letter from an american soldier stationed in putumayo, columbia (2015)

We all grew up with parents telling us over and over again how it didn’t used to be like this, how in the 90s everyone had more money than they knew what to do with. No, I take that back. Only the white kids’ parents said that. Everyone else said it’s always been like this, and that the whites just lived in a dream world for a long time and now they’re in the same boat as everyone else…”


by joel harold tannenbaum


Dear J,

If you’d told me a year ago that I would be in this mess, I’d have laughed at you. I’m in Colombia. A city called Mocoa in a place called Putumayo. I’m sorry I didn’t get in touch sooner, but you probably heard about what happened. That’s right -Possession with Intent to Distribute. I went to a drop-off at this house in West Philly that was supposedly full of UPenn students. Kids with lots of money and expensive taste in drugs. Well, it turned out to be a bust. I think the detective knew I was nobody important, but they were real serious for some reason, and they worked me over real good. They took me to the police station at 55th and Pine and beat the living shit out of me. I figured, ok, they want me to give them names, an address book or something. I thought if I kept my mouth shut, they’d get bored, take whatever money I had and probably my bike and send me on my way. I was wrong.

Next thing I knew, I’m in front of a judge. Real bastard. And to make matters worse, they have these new mandatory minimum laws. Way worse than the old ones. Turned out because of my previous record I qualified for this new law, the one the president called “a show of moral vigor and renewed commitment to this nation’s great war on drugs.” Remember, we saw that speech on TV that one night? Remember how funny it seemed? Well, I don’t think it’s funny now. So anyway, this judge, this old bastard, you know the type of guy I’m talking about- leans forward and acts like he’s doing me a favor. Gives this big speech about how I’m part of a lost generation, how back in the day kids like me used to go to college and get married and get jobs. I probably would have laughed if I wasn’t so freaked out and scared. I mean can you picture that? Can you picture being married? With kids? So, then he’s talking to me and I have to concentrate really hard to understand what he’s saying and finally I realize he’s giving me a choice between going to jail and going in the army.

Well, I didn’t have to think very hard. I’ve been around enough to know what kind of sentence I was looking at. I would have gotten definitely five, maybe up to 10 years. What’s worse is it would have been in one those privatized prisons, where they don’t have to obey the regulations about sanitation and overcrowding. I could picture it -16 hours a day for the next 10 years, making cell phones or sneakers or something. No way. I figured the army couldn’t be worse than that. He said I would have to go to Colombia. I didn’t even know where that was, let alone that there was a war there. He said if I picked the Army I would be in an infantry unit. I’d be there for three years, and then I’d be done, no probation or anything. Plus, I already know how to use a gun. I have since I was a kid. Everybody around here does They took me from the courtroom straight to the airport. I didn’t have time to call anyone or anything. So I’m in this army truck, handcuffed, with four other guys that were obviously in the same boat. One of them was crying. I was just in shock. I had no idea what I was getting into.

First thing I realized when I got here is that nearly everyone is really wasted, nearly all the time. See, we live in a really shoddy barracks right outside of Mocoa, which is a city, but not a city like Philadelphia. There are farms all around and the farmers all grow coca, which gets made into cocaine, which is supposedly the reason we’re all here. Funny though, someone is making serious bank just by skimming off the coca, processing it themselves in some sketchy way into something that would probably be called crack or ready-rock back home, and selling it to the American troops. Everyone I know is totally hooked.

Patrols last about three days in the jungle. It’s torture, especially with the bugs and the heat and the paranoia, and everyone gets wasted all the time just to deal with it. And then you’re back at the barracks for three days, doing pointless chores or most of the time just sitting around, smoking and drinking just to deal with the boredom. The coca crops (and all the regular crops for that matter) are always getting sprayed by US planes with all these crazy chemicals to make them unusable, so every now and then a bad batch hits the barracks and everyone gets really sick. Of course, that’s not enough to stop anybody. Not that anybody could quit even if they wanted to. It just kind of creeps up on you.

