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.