I am starting to feel a little paranoid. I see irregulars, guerillas and paramilitaries at every table. I am beginning to feel surrounded. The problem is that we are in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and the war, they say, is over the border in Colombia.
As I collect my laundry, three chicos are in the shop at the same time. It is a regular routine in this part of town, the Mariscal, or the ‘zone’ as it is known locally, where the majority of foreign tourists hang out. All three men are in their early twenties, dressed New York Latino style: baggy trousers, t-shirts, sneakers, everything except the hoods. Nothing noteworthy, nothing more than a bit of a swagger, a hint of cool, a suggestion of danger. It is not that unusual.
But there is something unusual about these three. They are not tourists. Their Colombian accents, their severe, military style haircuts give them away, lend more than an edge to their swagger. After they leave, I speak to the woman who owns the place. ‘I didn’t know the Colombian army holidayed in Quito,’ I say, using a cautiously low tone. ‘ I don’t trust Colombians,’ she replies. ‘Don’t you think there’s a lot of them around.’ ‘Yes, but not like these. No, not like these.’
Are they military? Probably not, not with this kind of look and attitude. More likely they are guerrillas or paramilitaries. But then who knows. And that is the problem, you never do. What you can be certain of is that all sides are here: on holiday, taking a break from life in the forest or the mountains, looking for someone or other, for information, threatening, coercing, intimidating.
Part of the fallout from Colombian attack on Ecuadorian territory on March 1st is that we now know, for those who didn’t already, or were unwilling to think about it, that the Guerilla, the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to be more precise, are here, somewhere, amongst us, like fish in water. Before Raul Reyes, the FARC second in command, was killed in the raid, he came and went, unrecognized, dressed, like these three, in civilian clothes. What we also know, is that where the FARC are, the paramilitaries are sure to be close behind. They are also hard to see, impossible to recognize, or at least be certain, unless you know, unless, like Maria Agusta Calle, they put a gun in your face.
Calle is a representative of the governing Alianza País party in the Constitutional Assembly, presently debating the new constitution in Montecristi, close to the port of Manta on the Pacific coast. According to the Colombian government, documents found in the now famous computer belonging to Reyes, link her to the FARC. Messages from ‘Alicia’ (Calle’s cell name, according to the Colombians) were published together with photographs showing her in the company of Reyes’ daughter, and a well known FARC representative in Ecuador, who was said to have been killed in the March 1st raid. Calle has strenuously denied the accusations, and has stated that as a journalist it was part of her work to interview people. And then again, if photographs count as proof of FARC sympathies, ex President Lucio Gutiérrez (who once promised to be the US’ most faithful ally in the region) would be suspect number one: he was photographed with Raul Reyes himself.
Conveniently, from the Colombian government point of view, Calle is also the Ecuadorian representative of the Venezuelan regional news channel Telesur , which allows them to make a putative link with Venezuela. Although, to be honest, Telesur Representative is more of an honorary title than anything else; the network has few subscribers in the country. That is small comfort however, when you are looking down the barrel of a gun, when your children’s lives have been threatened.
Later the same week I am in a local café watching the Champions League semi-final between Manchester United and Barcelona. The place is full, and I am sharing a table with a couple who support Barcelona. There is something familiar about the woman. I am pretty sure I do not know her personally, but her look is certainly familiar: pleasant, straightforward, somewhat earnest face, straight unadorned black hair, polo neck sweater and plain flat shoes. To me she looks like a guerrillera. We talk about the game; she likes football. I can’t make out her accent: she and her companion speak softly. He is wearing a silk bomber jacket with a Magpies logo emblazoned on it. ‘Newcastle?’ I ask. ‘No, I got it in the Philippines’ he says. I’m tempted to mention that I also know a few people in the Philippines, to drop a few names just to judge the reaction, but in reality there is little opportunity. The game absorbs us until the final minute. Manchester win, Barcelona sink deeper into a bad season. My ‘friends’ are disappointed. I wish them good luck, and add conspiratorially ‘Hasta la Victoria Siempre’. But, of course, it could be that they were simply tourists, and bemused by my odd attitude. Who knows?
For me it’s almost become a game: spot the combatant. Fortunately, it’s a game with few consequences in the capital. Quito is generally quiet and, as far as we know, no one has been killed by the enemy, at least in the ‘zone’. And we all like football here. If my football fanatic table companions are indeed FARC, then I have no doubt they are not alone. It is quite possible that the well muscled Israeli men I can see over at another table are security ‘advisors’ to the Colombian Military, or that in a café just down the street, possibly talking to other gringos, their counterpart paramilitaries were enjoying the game, just like us. And perhaps Colombian or US military intelligence agents were also watching. Maybe they knew the result before the game was over.
Quito may be relatively peaceful, but closer to the Northern border the environment becomes more complex and dangerous. Later that same week I find myself at a meeting about 100 miles from the frontier, in a community center situated in a steep valley where a white, presumably clean, river rushes and bounds over the huge boulders that try to block its path. When the gathering is over, the interminable speeches finally terminated and the entertainment under way, we move inside to the community hall as the rain starts to fall.
The motive for the celebration is victory over a Canadian mining company that was finally forced to leave due to pressure from the locals. The battle was long and far from easy, everyone is understandably in a good mood, and we sing and dance well into the evening. Amongst the crowd, I spot a man I had spoken to earlier in the day when we were held up by a landslide on the road into the village. At least I think it is the same man, his face is familiar, but this time he is dressed in green fatigues and wellington boots. A couple of people from the area who are paying attention, and are still relatively sober, remark that he looks like he is FARC.
I say hello and he invites me to step outside to talk. He suggests that I go with him to a local farm with a ‘veterinarian’ who is travelling with him, and a driver who stands close by, saying nothing. I decline politely, saying that I will be staying the night in another community close by. They seem to lose interest and I see nothing more of them. When I ask, no one seems to know who they are. ‘Do you see anything of the FARC in these parts?’ I ask my hosts later, as we drink our hot chocolate and eat home-made cheese before turning in. ‘No, not around here, not as far as we know…….’ But I wonder if they do know, and consider it ‘unwise’ to say anything. After all, we are not too far from the border and the guerrilla probably has a fair number of sympathisers in the area. In retrospect it seems more likely than not that my ‘friend’ was indeed a guerrillero, and that I unknowingly had an interview with kidnappers. I was lucky. With a few more drinks under my belt, at this moment I might be enjoying lunch with Ingrid Betancourt.*
 Colombian presidential candidate who was held by the FARC for 8 years.