Congreso Emberá

Democracia en Darién

The ancient school bus rolled to a halt at the dusty checkpoint. The door opened, and a man in military camouflage stepped up into the bus, an automatic rifle slung across his chest.  His eyes methodically scanned the passengers until they fell squarely upon me.  He walked down the aisle looking side to side at passengers until he got a few rows in front of mine. Then he simply pointed at me, motioned for me to get off the bus, turned around, walked back to the front, and got off.

The bus lurched on, and I walked with my backpack through the cloud of dust and diesel smoke, following the man in camo.  We walked into an open room, which, coming in out of the tropical sun, seemed rather dark.  Now in many other countries in Latin America, this turn of events might have been cause for concern, but, here, at this time, in Panama, it was merely one of curiosity.

I don’t remember what he said exactly, but in effect the message was that I was to not go any further down this road and instead proceed back in the direction of Panama City, the capital.  I said that I was heading to Meteti. He wasn’t upset. He didn’t care.  Foreigners were not allowed any further.  I was to take the next bus back towards town. I asked if there was anyone else I might talk to.  He walked out.

So I sat there in that room for some time.  It was pleasant enough, wooden, shady, with open air windows.  After a while another guy arrived and though unconcerned seemed surprised to see me there.. As if maybe the first guy hadn’t told anyone I was there.  I explained to him that I was on my way to Meteti and mentioned the previous guy.  He calmly told me that no foreigners were allowed past the checkpoint and that I would need to catch the next bus out.  Again, I asked if there was anyone else I might speak with.  These conversations were all in Spanish, as I wouldn’t speak any English on this trip.

I had come to Panama to attend a congress, a democratic law making event, of the Emberá, one of a handful of indigenous tribes in Panama.  I had no official role or reason to attend other than curiosity.  While living in the country a few years before, I had befriended a family of Emberá who live in a village a few hours from the city.  When I asked my friend Adan, the father of the family, how they made laws, he told me that every few years there was a ‘congreso.’  I asked if white people could attend, and he replied that sure, it was public, and anyone could attend.  And so a few years later, here I was.  Members of his village had already left a few days ago to travel in the direction of Colombia to the congress, and so I was heading there by myself.

In the room, I sat and waited.  And another guy came.  And another.  And another.  Each time the exchange was pleasant and cordial.. With the intent of both sides increasing with each meeting as I imagined myself working my way up the ranks.. Each soldier probably had more important things to do than the previous, and I, feeling the accomplishment, was honing my pitch.  One would explain that the territory I was headed into, Darien, was dangerous, and that this “recommendation” that I head back the other way was for my own safety, and that furthermore, he didn’t have the authority to allow me.  I would thank him for the concern and ask if there was anyone there who did have the necessary authority.  He would leave, and I would wait.

I don’t remember how many different soldiers I met with in that room, but I do remember being incredulous that the meetings kept happening.. There must have been eight to ten.  Finally the soldiers started to look, by the way they carried themselves and spoke, that they held more authority.  It became very clear to me that none of them wanted to take responsibility for this long-haired tourist heading into Darien.  

Then one explained to me that the US government was very generous with funding for their organization, Senafront, the name of the Panamanian border patrol, and that the last thing he or anyone there wanted was to give me or any US citizen permission to go into Darien, and then have us go missing.  I explained that I had done some research and understood there were dangers. That the last activity I was aware of was a couple missionaries that had gone missing, but that it was two years ago and that I was not going near that area.  

He asked why I wanted to go there and I explained that I was going to the congress.  

“Were you invited?” He asked.

“Yes.” I replied.

“Where’s the invitation?”

“I have it in an email.”

“Let’s see it.” He said.

My blood was pumping.  This was going somewhere.  This guy was trying to get rid of me.  He just needed some proof, some reason, something to say that he checked my documents. But I couldn’t get my email to come up.  I needed signal or wifi.  I told him, and he walked me to another building and, I couldn’t believe it, gave me a wifi password.  BOOM, I was in, found the email.  It was by no means an official invitation.  Just a yahoo email to a gmail that said when to be where, but it was enough for him.  Somehow, we printed out the email.  And then, with a stroke of the pen, and in just eleven words, he created the one and only official document I would need.  Years later, I would fold it, insert it into a book, and lose it.. but I still have a photo of it.  His handwriting was crisp smallcaps, like that of an architect:

Scom. of course stands for Subcomandante, and immediately made me think of Subcomandante Marco of the Zapatistas.  

“Vericar que si viaja sea con las medidas de seguridad necesaria”

“Check that if he travels, it is with the necessary security measures”

And with that, Comandante Rueda 29A6012 of Senafront, told me this:

“Tomorrow go to La Palma, meet your indigenous friends, travel up river to the congress.  Only go in the boat with your indigenous friends.  Do not under any circumstances, get in a boat with anyone else.  Stick with the indigenous people and you will be fine.”

“In the morning, go to the river port and show this paper to the guards.”

I must have been elated.  This man had granted me safe passage, on his watch.

I don’t rember how I traveled from where we were, Brigada Oriental Senafront on to the next town of Meteti and on to sleep in the river port of Rio Iglesias.  But I do remember the next morning, walking with my bag down to the river, and watching the guards respond immediately upon seein me.  There was no need to produce the paper.  These men knew exactly who I was.  They were expecting me.  We walked directly to the river and got in the boat.  

So it turns out that I was not getting military escort, but military transport, in a fiberglass panga.  The panga is probly the most popular type of boat from the Caribbean through out Latin America.  It took about forty-five minutes riding in the panga to get to the capital of Darien, La Palma.  In fact, by boat is the only way to reach La Palma. It was here that I was to look for a boat with indigenous people headed up rivers to the congreso.

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