Monday, August 12, 2013

"I talked to him as a friend, I begged him to stop". The story of Armando Aristizábal, and its implications about a country's history.

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
Why bring this up today? Because yesterday, Nairo Quintana won the Vuelta a Burgos, continuing what has already been an amazing season, both for him and for all of Colombian cycling (Cayetano Sarmiento was 9th overall in that race, it's worth mentioning). On Saturday, Leonardo Duque won a sprint finish at the Tour de l'Ain, not long after his teammate Darwin Atapuma took a stage at the Tour of Poland.

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
For years, the death of Armando Aristizábal troubled those in Colombian cycling, but other tragic killings came, time passed, and the ordeal was forgotten, at least by some. I decided to ask Martin Ramirez, winner of the 1984 Dauphine Libere about Armando Aristizábal, a man who he called "a good friend". Ramirez was there, at the Clasica a Itagüí, and was one of the last people to have spoken to Aristizábal. Though his memories of the events don't totally clarify matters, they certainly give a good bit of background information, as well as give a sense for the zeitgeist that Colombia found itself in. A very different time that is now thankfully in the past.

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"


  1. Hi Klaus-
    The same people who want you to shut up about dark Colombian past are the same type of people who don't want to face this Country's many dark past's. Genocide, slavery, endless racism, and now look; we've given away our Country to the rich, again. The historian may celebrate, but mostly must examine. Keep up the great work! Jonathan

  2. Love the Spaniards talking over each other. I saw the race in the Burgos channel and those guys did the exact same thing. I wonder if the director or producers even care. Hilarious.

    Amazing job by Quintana, of course, but Sarmiento did a lot of work for Basso and looked good.

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  4. Klaus,
    Great writing once again, it was a pleasure to read it. And yes, I think we Colombians all experience that feeling of having to sell the country to those who already bought Hollywood's version. At the beginning it can be quite hard/annoying but you develop a feeling for it over time.
    However, I declare myself guilty of having left two or three people in the world living in their ignorance. I even told them about the only paved road we have, that one that goes from the presidential house to the main square of the small town of Bogota. They also know about how we go hunting for food, half naked, at lunch time. My bad!
    By the way, I don't know how come, but I have had two explain two times in two different countries, located in two different continents about the apparent "fascination" we all Colombians have with donkeys.

    Keep up your hard work as an "opportunistic pornographer", hahahha...that one was imaginative!

    P.S Amazing attack by Quintana over Nibali in the last km, I got so excited I nearly jumped out of my chair while watching the race.


    1. Wait, we like donkys? I didn't know. My girlfriend will be happy to hear.

  5. Y de harto nos ha servido hacernos los dignos internacionalmente. De golpe es mejor hacerles caer en cuenta a los nacionales de paises consumidores de droga, que la platica para que nos sigamos matando aquí, sale en buena parte de las calles de ellos. Coincidencia o no, hoy se cumplen 14 años del asesinato de Jaime Garzón.

    Sabe que a mí ya no me molesta que la gente piense que esto es una selva, tanto turista pudiente nos ha encarecido el acceso a lo nuestro.

    Vamos a ver como le va hoy a Nairo con el festival del lagarto que le tienen preparado aquí para la llegada. Nada hace que la sangre me llegué al punto de ebullición tan rápido, como ver al presidente poniéndose una de las camisetas.

    1. Natalia,
      Gracias. Dios mio, 14 años desde la muerde de Jaime Garzon.
      Si señora, lo que pasa es que a la larga la manera que otros paises nos ven nos sigue controlando, porque tratamos de manejar el mensaje, tapando ciertas verdades. Es un balance complicado, obviamente, pero me parece no justo a gente que murio por esas vainas (y a todos los que sufrimos) que olvidemos sus muertes, y lo que ha sido esa parte de la historia. entonces...celebremos lo bonito, lo trabajado, lo merecido (sin poner festival de lagartos), y tambien hablemos (entre nosotros, señor...)con otros tambien. Porque es la verdad, y tenemos que ver las cosas como son, y tambien) como fueron.

  6. PD:

  7. jimjimjimjimjimjimAugust 13, 2013 at 11:06 AM


    The thought never crossed my mind people would be upset with your blog. I have never left here thinking poorly of Colombia as an oblivious American. Haha.
    I'm here for the cycling but love the perspective on the culture and history. Can't mention one without the other it seems and therein lies the fascination for this outsider.

    Keep up the good work.

    Arepa de Choclo update. Took me a few days to find the carts current location. still awesome.

  8. great piece as ever, i have only ever got the feeling that you are very proud of your birthplace and the tales you find to tell are fascinating, most countries have difficult pasts if you look hard enough, unfortunately these episodes make for the best stories.

    ...oh and quintana is an absolute joy to watch!!!

  9. Wow!!! Colombia is first in the UCI rankings for America with almost double the points from the distant second, the US of A...

  10. Klaus, qué bien escribe usted en inglés y por lo visto en un comentario, también en español. Mantenga el trabajo, que es una perspectiva diferente de este deporte tan bonito y tan sufrido, hasta para el que lo agarra ya después de los 40, como yo. A los que lo critican, pues, que vuelvan a leer, que se aprende y se goza mucho leyendo lo que usted escribe. Mis felicitaciones a todos los hermanos colombianos por esa gran temporada de ciclismo. De un venezolano


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