In Colombia, if you want to take a cab, you are advised that, for safety reasons, it is best to "call for a taxi service." This is a bit like ordering a car service to take you to the airport in New York. But when I call, instead of giving the pickup address, the base operator and I exchange secret information. She gives me a code, 976, which I know is the three last digits of the license plate number of the car the service will send. I know not to get into a car with a license plate that does not correspond with these numbers. She then asks me for "the last two digits," and, knowing she means the last two digits of the telephone number I am calling from, I say 20. Minutes later, a yellow four-door car honks outside.
I check the license plate, and, since the numbers correspond, I get in, though admittedly rather skeptically. When it involves so many passwords, taking taxis makes me a bit nervous. I once heard that a band of thieves could intercept calls and send their own cars. Instead of taking you to your desired destination, they took you to various ATMs, at gunpoint, while the driver awaited your withdrawals. This is called the "paseo millonario," or the million-peso ride.
When I get into the car, a very polite man greets me and asks for my code. He radios the base for confirmation, which reassures me enough to start a conversation. I ask him how things are going. He is a bit surprised by my question. "Fine," he answers, "things are pretty normal," which is a very colloquial Colombian expression and one that I have never really understood. How can anyone use a word like "normal" when living in Colombia?
I continue with my questioning. I learn that the driver's name is Julio and that he is a 34-year-old father of two. I ask him if he feels the war when driving his car. He shrugs his shoulders, says yes, offers nothing more. A second later he continues: "Day to day, you cannot think about the war," he says. "You have to think about working to make money to support your family." But, he tells me, there are entire neighborhoods that are guerrilla strongholds, and rebels move through the city with the ease of fish in a pond. He also mentions the explosion at Club El Nogal, adding "many people were happy about that because it was directed to the rich. Not me, but many people celebrated."
To Julio, the real problem in Colombia is unemployment, which is at a record high. If people had work, Julio says, they wouldn't join the guerrillas, who pay as well as any job. People would prefer working to kidnapping and bomb-throwing, the rebels' signatures. Julio tells me that eight years ago, the chrome factory where he worked closed. He was lucky to find work as a cabdriver, but today it is not that easy. Many companies, both private and public, are going bankrupt, and people are being laid off. This week, in an effort to cut expenditures, the government decided to shut down the state-owned telecommunications company (a mismanaged, bloated, and obsolete outfit that served as a way for politicians to return favors with jobs, rather than as a reliable telecommunications provider). Thousands of workers will be left without jobs.
Julio tells me he has to work 12-hour days to make the daily equivalent of the $50 he needs to make ends meet: $20 to rent the cab, $15 for gas, $15 for him and his family. And things get harder every year, he says. He used to be able to make that same amount of money in seven or eight hours. I ask him if it is because of the war; he says no. It is because the golden days of the Medellín and Cali cartels are gone. "When those guys were around," he tells me, "there was money on the street. Everyone took cabs."
But Colombia has not stopped being the world's first supplier of drugs, I tell him. "I know," says Julio, "but now they have to be really low-key. Before, people showed off their wealth; now people cannot call attention to themselves. The government wants to apprehend them, and the guerrillas want to tax them."
Julio begins to enjoy the interview and starts to volunteer information. He tells me that his main problem is not the guerrillas but the transit police. "They violate our human rights all the time," he says, and I prepare myself to hear about unjustified beatings or a corrupt system of kickbacks, but Julio's story is more an indication of the long road ahead for Colombia. The local government, which in the past eight years has made a tremendous effort in creating civic awareness, is reinforcing traffic laws.
A few weeks ago, Julio was fined because the passenger in the front seat was not wearing a seat belt. To Julio, the fact that the cop gave him a ticket, and not a break, constitutes a human rights violation. To illustrate his point, he tells me the story of the taxi driver who killed a cop who was writing him a ticket. The driver had financial trouble, and to face a $100 fine was too much, Julio says.
"Why was a cabdriver armed?" I ask.
"This is Colombia," he says. "Here, it is the law of the strongest."
Needless to say, I am relieved when we reach my parents' house.