I shouldn’t have been surprised; I’d heard similar stories from my wife.  But the more dramatic stories had always involved someone I didn’t know.  This was a seven-year-old girl giving an eyewitness account at the dinner table.  

“The guerrillas came to Aunt Lucy’s house and told her to fix supper for thirty people,” my stepdaughter said, in response to nothing in particular.  

I must have done a comical double take.  “Did your aunt do it?”  

“Yes,” she said, as she tore a piece of bread.  

“Did the guerrillas show up?”

“They came to eat.” 

She was so matter-of-fact, so calm.  This was just another story to her.

“She fed the soldiers?” I asked.  It was not a brilliant question, but I was still struggling with my astonishment.  

My stepdaughter wrinkled her nose with amusement.  “They weren’t soldiers!  They didn’t have helmets!” 

“Were you scared?” I asked.

“No.  Mommy, why does he call them soldiers?”  

“They were soldiers,” my wife said.  

My stepdaughter shook her head.  “They were wearing caps, not helmets.”

I knew whom she was talking about, even if she didn’t know what to call them.  The soldiers she had seen belonged to FARC—las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—the bigger of the two communist guerrilla groups that have kept Colombia in a state of smoldering civil war for 40 years.  

My stepdaughter’s aunt lives in Anolaima, a town two hours outside of Bogota.  My wife and stepdaughter were both born in Bogota, but my wife has dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins in Anolaima.  For some reason, my mother-in-law is the central sibling of 12 brothers and sisters, the queen bee of her generation.  My wife holds that position in her own age group.  My stepdaughter has the same status among her many cousins, even though she now lives on another continent.

My stepdaughter popped another grape into her mouth.  “They came at 12:30 and left at 3:30.”

“What did they do while they were there?” I asked.

“They ate.  Some of them were just twelve years old, but they had mean faces.”

“I bet.”  

I asked her more questions, but she didn’t have anything to add.  Seven-year-olds aren’t investigative reporters.  Later, my wife explained that the soldiers had come to the church where her uncle is the pastor.  They ate and then they left, but they returned in the evening and kept the family captive overnight.  My wife’s relatives were terrified, especially as one of the older soldiers kept eyeing the 13-year-old daughter, but the next day the guerrillas left for good.  Within a month, soldiers—probably the same ones that Aunt Lucy fed—executed another family that had fed an anti-FARC paramilitary group.  It didn’t matter that the murdered family had no more choice about feeding their unwelcome guests than my wife’s relatives had when FARC showed up.

For 20 years, when Americans have thought about Colombia, they have thought of the international drug trade.  A few years ago, our journalists liked to write about the Rodriguez Orejuela clan in the southern Colombian city of Cali.  Later, Medellin’s Pablo Escobar, the sometime member of the Colombian national assembly, briefly held our attention.  Now, much of the cocaine and marijuana trade belongs to FARC, ELN, the other major insurgency—or, I should say, the other crime syndicate—and the right-wing paramilitary organizations that developed in response to the first two groups.  The two rebel groups claim that poverty and oppression are the root causes of their war, but the truth is that the drug trade gives them enough money to buy the guns, jeeps, food, and medical supplies that make them so formidable.

Several times, the guerrillas have stopped my wife on the road to Anolaima.  They stop everyone: Cocaine brings in more money, but kidnapping is another strong revenue stream.  One of my wife’s stories is about the rich man from Anolaima whom FARC shot just outside of town.  They didn’t let anyone come close enough to bury him for days.  Because of such stories, FARC doesn’t have to kidnap you to make money; extortion makes a nice profit, too.  Most Colombians who are threatened are understandably inclined to pay up.  

We Americans play a role in my wife’s stories about Anolaima.  As long as our country has a voracious appetite for cocaine and marijuana, someone will sell them to us.  If the drugs are illegal, the price will be high, and men like the leaders of FARC will do whatever they have to do to get a share of the money.  Much of our own violent crime is the result of illegal drugs and the money that surrounds them, but cocaine also feeds and arms FARC’s soldiers.  We pay for the guns carried by the boys with caps.  

Not all of my wife’s Anolaima stories are sad.  My favorites are about the party that’s held every New Year’s Eve in the town square, where the people gather to dance all night.  Anolaima has the same weather all year round—eternal spring—so an open-air party on New Year’s, which would sound foolish here in Baltimore, makes sense there.  

I’d love to see Anolaima, but I can’t go there.  It’s too dangerous.  I might make it home if FARC got their hands on me, but it would be months later, after I had raised thousands of dollars in ransom.  It’s more likely that I would die in the mountains at the hands of a 12-year-old with a mean face.  And as I looked at the gaping hole in the end of the gun barrel, I would wonder which American had paid for the bullet.