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Contours: An excerpt from Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy


Flapping his arms in widening, counter-clockwise circles, Richard Melville finds he can fly.

It isn’t really flying, though, more like some suspended animation catapult. Through the action of the arms, he increases his altitude to thirty-five meters, tip-topping tall trees, floating but not free, cursed with the knowledge that he’ll have to land, and, from the ground, wind himself up again.

The world a wonder from above: rapid sequence of ashen snarls entwined with rectangular plots yellow and brown, thin light of waning afternoon, a knifelike wind carrying him past rooftops, steeples, bare white forest….

Where are the people, though? Have they failed to notice this feat? Will he be in trouble if they find out he’s flying? He knows he isn’t supposed to…that he has to….

Someone’s pointing from below but the outlines dissipate under scrutiny, and thousands are massing in a plaza like people in newsreels.

Richard’s arms fail him. Veering right, a birdlike tilt of the arms, his strength gone, a few hundred meters into the beyond, he glides into a valley alive with aves, birdsong carried along a breeze that becomes his principal support, a riot of grasses and trees—and there! The curve where Andrés Escobar got shot….

Richard’s worried about landing because he’s nearly there. He touches down where Cane left him with María Isabel, but she’s not there, she’s …

Striding swiftly through Niquitao, mechanics eye him through the soot of early afternoon. Fear seizes him and children with crew cuts—ragged foot-soldiers, pint-sized adults—follow behind in droves, gutturals piercing traffic sounds

¡Oe! ¡Gringo maricón! Te vamo’ a cascar, ¡hijueputa!

Eyes burning like Chucky, el muñeco diabólico, the children start to silbar, to whistle, with dogs loose in packs, and Richard’s running but the dogs keep coming, their barks slapping on the walls of houses.

Has to get to Buenos Aires—the barrio, not the city—but doesn’t know the way, and turning to look, hears the waaaaah-waah-waaaahing of motorcycles, one in front, two behind, teenage gunmen taking aim with mini-Uzis, Richard wondering if they can reach him above the treetops as he flaps away, hoping not to fall flat. The pavement rushes at him like death but he’s sailing over a mosaic of tin roofs, a cubist hillside of rusted gray and aluminum, shots distant as if underwater.

East toward what has to be Santa Elena Canyon, safe from the pa-popping below, it’s night, and Richard sees firefights rip through vegetation of houses, puncturing the galaxy—green, white, orange—blanketing hills that become mountains. He wants to turn around to see the city glowing behind him, but then he can’t get to Santa Elena.

The countryside, he has to…María Isabel will meet him, he’ll tell her he can fly, how he was almost….

He remembers she’s supposed to wait for him in Buenos Aires.


Tuesday morning’s heat leans up the city’s inclines. Lacking a disaster to photograph, Cane accompanies Richard.

Dressed in flared jeans, pink nylon scoop-neck, and beat-up “Caterpillar” hiking boots, María Isabel is waiting when they pull up on Cane’s blue Honda 250.

Good day, señorita, how’d you sleep? Everything good? Where do you plan to take my little gringo friend? An outing in Santo Domingo #1, perhaps?

Almost apologetically.

He’s my bodyguard.

I see that, my love. What luck to have someone who takes care of you! But don’t worry…what’s your name?


Don’t worry, Cane. I’ll have him home around 5, OK?

OK, but tell me, my princess, where’re you going?

To visit friends.

Yeah? And what do your friends do, my love?

I see who taught you to ask so many questions, Richard. My friends are mothers of families in charge of health and education in Olaya Herrera, OK?

No worries, my princess, it’s all good. We’ll wait for you this afternoon. Behave yourself, idiot, and follow the orders of this beautiful chick. Huh! Anything comes up call me on my cell, OK?

Richard, finishing off the macho handshake, essays the slang he expects to hear in the barrios.

OK, man. Cool.

María Isabel unzips her blue backpack, withdraws a black motorcycle helmet, and hands it to Richard. Walking toward San Diego, a shopping center, she turns right and left until they come to a white Honda 80 scooter next to a row of cafes.

Did you have breakfast? Are you hungry?

Yes. No. I mean, I had breakfast and am not hungry. Are you?

No my love, I ate early, but let’s have cup of coffee and chat for a minute, OK?

Breakfast. Richard had a beer with Cane as they watched the morning news on RCN—the usual mix of war, fashion, celebrity, and sports. He couldn’t stomach rice and red beans, but coffee was in order.

