Colombia: From tragedy to chaos

THERE ARE three things you could not easily forget about 50-year- old Colombian shoe salesman Saul Hernandez. First is the way he unsheathes his 30in machete to show how he would deal with looters. Second is the fact that his home is a mattress from which he can touch all the sheets of black plastic that serve as his walls and roof. Third is that he puts four paper cups outside in the rain to gather water to drink.

Saul is one of some 200,000 people left homeless after last week's massive earthquake in the heart of Colombia's coffee-growing region. His new "home" reflects the complete lack of direct assistance for the victims. As of yesterday, not even a single tent had been handed out to the victims, most of whom are living under plastic awnings held up by bamboo.

His rain-gathering cups reflect the fact that no one has come by to give him drinking water or food, in a ruined city where water, electricity and communications have been cut off since the quake. His banana-cutting machete reflects the fact that hunger has driven many residents of Armenia to looting and violence, even though President Andres Pastrana sent in troops on Thursday.

As well as the hungry victims, common bandits began roaming the streets at night, despite a military curfew, robbing even the ruins of earthquake victims' homes. Within a week, tragedy turned to chaos and anarchy in Colombia's coffee heartland. And it could have repercussions nationwide and beyond. Mr Pastrana easily won last year's elections and was on something of a roll after smoothing relations with the US and starting peace talks with Marxist guerrillas.

Whether or not they can impose law and order after the earthquake could affect both Mr Pastrana and the military. Failure to do so could push more Colombians to the side of the Marxist rebels, who already control close to half of Colombia's territory and who run alternative governments in many areas, where the poor see them as the better option to what they perceive as an uncaring central government.

In the end, it may be Mr Pastrana and all the politicians who suffer, rather than the military. The fact that the troops sent in to prevent looting ended up virtually supporting the looters added to the military's popularity but appeared to isolate the president.

Recognising the extent of the quake victims' hunger, soldiers either stood by or, in some cases, even lent a hand to people looting supermarkets and a Red Cross warehouse on Friday. Army officers admitted privately they were angered by the fact that several hundred tons of food and other international aid had arrived during the week but had been blocked at airports here and elsewhere by bureaucracy, lack of coordination and sheer incompetence.

Quake victims were angered last week at the failure to distribute food, medicine, clothes or even the plastic sheeting that has become the most coveted item here after a week of torrential rain. So bad was the rain that coffins placed into mass graves began floating and bumping into one another.

"Help us, please!" screamed the headline of Friday's daily newspaper, La Tarde, reporting on a mass exodus of victims from Armenia. With no other transport available, and fearing further quakes, residents packed themselves into cattle lorries to get out of town.

We found ourselves behind one lorry with dozens of faces peering at us through the bars. By the side of the road, we saw refugees on foot scramble to pick up a single orange tossed from a passing car.

This was not the heart of Africa. Those scrambling for the orange may well have been better off a week ago than those who tossed the fruit with the best of intentions. Armenia was a thriving city of coffee and cattle ranchers, a fashion-conscious middle class and coffee pickers who appeared relatively content to move around as migrant workers.

Perhaps the most lasting symbol of Armenia's destruction was the working- class hillside suburb of Brasilia. Not a single one of its 30 homes was left standing. In less than a minute, 300 homes ended up as a single mass of rubble and more than 300 people died. As of yesterday, there were believed to be more than 250 unrecovered bodies in the suburb.

The overall death toll for Colombia's coffee region was officially around 900 but it was expected to double or even triple as rubble was cleared.

On Thursday, a Brasilia resident, Gloria Costanza, led me to a hole in the rubble. "Olga's in there, under the table," she said. "But no one has come to move the rubble." It was three days after the quake and the stench suggested she was right. Her friend, 26-year-old Olga Hincapie, had been visiting her when the quake hit. "She loved London. She was in marketing and trained there. And she left a love behind there."

On Friday firemen arrived and pulled Olga's bloated, dust-covered body from the rubble. Knowing I worked for a London newspaper, Mrs Costanza said she knew who Olga's London love was but preferred not to say. "He'll probably never even know she died in the earthquake," she said.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine