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We were running late, racing hard down a roughly-paved jungle road. Having just passed the last government checkpoint, a rickety bridge where a gun battle five months before left eight dead, including a Colombian congressman, we were now in territory controlled by FARC, for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia.
[Raúl] Reyes explained how FARC really wasn’t dealing drugs — they were merely taxing the drug trade. I noted that his explanation seemed a distinction without a difference. We agreed to disagree, and the next time I heard his name was when Reyes was killed in a massive American targeted air raid in 2008.
A violent, drug-dealing, Marxist insurgency, FARC was destabilizing the entire Andes region of South America as it corrupted public officials and waged war against the Colombian government based in the distant capital of Bogotá. With robust help from the Castro brothers in Cuba, crazy renegade Hugo Chávez was already plotting Chávez’ takeover in neighboring Venezuela. Ecuador was also turning hard-left. And cocaine and heroin from the tumultuous region were pouring into the United States.
To get a closer view of Colombia’s torment, I had sailed my old boat Voyager 1,400 miles up the Amazon River to the chaotic, jungle port city of Leticia, using it as our base of operations during production of my Dateline NBC special called “Blown Away.”
It was July 2001, and this struggle for control of the Andes called Plan Colombia was America’s biggest fight in the world. I remember meeting Marine General Peter Pace, who would later become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a secret jungle base in the Colombia’s interior. The Balkan Wars in Europe were over. The Soviet Union was newly broken up. China was still finding its way, and in that otherwise tranquil summer before the 9/11/01 attacks changed the world, attempting to manage Colombia’s bloody, half-century-long civil war was America’s most urgent foreign policy challenge.
Back then, in a desperate attempt to placate the guerillas, FARC had been ceded the huge hunk of Colombian countryside that we were driving through. About the size of Switzerland, the territory was known informally as FARC-Landia. And we had arranged to meet a top rebel leader, Raúl Reyes, and other FARC leaders in San Vicente, its largest town.
Heavy jungle shadows were making the scene spooky and surreal as we drove past that final government checkpoint. It was 10 minutes to 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The strict curfew set by the FARC rebels was 6 p.m., and we still had 40 miles of bad road between us and San Vicente.
As the jungle darkened, I remember the next two hours as among my most nerve-racking. As I said on camera as we approached the outskirts of San Vicente on that evening almost 13 years ago, “We’re going to be late. I don’t like this. A FARC roadblock a minute after the expiration of the curfew. Very, very, very uncomfortable.”
It was with great relief that the hyper-aggressive teenage revolutionaries guarding San Vicente were swayed by my invocation of Commander Reyes’ name, and allowed us to pass into the relative safety of town.
At first light, we left San Vicente and headed deeper into the bush, ultimately meeting up with El Comandante at a heavily guarded camp. There, Reyes explained how FARC really wasn’t dealing drugs — they were merely taxing the drug trade. I noted that his explanation seemed a distinction without a difference. We agreed to disagree, and the next time I heard his name was when Reyes was killed in a massive American targeted air raid in 2008.
I thought about my time with Comandante Reyes and his FARC rebels this week while reading a story about Colombia’s presidential elections, which are scheduled for this Sunday May 25th. To allow voting to take place, a tenuous cease-fire has been declared by the government and the FARC rebels in their never-ending war.
Colombia’s current president Juan Manuel Santos and FARC rebel commanders just announced what a report in The Economist describes as “a landmark agreement on how to curb the country’s multi-billion dollar drug trade as part of broader peace talks to end half a century of conflict.”
I am too experienced to share their reporter’s optimism.