Tom Feiling is a journalist, writer and filmmaker who through his work has researched, analysed and transmitted Colombia in both its beauty and its conflicts.
His second book Short Walks from Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombia is the outcome of the author’s journey to see first-hand the rising Colombia that the media was talking about.
After working for the London-based NGO Justice for Colombia, Feiling realized how little people know about Colombia and how hard it is to raise awareness of a country that is so distant and unknown. With this book the author wanted to translate the Latin American country to a British audience.
It wasn’t the first time that Feiling went to Colombia; he had lived there in the past and visited it several times.
In his 2002 documentary Resistencia Hip-Hop in Colombia, Feiling explored Colombia through its young people.
In his first book The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World the author questioned the so-called War on Drugs and travelled the smuggling routes from Colombia via Kingston, Tijuana and Miami to New York and London.
LAB: Looking at your work, all of it has had some sort of relation with Colombia.
Why such an interest in Colombia, how did this relationship start?
Tom Feiling: In 1999 I wanted to learn Spanish and I had an interest in Latin America so I thought, “the best way to do it is go to Venezuela and travel around for two months”; and that’s what I did. Once there, I met two fellow backpackers who said, “We are going to Colombia” and I thought, “Oh OK!”. So we went from Merida to Maicao. That’s quite a route to do! We arrived there and we go to Santa Marta, Cartagena, I had a very strong impression [miming a big explosion with his hands and mouth ]!
When I came back here I thought, “I really want to go back to Colombia”. The idea I had was to go back there and open a hotel. It didn’t happen. It was a bad time to open a hotel and I didn’t know anything about running a hotel. So, I went back and became an English teacher in Universidad Externado. That was my introduction to Colombia.
LAB: In your documentary [Resistencia: Hip-Hop in Colombia] there is footage of the Peace Talks that took place between 1998 and 2002 between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of president Andrés Pastrana. These peace talks didn’t succeed in ending the war in Colombia and on the other hand gave an opportunity to the FARC to become more powerful. Are you more optimistic about the current peace talks between the FARC and Juan Manuel Santos’ government?
Feiling: Everyone was very optimistic last time. I suppose most people think that there is more basis for optimism this time. I don’t want to be the person who highlights the obstacles in the way but at the same time people are a little bit naïve about the nature of the conflict. There are misapprehensions about this. One of them is people assume that since the FARC have suffered so many setbacks, from having lost so many members of their secretariat and so on, they are desperate for peace and they know that there is no future for the organisation. I’m not sure that the FARC think like that. I’m not sure if they are so pessimistic. The tragedy of it is that this [war] could go on forever and it’s pointless, it achieves nothing. Especially from a left-wing point of view, Colombia is a long way behind its neighbours in terms of a left-wing agenda. Can you blame the guerrillas for that? I’m not sure, but the conflict doesn’t seem to abide by any left-wing ideas anymore, which is a bit ironic.
The agenda that they’ve agreed is quite encouraging, they are talking about all the right things: land restitution, political participation, guarantees that they will be demobilised,and their role in the drugs trade.
One of the reasons why I am less optimistic is because I realized most Colombians think that the drugs trade is completely controlled by FARC, but they are wrong. The FARC’s role in the drugs trade has been increasing and is undeniable among certain fronts but the idea that if you defeat the FARC you’ll finish the drug trade is ridiculous and is a convenient fiction. So, one of the reasons for not being so optimistic is because having spent some time in Colombia I could see a lot of propaganda, a lot of misunderstanding outside and inside; and what can be the basis for an agreement if there’s no consensus? But we’ll see. It will be interesting.
LAB: I read an article that you wrote recently for the Guardian about the capture of Daniel “El Loco” Barrera [Colombia’s last important drug lord] in Venezuela. Do you think that big changes will come to Colombia’s war on drugs thanks to this?
Feiling: Judging by previous occasions when a big drug lord has been taken out, usually what happens is there’s chaos in the organisation. It becomes much harder to move the product through that organisation because they are deciding who takes the boss’s place. So is quite likely that the price [of cocaine] will go up because they were such a big organisation. He [Daniel Barrera] traded with everyone, I mean he had no political affiliation; he traded with the Rastrojos (paramilitaries), with the FARC, with everyone. He was a good businessman in that sense but probably you are going to see more violence as they dispute who takes his place, so you’ll see a rise in violence, a short rise in prices perhaps in the States or here in Europe and then back to business as usual. Except that now you have younger people who are more ruthless and the police know less about them, so the police have to start again.
After writing that cocaine book [The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World] it’s a bit difficult to see any progress in the war on drugs.
LAB:From your research for that book [The Candy Machine], what do you think has gone wrong with the war on drugs?
Feiling: Number one: if you have a very strong demand for an illegal product the supply will come. Especially if the consumers are very rich and the producers are very poor.
Number two: I think that when they introduced that global prohibition in the 1960s the people who took drugs were a very small proportion of the population. But if you look to America today drug taking is so normal. I mean 18-year-old kids take A class drugs all the time. Drugs are no longer a counter culture or a subculture; it’s no longer a minority. Boris Johnson has admitted taking cocaine, David Cameron has admitted taking cocaine, Barak Obama has admitted taking cocaine, George Bush has admitted taking cocaine. It’s not uncommon, but it is illegal! Well, one of those two things has to change and I don’t think you are going to make it less common. I don’t think that you are going to have a campaign against drug consumption that will work.
Number three: Don’t put the business in the hands of criminals, and start to think about evidence-based policies: what works, what are the problems that arise from these drugs, what’s the nature of these drugs if you are going to take them, what you should know. . It has to be some sort of regulated supply for all the problems that it will create.
We are questioning the army, the police and the politicians about their right to control the drug agenda because they are not very well qualified to understand drugs, or to educate people about drugs. It’s a matter for educationalists and health care professionals.
LAB:10 years after making the documentary, and three years after your first book, you went back to Colombia to find out how things have changed. The outcome of this journey is your recent book [Short Walks from Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombia]. Tell me a little bit about this book…
Feiling: When I was working with the [London-based] NGO Justice for Colombia we were lobbying and campaigning to raise people’s awareness of Colombia and the human rights crises there. But I thought after a while that there is a limit to how interested British people are going to be in a country that they don’t know the first thing about. So I thought it’s about time that all the stories that I’ve heard in Colombia and my experience from Colombia be translated into a book that acknowledges all the problems and puts them in some context.
Hopefully [from the book] you’ll learn a little bit more from a popular point of view, from a Colombian point of view and learn a little bit about the nature of the country, what has the country been struggling to do for 200 years.
That was the purpose of the book. Trying to tell the story of Colombia and the recent history and trying to make it easy to understand but not to overload the book with history and politics, to try and balance it with more human-interest stories.
LAB: Would you describe it as a travel book?
Feiling: It’s a travel book but at the heart of it is a book about the history and politics of Colombia, which is what I’m interested in. But you have to find a vehicle for that debate. It’s a way of making a book about Colombia more interesting and easier to read for British people.
Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the New Colombia by Tom Feiling was published in September 2012.