Vietnamizamos, Vietnamizan

About 40 years old, give or take a couple of years, with buzz-cut hair, and thick forearms. A walkie-talkie is turned down low on the bench beside him. He is commander of the Batallón de Fusileros de Infantería de Marina No. 6, in the armed forces of the Republic of Colombia. The colonel is a jarhead—a leatherneck—a marine.

“The Congress is afraid to vietnamizar Colombia,†he says, speaking of U.S. lawmakers. The Spanish verb he uses, vietnamizar, is a regular ar-ending verb of which the two important conjugations are ustedes vietnamizan—you vietnamize—and nosotros vietnamizamos, we vietnamize or, more appropriately, “We are vietnamizing,†which the colonel says we are not doing, but adds that he understands the concern.

“This is not like China,†he explains, changing geography to make his point, “where Mao had complete support of the peasants. People here are tired of the guerrillas.â€

This morning the colonel has been cruising back and forth with a mask and flippers in the hotel pool, which is a surprisingly popular swimming hole in this resort city on Colombia’s Pacific coast. The ocean is only about two minutes beyond the front door. If you go to the front door, there’s a white pickup truck parked at the curb, and three moderately armed soldiers, and a well-groomed dog on a leash tied to the truck which presumably belongs to the colonel. Bahia Solano is in what is called Colombia’s “Red Zone,†where an encounter with guerrillas or paramilitaries is euphemistically considered a strong possibility. The town is generally safe, but more than a dozen tourists, all Colombian, were kidnapped off a nearby beach just a few months before the colonel’s views were expressed. One hostage reportedly died of a heart attack in the mountains.

A Spanish company owns the hotel. The new proprietors picked it up as part of a deal a year or two ago, the manager says. The owners were scheduled to come out to see the property they acquired, but a Spaniard was kidnapped in Bogota about the same time and the Spanish have not been here since.

The officer points at his own picture in A La Mar, the official newspaper of the Colombian Navy, lying on the picnic table where he sits. In the newspaper there’s a photograph of the colonel in fatigues, advertising his unit’s good works in the local community. Hearts and minds, you know, corazones y mentes. His advice to foreigners in Colombia is, nonetheless, don’t travel by road at night and stay close to Bogota or the Caribbean coast. That’s pretty much what everyone says but the colonel says it with more authority. He’s from Cartagena, a beautiful colonial city on the Caribbean side where cruise ships full of nervous tourists still call, and he’s about to finish his time here on the more dangerous Pacific coast and rotate home.

“Why bring a woman to Colombia,†the colonel unexpectedly asks his visitor, “when there are so many here?â€

Back to business, he mentions the name of a village a couple of hours down the coast, near the border of Panama. It’s been overrun by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Whenever the colonel arrives the guerrillas disappear and when he leaves, the guerrillas come out of hiding, but that’s the way insurgencies work, and for the moment Bahia Solano is “secure.â€

The colonel is not completely satisfied with the efforts of his colleagues in the Panamanian defense forces, down the way. The guerrillas are known to use indigenous areas on the Panamanian side of the border as rest camps when rotating units out of fighting, a la Cambodia or Laos, and there’s a lot of cocaine and arms still passing the border headed, respectively, north and south. There’s also great fishing and awesome nature in the Darien Gap, if you’re interested.

The Caribbean coast is not completely danger-free either, on second thought. A resort town called Capurgana, also close to the Panama border but on the Atlantic side of the isthmus, was taken over by guerrillas earlier in the war. It’s been a long war, part of the social upheaval that a lot of academics say consumes Colombia every 50 years or so. In the case of Capurgana, the guerrillas arrived at dusk, by land and by sea, and just held the town for two or three days until the army arrived. Another move on the chess board.

The colonel is earnest, but in this war certain things are often repeated. In this war certain things are always said, at least by the military. “The people are tired of the guerrillas,†is one. “The paramilitaries are giving the government a bad name,†is another. Both appear to be true.

The role of money in the war is another much-talked-about subject. Recently a cargo plane belonging to the guerrillas crashed, so loaded with American currency, that “not even one more dollar could fit,†someone remarked dryly. And now the colonel dutifully adds that this is the first guerrilla insurrection in history in which the insurgents can outspend the government. Still, he’s sure that Bogota will come out on top.

But you could hear pretty much the same thing from a guerrilla comandante, if he came for a swim at the hotel. “We are winning,†he would probably say, but instead of the crime of drug-trafficking he would denounce official corruption and the oppression of the poor. He also would speak of the reluctance of the U.S. Congress to become more directly involved, and would probably use the word vietnamizar. He would probably say that the guerrillas are getting technology too, they’re buying it. Worse, he might say that technology doesn’t make that big a difference in the jungle.

And he might ask, as well, “Why bring a woman to Colombia when they are so many here?â€

Contributing writer Lucius Lomax lives in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST