Tuesday, October 24, 2006


PanaRadio #5 Major Machete and the Ambush That Never Was...

Major Machete and the Ambush That Never Was…

The new Arch Bishop of The Darien, His Eminence Pedro Hernandez is scheduled to arrive to take up residence here in Meteti. You gotta’ wonder who he cheesed off in Vat City to pull this gig… This is a very big deal for sleepy little Meteti, which, like most of Latin America, is nearly 90% Catholic. The Big C.

And of course, my client Voz Sin Fronteras is Catholic Radio. 20% of the air time is religious or church business. The other 80% of the programming is great.

The Arch B will be hosting Mass in the station’s outdoor basketball court, now swept clean by scores of Good Catholics, and decorated with laurels, palm fronds and colorful welcome signs. A thousand plus folks are expected maňana! The entire population of Meteti is only maybe 1500 folks, not including about 800 Columbia refugees that they keep hidden away somewhere...

But first we have to go get His Eminence. Or, more accurately, be a part of the welcoming committee and traveling entourage. We pile into the VSF Toyota pickup truck. The station’s Program Director, known affectionately by her friends as Tweety Bird, is behind the wheel talking excitedly into the 2 meter Motorola squawkie-talkie.

The wide space in the road known as Agua Frio Uno is only maybe twenty-five clicks away, but the road is just awful, maybe the second worst I have ever seen in my travels. (The worst would likely be in the middle section of mine-strewn Mozambique, which literally was washed into the Indian Ocean in a devastating flood in 2000.) This is part of the fabled Trans-American Highway, known here as the Inter-Americana.

Even the potholes have potholes.

We arrive at said wide space to find a hundred or so children, priests, nuns, truck drivers, rosary-twiddling grannies, and some of Panama’s finest defenders of “Dios y Nacion.” Panama does not actually have an army. Panama was literally created, literally, by the USofA (sugg’d read: “The Path Between the Seas,” an excellent history of the building of the Panama Canal.) So the Police outside Panama City do double duty. I’ll refer to them as MPs from here on. They dress and look and act like soldiers. I have a generally positive feeling about them, but I have only been on the ground a few days.

There’s a couple of MPs on Suzuki dirt bikes, real hot-doggers, straddling their Vietnam-era M16s across the gas tanks. There is the official “Policia Nacional” transport bus. You can just make out the words “Muncie Indiana School District” on the side. Hoosier Pride!!

Eventually his Eminence’s Entourage arrives, a caravan of about a dozen cars, pickups and minivans. Out pops the Big B, all of five feet two inches, and he wades into the excited crowd, shaking hands, patting kids’ heads, and waving his hand over plastic gallon jugs of water. None are turned into wine as far as I can see.

I am in full photog mode, having agreed to provide plenty of pix to the station. I take pics of the nuns, the kids, these guys shooting off big, loud homemade rockets, the Welcome to Darien signs, the flags, and, discreetly the MP. While most of the contingent of a dozen or so MPs have side arms or M16s, one fellow, clearly el jefé, stripes on the sleeve, has a pretty good armory strapped his torso. I don’t know if the six extra ammo pouches contain extra rounds or Chicklets, but what catches my eye is the three foot long machete strapped to his back! This guy is pretty serious looking, six foot plus, even his face is muscular. He da’ man, no doubt about it. I dub him Major Machete.

So we’re bouncing along the “Highway” racing to get his Eminence’s ass to Meteti. Leading the Entourage is the ‘Someday I'm-a Gonna’ Be Da’ Pope Mobile’, then Major Machete and his serious soldiers, then us. Every few minutes, the Big B’s truck pulls over as he is greeted by little villages of the Embarra. The Embarra, one of the seven remaining original peoples of the Isthmus are largely Catholic and have turned out in throngs. The road is lined with hand made signs and laurels of colored balloons and palm fronds. It’s always fun to witness the most exciting event in a kid’s life. Good Catholics!

The Embarra kids, with beaded necklaces, brilliant skirts and enormous smiles, are just gorgeous. Right outta’ a travel brochure. More hand shaking, head patting and water waving.

So on we go; the closer we get to Meteti the worse the road. We slow to stop again. More kids?



The road, the entire width of the highway, is blocked by an enormous gas tanker truck!

!INFLAMABLE! !NO FUMAR DE MENOS 50 METERS!!! is crudely stenciled on the side of the tank. The damn N is printed backwards.

The entire entourage slows to a stop. I look around. While of most of the roadside land along the road has been re-deforested, slashed, burned and cleared for farming, this particular stretch has a steep hill on either side, thick with jungle. I catch the eye of the MP standing in the back of Major Machete’s truck clutching the roll bar with one arm, his rifle with the other. He’s doing the 360 scan thing too. I look around and say to the folks in the truck, in English, “You know, this would be a great place for an ambush…”

“Como? George Bush!?”

With a flick of his arm the MP in the back of the truck flips out the metal stock of his M16. All the truck doors open and legs stick out.

Time starts to slow down a little.

I hate it when that happens.

I unbuckle my seat belt and unlock the door. There’s this lo-ooong pause. I don’t see anything in the dense jungle foliage…like you could see a meter off the road anyway.

Suddenly Major Machete leaps from the truck, looking seven feet tall now with the machete sticking above the back of his head, and strides towards the cab of the still motionless tanker truck. From the backseat of the truck, the only plain clothed MP struggles to get out. He had been the one standing behind the Bishop most of the time, doing the Secret Service thing. This fellow, who surely never met a plate of chicken enchiladas he didn’t like, was obviously caught unawares, and struggled to pull his pants up while at the same time shoving an unholstered pistol in the crack of his ample ass. He tries to catch up with Major Machete who was now making meter long strides toward the truck. The two motorcycles MPs roar up in a flanking action. I’ll bet these guys all played football in Cop College.

Nobody else in our truck seems aware of what is going on. Nothing IS actually going on. But, here we sit on this road, surrounded by jungle, maybe just a hundred clicks north of Yaviza…the literal end of the road. After Yaviza there are no roads, and even less law. What the Darien Gap does have a surplus of is narco-traffickers, out-of-work kidnappers, the world’s deadliest snake, an even deadlier frog, malaria, yellow fever, the damn dengue, and five types of wild cats. Oh yeah, and they also got FARC.

Stay or go? I decide to sit, though not too tight.

I don’t know what Major Machete said to the truck driver, or even if he had to say anything at all. But in just a moment, the driver found it and ground it into first reverse, and with an enormous plume of blue gray diesel smoke, the tanker lurched backward into a small roadside mercado. The tanker plows into a stack of blue “Pide Pepsi” plastic containers full of glass bottles waiting to be returned, shattering them all.

Off we go!

Welcome to Meteti Arch Bishop Hernandez!!

jim ellinger maybe 20 minutes from that wide space up the road
Go Hoosiers!!!

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