The Art of Vanishing
Umaña and Herrera headed off for the paramilitary camps in the middle of the night, well before dawn. Sometimes they travelled by bus, other times in a second-hand pickup truck belonging to one of Herrera’s family members, and – only occasionally – on motorcycle. They took the winding road that lead out of the savannah, through the banana groves, until they entered the canyon and descended to the banks of the mightiest river in the region. When they reached the town the next morning, they sought out a quiet if grimy lodging to store their things. Umaña took a cold shower to wash away the strain of the trip and they immediately returned to the road, not wanting to waste even a second. The towns they had been to were either the scenes of savage massacres, or they lived in fear of becoming one. During these trips they barely ate, and they slept – or tried to – just a couple hours at a time. Umaña once told me that, in those days, “sleeping was nothing more than waiting in silence for the dawn with your eyes closed.”
There was very little down time. During those rare moments of leisure, Umaña taught Herrera how to play chess. The student started out quite slowly, but little by little, he caught on to the point where he became a respectable adversary. Neither of them spoke when they played: they simply drank rum and smoked without lifting their eyes from the board.
Sometimes they hired a taxi that would take them down unpaved roads bordered by immense, uncultivated fields. Oil derricks appeared in the offing like mirages. The heat was thick, as if a layer of steam was making it difficult to pass through: the two men were sweating profusely, and the straps of their camera bags were scalding their skin. Neither of them spoke. The driver occasionally glanced at them through the rearview mirror with a mixed look of fear and curiosity in his eyes, for he knew exactly where he was taking them. Just before they reached the entrance to the ranch – where the camp operated – they saw a few boys, children really, with machine guns. They had been informed of the scheduled visit, and therefore let them through.
At another checkpoint, the children had not received proper orders, and surrounded what they believed were intruders. Over a dozen boys emerged from the undergrowth, each with his own machine gun aimed at the heads of the three men in the taxi.
They forced them out under a barrage of insults. The driver, with his hands behind his head, was barely able to stand, which provoked laughter among his captors. Umaña remained silent, dazed by the heat. Herrera tried to explain that “los señores” knew him, and he showed them his press credentials. The one who appeared to be the leader of the group, perhaps sixteen years old with a deep scar across his shaved scalp, agreed to communicate with the ranch. Then, a saving voice crackled from the radiophone: these men were friends, and not a hair on their heads was to be touched. As stealthily as they had appeared, the boys then slunk back into their hiding places in the brush.
Beyond the entrance gate was another narrow road, the end of which could not be seen. There was nothing around them, save for a cow shading itself under a tree. The driver began to cry silently when another group of men stopped them. This time, they were older, dressed in camouflage, with machine guns slung across their shoulders and machetes hanging from their belts. One of them got in the back seat next to Herrera – Umaña was riding shotgun next to the driver – and struck up a trivial conversation about the drought that had devastated the region.
After so many visits to the area, they had finally been able to set up a meeting with a chief officer known as El Halcón. The self-defense bloc he commanded had sown terror across several states, resulting in hundreds of people either dead, missing, or displaced. In our conversations, Umaña would use him, somewhat childishly, as an example of someone who had been “born bad.” These, according to his theory, were people who didn’t become evil because of their ambitions for money and power, like so many others have, but out of pure and simple pleasure. The idea came to him after hearing his answer to the only question he asked him that day.
El Halcón was not intimidating. He could have passed for an average farmhand. But when he examined him carefully, Umaña noticed that his eyes had an empty look about them, and his expression never seemed to change. He had a nothing face, a nothing gaze, a nothing smile. As if he had been exposed to inexplicable cruelty, and now looks upon it with absolute indifference.
They had a few lukewarm beers, leaning up against the porch railing of what appeared to be the main house. Umaña nudged Herrera, pointing to four concrete posts connected to chains and set in the ground around a dry tree. The photographer said he had no idea what it was. El Halcón, who had been looking after them the entire time, jumped in to answer: “Have you ever seen a man devoured by ants?” he asked, before going on to explain that in between the posts was an underground anthill. “Fire ants. The real nasty ones,” he added. They would string up whatever prisoner, enemy, or traitor they wanted to punish over the hole, chain his limbs to the posts, and smear his body with honey or sugar. They would leave him there for three or four days, whatever it took, allowing the insects to slowly consume him. At first they used ropes, but when they realized people maddened with pain were able to break free, they switched to chains. “You have no idea how fucking strong these guys can be when they’re flailing around. Sometimes they even rip the posts out of the ground, and we have to put everything back together.” A few were known to survive up to five days, but that was it. That whole time, Umaña would remember later, the man spoke in terms of “we,” as if describing some sort of collective feat.
Next he took them to see the beast: a jaguar they would starve for a few days before unleashing it on people. The animal was chained up and looked with equal parts horror and hunger at anyone who ventured near. The same technique worked with alligators. In fact, they had over a dozen in captivity for the sole purpose of eating corpses. There were just so many bodies that there was simply no other way of getting rid of them, and therefore they had perfected this mechanism for the systematic extermination and elimination of human beings: a mass murder factory there in the middle of the tropical jungle.
Over the course of the next few days there at the camp, El Halcón demonstrated that his methods could be more refined, and that he wasn’t simply limited to the use of animals: he taught them how to torture someone using surgical equipment, and also showed them several videos – his favorites – of dismemberments by axe. He enjoyed watching his men chain people up and hack them to pieces with absolute ruthlessness. He complained about the gruesome rumors that had them playing soccer with the heads of their enemies, but he acknowledged they served a purpose, because “the system thrives on terror, my brother,” a statement he repeated time and again as something of a macabre mantra.
It was at a place not far from this very ranch that Umaña heard the sounds of a gunfight for the very first time: it was a shootout between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries that took place while he and Herrera were paddling across a river after having conducted an interview. As was their custom, they were limiting their conversation to the task at hand, not because of any innate awkwardness but rather, on the contrary, to preserve the distant harmony that had allowed for them to be together. They were going over some photos Herrera had taken of a militarized bloc when shots rang out on both sides in a series of remote yet intense bursts: “Tin, tin, tin, like corn popping in a pan,” as he would later describe it to me.
After several weeks of living together, Umaña returned home. He cloistered himself in the shadows, gathering notes, maps, testimonies, and recordings, along with a few photos his companion had taken. He emerged from his self-imposed confinement and headed for Hoy es Hoy, where Bernardo Ponce welcomed him back with surprise, never having expected him to return. Umaña did not explain much: I’ll give you all the material, on the condition that you pay Herrera – and pay him well – for the photos.
Ponce agreed to the terms. Once again he checked thoroughly with his team and ran a series of articles that caused the expected commotion, for no one had ever reported on what was truly going on out there. The entire nation was stunned by the horror and Ponce was once again bathed in glory that came in the form of praises, prizes, and record sales. Thanks to Umaña’s information, his magazine was growing ever more respected and successful. It had gone from being a fringe publication to a national news standard. But nobody ever mentioned Umaña.
He returned again to his confinement. He was exhausted. He was too tired to move, yet too tired to sleep. He drank gallons of alcohol, which he used to wash down handfuls of Clonazepam. The cocktail dulled his mind, but still he could not sleep. When it finally did come, he would dream that he was falling, and woke up with an involuntary shock to the body. It was torture. There was no way to quell the waves breaking in his brain: he went from an idea to an image to a memory without stopping. He tried calming his anxiety with nicotine, but once he started smoking, the headaches came. Sometimes they were throbbing and long; other times they came in bursts, like small electrical shocks, blinding him. He couldn’t feel his legs. His hands shook uncontrollably. He couldn’t even hold a drink.
Tired of bars and sneaking into parties where he could drink for free – both of which required human contact – Umaña turned to buying black market liquor. He got it in a commercial district dedicated to pirating all sorts of products, from nail polish to state-of-the-art computers. To prevent the cashier, a young country girl who worked for the owner of the shop, from asking too many questions about what he was going to do with so much liquor, he made up a restaurant with a bar that needed to be stocked. In a single visit, he could walk off with several dozen bottles of whiskey, which was the only thing at that point which didn’t upset his ulcerated stomach, and for which he paid a ridiculously low bulk rate.
The girl put them in boxes sealed with packing tape, stacked them on a dolly, and walked out to the truck that Herrera had loaned him. Together they loaded it. The boxes would remain in the truck, while Umaña would remove two or three bottles every morning and transfer them to a boy scout canteen which he carried on him at all times. The good thing about the canteen was that nobody would suspect there was whiskey in it instead of water. He didn’t care in the least about what people might think of him, but he hated being given advice about his own life, and thus avoided them.
Drinking in such a way also ensured that he wouldn’t get into street fights with strangers. He had been involved in many over the years, and preferred now to release his rage alone in his room of the boarding house where he lived. When he would wake up, he would see a trail of glasses, clothes, and papers. Once he found a knife jammed into the cushion of a chair whose legs had been torn off. Try as he might, he could not remember what had happened.
When the shop girl wasn’t there, the son of the owner would take care of him. He was a precocious twenty-year old who was well versed in the smuggling business. He rode a BMW motorcycle and, like everyone else in the place, was armed at all times. He was the one who looked at Umaña and asked him, in a keening voice, if he didn’t want something stronger than the whiskey. By then, Umaña was taking three or four Clonazepams a day, which was enough to allow him to sleep for at least three consecutive hours at a time, and diuretics for kidney stones. He’d given up recreational drugs, but for some time now he’d been thinking he should mix the alcohol with something else, something that would ease the pain and, more importantly, the nightmares.
The first of these bad dreams took place after having attended the exhumation of corpses from a pit dug by drug traffickers. It was part of a routine investigation by the district attorney’s office, which was on the trail of one of their bosses. The field agents had expected to find about five bodies, but after several hours of work, they realized there were more, hundreds more, all of which had been dismembered. That night, Umaña dreamed of a panther, ferocious and black, that chased him, not to attack but rather to show him what he held in his jaws: it was Zárate’s son, charred by the fire which he kept buried in the folds of his memory.
