Video: President Álvaro Uribe Vélez

May 26, 2006 11:02 a.m.

Colombians (with two Os) go to the polls Sunday, most likely to re-elect President Alvaro Uribe, who has about a 70 percent approval rating, based largely on a tough approach to a terrorist group known as FARC.

We sat down with Uribe a couple of weeks ago. He's not tall and wears glasses. Once he started talking, my impression changed. He spoke English slowly, but with a lot of force. You could feel it.

Uribe's father was killed by terrorists while still a young man. They've tried to kill Uribe 18 times. Eighteen assassination attempts — bombs, guns — one time rockets.

A couple of reports will run this weekend that we did in Colombia, one on kidnapping, the other on cocaine.

The first shot in the kidnapping report is a little kid pleading for his life. He was held for a few months and freed for ransom. The video made by the kidnappers raised some questions for the police. The kidnappers had dressed the child in muddy boots and even used cutaway shots of the boots in what police thought was an excessive attempt by the kidnappers to show they were holding the boy in a rural area — but a blanket was used to cover the background. The boy was in fact being held in a city.

He stands in front of the blanket in the boots and cries for his father.

March 22, 2006 9:15 a.m.
Bogota, Colombia

You can't roll down bulletproof windows, and you look like an amateur when you try. But you can tap them with your knuckle once in a while and it is a good feeling.

There is a man here who makes designer bulletproof clothing. He says he dresses three candidates in Mexico's presidential elections as well as several other Latin American leaders. Each leather coat has different levels of protection. What the designer said he liked the most was the flexibility of the material. Several times he reached out to the model and twisted the material with both hands.

To demonstrate the reliability of the clothing they brought out a lot of guns, from a .32 to an Uzi, and laid them out on the table. He asked me if I wanted to get shot on camera. I declined. Instead the designer shot his brother with a .38 in the lower left torso. It took him a while to fish out the slug. The brother was unmarked.

March 20, 2006 2:07 p.m.
Bogota, Colombia

There is a big debate about how to get rid of coca bushes, from which cocaine is made.

Critics say spraying herbicides hurts the environment. These people favor manual eradication. The problem with manual eradication, men with shovels, is that the terrorists kill the men with the shovels.

We went to see manual eradication in southern Colombia, in a national park called Macareña.

The terrorist organization FARC has begun planting coca bushes in national parks because it is forbidden to use pesticide spray planes there. To get to the park we flew in a little Cessna first, then a helicopter. When the plane came to get us, the airstrip was a grass field. It was strange to be waiting for a plane on a grass field with no towers or people around. I looked at the green grass as the plane sped up for a take-off, expecting it to be rough, but I did not feel any difference.

On the helicopter there were no seats and a big crowd. I grabbed a spot on a metal platform in the middle. It was an hour flight, so I knew the people on the floor would have aching backs. The doors were open and it was loud, but I had my Hoppe's earplugs... ridged for comfort. I had lent them to the cameraman to film a machine gun, but rubbed them off with hand wash. If you didn't have them you'd be in pain, as it is hard to hold two fingers in your ears for an hour.

It was a couple-hour march on a jungle trail to the coca field. My face was wet with sweat. I could take two palms and rub them across my face and fill them with water. I started feeling good on the hike. It was under a heavy jungle canopy and they told us to keep our voices down because the FARC could be around. You could see why Colombia had the ideal terrain for terrorists.

There were 120 diggers left out of about a thousand. One digger said the rest had quit out of fear. The FARC had mined the coca bushes and had sharpshooters to kill the diggers and the police. It took more than 1,000 Colombian soldiers to guard the 100 diggers.

When the team went to see a minefield I sat on a downed tree. I didn't see much point in seeing a minefield, as mines are underground and easy to step on.

A few soldiers came over to talk. One knew a little English and we exchanged words for "fruit" in English and Spanish. I was just glad to be sitting down. One soldier walked over with a pineapple and a machete. He whittled off the edges, then put a few chops in the side. He'd chop, then offer a piece, the chop just deep enough so you could pull off the piece of pineapple. He served the other soldiers first, and then held out a big chunk to me.

March 17, 2006 10:10 a.m.
Bogota, Colombia

I don't like crowds. My first regular experience in crowds was in Moscow in the early 90's. There were large demonstrations of communists in the streets. They recognized us as Westerners because of the camera gear and from the mink shapka my cameraman wore. You could get spit on, elbowed, or called "a Jew." As a soundman I was linked to the camera by a cable, so it could get dicey when the pushing started.

In some places just being a Westerner is enough to draw a crowd. I made the mistake in Chechnya one winter of going for comfort instead of style — opting for enormous sheep-lined hunting boots. They were so large, they drew a crowd of onlookers who would muse aloud in my presence, as if I was not there, wondering as to the size. I remember once deliberately standing behind a Zhiguli to hide my boots from the curious.

So it felt strange yesterday, in a small village in central Colombia, to be surrounded and not feel bad.

We were filming training by anti-narcotics police. I sat down on a stone bench. The altitude here was not as bad as Bolivia, but I still felt it. A crowd soon surrounded me, but this time it was mainly children.

Their spokesman was a wiry boy in a Catholic school uniform — about my height when I was seated. He used his arms and talked fast. He wanted something, but I couldn't figure out what. He finally threw up his arms and told me what I needed was a dictionary. I smiled and his friends laughed.

Another little quiet boy sat on the bench to my left. He too was in uniform, and had a folder on his lap. I asked in slow Spanish how old he was and he answered in a soft voice.

He slowly opened his colored folder, removing two rubber bands. I said, "las matematicas," which I thought was feminine plural, and he slowly removed a sheet of calculations. I looked at it hard, nodded and said, "Bien." Next, he took out a colored drawing. I asked if the house was a house. A man was in front, and a woman was doing some farm work in the background. There was a green object between them.

"What is that?" I asked.
"An iguana," he said.
"An iguana," I said.

The clouds were swirls of blue crayon.

March 14, 2006 4:27 p.m.
Bogota, Colombia

I spoke this morning with an American woman whose son was kidnapped here three years ago. When I asked what her day-to-day life was like, she repeated over and over that she was "a zombie."

The repetition really drove this home. I sat in a chair and closed my eyes. She was around people who were living their lives, she said, but she was not really alive. She was a zombie. It made me think that it is one thing to go to dangerous places, but for the other people in your life, just how hard it would be for them if anything happened.

She said her son was a defense contractor who flew spray planes to eradicate coca plants. She said his plan was to do it for three years, to save $50,000 each year and to use the money to buy a house.

She had made the trip from Connecticut, which she saved for and made once a year.

"No one loves him like I do," the mother said.

There was a small demonstration of about 25 people. They had a few posters.

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