|1986 Cafe De Colombia team. Armando Ariztisabal is third from the right.|
We Colombians area an interesting bunch. Forever tortured by the negative reputation that precedes us, we are always cautious about how we present ourselves to others. I became aware of this necessity shortly after my family moved to the United States, and I learned enough English to understand the endless questions that my American classmates were asking. "Did you have electricity in the jungle?", "Did you live in a hut?", "What's it like living in the middle east?" ,"Were there shootouts there everyday?" The incessant queries were madding, even at that young age. In time, I learned how to handle such questions, explaining that life in Colombia was, in most ways, pretty much exactly like in the United States. I was, of course, telling the truth, though few ever believed me. But part of my repertoire also became being very guarded about Colombia's more pressing and often violent issues. Much in the same way that children are sometimes told by their parents to never discuss family business outside the home, all Colombians make an unspoken pact of sorts. One that states that you never discuss the country's negative side, even if much of it is in the past. This is part of our defense mechanism, one that comes about as a result of knowing that there's so few of us, that we are often the only Colombians that many people will ever come in contact with, and that we are a valuable source of information for others, and can thus shape the way we are seen.
I've done this for so long, that I've forgotten which way is up. We are so maligned, and at the same time know the beautiful truth about our country and its people, that we become sensitive about any negative story about the country. We bend the arc of the ongoing narrative to protect ourselves, often at the expense of those to whom victory was not so kind.
|Photo: El Tiempo|
And yet, as excited as I am about these wins (and I most certainly am), my mind wanders, much as it always does. And this blog is merely a reflection of that. And since this blog has never functioned as a cycling news site (others can do that better than I can, even if they don't focus on Colombian cycling), I always enjoy looking into the unusual (and yes, sometimes dark) recesses of Colombian cycling history. I tell you this in hopes that the number of emails I get accusing me of writing "negative" posts about Colombia will at least decrease slightly. The last one I received compared me to an opportunistic pornographer (frankly, I didn't even know such a thing existed), and blamed me for spreading salacious "trash" about a country I "supposedly love". These emails now come in such a predictable manner that I can almost set my watch to them. And although I'd like to say that they are meaningless to me, we Colombians know that such comments strike directly at our Achille's heel. And I'm no different. But my curiosity about Colombia's unusual history continues regardless of the day, or what great victories are happening in the present tense. In fact, they exist concurrently and independently of one another. But I'm also well aware of the fact that writing about these dark times further perpetuates the negative image of Colombia that we're all trying to leave in the past. It's a tough call to be sure.
Quintana wins the Vuelta a Burgos. Note his attack and Nibali's inability to stay on his wheel. Note the huge Colombian flag at about 50 meters to go, Nairo's smile, and how he greets the people holding the flag. Lastly, if you're not a Spanish speaker, and the commentators on this video sound like an absolute mess of voices who constantly speak over one another and blend into a useless rumble of noise...I can tell you that to those of us who speak Spanish, these commentators sound exactly the same as they do to you.
Be that as it may, today's post focuses on a very different time in the sport and in the country's history than the one we find ourselves in today. One that is in the past, but remains alive in my mind due to the fact that it coincided with my youth, and the time when I was first introduced to the sport. Make of it what you will, but these stories (sad as they are) interest me, in part because I know they are now in the past, but also because they give great insight into the state that Colombia found itself in at the time. A state that many in Colombia to this day, will openly blame on the demand for drugs in other countries, ones that never saw the type of violence that we lived with.
Thanks to the talented and very kind Martin Ramirez (1984 Dauphine Libere winner) for his time, and for answering my questions in this regard.
|Armando Aristizábal (Photo: Matt Rendell's Kings of the Mountains)|
March 12, 1987
Before a stage start in Colombia's Clasica a Itagüí, four men associated with the Punto Sport Catalina team were kidnapped by assailants who claimed to be members of the ELN. The four men were in a farm near Medellin, which belonged to the owner and primary sponsor of the team, Hugo Hernando Valencia. It was early in the morning, 7:30 am, and they had left the team hotel in Medellin in order to arrive to the stage start on time. Along with team owner Hugo Hernando Valencia that morning were a team driver, a camera man, and an ex-professional who was now helping run the team, Armando Aristizábal. Aristizábal had competed in the Tour de France alongside Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra, and was a valuable domestique, with the ability to score his own wins, and go on any number of breakaways. He was well known and liked among cycling circles.
