opponent tried to smear him by using his homosexuality against him.
Gardeazábal responded, I rule with my head, not my
Tuluá, Valle del
The prisoner always wears khaki. Two armed guards are positioned
nearby, twenty-four-seven. But apart from the attire and the security,
little else falls within the norm for Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal,
an original thinker and a popular novelist and politician, openly gay,
who celebrated his fifty-fifth birthday in prison.
I have not killed anybody or stolen anything, he protested
when the warrant was issued for his arrest on May 4, 1999. But it
seems that I have to pay with suffering and punishment far greater than
if I had done that.
His crime? In 1992, Gardeazábal received two checks from bank accounts
that were later traced to Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela from the Cali
Cartel. Lured by the promise of light sentencing, the cocaine kingpin
Rodríguez turned himself in to authorities in 1995. The Supreme
Court found Gardeazábals explanation that the checks
were received as payment for the sale of a bronze sculpture from his personal
collection unbelievable. With the testimony of a paid informant,
prosecutors asserted that Gardeazábals successful campaign
for mayor of Tuluá in 1993 was financed by drug money. In a decision
rendered on November 29, 2000, more than six months after his arrest,
Gardeazábal was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison. In
addition, he must repay the twelve million pesos at todays equivalent
1992 value of approximately $30,000. And he is prohibited from ever running
for public office again.
Gardeazábal was governor of Valle del Cauca at the time of his
arrest. He was jailed for over five months without a trial.
Supporters wrote letters to the Supreme Court on his behalf. But the ruling
against him was final.
If youre not Colombian, youve probably never heard of Gardeazábal,
one of the countrys foremost contemporary writers, a man with a
tongue as acid as his pen, a politician renowned for being incorruptible.
If youre not Colombian, you probably havent read the book
that immortalized him, Cóndores no entierran todos los días
(1972), required reading of all school children, arguably the most widely
read (and most pirated) Colombian book, rivaling García Márquezs
Cien años de soledad. If youre not Colombian,
you might think theres a catch if hes so honorable,
why is he imprisoned?
The prisoner sleeps an average of four-and-a-half hours each night,
as he has done for most of his life. He awakes at 5:30 a.m. By 7:30, he
has read the dailies, exercised, showered and shaved, and prepared his
customary morning brews, fresh coffee and orange juice.
Public opinion has been consistently in Gardeazábals favor.
No one seems to believe he is guilty of illicit enrichment; in fact, most
acknowledge that his imprisonment is representative of the Colombian state
of affairs. Enrique Córdoba is a Colombian journalist in Miami
and director of Cita con Caracol, a live radio program that
serves to inform and unite the Colombian community. Jail is part
of the political game in Colombia, Córdoba says. I
am sorry that a man so clean and honest would be in such a situation.
He should not be in prison. A fan puts it another way: That
is Colombia: the crooks in the street and Gardeazábal in jail.
Various members of the Senate and Congress called the verdict deplorable,
lamentable and sad.
Annuziata Campa, Gardeazábals Italian translator, said, I
am shocked that a man so honest and upstanding, a famous Colombian writer,
is imprisoned for a lie. Héctor Abad Facioline, a columnist
for the magazine Cambio, wrote about the fate of Colombian writers who
opted to stay in the country rather than flee abroad. Look at what
happened to Gardeazábal, a talented writer who succumbed to politics.
Beaten and demolished, he became the scapegoat of cruel and unjust justice.
The National Penitentiary Institute determined that the prisoner would
be held at the Simón Bolívar Police School, which is located
in Tuluá. The Police School is in a wooded area and is encircled
by a tall metallic fence with razor wire. The prisoner occupies a tiny
house on the grounds of the Police School; this space was previously used
to store brooms and broken chairs
Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal was born in Tuluá in
1945, a child of La Violencia, the grisly civil war that lasted
a decade and claimed hundreds of thousands of victims. Tuluá was
an epicenter of violence and vengeance between liberals and conservatives.
Gardeazábal witnessed the intricacies of war as he grew up. He
was four years old when the first cadaver hit the ground.
La Violencia, and his own physical frailties, partnered Gardeazábal
with death. Its not surprising, then, that when he studied literature
at Universidad del Valle in Cali, his thesis examined the Colombian novels
that emerged from La Violencia. Or that Cóndores, his
second novel, takes place in Tuluá and brings La Violencia to life
through fleshed-out characters who were surely inspired by his family
and neighbors in the small town. The novel made headlines it sold
out in two hours and became an eternal bestseller.
It was the possibility of his own death that spurned Gardeazábal
to write. He came close to dying numerous times, beginning in infancy,
and has lived with a weak immune system and serious renal and stomach
maladies. In an essay published in the literary journal Índice
in 1973, Gardeazábal wrote, If my health permits and if my
twenty-seven years of existence are prolonged much more, its possible
that in the years to come I will write something that will perdure. Ojalá.
