the recent US withdrawal from negotiations on compliance verification measures for the same convention, nor was the expression “hidden killers” invoked in the context of US embargos against Cuba or Iraq, where compliance verification measures may have verified past American shipments of biological agents to Saddam Hussein.
The military officer in Putumayo listed other examples of airborne objects of American origin, such as Black Hawk helicopters—which had been used in a raid on a cocaine processing laboratory in the jungle the previous month—and a female employee of the US Air Force that had been wooed by the officer. The tale of the wooing distracted the officer from his reluctance to drive Amelia and me all the way to the farm, and el Gordo refrained from annulling the promised excursion despite watching us emerge from a Colombian military vehicle.
After traversing a swamp while seeking repeated assurances from el Gordo that the swamp was not mined, we entered a wooded area to find the lab freshly dismantled. El Gordo estimated that the contents had been moved somewhere more retirado, at which point Amelia and I accused him of inventing excuses; el Gordo explained that just because things were retirados did not mean they were invented, counsel that could stand to be heeded by Colombian president Álvaro Uribe.