Within hours of the kidnapping (though some reports state it was the following day), the body of the team's driver was found in a city dump in the Medellin's Santa Cruz neighborhood. The man had been shot thirty times by a machine gun, and his body had been thrown from a moving car, with a red blindfold across his face [Bogota's El Tiempo newspaper would state a day later that the way the body had been disposed of, and the place where it was dumped were perfectly in line with how local traffickers at the time were assassinating rivals, and those they wanted to settle accounts with].
Despite all this, the Punto Sport Catalina team decided to stay in the race, though they refused to talk to anyone (press included) about the matter.
Nearly a month later, two of the remaining three men were found.
Miami Herald - April 7, 1987
2 Kidnapped Men Found Shot to Death in Medellin
The bodies of the abducted manager of a professional cycling team and the team cameraman were found in a garbage container near Medellin, police said Monday. Each had been shot 30 times. Hugo Hernando Valencia, manager of the Punto Sport Catalina team, and cameraman Jorge Figueroa were kidnapped along with a bodyguard and cyclist Armando Aristizábal on March 12. The bodyguard was found dead March 13. Police said Aristizabal is apparently in the abductors' hands.
Thirty shots each, just like the driver. Sadly, not long after, Aristizabal was also found dead. His hands were bound, and he had been tortured. The Spanish newspaper El Pais would go on to report that his murder was "related to the mafia and the trafficking of narcotics", but in reality, no further details about the case surfaced.
Ariztisabal had come up as a rouleur, a rarity in the grand scheme of Colombian cycling, but rather common for the rolling region where he was born (the department's name translates to "Cauca Valley" after all). During his career, he raced for Leche Gran Via (a precursor to Pilas Varta), Cafe De Colombia, Western-Rossin, and Pony Malta. He had raced in Europe in some of the biggest races, during what many proudly called the Golden Era of Colombian Cycling.
|Martin Ramirez, Aristizabal's friend, wearing the leader's jersey at the 1984 Dauphine Libere|
|Armando Aristizábal circa 1983|
In those early teams that made it over to Europe, you had two teammates who were well known in Colombian cycling. Alfonso Florez and Armando Ariztisabal. Since I bring them up at once, you probably know where I'm headed. They both died terrible violent deaths, part of the mood and situation that Colombia found itself in at the time. How well did you know them? What do you make of having lost them at such an early age?
With Alfonso, we were teammates, and we spoke, but it was not as though we became very close. With Armando, things were different. As a matter of fact, I spoke to him, and tried to give him advice, but he didn't listen. I knew about the type of people he was dealing with, and I knew the business dealings he was involved in. Sadly, things ended very badly for him. It pains me to think about him, because we lost him during a difficult but also shameful time for our country.
|Armando Aristizábal circa 1985|
I know it's a delicate subject, but I've always wondered exactly what happened to Aristizabal. There was talk that he was involved with…well, with people in Medellin and their business dealings let's say. What happened? Was he actively involved with traffickers, was he investing money in that business? Who was he dealing with?
I couldn't tell you exactly who he was dealing with. I simply don't know. But it was obvious and known what he was up to. He had stopped racing, and had set up a shop in Medellin. Suddenly, his clothing started to change, so did the way he carried himself. It was indicative of the time, and of people who had certain dealings during those years [Martin is referring to the way that traffickers, and people in that general business, tended to dress and carry themselves during the 1980s in Colombia. It wasn't just flashy. It was over the top, and usually taken to humorous extremes, which made matters more obvious]. In any case, we all knew what he was up to, so I had an honest talk with him. I said, "Man, if you're already deeply involved in this stuff, just get out while you can. You made your money, get out, and start working at an honest job, just put that behind you." I talked to him as a friend. I begged him to stop, because I knew it was a dangerous world.
I remember this all too well, because we were racing the Clasica de Itagüí at the time, and that's when I saw him, and talked to him. Some days after our talk, he was kidnapped, and later found dead. They kidnapped him…and they did (long pause)…they did whatever they did to him. But to tell you the truth, I don't know exactly who it was that he was dealing with. It's simply awful to think about.
|News story from El Tiempo the day after the kidnapping. "4 members of cycling team kidnapped near Medellin: one dead"|