Gardeazábal began writing in earnest at nineteen and never stopped.
Hailed as the next García Márquez early in his writing life,
he believed that the mission of a contemporary novelist should be to highlight
the painful part of our existence. If a novelist is not a critic of society,
then he is a publicist.
The Supreme Court granted permission for the prisoner to receive an
award in detention. On September 26, 2000, the prisoner was decorated
with the Order of the Flying Geese, the highest honor bestowed by Universidad
de Santa Rosa, the countrys only agrarian university. The private
ceremony took place at the Police School Library. The prisoner identified
with the flying geese in his acceptance speech. He said, On the
day that Kafka opens the door to the cage, if I havent vanished
in captivity, this goose will only know the warmth of a sun tinged with
Gardeazábal has published
fourteen novels and has won his share of literary awards. Several of his
books have been translated into other languages. Cóndores
was made into a movie, Man of Principle, The Condor, directed
by Francisco Norden (1984). Another of his novels, El divino,
became a Colombian soap opera. Gardeazábals books are regional
five of them are about Tuluá and they are based on
real Colombian events and characters. To read his books is to know Colombian
Gardeazábal transcends storytelling and uses his craft to ridicule
and critique society. In Bazaar of the Idiots, a spoof on
religion, sinners are blessed with divine powers: the super-endowed idiots
perform miracles with their sexual prowess. El divino enmeshes
drug dealers with the church and features a gay protagonist. Homosexuals
inhabit Gardeazábals novels naturally, and this is in itself
taboo in Colombian literature.
In the early seventies, during a time of great academic and political
upheaval, the long-haired gay iconoclast became a professor of literature
at Universidad del Valle. While the official class roster was limited
to thirty students, his lectures filled auditoriums. For years, he was
a man of literature, organizing conferences and traveling to universities
in the U.S. and Mexico for speaking engagements. In 1980, in protest of
a new law that prohibited university professors from expressing political
views, he resigned forever from academia. I would rather sell potatoes
in the market in Tuluá than ever teach again in Colombia,
The prisoner works in the Police School Library, which initially consisted
of 1,700 books that were boxed up due to earthquake damage. He solicited
funds for the construction of a new library. Completed in January of 2001,the
new building now holds more than 3,000 titles. The prisoner intends to
build the collection to 5,000. He is soliciting book donations.
His lover, his father, and his friends tried to dissuade him from becoming
a politician. But Gardeazábal had been writing columns in newspapers
and magazines in Colombia for decades, and he wanted to do more than complain
on paper. He wanted to make a difference, to show that politics need not
be played dirty. Residents of Tuluá were ready for such a proposal
from a man who was not allied with any of the major parties and who had
been speaking his political mind for years. They were fed up, and they
welcomed a change. Journalist Enrique Córdoba says that Gardeazábals
successful campaigns were the result of a people frustrated with
a corrupt system.
During his first campaign for mayor of Tuluá in 1988, his opponent,
Ramón Elías Giraldo, tried to smear him by using his homosexuality
against him. But Gardeazábal turned the tables with his infamous
quote: I rule with my head, not my ass.
Gardeazábal was the only openly gay elected official in Colombias
history. When the Colombian Constitution was being revised in 1991, he
campaigned for a seat in the decision-making Constitutional Assembly.
He didnt get the seat, but his gay rights clause For the Right
to Intimacy was incorporated into the revised constitution. Gays
in Colombia and abroad have looked up to Gardeazábal for his brazen
attitude, but he has never belonged to any gay organization or participated
in gay marches. I dont patronize politicking or proselytizing
on the basis of homosexuality, he declared. The only way that
homosexuals will be respected in society is by respecting others, and
by not assaulting people with protuberant marches or unnecessary celebrations
such as the foolish gay pride, which is the product of marketing.
The prisoner planted a miniature jungle in the patio. Orchids of every
color, from lavender to rust, bloom under his care. Birds and bugs inhabit
the space, along with shrubs, fruit trees, ferns, and vines. Plants have
taken root in the cracks of the walls.
Twice elected mayor of Tuluá, Gardeazábal governed with
the creativity and seriousness of his writings. He organized events that
brought the community together inner tube races down the Tuluá
River, mountain walks, communal road pavings and street cleanings. He
provided zany entertainment, such as a male bikini contest judged by celebrities.
He communicated with his constituents via columns published in local papers
and a radio show that was broadcast on Saturdays. He spoke out about gays
who were tortured and killed, their cadavers dumped into the Cauca River.
