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Through the Eyes of a Blind Mayor

ISSUE:  Fall 2007
Face in Profile

One of the most oft-repeated rumors about Apolinar Salcedo, the disgraced mayor of the Colombian city of Santiago de Cali, is that he replaced the carpet in his chambers with wood floors to make sure no one could sneak up on him. Salcedo is blind, and according to popular myth he’s afraid of being spied on. “The carpet was old and full of dust,” he told me, dismissing the rumor, as we sat together in his office one afternoon last December. He wore an outfit selected by his wife, Cecilia Tovar: a gray suit, a yellow shirt, a matching yellow tie with blue stripes, and frameless reading glasses—a fixture of his wardrobe though he is totally sightless. “I’m a bit vain,” he told me later, taking them off. “I wanted to get glasses that wouldn’t brand me as blind.” But now he was insistent on clearing up the lingering fiction about his carpet. Floating the story that he got rid of it to thwart spies wasn’t just a way to suggest he couldn’t run the city, Salcedo explained; it was a veiled threat, a sidelong way of saying that a blind mayor is a sitting duck.

On his glass-top desk were those items he couldn’t do without: a telephone, a few notebooks in Braille, and his folding cane; farther away, on a separate table, were his black executive briefcase and a Braille Bible. These could have been the belongings of any blind person. But Salcedo wasn’t an average blind man. He was—for the time being, at least—mayor of a chaotic city of almost two and a half million people, more than half of whom live mired in poverty. A city whose murder rate surpasses that of Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, or Medellín. A city with one hundred fifty thousand potholes in its streets. A city that produces fifteen hundred tons of garbage daily, only a third of which is collected. Ride through downtown Cali, and you will find mountains of trash, streets closed for repair, broken traffic lights, and homeless. Seven rivers flow through the city, and they’re all polluted.

To many, Salcedo and Cali seemed made for one each other. After all, in the closing decades of the twentieth century, Caleños had let themselves be blinded by the power of the drug lords. They had coexisted happily with the culture of extravagance: the cocaine kings with their gold chains and beauty queens in gowns as expensive as they were revealing; the luxury cars racing the wrong way down one-way streets; the discos where bottles of liquor were served from golf carts; the houses with millions in cash and gold ingots stashed behind false walls; and police officers and politicians corrupted by money and fear. There’s an old Latin American saying: “No one is as blind as he who would rather not see”—and for years, this was an apt description of Cali. A city looking away, a city that preferred ignorance. In a 2006 survey commissioned by El País—the city’s most influential newspaper—to measure Caleños’ views on the drug trade, 77 percent of those questioned admitted that they did their best to ignore it altogether. More than half the citizenry condemned the mafiosi, but 26 percent said they were indifferent to them and 21 percent said they felt sorry for the drug dealers and even expressed some degree of solidarity with them. All of which invites the question: who better than a blind man to lead a blinded city?

Just days before my December 2006 meeting with Salcedo in his chambers, Colombia’s attorney general, whose office oversees the country’s public officials, announced the pending dismissal of the mayor and María del Rosario Peña, his finance director. They were accused of irregularities in the awarding of a private contract to collect city taxes. Salcedo wasn’t charged with stealing money, just an administrative lapse: failing to follow the law by not performing a cost analysis before putting the contract up for bid. The attorney general’s removal order seemed excessive in a city such as Cali, and yet this was not all. The order would also prohibit the fifty-one-year-old Salcedo from holding any public office for sixteen years—a positively draconian sanction that would essentially mean the end of the mayor’s political career. Salcedo was appealing for the right to serve out the remainder of his term, but it was going to be a battle.

Just talking to him made you want to believe in his innocence and begin looking for the real culprits among his subordinates. The announcement of his removal was just the latest in a series of scandals—over the lifting of an ordinance forbidding the sale of gunpowder, over the authorization of three thousand new taxis in a city already oversaturated with them, over the delegation of mayoral authority (when traveling) to someone outside his cabinet—but he was righteously indignant in the face of such charges. In an interview with El País—edited by the man Salcedo beat out in the 2003 election—the blind mayor fumed at allegations of misconduct. There was no end to what his critics were willing to say about him: that he had a house worth $1.5 million in the district of Ciudad Jardín, that he had bank accounts in Panama and Miami, that he owned a massage parlor. All lies, he insisted, seemingly at ease in his resolve. The afternoon I met with him in his office with its newly revealed wooden floor, Salcedo seemed positively placid.

“Being mayor is just another chapter in my life,” he told me. “But it’s not my whole life. I’m not clinging to this seat.”

