Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

They were all watching the football in prison. That was lucky really. I slipped in and out without too many people noticing. They drew 0-0 again, the second time that week. I went straight from the prison to the presidential palace and changed in the car park. President Uribe arrived, "The Uribator". He asked me where I lived and I told him near Oxford. "Ah, I used to live in Oxford," he said. He spoke slowly and clearly.

"Every weekend with my family, we went to the Cotswolds. It is very beautiful." I was going to tell him about how it's got a Daylesford now and everything, but I didn't want to go too far off the point. We had fish to fry.

"I've been here a week now and it's obvious to me what your main problem is," I said. He didn't appear to be listening. He was off talking about something else. I felt I couldn't leave a statement like that half cooked. "I know what the problem is here!" I reiterated, interrupting him. He stopped and looked at me hard. It was very quiet, then.

"You haven't got anyone who can score goals," I said. It was inappropriate. He looked at his aide and asked: "What was the score?" The president was not a man of the people, he was a man of God, bearing the majesty of state through the gravity of a civil war that has been running for 40 years, the only war in the Americas. His orations were like classical music, lengthy, dense, wrestling with dissonances.

Someone had said: "The president is doing well. He hasn't had a death threat for months, maybe a year." There have been many attempts on his life, though. His father was murdered. The grand stateroom where we sat in Louis Quatorze gilt wood chairs was a bombproof chamber, surrounded by an army with the safety catches on their machine guns switched to ready. I wonder how someone can keep a steady hand on the wheel and an eye on the horizon in the midst of all that.

Perhaps being the President of Colombia is the most difficult job in the world, I can't think of a trickier situation: paramilitary factions, terrorist groups, drug cartels, America sticking its nose in. And I asked him about football. I can see now that it was silly. I let him drive after that. I just listened. Cocaine is at the root of all Colombia's problems. Before I came here, like most people I assumed cocaine was a problem that comes from South America.

From here, it looks more like a problem that is created by the markets in the West. I wonder how many people know that cocaine is made from coca plants, grown by farmers who live without electricity or plumbing. Farmers only grow coca here because no one will buy their bananas. If Colombian farmers were supported by international markets the way that the drug cartels are, they'd be happy to grow anything except coca.

It's not going to be rock '*' roll that saves the world, or even the American army. If anyone can do it, the farmers can.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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