They sit in red plastic chairs that belong to one of the cafes lining the sidewalk, each one serving the same things: food, coffee, beer, liquor, snacks, cigarettes. They order two tinticos, Richard asking for Maracuyá juice, essentially concentrated Vitamin C, which injects him with the energy that his “lifestyle,” as his compatriots call it, deprives him of. [1]

María Isabel bends forward, speaking fast but with a lowered tone

Look Richard, you know the situation in the barrios is delicate, and you can’t go around asking questions at first, because young guns don’t know the difference between someone from the DA’s office and a social scientist, and since they’re armed, they’re the law, and unlike the Colombian justice system, they act with too much alacrity and efficiency.…

Her left hip goes beepbeepbeep beepbeep beepbeepbeep beepbeep.

Sorry. I’ve got to make a call. Wait for me here, please.

She has a cell phone on her right hip, but disappears toward a cluster of public telephones around the corner. He squeezes his ass up tight. But then she returns.

OK. All set. We’re going on a walk and then after lunch we’ll meet with community leaders. You’re named Juan Diego and I, Catalina.

For security. As I said, I’ll speak for you, but not because you’re an idiot. So tell me about your study, so I can explain it!

The combination of coffee, acidic fruit juice, and beer wracks Richard’s digestive system. Explosions in his lower intestine. The effort to remain continent leaves little energy for explaining the significance of his research.

It’s about urban warfare. I want to talk to people to find out how they understand what they do and how the rules of the game are fixed, especially in terms of men and women and violence and sexuality. I want to know how they imagine the conflict in relation to their lovers, their families, their neighborhoods. I’m also interested in bio-power: how the state, paramilitaries, and guerrillas shape the way people are formed as subjects. How they act on themselves as bodies.

Wow! That’s too hot to ask about directly. But I’ll see what I can do, my son.

Richard had no plan for the operational part of research. His grant proposal was strong on theory, and listed discredited—because quasi-official—NGOs that worked with ex-gang or ex-militia members. Some turned into corrupt clientelist networks, others more like private security mafias. Beyond Blade Runner. But how would the grant committee know that?

He figured he’d meet people through his advisor, Quintero, but like the bellboy said, the provinces were a world away from the capital. Oddly, Richard hadn’t counted on the takeover of the university, symbolized by the killing of Gustavo Marín Marín, not yet twenty when bullets littered his body two weeks after he predicted his demise in a national assembly.

When Richard began research, the University’s south gate was still covered with colorful cards and paintings, photos, wrenching letters, lists of student demands, and a sign with Marín’s face that said he’d never be forgotten.

Richard had yet to meet anyone who would volunteer to help get interviews with active and former urban warriors. So far, María Isabel, nee Catalina, and Cane were it.

Before they get on the scooter, she hands him a pair of Oakley reflectors.

At a certain moment on the way up you’re going to make yourself go to sleep, OK?

Don’t worry. I’m not tired.

I hope not, but for security you have to close your eyes for a little while, all right?

He’s impressed at this capacity for euphemism.

Though he could’ve put his hands on the seat to steady himself, Richard wraps his arms around María Isabel’s waist instead, head resting on the hair between her shoulder blades as they dip in traffic up 33rd toward 80. She doesn’t seem to mind. Or notice.

She told him to close his eyes as they neared 20 de Julio, before they got to the first EPN graffiti, and then they were high up in La Divisa with the city center fanned below to the east and 20 de Julio hidden from view by a wedge of green. Maybe half the steep hillside covered with houses on stilts made of wooden planks, the rest concrete or brick, with chickens darting below houses and children lingering on balconies.

Whining upward, María Isabel nodded at young men stationed in groups of twos and threes at bends in the windy road, pistols visible against the outlines of their baggy jeans, polos, and T-shirts.

Do you know them? Who are they?

Militia fighters. They charge tolls on buses and taxis that enter, and check who comes in and out.

But not you?

What do you mean? They know I’m from the university and work with women. Of course they don’t charge me.

What group are they from?

The CAP.

Why are there so many wooden houses?

A lot of displaced people put houses up with whatever they’ve got, people who’ve run away without anything except the clothes on their backs, understand? It’s a very young neighborhood still.

As they get to the top of a low-lying ridge, María Isabel slows the scooter, turns off the engine, and they roll toward mechanics working on ancient school buses, striped in bright colors—green, red, white, yellow, blue, orange. María Isabel speaks too quietly for him to understand. They leave the scooter parked in front of a shed behind the buses and start uphill.

Before the 50 meter mark, they go right on a path that cuts across a light green hillside almost yellow, separating La Divisa from Olaya Herrera.

We’re going this way because on the hill below there’s a military base and a paramilitary camp and they check who’s going in and out,

understand? In the past year Olaya and La Divisa have become targets for the security forces, and now for paramilitaries, too. All young people are considered militia fighters, or guerrillas. Or better, the whole neighborhood, old people included. Last March, for example, soldiers from the Eighty-Second Brigade stopped a bus and took the passengers to the hill to register them one by one. They filmed them, photographed them, fingerprinted them, everything. On September 1, the day of the civic strike, they executed three kids and arrested a hundred and four. They say these barrios are a knot of subversion, but they want to do their mega-projects toward the west and these barrios are in the way. The only way to get people out is by force.

And the subversion?

The word tickles Richard. He can never dissociate it from old magazine ads connecting Bolshevism to dirty sinks and bathtubs. Modern hygiene for the free world.

Oh yeah, the ones in charge here are the CAP, the EPN down below, the FALN….

I don’t want to be paranoid, but since I’m a gringo, aren’t they going to kidnap me?

No, my son, as I told you, you don’t have to talk about that, and your look, well it’s normal, so take it easy. It’s all good. Plus they know me, and they know I’m not going to bring anyone dangerous, right?

Lumping along behind her on the rutted path, he watches the two spheres of her ass swish with the grasses. Wonders what he looks like from behind.

Asses and grasses.

Thus Richard on the first morning of real fieldwork. Not even the momentary fear of kidnapping could bring him to summon the requisite moral seriousness.


Reaching a dirt road that leads to the army base, Richard and María Isabel move downhill before turning left into an alley that gives way to concrete stairs cascading downhill by the hundreds, with wooden and cement brick houses lining both sides. Children chase chickens in one of the houses with a front yard of packed earth. In another, two old women in flower-print dresses sit in the shade of the overhang, peeling potatoes.

At the first bend in the path of stairs, a triangular meadow measuring five meters by ten. In the top corner, two teenagers and an old man listen to a radio with a long antenna and look toward the hill, glancing first at María Isabel then at Richard, who doesn’t notice until he’s nearly upon them, staring out across the valley toward the carretera al mar.

To his left he looks up at the pass to Santa Fe and Urabá, and to his right, el Picacho. On the other side of the valley, the northeastern comunas, Pan de Azúcar.

They cross Olaya’s lone road toward the dirt soccer field, at the near end of which one teenager with a black mustache, royal blue polo, and a walkie-talkie hands out munitions to four other teenagers.

When Don Martín gets here we’ll go walking…over to the lower part toward the Hill of the Twelve Apostles.

Richard glances to his left, at what looks to be the neighborhood school and a concrete building at the end of a set of uphill stairs near the edge of the ridge. He tries not to stare at the young men loading guns and pointing to the hill where they’re supposed to go walking.

From the direction of the school, an older man appears in a red Nike baseball cap that reads “Just Do It,” his arms ruddy from the sun. Dressed in a white polo shirt, faded jeans, and worn leather tennis shoes, five and a half feet tall with large rectangular glasses, white hair and oversized ears, he fits Richard’s idea (received where?) of a retired Jewish man in West Palm. A younger man stands behind the older man in black rubber boots, acid-washed jeans, a black baseball hat with a green leaf emblazoned “The Chronic,” and a beige t-shirt, with holes between shirt and collar, that says, “If You Ain’t a Pittsburgh Fan/You Ain’t Shit.” Honey-colored skin, with brown mustache, hair, and eyes, back bent, a machete in the fringed leather holster at his side.

Look at you, Catalina, always so beautiful. Such smiles you bring us.

Don Martín, how are you? How’s it going?

Good. Thanks to God, I eat every day. And you, my daughter?

I’m good. Look, I’ll introduce you to Juan Diego.

With much pleasure. How are you, young man? You want to get to know the neighborhood? At your service. Let’s go walking. Juan Diego, this is a defender of the community that knows what we’ve suffered, and what we are to suffer. I introduce you to Toño.

Toño wipes his hand on his Pittsburgh shirt.

Much pleasure, sir, at your orders.

Walking on the road and up the hill, scratch scratch scratch of pebbles crashing into conversation, Richard, alias Juan Diego, points toward the gray building behind them. They tell him it’s the senior citizen’s center, which, like the school, the health clinic, the road—like everything in sight—they built with their sweat, their hands, with meager resources, without assistance from the state, which, they said, appeared occasionally in the form of the police or the army, and in order to murder the youth.

Who, they ask, will attend to their demands?

Richard wonders how often they have rehearsed this story for “researchers” like him. [i]

Crossing over the hill on the wide dirt path, one step closer to the countryside, fruit trees heavy and pendulous, pigs small and large in the dirt, chickens congregating like children, more groups of young men in baggy blue jeans and bright colored polos or t-shirts standing with radios and guns in the shade.

The FALN have a one-room wooden shack at the top of five wooden steps. The signs on the right side of the front wall indicate it’s a command post, but there’s no one there.

From where they stand, Vallehuelos and Las Margaritas, full of the brown wooden houses of the displaced, look to be carved out like a canoe, the road to the sea its upper rim, an armrest. Above, meadows slanting skyward, warped around a curvature, pine trees rising, and the little white town tucked in at the crook.

Look, up there the paramilitaries have their headquarters. San Cristóbal is theirs and we can’t go there, because if we try to go the hospital, for example, and they find out where we’re from…

Don Martín, flicking his considerable chin up and to the left, makes a line across his throat. Wrinkling his nose toward the mountain of pines climbing, opposite San Cristóbal.

This river you see here is going to become a highway because up there they’re going to build the Tunnel to the West. All these lands will fall into the hands of the rich, the speculators, the capitalists, right? And maybe they’ll sell them to multinationals. That’s why the government won’t invest in our neighborhoods. They know it’s more profitable to maintain us in this state of poverty and abandonment so as to buy the lands at the price of an egg and sell them for millions. That’s why the paramilitaries have come.

Toño speaks for the first time, and Juan Diego strains to hear.

Brother, they’ve already been displaced a lot of us and we don’t have anywhere to go. We have nothing. Neither work, education, health care, nor land; none of the things one needs to live well in this world, which is so tough. What you see is all we have…that and our collective commitment to bring this neighborhood forward, to have a better future. But they want to exterminate us. Listen, one has to lie about where one’s from in order to get a job, and not even then! I just want to feed and educate my kids, and I’ll do anything. But it’s tough, brother.

The contrast between the cuts, scars, and wrinkles of Toño’s face, and the soft desperation in his eyes and voice, cuts Juan Diego to the quick.

He passes lunch in silence.

He’s glad for the vegetable soup, the chicken, rice, salad, and most of all, the pineapple juice that the mothers have prepared for he, Catalina, and six or seven other community leaders, one of whom Juan Diego recognizes as the teenage militia commander, who also eats in silence. On his right, Catalina carries on a conversation with two women, though not loud enough to be heard over others filling up the red brick classroom turned cafeteria with rumor, gossip, and anecdote. Richard, a.k.a. Juan Diego, concentrates on the ground in front of his feet.

With everyone done joking, debating, and telling stories, people turn their attention to Catalina, who’s leaning against a teacher’s desk with long legs extended and folded at her feet, holding out her right arm.

Juan Diego’s an investigator, a scholar of the conflict the people live through in this city, and has come to listen. He knows the media and the military lie about the reality we confront every day. He wants to hear another version of what’s happening here, what our dreams are, and what we lack. He wants to spread the word up north because that’s where the plans to get rid of us come from.

An outpouring of complaints: malnourished children fainting in school; no money to pay doctors and nurses to staff the clinic; unemployment; police violence; the construction, house by house, path by winding path of stairs, a new neighborhood out of nothing. How they fought to get water, electricity, and a public telephone. How scared they were of what was to come.

Juan Diego had read about these conditions, even written about them. He memorized the oral history of the northeastern comuna. But he wasn’t expecting to see pain in people’s eyes, or to hear their voices break.

They outlined general trends, explained specific cases.

Dropping down La Divisa, just before he has to close his eyes, Richard says

No drugs or gangs?

In Olaya? No, no drugs or gangs, no. Because revolutionary justice doesn’t tolerate it.

Militia fighters kill dealers and consumers, right?

If they don’t respect warnings? Yes. And the people agree in order to keep the neighborhood clean, so there’s progress, understand?

[1]Tinticos: Cups of weak coffee one third the size of a twenty-first century cup in the Homeland.


Forrest Hylton

FORREST HYLTON is an Associate Professor of History at the Universidad de los Andes, and the author of a bi-lingual novel, Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy, along with several books on Latin American history and politics. Beginning in September 2012, he will be a post-doctoral fellow at NYU's Tamiment Library, where he will be completing research for a book entitled 'Doing the Right Thing': Labor, Democracy, and Organized Crime on the Brooklyn Waterfront During the Cold War.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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