This scene was repeated with slight variations. Sometimes the son was replaced with the father, also caught in the panther’s jaws, though alive and looking at him, Umaña, with profound contempt. Other times it was him in the animal’s maw, shouting a message he could not decipher. He truly believed he had been a good son; he never caused his parents trouble nor involved them in his affairs, but he was obsessed with the idea that his work consisted precisely in going after his father’s great friends: the police officers who had watched him grow up. In some of his ethyl-induced hallucinations, he saw decomposing bodies walking around the house; he thought there were bloodstains on the walls and brains scattered across the white kitchen floor.
As a child he visited the old national intelligence building where his father used to work. To be clear, it was to see what had been left standing after a powerful bomb had been detonated. Umaña went with his father the day after the explosion to try to recover his car, only to find crumbling walls, charred cabinets, broken typewriters, and scraps of hair on the walls. The images returned and danced before his eyes again now.
When he woke up, he would run to the bathroom to vomit, smoke, and drink until the sun rose. Then he would take a shower and go out in search of more information.
The young smuggler led him into a cellar whose walls were lined with bottles of liquor and canned food. It was just like going to the doctor: the boy recorded each of Umaña’s symptoms in a notebook and prescribed a drug for each malaise. Umaña had tried them all and was aware that, at his age, taking them again could lead to rock bottom. It was exactly what he wanted: a whole mess of pills that would allow him to fall into a pleasant state of eternal intoxication. First up were the painkillers: Codeine for respiratory problems – he’d been suffering from a chronic cough for the past six months – and the pain in his bum leg, Oxycodone for his ulcer, colon, and kidney stones, Tramadol for his lower back pain. Then there were the Benzodiazepines: Lorazepam, Zolpidem, and Alprazolam to control his anxiety and relax the muscles. To this they added occasional doses of Ketamine and Propofol for their sedative effects, and a Hydrocodone syrup for the gums, which were becoming quite a torturous ordeal yet again. They were swollen and bleeding and throbbing as if a pair of seething tongs were jammed in his mouth, and all because of that time he was punched by an Arab man in a Paris metro station all those years ago. It was dawn, and Umaña was returning home from a three-day bender. He was exhausted. All he wanted to do was sleep for another three days; he leaned back against the bench, ready to doze off, when a couple of Arabs came up to him asking for a cigarette. Umaña immediately recognized this as an excuse for causing trouble, but, nevertheless, he was in the mood for it. He told that smoking on the subway was prohibited. One of the men stepped back, insulting him in Arabic, but the other rushed Umaña and punched him right in the mouth with a set of brass knuckles, nearly shattering his front teeth. When he regained consciousness, still at that same metro station, he realized that someone had shoved him off into a corner so that he wouldn’t be obstructing the flow of passengers on their way to work.
Translated by Ezra E. Fitz
Felipe Restrepo Pombo is a Colombian journalist, editor and author. In 2017 he was included in the Bogotá39 list of the best Latin American writers under 40 organized by the Hay Festival every decade. He studied Literature and started his career as a journalist at the news magazine Cambio, under the direction of Gabriel García Márquez. He is the author of the novel Formas de evasión (Seix Barral, 2016); the biography Francis Bacon: Retrato de una pesadilla (Panamericana, 2008); and two collections of journalistic profiles: 16 retratos excéntricos (Planeta, 2014) and Nunca es fácil ser una celebridad (Planeta 2013). His books have been published in Colombia, Mexico, Chile and Uruguay. In 2013 he was a guest editor for the prestigious Paris Match magazine in Paris and he has been the magazine's correspondent ever since. He is the editor behind the books The sorrows of Mexico (MacLehose, 2016) and Crónica: the best narrative journalism in Latin America (UNAM, 2016). He was a fellow at the Fundación Prensa y Democracia at Iberoamerican University and he attended workshops at the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo with Tomás Eloy Martínez, Carlos Monsiváis, and Martín Caparrós. He was the Latin American editor of Esquire, the cultural editor at the news weekly Semana, the director of Arcadia, and a columnist at El Espectador and Gente magazine, and he has contributed to several international publications such as El País, GQ, Travesías, El Universal, SoHo, Qué Pasa, La Nación and La Tercera, among others. He teaches narrative journalism at several universities throughout the continent and he is currently the editor-in-chief of the acclaimed Gatopardo magazine in Mexico City.
Ezra E. Fitz began his literary life at Princeton University, studying under the tutelage of James Irby, C.K. Williams, David Bellos, and Jonathan Galassi. His senior thesis was described by the late Robert Fagles as "a heartening manifesto" on the art of translation. Since then, he has worked with Grammy winning musician Juanes, Emmy winning journalist Jorge Ramos, and the king of soccer himself, Pelé. His translations of contemporary Latin American literature by Alberto Fuguet and Eloy Urroz have been praised by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The Believer, among other publications. His work has appeared in The Boston Review, Harper's Magazine, and Words Without Borders, he has been awarded grants from the Mexican National Fund for Culture and Arts (FONCA), and he was a 2010 Resident at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre in Alberta, Canada.
The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.