An invisible city, at once joyful and somber

Photo: L. Baldelli

Photo: L. Baldelli

The small cell is made of raw, poured concrete, with one small opening on its door, which faces an outdoor courtyard. On one of the cell’s walls, in brightly colored capital letters that would be more at home in an elementary school’s classroom bulletin board, are the words “Holy Spirit.” The child-like playfulness of the letters stands in stark contrast to its surroundings, in part because of the man that inhabits the cell. Popeye (real name Jhon Jairo Velásquez) was Pablo Escobar’s closest adviser and soldier. In Escobar’s name, during the 1980s and 90s, Popeye personally murdered at least 250 people, and ordered countless executions, including his involvement in the deaths of over 500 police officers. He kidnapped Bogota’s mayor Andres Pastrana (who would later be president), and countless other politicians, helping to completely destabilize the country. To that end, Popeye was also instrumental in the planning and execution of the attack on the Avianca 203 flight in 1989, where an entire airliner with 110 passengers was blown out of the sky with a bomb in an effort to kill a presidential candidate who, as it happened, was not even on board.  

Today, Popeye speaks to the press when called upon to do so, giving detailed accounts of his past exploits, perhaps in an attempt to remain relevant within a country that sees him as repulsive symbol of the past, one that many resent in part because it was men like Popeye who—through their actions—so drastically changed the daily lives of Colombians, along with their vocabulary, and self,  and in so doing shaped the way others viewed Colombians. Such was the power of Escobar and his men. Through their actions, they came to redefine an entire nation.

Popeye speaks with Andres Pastrana (former Colombian president) about how he planned and executed his kidnapping, as well as several other assassinations and crimes related to those events. He calmly gives astonishing detail about who was involved in what bombings and killings, how trucks were retrofitted to house large volumes of explosives, and what government and military entities were involved in kidnappings, and which ones offered him help in these actions. (in Spanish)

Today, Popeye's life is far simpler, though reminders of who he was remain visible. The man who was once an avid cyclist, and trained in the mountains of Antioquia before entering a life of crime, has two guards solely dedicated to him at all times in prison, and he's largely kept away from its general population. When he's allowed to spend time in the prison's yard, Popeye can see the surrounding landscape and its undulating mountains. Part of that view is a nearby road, which countless cyclists use to make their way toward their preferred mountainous training routes, just as Popeye did as a cyclist during his youth in Antioquia.

Like Popeye, one of the cyclists who often rides on that raod is a symbol to many in Colombia. Albeit at the opposite end of the spectrum. He's Nairo Quintana, and like Popeye, he also calls the town of Cómbita, Boyaca, home.

Cómbita

Cómbita

Found

Cómbita, is a place that is often conjured up by the international press when speaking of Quintana’s background and upbringing. The town wasn’t founded, as much as it was simply found. Spanish clergy came upon natives who had called the area home for countless generations in 1586. They took up residence, though the town was not incorporated until 1938. With a current population of only 13,000, the inmates in Cómbita's high security prison make up 15% of the town's population. But it's because of Nairo Quintana (and his brother Dayer) that people outside of Colombia know of this town, whose name comes from the local native language meaning “strength of the summit”. Fitting, considering the reason why there’s now an ongoing stream of journalists visiting a small town that few even realized existed just a couple of years back. Some European and American journalists have made the pilgrimage as well, thinking of Cómbita exclusively within the context of cycling, not realizing the very different reason why Colombians have long known the town’s name, and what they identify it with: its prison, the men that are held within, and the manner in which they shaped part of the Colombian narrative. 

Cómbita welcomes Quintana back after the 2014 Giro

Cómbita welcomes Quintana back after the 2014 Giro

But much in the same way that Cómbita can’t be defined by the Quintana family, it also can’t be defined by its iconic prison. The reality is that in towns like this, life has not changed significantly through the years, and will continue to be much as it is regardless of how it's viewed by anyone. Nearly all of the town’s inhabitants are farmers, with many bringing their products to market to the town square on weekends. Quintana’s parents, who themselves were once potato farmers, still live nearby above the small shop (think of it as a convenience store for rural Colombia, a “tienda ” in the local parlance) that they’ve owned an operated for many years.

Combita's main square, which you can see yourself through the magic of Google Streetview here

Combita's main square, which you can see yourself through the magic of Google Streetview here

The best and most beautiful town
The juxtaposition between the raw concrete prison, and the tranquil Colombian countryside has not been lost on the locals or their representatives. In 2011, as 327 of the most violent and feared criminals in Colombia were set to be transferred the prison, people in the town began to make signs which they hung over streets and on the sides of their homes in protest. “Please don’t bring the worst men, to the best and most beautiful town”. The governor, with a lighthearted tone that is indicative of the local population proclaimed, “Around here, we only care about and know about musical groups, not armed groups”. He said this in reference to the rich musical heritage of the area, which has produced its own musical style and countless musical groups that are beloved throughout the country.

 

A perfect example of the local musical style, all in a song about competitive cycling, and the narrator's will to get a bike (a "little iron horsey") so he can train and win races

Despite these pleas, the inmates were transferred. For Boyaca’s locals, having these criminals nearby, even if it is under lock and key, is greatly at odds with the life and reality they know. This is in part because Boyacá, unlike other parts of Colombia, didn’t endure the kind of seemingly endless violence that plagued most of the country during the 80s and 90s. Additionally, much of Boyacá remains nearly untouched by change, keeping its simple agrarian culture almost intact. This only adds to the lore of Nairo Quintana, making him a cycling icon abroad, while at home he’s become a beloved (albeit folklorized) symbol of Colombian determination, and a reminder of a simpler, earlier time in the country’s history.

Photo: The Times

Photo: The Times

Today, the prison is known to be one of the most secure in the country, a far cry from the days of Pablo Escobar when—to the horror of an entire nation—the drug lord was allowed to build his own prison near Medellin, where Popeye himself was "incarcerated". While the prison in Cómbita is not perfect (inmates have trained native pigeons to bring them cell phones and sim cards, while guards have been charged with providing prisoners with contraband), it's a place that criminals fear. Their idea of Cómbita is very different from the one that exists in the prose of international journalists who write profiles about Quintana, and his place of birth. 

That these two opposite realities exist simultaneously in one physical place makes Cómbita like so many other towns and cities that have opposite ends of one spectrum co-existing at once. But the small size of the town, as well as the outlandish extremes at both ends, and what they signify to,an entire country, make Cómbita an interesting paradox.

Combita Prison

Combita Prison

Anywhere but Cómbita

You only have three destinations to pick from when flying out of the Alfonso López Pumarejo airport in the northern Colombian city of Valledupar. That’s how small the airport is. This only made the events that transpired there two weeks ago that much more bizarre. On August 5th, men from the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) paramilitary group stood by the airport’s security fences, and began to fire upon a small airplane on the tarmac. Their their leader, Javier Urango Herrera (alias “Chely”) was set to board that plane, as he was being transferred from a local prison to Cómbita. Men from Colombia’s national penitentiary forces, who were transporting Urango, returned fire. During the shootout, the paramilitary leader tried to run across the runway toward freedom, but was shot and killed. Local and national newspapers referred to the events of the day as “far-fetched”, and “fit for a movie”. And such was Urango’s drive to avoid being sent to Cómbita. He had, after all, already escaped a local prison in 2008, only to be apprehended in Venezuela and later extradited, in order to serve a sixty-year sentence for homicide, torture, terrorist acts, and kidnapping. Nearly all of it, would have been served in Cómbita’s high security prison, a fate that Urango and his men feared to the point of attempting what was clearly an ill-conceived and foolish plan.

Javier Urango Herrera in custody as he was extradited from Veneuzela

Javier Urango Herrera in custody as he was extradited from Veneuzela

Duality

The 1972 book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is framed as a conversation between an aging Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, in which the explorer describes Khan’s expanding empire, focusing on 55 separate cities which he describes in great detail. Confronted with the book, the reader quickly realizes that Polo is not speaking of actual, physical cities, but rather what they mean to those who live there, and the feelings they can bring out in us. As the explorer himself states in the book, “You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours."

To that end, Polo describes these cities, all of them inhabited by people who author Eric Weiner has described as “a tortured lot, ensnared in various traps, largely of their own making.” Many of these cities have an exaggerated duality about them that is not unlike that of Cómbita. One city, for example, has an exact replica of itself—made in pure gold—buried underneath. Its citizens, however, are unaware of this, and live simple, poor and miserable existences. Another city is described as being filled with pain and sadness, and yet, its citizens are unaware of this reality, unexpectedly leading to “a happy city unaware of its existence”, a heartbreaking description of a population that is unaware of both its sadness and good fortune.

Quintana's faimly in Combita's town square (Photo: El Tiempo)

Quintana's faimly in Combita's town square (Photo: El Tiempo)

In a sense, the dualities described in Invisible Cities very much fall in line with the pluralities of our time. And while such dualities are by no means exclusive to Cómbita, it’s interesting to see how they so closely mirror those of Colombia as a whole, without necessarily creating an overarching metanarrative. Colombia is at once joyful and somber. Hopeful for the future and what it represents, while being collectively ashamed of its past and how it’s helped shape the view many have of a country.

In that sense, sport, and cycling in particular, will continue to shape the nation’s identity, if only as a counterpoint to that which so many see as a fundamental part of its tumultuous history. And perhaps in the end, it's that contradiction that makes Colombia completely and utterly....Colombian.

A Nairo fan rides his bike near Combita. Note the home-painted tshirt

A Nairo fan rides his bike near Combita. Note the home-painted tshirt