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Activist Interrupted 

A labor lawyer flees the terrors of Colombia for the sanctuary of Cleveland.

Jos Cortes has accepted that he may never be - completely safe. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Jos Cortes has accepted that he may never be completely safe.
The tall white priest hovers in the doorway of the basement at the Sagrada Familia church. "Stay for as long as you need," he repeats in laborious Spanish. "Just get the lights when you go . . ."

José Amin Cortes nods appreciatively. In the past year and a half, the labor lawyer has grown accustomed to relying on the benevolence of others. An exile has little choice.

It wasn't bearing witness to scores of dismembered bodies that sent him on a journey that ended in Cleveland. It wasn't even the paramilitaries who tried to gun him down as he filmed a documentary. It was something comparatively small -- the reaction of the police -- that finally crystallized his decision.

It was June 8, 2002, in Cali, Colombia. Cortes and two journalists were about to film the army's treatment of poor Colombians caught in the crossfire of a three-way, 40-year civil war.

Years before, Cortes had decided that there was no use forming agriculture unions, if all the workers were dead. So he abandoned his life's work, choosing instead to investigate and document their plight. On that day, he and two journalists were about to film a building that served homeless people.

They were just getting out of the car when, suddenly, they were sprayed with bullets.

The three escaped unscathed, jumping into their vehicle and speeding away as bullets pop-pop-popped behind them.

They raced to a nearby police station. A group of cops stood outside and listened to their story until they became distracted by two dark vehicles cruising slowly down the road.

Before Cortes knew what was happening, the cops had bolted into the station and cranked shut the enormous deadbolt. The three stood stupidly as the vehicles approached.

Tinted windows are illegal in Colombia, he says. But it was clear the drivers were in no danger of getting a fine from the officers cringing in the station.

Cortes and his colleagues stood frozen in place while the cars rolled slowly past. Nothing happened, but Cortes got the message: He was a marked man, and the police couldn't help him. "I lost any confidence in my government. I felt very alone."

Strange Fruit

José Amin Cortes was born to an upper-middle-class family in western Colombia. His dad was successful in the trucking industry, but Cortes studied law, thinking it the best way to help honest people.

Colombia is a democracy with laws and a constitution, he had reasoned. But landowners got away with trampling on the rights of fruit pickers, because workers didn't know what rights they had. He was determined to be their advocate.

It was 1985 when he got the phone call from a union rep that would take him to the northern region of Uraba. His organizing skills were urgently needed, he was told.

The idealist remembers being detained at the airport, because officials were suspicious of the thick red book he carried. It was just an encyclopedia of Colombia's labor laws, but police said it was probably subversive.

In the commander's office, the city boy was schooled on the "special situation" in Uraba. Of course labor disputes were common throughout Colombia, police told him, and elsewhere in the country there was the possibility of legal recourse.

Uraba was different. Here there was no minister of labor, no social security office, not even a public-health clinic. There were only the banana fincas (plantations) and about 20,000 laborers to sweat in them. His lawbook was useless here, they told him. Good luck.

Cortes would soon see what they meant: In Uraba, banana was king. And there was war in the fincas, with no one to police them.

"Whole families -- groups of 20, 30 --the killing made my head spin," he says, gesturing slightly with short, powerful arms. His eyes, long-lashed and inscrutable, grow more bloodshot as he talks.

One November morning in 1988, he received a telephone call at his office. A voice informed him that there had just been a killing at one of the fincas. He should investigate.

When Cortes arrived, the workers were bewildered -- there had been no violence that day, he was told.

The fincas are run completely on human sweat. A wire-and-pulley system threads through each plantation, and from the wires swing metal hooks. Workers would slice down bunches of green bananas and throw them on the hooks above their heads. When the line was full, a man with a good back would attach the wire to a contraption over his shoulders and run the entire length of bananas downhill to the crating area.

Cortes was standing there when, moments later, a runner arrived, pulling an especially heavy load. Cortes froze, horrified, as the runner collapsed on the ground. Instead of a line of bananas, he bore 17 mutilated corpses, each swinging from a hook.

The bodies were fresh, having recently been relieved of their heads. They were beginning to bloat in the heat, but the lawyer knew they had died after he received the call -- the killers had timed their display.

The runner didn't know who the killers were paid by -- maybe they were paramilitaries, or maybe they were associated with the increasingly unpredictable guerrillas, who professed to be "for the workers."

What was certain is this: Without warning, they had descended upon the finca, slicing and dismembering. To maximize the terror, they had used a small electric saw instead of a machete. Then they ordered the workers left standing to hang the bodies like grotesque bunches of fruit.

The terrified runner was clueless, but Cortes believes that he now knows who was behind the slaughter. And, providing you've ever enjoyed a line of coke or a good banana, you may share the culpability, he says.

King Banana

In Cortes's Colombia, the soil is rich, the air moist and thick. In the living room of his new home -- an airy Victorian that belongs to the church -- he displays photos of idyllic coasts and tropical flowers amid wet, green hills.

When scouts from United Fruit Company first came to Uraba, a region with a tiny Caribbean coast, they saw the potential for bananas -- lots of bananas. It was the 1960s, and Central Americans had already nicknamed the Boston corporation "the Octopus."

With the right fertilizers and pesticides, bananas could grow like weeds. Most important, Uraba is very near the Panama Canal, so boats could sail to the Atlantic or Pacific -- an exporter's dream.

United Fruit -- which eventually morphed into Chiquita -- made deals with the Colombian government. United would have the exclusive right to deal with the fincas. For all practical purposes, the government handed Uraba to the investors on a plate.

