Colombia, My life

Hoodies and potato bombs

Text I got from my wife a week ago: “I’m in a hurry because they chased us out of the university.”

When my wife was teaching at the Universidad de Antioquia (where my dad was also a prof for 20 years, before her time), it was not uncommon for our phone conversations to be interrupted: “Uh-oh, security is here and they’re telling us the riot cops are coming and we need to evacuate. I’ll talk to you later.”

The UdeA (like other state universities in Colombia) is infested with a leftist group represented by the encapuchados, hooded ones, who emphasize their political points with papa-bombas, ‘potato bombs’, which are homemade flash-bang grenades. When they get active, so do the cops. (This guy was on duty at one of  the gates.)

I had my first experience with the encapuchados three years ago, the day my relationship with Alicia really began. I was having breakfast on campus with her and two other old friends, when we heard the “Boom!” of a papa-bomba.

A couple of minutes later, five people with hoodies pulled over their heads and their hands in their sweatshirt pockets trotted by in single file. I whipped out my camera and scared everyone to death by taking a flash picture as they dashed up the stairs of the nearest building. (Auto Flash is a sometimes inconvenient feature of cheap digital cameras.) You can sort of see their legs under the banister.

“They’ll come back and take your camera away!” exclaimed Alicia. “You’ve got to be careful with these people!”

When I returned seven months later to ask Alicia to marry me, my stepmom came along to sort out my dad’s pension, which she hadn’t been able to receive since his death the year before. Poor Jan got a double dose: while we were at the bank that handles university pensions, disgruntled employees came in with a loudspeaker and spent ten minutes chanting their complaints about the bank’s management. In the afternoon when we visited the university pension office, encapuchados set off several grenades just as we were leaving. When I looked back from the gate, I saw the last one explode at a spot we had passed only minutes before. We got in a taxi, and as we turned the corner we saw the riot cops swarming to the front gate.

The potato bombs are primarily for noise, but are far from harmless. Last year a riot cop got his foot blown off in a major confrontation at the university. The cops seized 80 pounds of explosives that time in what turned out to have been a guerrilla group’s attempt to take over the campus. A few years ago at another campus, a girl blew herself up by mistake while assembling potato bombs. Her death is commemorated every year by these knuckleheads.

One day a few years ago, Alicia and her students were just about to leave their classroom when the door opened and they were pushed back at gunpoint by a group of encapuchados. One kept them corralled at the back of the room while the others assembled a bunch of potato bombs right there in the classroom. When they were done, they left, fortunately without hurting anyone.

I have zero sympathy for these imbeciles. Their terrorism negates the rightness of any cause they may espouse. I don’t know why the campus administration and the police don’t weed them out instead of playing cat and mouse year after year.

They are one of many reasons my wife has no regrets about taking early retirement and feels no nostalgia when she visits the campus to tie up loose ends.


15 thoughts on “Hoodies and potato bombs

  1. It sounds as if this is almost considered a rite of passage for some students, like cherry-bombing the toilets or drinking to excess. How nutty. I suppose it’s preferable to the suicide bombings in the Middle East.

    • When I was young, nearly all Colombian college students were Marxists to a degree. Marxism was taught in many classes at the high school and college level. Nowadays it’s not as ubiquitous, but students do tend to the left, as they do here in the US to a lesser extent. But the encapuchados are a small organized group, not just pranksters.

  2. as disheartening as it is to hear about these types of people, it’s even more disheartening to know that we are all largely on our own against them until they do something that will warrant real attention from the governing agencies at the top of our society.

    • Colombia’s previous president took a much stronger stance against terrorist and guerrilla groups than the current one. Santos seems to be after a Nobel Prize; he’s carrying out peace talks in Cuba with the major guerrilla groups that have controlled large chunks of the Colombian countryside since the 1960s. I haven’t known any Colombians who support him in this. He was elected on Uribe’s coattails but is a very different kind of person. I think his approval rating is in the 20s.

    • My dad used to get threats when he was a prof there. Can you imagine a gringo teaching at a place decorated with “Yankee go home!” graffiti? He just ignored them. Nothing ever happened to him. But there were a lot of riots at the university when I was a kid. Dad taught an average of a semester a year because the university was shut down by strikes and disturbances so much.

  3. ordinarybutloud says:

    but why is she still texting you about this a week ago?? isn’t she safely in FL now? Not that FL is…oh, never mind….you know what I mean. Potato bombs…yikes.

    • She still has two recording projects to turn in. One is a collection of lullabies, one of children’s songs. They were done as research projects but never finalized. And she hasn’t collected severance pay yet. So she has errands at the U every time she goes. Plus a lot of her clothing and jewelry clients work there.

      She went down for three weeks to work on those things and to get health insurance for her son, which we weren’t able to do when we were down there earlier.

  4. RuthG says:

    I know plenty of Colombians who are glad the peace talks are happening. But nobody who approves of idiots like these encapuchados.

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