Klas Lundström finds himself in an isolated corner of the Amazon jungle – where three states collide and their citizens crash-land to a life in limbo.
This is no man’s land: the “three-state border” in the northwest of the Amazon – a human, ecological and political melting pot of which the rest of the world has limited knowledge. Geographically speaking, no one should be able to live here. Yet, officially they do: 43,000 in Tabatinga, Brazil; 35,000 in Leticia, Colombia and 1,000 in Santa Rosa, Peru. These numbers are much higher if one includes the internally displaced and undocumented workers who also call this zone – known simply as La Frontera – home.
La Frontera tends to attract people in motion, in crisis, with hopes and ambitions of all persuasions. Some arrive to stay, others crash-land as temporary refugees. A few of them arrive with high hopes of returning back to where they came from, others continue further into the lawless territories as displaced persons, smugglers or politicians with their eyes on high office.
La Frontera’s façade is deceiving, with its billboards, modern infrastructure and wide avenues. But all this masks a reality of poverty, decay and homelessness. The borders are everywhere: if you walk across the great Avenida Amizade (Avenue of Friendship) you cross the border between Colombia and Brazil; if you take the small boats across the river you are in Peru. The borders make La Frontera a moving piece of land – home to all forms of life and death. Everyone in the neighbourhood of La Frontera relies on the social and economic divides to succeed or survive; even the politicians take advantage of the lawless environment to boost their careers.
In Tabatinga on the Brazilian side of the border, cheap labour is the foundation of economic activity – and competition for work is played out on the black market. Seasonal workers come here to make money to send back to families who reside deeper in the Amazon on all sides of the border. Some of them take rooms at the Hotel Novo, a modest backstreet accommodation. Its owner is a chainsmoker named Lazarro. He’s convinced that a bright future lies ahead for this hidden corner of the Amazon.
“I’m the man here,” he says. “I’ve opened a restaurant side by side with the hotel business. If you’re gonna travel to Manaus, then come to me. I fix you up with some good deals.”
Half-empty hotels like the Novo are a common sight in Tabatinga. Their interiors are simple with but a few signs of the residents, who keep a low profile. Today, Lazarro is struggling with a television in one of the rooms – it is difficult to turn the set on without a remote device.
“The Peruvians,” he laments, “they live and work here in Tabatinga. They make more money in Brazil than in their own country. But they always steal the remotes when they leave the hotel! Why the remotes, man?”
On the other side of the night, in another part of Tabatinga, Alves and I try to push a taxi out of a ditch next to the road. Alves is in his 20s, and he carries a guitar case and a few sport bags. I ask him what kind of music he prefers. He shifts his gaze for a moment, then answers: “Rock.”
This working class area looks like a war zone; the properties are damaged, the holes in the ground resemble bomb craters, the outside world feels far away. We eventually free the taxi from the ditch and Alves jumps off a couple of streets away. He takes out a large stack of American dollars from his pocket and pays the driver.
The taxi driver, an older man, is uncomfortable. He doesn’t like coming to this barrio at night. “São Francisco,” he whispers, “only criminals and drug traffickers reside here. But the worst thing is trying to find a way out.”
The next day I visit Leticia, a miniature of Colombia. Here, there is a lot for sale but not everything is in full view. Jorge, a middle-aged trader in indigenous curios, listens to the radio while finishing his lunch. The broadcast is about Colombia’s 50-year old civil war.
“I’m from Medellín,” he says. “I came here to make money, and money I’ve made!” His wares are displayed neatly on shelves and long tables, awaiting the eye and the pocket of passing visitors. Tourism is an increasing industry in Colombia and the Amazon region is no exception. Tourism has made people more interested in los indios, the Indians, Jorge explains. “That brings more people to my store, and more people come from other Colombian cities to open up businesses and make big money. Just look, look how beautiful the Indian art is!” he says with a broad grin.
His tone is more serious when he condemns the civil war, the FARC guerillas and hopes for peace. He is grateful that “here in Leticia it is safe to live.” A block away, two soldiers are patrolling the street.
The Colombian army is the only visible proof in Leticia that this country is at war. Soldiers are everywhere; not only in the streets, but also in the brothels, in the shops, in the harbour and at the border crossings. According to the Venezuelan newspaper, Últimas Noticias, 400 Colombian refugees were arrested in January by Brazilian police for crossing the border without any papers – or possessions. They were fleeing the fighting between the government forces and the guerrillas and ended up as political pawns in a larger game of chess. Four million Colombians are reported to be internally displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict. Many exist in limbo, without status and in difficult circumstances.
“I live here illegally,” says a mototaxi driver as we cross the Colombian-Brazilian border at the Avenida Amizade. “Like the majority,” he adds. To survive, he drives the mototaxi during the day and bakes bread after dark.
The rain is pouring down outside the bar Tío Tom, next to one of Leticia’s main shopping streets. You come to Tío Tom when you’re not on duty, soldiers explain over a Club Colombia beer. Andrés is one of them – 23 years old, of insignificant rank and stationed in Leticia. He finishes another beer while he waits for a few friends to arrive; they are going club hopping in Tabatinga. Andrés is already a little drunk and thus loose of tongue when it comes to local military issues.
“I’m here because of the guerrillas,” he says. “They’re close. They’re terrorists. Without them Colombia could have peace. Mark my words, the whole world will celebrate the day FARC and ELN disappear.” He claims that the Colombian army is killing more terrorists than the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also talks about drugs within the army. Drug trafficking is not only the biggest problem in La Frontera, but also the biggest income opportunity. From here
and down the Amazon and its tributaries, large amounts of illicit drugs, weapons, people and software are transported south to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and west into Peru.
The governments of the three states hold different views on the problem and on how to address it. In Colombia, not only paramilitary groups and the guerrillas are dealing in cocaine, but also the military is making large profits on the sale and trafficking of “white gold”.
“A lot of people do drugs in the army,” says Andrés. “A lot. Not only marijuana and cocaine, but also heroin – hell, man, whatever you can find out here!” Andrés takes his leave, wishes me a good night, and disappears into the rain with his friends. The armed mentality is well entrenched in this society – large billboards tell the story of the goodhearted Colombian soldier, the one who helps children cross the street. Yet, silence reigns in La Frontera – a silence that seems to control and monitor the environment. Who or what does the army protect? Silence itself, it appears, not the people.
I leave Leticia behind and travel to the small harbour of Santa Rosa on the Peruvian side of the border. Santa Rosa is not a city; it is not even a village. It is a transit point for people who are waiting to take the next leap in life. Access to running water is scarce, jobs are less than a few and electricity doesn’t follow you into the night.
Santa Rosa’s main street contains more pool halls than convenience stores. People wash clothes in the river as the sun sets. Children play in the brown water, and men and women watch a volleyball game at the beach. Traditional Vallenato music blares about broken hearts from the large sound systems. Men and women drink beer and lose themselves in the lyrics. Leticia across the border begins to glow at the onset of evening. The noise from the streets of Tabatinga wafts its way through Santa Rosa.
As my plane leaves Leticia airport bound for Bogotá, I sense that people in La Frontera will keep moving, circulating, without a past or a destination. Here they will wait for conflict to end, for social and political justice, for asylum from one life and opportunity in another – ever moving across visible and invisible borders in pursuit of food, shelter, the company of strangers or escape to another side of the unpredictable.
This article first appeared in print in Chimurenga 16.