Martin Muñoz sold me a chocolate three days before his 55th birthday. He and his frail looking wife were busy trying to get the 12,000 pesos together to pay their shabby downtown Medellín hotel. Their four children were waiting for them to come “home” when I gave them 200 pesos.
Don Martin wasn’t the average bum trying to sell me the twentieth candy of this average Monday. This guy looked like Juan Valdez himself. He had the same trimmed beard and mustache, the typical paisa scarf over his shoulder, the light, checkered shirt tucked neatly into his trousers and looked exactly the type of man who’d been working the land since he was twelve. This man was a 100% coffee farmer trying to sell me crappy chocolates I didn’t even need.
Martin Muñoz is exactly the guy he seemed to be. He had been working the coffee fields of south west Antioquia since he was a kid and he did so until October 28, 2008, when at 1AM a group of guerrillas knocked on his door and gave him literally five minutes to abandon his home. The land owner and owner of the farm where Don Martin and his family lived refused to pay protection money to the guerrilla, so the farm had to be abandoned.
Muñoz, his wife and four children left their home with nothing but the clothes on their back and 7,000 pesos in the pocket.
It took him two months to reach Medellín, where I met him almost seven months after he was forced to leave his home.
Still reminding me of Juan Valdez himself he told me the story of the fields around Bolivar, Antioquia, where he’s from. The town, he said, is safe, but guerrillas are in control of the hills and mountains around it.
“They oblige you to always wear your ID-card. When you least expect it they can appear and ask for your papers. When you are not carrying your papers, even while working the field, they take you away and you never come back,” Muñoz said.
“I don’t know what happens. I don’t know if the people they took with them are now in the guerrilla or that they killed them, but none of them ever came back,” he added.
Despite the guerrilla presence, life was good, Don Martin remembers. He didn’t make much money working for the land owner, but life was cheap, his family could eat and he had a color tv.
Now Muñoz is staying in a hotel in downtown Medellín. He chose a 12,000 peso-per-night hotel and not one of those 7,000 peso hotels to keep his wife and children away from the drug addicts and thieves. The hotel is filled with families like his’, he says.
Because of some procedural error Muñoz lost his recognition as a refugee and receives no benefit from the government. “The people of Social Action [the presidential agency for displaced] tell me it was a mistake and I can appeal, but I would have to go to Parque Explora and stand in line the whole day, which means I can’t pay the hotel and we end up on the street.”
The coffee farmer hopes to return to his farm before Christmas. He is hoping the Armed Forces are able to take control of the area and he can return to recovering the coffee and platano and yuca crops and can return to his normal life of working the field during the week and going to church on Sunday mornings to maybe have an aguardiente in town after mass.
But as long as the guerrilla controls the area and the army doesn’t do anything, he is stuck in Colombia’s second largest city and exchanged the sloapy hills of the coffee lands for stinking hotels full of whores and junkies. And instead of working on the production of one of the world’s finest coffee beans he is selling crappy chocolates to gringos who then give him 200 pesos out of pity.
“Sometimes I need a really long walk, because it is like my head explodes,” he says almost mumbling.
I realize that Colombia has millions of people like Martin Muñoz, who are stuck in inhumain situations they never chose for and do not deserve and I need a really long walk too.