There’s a lot of people involved in this mess down here. It’s complicated and I don’t really understand it. There’s the FARC. They’re like, communists or socialists or something, and generally speaking that’s who we’re supposed to be shooting at. Oh, and sometimes on patrol we’ll hear that there’s FARC in some village or on some farm, and we’ll have to go turn everyone out and, once in a while, burn the whole thing down. It gets pretty ugly. Then there’s the Colombian army, who we’re supposedly helping. And then there’s these other groups, the paramilitaries, and supposedly they have nothing to do with the army, but you see some of the same people and sometimes they have the same weapons or the same uniforms. The paramilitaires are just fucking brutal, especially when it comes to dealing with the villages. I’ve seen them do stuff I’ll have nightmares about forever. We’re supposedly supposed to “contain” them, which is what we’re also supposed to be doing to the FARC, but the truth is (I wonder if when you get this letter this part will be blacked out) just as often as not, they get themselves ambushed by an FARC unit, and we’re called in to back them up. I don’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of it, but it’s definitely shady, and we’re not supposed to talk about it too much.

Supposedly the FARC is responsible for all the coca production and most of the cocaine that ends up in the US, but as far as I can tell it’s like this: All those different groups control different areas of the countryside, and make money off of whatever coca production goes on in the areas they control. And here’s something really weird: My buddy is an airplane mechanic. He works at an airport nearby, one commandeered by the Colombian army awhile ago. That’s where American army planes take off and land. He swears up and down that he’s worked on American planes where just before takeoff, Colombian army officers will “inspect” the plane, meaning they go in the cargo hold and load it down with hundreds and hundreds of pounds of cocaine. These are planes that are bound for the US. Weird, huh?

My worst nightmare is that I’ll get home and do what? Get a job? I know what’ll happen. I’ve seen it happen to everyone I know who gets out of jail and goes on probation. I’ll run around every day for months, broke, trying to get a job as a busboy, or in a Taco Bell, or if I’m really lucky a movie theater or a Tower Records. In the mean time I’ll be crashing on people’s couches and completely broke. When I finally get a job, it won’t pay enough for me to save anything or do anything other than keep working. In the meantime, everyone from the old days will still be around, and it’ll just be so tempting to go back to slinging dope that I won’t even be able to stand it. And this is the part that really keeps me awake at night: the thought that I’ll get home, go back to selling, get busted and end up back here again. And it’ll just keep happening over and over again until I eventually step on a landmine or accidentally get sprayed with Monsanto Roundup by an army cropduster.

And not just me, but everyone like me. There are so many of us here, J. Some of us are black, some of us are Spanish and Puerto Rican, a lot of us are white. We all went to public schools that either folded or might as well have. We all grew up with parents telling us over and over again how it didn’t used to be like this, how in the 90s everyone had more money than they knew what to do with. No, I take that back. Only the white kids’ parents said that. Everyone else said it’s always been like this, and that the whites just lived in a dream world for a long time and now they’re in the same boat as everyone else. We all learned how to do anything we could to get wasted from the time we were real young, like 11 or 12, cause there was nothing else to do. (I remember when I was really little people were always talking about recessions and depressions and now no one even uses those words anymore. Now this is just how things are, and people barely remember anything different.) We all couldn’t get jobs or didn’t want the lame jobs there were and found other ways to make money, usually illegal. And every year they build more prisons and put more cops on the streets and sooner or later we all get nailed. And now we’re all ending up here, in Colombia. Probably in other places too. There are more of us coming in every day. None of us really understand why we’re here.

It seems obvious though, that the US isn’t going to win this war. Sometimes I think we’re not supposed to. We’re just supposed to go on selling drugs back home, getting arrested, getting sent down here, dying, killing and getting more wasted here than we ever did growing up. It’s like we’re part of a growth industry, the only growth industry left, and its all made up of drugs, cops, prisons, wars, surface-to-air-missiles, herbicides, defoliants and I could probably name a dozen other things too. They’re all connected in some way that all of us understand but none of us can explain.

And it hurts.

So how are things at home?


Originally published:
Issue Eleven
July 2001



(illustrations • troy dockins)

Joel Harold Tannenbaum is a 25-year veteran of retail jobs, fast food jobs, public school, Catholic school, punk rock, vegetarianism, student films, student newspapers, “alternative” weeklies and a liberal arts education. In September he will begin studying for a postgraduate degree in Economic and Social History at the University of Hull, U.K.


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