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In the mid 1990s, before the responsibilities of The New York Times Foreign Affairs columnist were largely reduced to complaining about the deficiencies of the Arab/Muslim world, Thomas Friedman used to write with more frequency about things like Mexico.
In fact, one of the landmarks of Friedman’s journalism career occurs in a 1995 article that begins with “Ricarda Martinez, a 60-year-old Mexican peasant living in a tumbledown shack on the edge of Mexico City,” whom he describes as “peeling cactus from her garden” while denying awareness of “dollar-linked peso bonds, George Soros or Merrill Lynch’s emerging markets fund.” This is one of the rare historical instances in which Friedman identifies and interacts with someone who is not a CEO, politician, “Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen,” or “Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum.”
At a restaurant in Bogotá in March, a Colombian lawyer announced that Bolivians did not exist. Evidence in support of the case was that the lawyer had never met a Bolivian, and that the concept of Bolivia had most likely been invented by Hugo Chávez to give the impression that Venezuela was not acting unilaterally in the world.
I was not able to investigate the claim at the time, as my friend and I were currently investigating members of another nationality whose existence had been periodically denied. I did ask the lawyer, however, whether he felt that Colombia was theologically entitled to Bolivian territory, at which point parallels with Palestine broke down.
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.