United soon contracted for unheard-of quantities of bananas. The company didn't want farmers to raise cattle, vegetables, or anything else -- just bananas. They put the pressure on, but at the same time insisted on paying less and less.

With exclusive control of the market, United would be accused of lowballing the owners. The owners would in turn cheat their harvesters. So the harvesters tried to organize.

Then thousands of "Marxist" guerrillas stirred things up, insisting that the finca-owners owed "taxes" to the "workers." When the owners demurred, the guerrillas took their cut by force.

All this violence would seem bad for banana interests, but Cortes says that the opposite was true. He believes that, in the early years, the Marxists were financed by United.

After a finca would erupt in blood, the finca-owner -- whom everyone had assumed was the bad guy -- would be left empty-handed. And at that very moment, a representative from Banadex or some other United subsidiary would inevitably appear -- with a checkbook and pen.

Cortes would also come to believe that the Colombian government was complicit.

Road Block

Over time, it is possible, says Cortes, to become inured to violence. Still, he never could harden himself to the small by-products of Colombia's war -- the orphans.

During the years that he worked in the fincas, the killing held steady. But the numbers of lost children seemed to increase exponentially.

Cortes shows photos he took, depicting a prism of Colombian children -- Amer-Indians in traditional face paint and barrettes, giggling mestizo boys sitting in a doorway, Afro-Colombians in white school uniforms, mulatto kids playing on a garbage heap.

When he talks about his own children, his shoulders relax and he smiles, even though his two older daughters are not adjusting easily to life in Cleveland.

Back home, his 22-year-old was a top law student -- everyone knew that she would be a great lawyer. But in Cleveland, she's just another young woman who can't speak English. Cortes can't either, despite the classes he's attended for more than a year and the Berlitz tapes sitting in his dining room.

"I have a mental block," he explains. "Something prevents my mouth from forming the English words, even though I understand the grammar." His law degree, it seems, is as useless here as it was in Uraba.

During the '80s, it was common knowledge that Colombian militarists fueled their operations by drug-trafficking, but it became increasingly clear to Cortes that his government was actively facilitating the trade.

When Cortes realized the depth of the corruption, he began to have "very serious problems with colonels and generals of the army." Battle-weary, he sought out the advice of a fellow lawyer who worked for the local bishop. He shared with Duarte Casino his evidence of the connections between paramilitaries, Big Banana interests, the Colombian government, and the cocaine trade.

But Casino only said, "What are some ways we can work for peace?"

He urged Cortes to put union work on the back burner and focus instead on mediation and investigation. After all, if the killing didn't stop, there would be no one left to unionize.

Cortes's career path would eventually take him back to Cali, where he would continue his work under the protection of the outspoken archbishop of Cali. He lived under constant threats and surveillance, but he had long ago accepted this.

Then they assassinated the archbishop. The fearless holy man, who publicly derided his country's reliance on "dirty money," had issued a denouncement of the narcotics traffickers.

Weeks later, he was walking through a large crowd in front of his church when two gunmen approached. He was shot in the neck and in the heart before the men disappeared into the crowd.

Cortes takes out fragile newspaper clippings to show photos of the thousands of weeping mourners. He keeps a framed picture of his old mentor near the doorway.

The archbishop had been more than just outspoken. He too had methodically collected evidence against the army. He held documents and photographs, and because his personal quarters had been ransacked and his papers scattered, it was widely assumed that he was targeted for that reason.

But the killers didn't find what they were looking for, and Cortes was given reason to believe that they thought the files implicating the military were in his possession.

He was frightened for his life -- but not frightened enough to stop working. When threats didn't work, militarists resorted to a time-honored Colombian practice: They tried to kidnap his child.

It was May 2002. School was in session, and his 12-year-old daughter was in class when a strange car pulled into campus.

Two men forced their way in, grabbed the girl, and shoved her into the car.

But the would-be abductors didn't count on the strength of her classmates. Quickly and wordlessly, dozens of kids surrounded the car. They wouldn't move, so the car couldn't move. Thwarted, the men shoved the girl out, the crowd parted, and the men roared off.

Any murder or mutilation would be easier for Cortes to discuss, but he cannot speak of the attempted kidnapping without breaking off and covering his face with his hands. It took his daughter months to recover, and she is still suffering from the memory.

Safe Harbor

Cortes knew that he had to get his family out, but he didn't move quickly enough. Weeks later, while trying to get one last documentary on tape, he and two journalists were shot at in broad daylight. When the police saw who was after him, they ran and hid.

Representatives of the diocese finally had to tell him, "For the good of us all, you have to leave."

The family of five abandoned their home and everything in it. They boarded a plane for the States with only their clothes and his wife's fat little dog. She had family in Miami, but it wasn't safe for them there -- it was still too close to Colombia.

Father Robert Begin -- a founding member of Cleveland's InterReligious Task Force on Central America and Colombia -- had read about the assassination of the archbishop. Begin was preparing for a pilgrimage to Colombia when he was contacted by Catholic Relief Services.

"You have to come meet this guy," they told him.

He did, and six hours into their meeting he was inviting Cortes and his family to Cleveland.

That he has found people to trust in this country surprises Cortes, because he always thought of Americans as "monsters who would do anything to improve their own comfort."

His wife has found work doing accounting. His youngest daughter is making the transition pretty well -- little kids can be tough. But it may take his two elder daughters longer. The Spanish-speaking community in Cleveland is largely Puerto Rican, and sometimes they feel distant.

But as much as he wants his daughters to embrace who they are, he gets troubled when he sees them seeking out other Colombians. He can't help but worry that one of his kids' friends will inadvertently give their address to a relative of someone who might want to find them.

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