Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 20, 1989
In Cali, political survival means a bulletproof vest

CALI, Colombia - Pedro Alcantara waited in the lobby of the Hotel Intercontinental yesterday morning, wearing an olive green bulletproof vest and a nervous smile.

The bellboys gave Alcantara wide clearance as he was whisked out the front door by six bodyguards, each holding a machine gun at his side.

In front of the hotel, Alcantara got behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Celebrity, equipped at a cost of $30,000 with armor and bulletproof glass.

"This is a terrible way to live," said Alcantara. "I'm an artist in the first place. I don't know if I'm the most irresponsible artist in the country or the most responsible."

Alcantara, 47, is more than a well-known Colombian painter. In 1986, he was elected to the Colombian Senate as a member of the Patriotic Union Party, a small, leftist organization that has lost four congressmen in the last three years to assassinations.

The security surrounding Alcantara - his armored car is accompanied by bodyguards on motorcycles and in a jeep - is typical of the way politicians must live in Colombia, where the normally high level of violence has intensified in the last month as the government and the nation's cocaine trafficking organizations wage war.

Not only politicians are at risk. In the month since the Medellin drug cartel pledged to attack the nation's elite to retaliate for the government crackdown, the demand for private security guards has increased by 10 percent, said Hector Valderama, who heads an association of security firms in the city of Medellin, where much of the violence has occurred.

"The level of concern has increased greatly," said Valderama, a retired police colonel.

Although the thunder of bombs has shifted more to Bogota and Cali in the past week, there is a growing concern among the nation's wealthy that the thugs employed by the drug cartels will lose their jobs if the government's pressure against the cartels continues - and resort to crimes against the elite in order to make a living.

"There are many who are worried that if these people are out of work, they will resort to kidnapping in order to make money," said a Medellin television company president, age 26, who grew up with a bodyguard and now drives an armored car.

Alcantara, who lives in this city that is also the home to a drug organization that rivals the Medellin cartel, is not concerned about crimes aimed at extorting money from him. Although he has not been attacked, he is concerned with politically inspired assassination.

A lean, fidgety man with a bohemian appearance, Alcantara calls himself a communist - a risky position to take in a nation where right-wing paramilitary squads have been blamed for killing dozens of suspected guerrillas, trade unionists and other leftists.

"I've received all sorts of threats," he said. "Sometimes the threats have come from the drug cartel. But they usually have come from an arrangement between the great landowners, some sectors of the drug cartels and some of the military, where some sectors are extremely fascist."

The Medellin cartel - whose leaders Jose Gonzalo Rodriquez Gacha and Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria are strident anti-communists - have been linked to the rightist hit squads and pose such a treat to Alcantara that he will not travel to Medellin.

But he does not feel threatened by the rival cartel that is based in this temperate city of one million people. The Cali cartel is regarded as a more corporate organization that keeps a lower profile than the violent Medellin group.

"You rarely hear of these people attempting anything against a politician," said Alcantara. "They are a different thing altogether."

In recent days, several bombings have rocked Cali banks and offices, and police believe they are the work of the Medellin organization. The Medellin group has sometimes feuded with the Cali cartel over territorial rights to such cities as New York, which reportedly is controlled by the Cali group.

Those attacks have only heightened the vigilance of the contingent of plainclothes policemen who are assigned to protect Alcantara.

The six bodyguards who protect Alcantara are few compared to the up to 80 who protect presidential candidates. The contingent still drew stares as the senator drove through central Cali. The bodyguards always travel with him and are posted around his apartment 24 hours a day.

"We have lost too many already," said Alcantara. "The Patriotic Union only has a total of 14 congressmen - alive - of which nine are representatives and five are senators," he said. The Colombian Congress has 360 members.

"We are just a small political party, but third parties have always been frustrated by violence in this country."

In his 15th-floor apartment overlooking downtown Cali yesterday, Alcantara relaxed near the studio where some of his paintings in progress were displayed. One of his bodyguards came in with a bag containing beer bottles under one arm and an AK-47 assault rifle under the other.

On the desk in front of Alcantara lay a 9mm German pistol, which he had pulled out from his waist when he came in from the street. "I like that weapon very much," he said, as he demonstrated that he always kept one round in the chamber, ready to fire.

Julian Malatesta, a poet who works as Alcantara's legislative secretary, lounged nearby on a sofa. He, too, was armed with a pistol.

"We were the first artists in Colombia to arm ourselves," said Malatesta.

The two artists got up to leave for an afternoon of errands. They readied their weapons, tested their radios and Alcantara put on his bulletproof vest.

Alcantara's wife, Monica Herran, watched the two armed artists heading for the door and shook her head.

"It's crazy, no?" she said. "But human beings adapt themselves to difficult circumstances." home page   
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