at daybreak to a nearby MetroLinea station to enjoy Bogota’s very fine, very well-used city transportation system. I paid about 90 cents and rode 10 miles to the oldest part of the city.
I traveled to attend Easter Sunday services at The Archbishopric Cathedral de Bogota, the iconic Roman Catholic church on the great downtown plaza, Bolivar Square. The cathedral sits alongside huge buildings of government, the president’s home, and other fundamental institutions of the state. Some 500 years ago, priests first held services in a simple hay structure on this spot, alongside 12 huts that would eventually grow into a city of 9 million.
The church still slept when I arrived at 7 a.m. A man scrubbing the stonework entrance with soap and a brush told me the cathedral didn’t open for services until 10:30, so I turned sightseer and prowled to the east, into the old part of the city known as La Candelaria.
This neighborhood gets its share of tourists. They wander steep streets among old Spanish Baroque and colonial houses with red tile rooftops and seductive courtyards one glimpses behind barely cracked doors. A museum with the works of Botero, probably Colombia’s best-known artist, hides in the heights.
At the early Sunday hour, only locals came and went. A delivery motorcycle throttled to a stop. The driver stepped through a blue doorway with two bags of freshly baked bread. At an open-air market with 20 or so vegetable stalls, a Siamese kitten did its best to pounce on a red pullet tied by one leg to a post. The chicken dwarfed the little feline, but instinct wouldn’t let the cat rest. He crouched, eyes blue as ice, tail twitching.
I came upon a disturbance. A very old, white-haired man appeared to be stalking a very young, gaunt, weeping woman down one street. He carried a heavy red stone in one hand, listing to one side with its weight, and he relentlessly tailed the girl. He called her a puta, a whore, over and over, never raising his voice.
Her own voice shrieked loud and louder, scaring up pigeons from the streets. The few Bogotanos parked in cars or sweeping the sidewalks in front of tiendas seemed completely unconcerned, as if this street theater happened on a schedule. Shakespeare in the Park, with violence.
The crisis passed. The young girl slipped thin as a blade between two cars and fled on unsteady legs into the distance. The old man threw the brick at her shadow. He cursed impressively, then disappeared down cobbled streets another way.
Not a policeman in sight.
is big business in Bogota. Vigilantes, the name given to security guards, keep watch at every apartment building in middle-class parts of the city, around the clock. Many businesses post a guard in uniform in their doorways.
At the apartment high-rises, the vigilantes open doors for people who come and go … and then lock doors behind them. I see the vigilantes at my place—Alberto, Mario, Michael, Faustibon—a dozen times a day, swap small talk in Spanish. I visit the apartment of my fiancée, Adela, around the corner, with holas! to Alirio, Julio, and another Alberto.
On my 10-minute walk to Adela’s ophthalmological practice on Calle 125, I pass security guards at a dozen five- and six-story high-rises along the way. The Juan Valdez coffee shop posts a security guard out front. So does the pastry shop next door.
Imagine you’re in the U.S. on a typical day. You go to McDonald’s, park the car, head for a Happy Meal. At the door, you pass an unhappy sight: an intensely focused security guard, probably with a gun hidden from view. Later in the day, you crave a hot cup of Starbucks. A guard in blue watches you enter. A security guard buzzes you through the door of your realty office, your pool, your school, your grocery store, your library, your drugstore, your appliance store, your car dealership.
This is normal, unremarkable, here in Bogota. Constant surveillance seems the price people pay to live a normal, safe life.
It even holds true for churches.
with weapons at the ready stood at every entrance to the cathedral’s 10:30 mass. The Colombian archbishop delivered the Easter homily and administered Holy Communion at this most influential of the nation’s religious sites.
Soldiers with weapons stood inside the cathedral too, mostly keeping to the shadows under the soaring cathedral dome. Some sat in the pews. Others clearly patrolled, undistracted by a single word from the mouth of prelates describing the gruesome violence inflicted on Christ … then telling the resurrection story.
Colombia today wants to believe in resurrection with all its soul.
Fifty years ago, uprisings flared in parts of the country, driven mostly by desperate poverty and a feeling of social injustice. Parts of the country grew lawless. Newspaper headlines for decades blazed with accounts of narco-terrorism and guerilla attacks and kidnappings. Insurgents claimed government atrocities. In 2003, terrorists blew up the elite El Nogal Club in downtown Bogota, killing 36 people.
Today, the narco-terrorists have been suppressed or driven off to other countries. A state of war officially persists, but now guerilla organizations and the government hold peace talks in Havana. Colombians sense it’s their one best chance to end five decades of conflict and bring their country to stability.
What familiar sights do you breed with 50 years of low-grade warfare?
Guns in churches. Police dogs that sniff the open trunk of your car for explosives before you enter the parking deck at a downtown mall. Guards even at the parquederos, your everyday, run-of-the-mill parking lots.
Colombians take such precautions out of fear, of course. And the scare stories affect everybody—a particularly savage violent streak runs through Colombian history. A friend of mine here, once a student at Stanford and Harvard and then later a noted journalist, has written extensively about the violence of Colombians. I’ll paraphrase here a recent conversation:
I’ve talked to Italians from Sicily. They know a little something about violence. They told me that when they have to take care of a problem, they do the job, make it neat, send the widow flowers, and make sure she has the means to live for the rest of her days.
In Colombia, they kill the wife and the children in front of a man’s eyes. Then they deal with their problem slowly and painfully, taking their time.
I only know what I read, thank goodness. But people in Bogota (and I suspect in other parts of Colombia) show clear signs of psychological trauma from living in fear so long. Colombians have made security so much a part of daily life that what’s ordinary here greatly surprises a citizen of Paris or Atlanta.
When churches hold armed soldiers on Easter Sunday, something feels very wrong.
All this has made me think a little deeper.
In the U.S., houses of worship today, without question, are the most vulnerable targets in the land of the free.
The next 9/11 shock in the U.S. would surely follow the kind of slaughter of Christian worshippers in a church in Boston or Indianapolis or Dallas that we see ISIS carrying out today in the Middle East.
How long before churches in the States will have security guards too?
All of them will if … or when … some unspeakable violence touches even one. God forbid.
If that happens, Bogota today will look like a city of the future.
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.