He set up programs to support agricultural workers and showed up in the
fields where they labored.
He rallied against any sign of U.S. meddling into Colombian affairs. In
a 1992 article in the Dallas Morning News, Gardeazábal complained
that the Drug Enforcement Agency was trying to provoke a war between the
Cali and Medellín cocaine cartels. In late December of 1993, after
150 U.S. troops landed on Colombias Pacific Coast allegedly
on a humanitarian mission to build a school and a clinic in the poor region
Gardeazábal ordered the town hall flag flown at half-staff
until the invaders leave. After reports that U.S. military
planes had been spotted over Barranquilla and Cartagena, Gardeazábal
claimed that U.S. troops brought enough weapons to seize half of
Colombia. In a January 1994 article in Newsday, Gardeazábal
was said to have alerted Colombians to the danger of a U.S. military operation.
In this time of peace, American soldiers are provoking the drug
dealers and the guerillas. If a soldier gets killed, that could lead to
a U.S. invasion.
The prisoner writes every day, into the night, on a portable laptop
that is connected to a printer. The National Penitentiary Institute has
authorized him to write a book a year in exchange for a reduction in his
sentence. Currently, he is writing Se llamaba el país vallecaucano.
On January 1, 1998, Gardeazábal stepped into office as Governor
of Valle del Cauca. He received an unprecedented 700,000 votes. He also
inherited the serious problems of his state: steep fiscal debt, a massive
migration of people from the country to the city, and escalating war between
various armed groups. Occupying nearly 9,000 square miles, el Valle spans
the Pacific lowlands to the western Andean mountain range and the upper
Cauca River. Agriculture is the backbone of el Valle; the region is a
leading producer of sugar, rice, tobacco and coffee. Gardeazábal
worked to strengthen and revamp the states industry. He imposed
austere economic measures to confront the states debt and launched
a cultural program to support the arts.
But Gardeazábals greatest challenge was war. He approached
it like no government official ever had with dialogue. Twenty days
into office, he ventured into the mountains to meet with leaders of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As Governor, Gardeazábal
was not authorized to negotiate with the guerrillas. But the FARC refused
to speak with President Sampers administration, which they denounced
as illegitimate because the presidency was allegedly financed with drug
Even though top officials in Bogotá did not vest Gardeazábal
with the authority to negotiate peace, the dialogues continued. He met
with key players: Manuel Tirofijo Marulanda from the FARC;
Carlos Castaño from the paramilitary United Self-Defense Groups;
and leaders from the National Liberation Army. To end the war it
is necessary to give everyone a piece of the peace pie. We cannot afford
to repeat the mistake of distributing it only among the traditional owners
and a few others who want to try it.
Peace was his daily bread and impossible as it seemed, Gardeazábal
tried to make it happen. He signed peace pacts, joined the National Committee
for Peace, participated in peace conferences, and never stopped trying
to reach agreements via direct dialogue. It is the year 2001 and Gardeazábal
is imprisoned, wringing his hands, biting his tongue. Everything he tried
to avoid U.S. intervention, massacres, kidnappings, millions of
refugees, child warriors, the intensification of war is blossoming
before his eyes on a television screen in his tiny room. Plan Colombia,
the aggressive military operation against leftist insurgents and the war
on drugs, is underway. The U.S. has pledged 1.3 billion dollars
in support of Plan Colombia. Most of this aid is destined for weapons,
ammunition, military equipment and training, and the fumigation of coca
Plan Colombia is a foolish proposal that has been conceived for
war and not for peace, Gardeazábal emphatically tells a visitor.
The gringos use it as an excuse to combat drugs when they are incapable
of combating drug consumption in the U.S. Combating drugs will not end
the war in Colombia because that is not the only cause of the war.
Gardeazábal is consumed with war while he dreams of living in tranquility.
I always had two dreams to have a little farm where I could
raise my geese and my dogs; and to be able to afford to buy and maintain
But there were other dreams as well: peace, justice and liberty. There
is still time. He is, after all, a prisoner of hope.
The prisoner has a support group in town, Friends of Gardeazábal.
The group is coordinated by William Peña, the prisoners personal
assistant, who works out of the prisoners mothers home in
Tuluá. The prisoner does not have direct access to the Internet,
but can have messages delivered to him via his assistant (email@example.com).
Friends of Gardeazábal publishes periodic updates on the prisoners
status at http://tulua.teletulua.com.co/gardeazabal/.
The group submits requests for visits with the prisoner to the Police
The prisoner receives visitors in the orchid garden.
© 2001 El Andar Magazine
Editor's Note: In December
2001, nine months after this article was published, Gardeazábal's
six-year sentence was commuted and he was released from prison. He
had been imprisoned for three years.