Last fall, as a wave of narco-terrorism swept Colombia, this historic city of Spanish colonial stonework and sunny Caribbean beaches vanished from the international tourist map. The seasonal tide of American and Canadian travelers never came in, and Cartagena’s main business withered in despair.
Adalberto Jimenez, an English-speaking tourist guide, said recently that without foreign customers, he is having a hard time feeding his 11 children.
“They aren’t getting enough to eat. They aren’t getting nutritious food,” said Jimenez, 58.
“Right now we are in a complete recession,” said Jim Buttgen, a Cartagena tour operator who specialized in catering to American cruise ship passengers. But Buttgen and other Cartagena businessmen are hoping that this week’s visit by President Bush will help restore the interrupted flow of North American visitors and revive the local economy.
According to Buttgen’s optimistic scenario, international publicity for Bush’s anti-drug summit here with three South American presidents on Thursday will focus favorable attention on a peaceful and beautiful Cartagena.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened to Cartagena,” Buttgen said over lunch in a nearly empty restaurant. “We’re going to get free advertising all over the world, and if things go well afterward, we’ll just have to do a good follow-up.”
Buttgen and others here assume that Cartagena will prove a safe place for the summit. Until a dynamite bomb exploded on the sixth floor of the Hotel Cartagena Hilton late in September, the city seemed immune from the narco-terrorism and other violence that has plagued Colombia for years.
Cocaine traffickers were known to have invested heavily in apartment buildings in Bocagrande, a narrow peninsula on the east side of Cartagena that went high-rise in the 1980s. The city was believed to be a favored playground for the drug lords and off-limits for trafficking and killings.
Founded in 1533, Cartagena de Indias once was the busiest port on the Spanish Main, serving as a transshipment point for goods from Spain and gold from South America. It was repeatedly attacked by buccaneers, including Francis Drake and John Hawkins.
Central Cartagena is still a walled citadel flanked by monumental stone forts. Inside the walls, colonial buildings with carved stone doorways and wooden balconies line the narrow streets and picturesque plazas. In nearby Bocagrande, the Hilton and other tourist hotels rise a few steps away from sandy beaches and the gentle waves of the Caribbean.
A year ago, Cartagena was enjoying a tourist boom despite violence elsewhere in Colombia. Canadians flocked in on charter jets, Americans poured off Caribbean cruise ships and increasing numbers of Europeans were coming by scheduled airline flights.
For the 1989-1990 tourist season, which was to begin last September, the city had expected 45,000 tourists on charter planes from Canada and at least that many cruise ship passengers.
In late August, after drug lords declared all-out war on Colombia’s leaders land launched a terrorist bombing campaign, the U.S. State Department issued an advisory that included Cartagena for the first time in a “status orange” designation previously applied to other Colombian cities. “Travel only when essential and with rigorous precautions,” the advisory warned.
Caribbean cruise lines canceled all calls here. And when Canada’s Foreign Ministry followed with a similar advisory in September, Canadian charter companies halted all Cartagena flights.
The bomb at the Hilton exploded Sept. 25, killing two Colombian doctors who were attending a Latin American medical convention here. The blast demolished 10 rooms in the hotel and shattered Cartagena’s image of immunity from narco-terrorism.
Suddenly, “the city was dead, dead--you didn’t see anyone,” said Claudia Fadul, manager of the municipal agency for promoting tourism. “The saddest thing is that it was the Hilton. Had it been another hotel, it wouldn’t have had such international impact.”
Minutes after the explosion at the Hilton, another bomb damaged the office of a government bank in another part of the city, injuring a watchman. A month later, a car bomb exploded in Bocagrande, injuring two people. And in early November, a bomb damaged a shopping center on the south side of the city but caused no injuries.
Since then, Cartagena has suffered no such terrorist attacks. The city has hosted a Miss Colombia beauty pageant, a conference of Colombian mayors and a heavy influx of holiday vacationers from other parts of Colombia, all without incident.
In mid-January, Colombian cocaine traffickers called a truce in their war, and terrorist bombings stopped throughout the country. But Colombian marines have continued to operate a checkpoint on the only street entering Bocagrande, and police posted at tourist hotels search the baggage of all arriving guests.
Hoteliers apologize for the precaution, emphasizing that the Hilton bombing was an isolated incident. Jorge Serna, manager of the Hilton, observed that Cartagena has less crime and terrorism than some European cities.
“It’s basically a safe place,” he said. “We feel very picked upon when they put out a warning. Is there a warning to go to Spain? There’s no warning for Spain. Is there a warning to go to England? There isn’t. And there is bombing going on over there.”
A Colombian television commentator said recently that Colombian President Virgilio Barco Vargas will ask President Bush to lift the State Department warning for Cartagena when they meet at the summit here.
“President Bush has to see that this place is as safe as many places in Europe,” Serna said, adding that television viewers around the world will get the same impression.
According to a senior White House official in Washington, the U.S. Secret Service has considered the possibility that drug traffickers might try to attack Bush at Thursday’s summit with shoulder-fired missiles. But a communique, purportedly signed by fugitive drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, denied that the traffickers had targeted Bush or possessed SAM-7 missiles to use against Air Force One.
Bush is scheduled to stay only a few hours, and his visit is expected to be confined to the area of a well-protected Colombian naval base outside the city.