*  *  *  *  

Salcedo was seven when a strange accident, witnessed only by children, cost him his sight. At the time little Polo, as he was nicknamed, was living in Sabaletas, a hamlet forty-five minutes from Cali in the municipality of El Cerrito. His father worked in a tannery, his mother was a washerwoman, and the family lived in a pair of houses on a farm next to the railroad tracks. Polo’s parents slept in the main house, and his uncle Gersaín, the watchman for both dwellings, lived in the other.

One morning Polo was playing marbles in his uncle’s bedroom with his younger brother, Javier, some friends, and his uncle’s teenage brother-in-law, Horacio. At some point, Horacio picked up a .22 rifle his watchman brother-in-law kept behind the door. He was just clowning, trying to scare the other youngsters by aiming the rifle at Polo’s friend Álvaro. But somehow the gun went off and the bullet struck young Polo, who was crouching in the bedroom doorway.

“This is where the bullet went in,” the mayor told me, pointing to his left temple. It passed straight through his skull and exited through his right temple.

It’s usually up to God to tend the tragedies of the poor, to heed the appeals of the afflicted, but this time the world worked in reverse. The shooter ran out of the house shouting two words: El Diablo! After examining Polo, the doctors who admitted him to the Departmental Hospital of Valle del Cauca said there was no need to operate. They treated the outer wounds and five days later released him. It was a miracle—but a devil’s miracle, indeed. Doctors told his mother to lock the child in total darkness until he regained his sight. Polo spent five long days in a toolshed in the family farm they called “the cave,” unable to tell day from night, before it became clear that night had fallen permanently.

The mayor told me an army officer still has the rifle. Salcedo had mulled over the idea of buying it for a long time—a survivor’s whim—but then he knew more about the rifle than he did about Horacio. The man who blinded him has married, works in a factory, and lives in Yumbo, a dirty industrial city on the outskirts of Cali, but Salcedo knew nothing more.

“Horacio what?” I asked.

“I, I think it’s Escandón,” he said with an apparent stammer.

Salcedo has a prodigious memory but remembers little of his life before the accident. Mostly he recalls how his mother fed the horses, the crystalline waters of the Sabaletas River with its multicolored fish, summer nights when he lay in the grass and looked up at the stars, early mornings when he woke to birdsong. His memory is poetic.

Following the tragedy, Polo had to get used to being blind. A human trafficker offered to buy him as a beggar. An uncle gave him a guitar so that he could eke out a living as a musician on Cali’s buses, but Polo smashed the instrument to pieces. He refused to be the object of anyone’s pity. He bridled against his younger brother’s efforts to guide him. “I was both his protector and his stumbling block,” Javier told me. Polo would run off to climb mango trees and pick the fruit, to fish in the river by himself, to ride horseback alone. He grew more independent, but he also grew lonelier, often waking in the night and listening for hours to soap operas on the radio. But Javier looked out for him, too. When the others refused to play soccer with the blind boy, Javier would sit on the ball until they let Polo play. Once the game began, Javier reserved all free kicks for his brother, as well as all throw-ins, penalty shots, and corner kicks. Sometimes he’d even put Polo in the goal, on the condition that shots in the air didn’t count since Polo could only hear—and therefore defend against—balls rolling on the ground.

Index Finger Touching Watch Face
Salcedo wears a watch with a flip-top glass, so he can feel the hour and minute hands.

One day, upon deciding her son should take his first Communion, Polo’s mother went to the El Cerrito Lions Club, where they were giving away free suits to poor children. The day she went to pick up the shirt and pants, the man in charge asked where her son was. His mother said her son wasn’t with her because he was blind. The man asked if the boy went to school. “Didn’t I tell you he’s blind?” she replied. Polo’s mother had never even heard of Braille. The man told her that in Cali there was an institute for blind children and that she could get help from the Lions. “I’m a product of human solidarity,” Salcedo told me, and he meant it. A year after the accident, he received a scholarship and was enrolled at the Cali Institute for Blind and Deaf Children. At times his mother had no money to visit him, but whenever she could go, there was always something new. One day she found her son could thread a needle and had learned to mend his own pants.

He decided to finish his secondary studies with a year in a regular high school. Apolinar had no place to stay for his first days at Colegio Eustaquio Palacios, so he slept on a bench at the Cali bus station. He was not an outstanding student, but he played soccer, was active in theater, rode a bicycle, and never missed a party. A week after graduating from high school, he scored the highest grade on the Free University of Cali entrance exam and was admitted on scholarship.

In time, Salcedo also began to chart a mental map of the invisible Cali, as he grew into manhood and started to court Cecilia Tovar. She worked afternoons at the institute as an assistant secretary. He brought her bananas and apples and helped her with her business school homework. Her family didn’t take the courtship seriously, but Salcedo was persistent. To learn the way to her house, he straightened a paper clip, and every time the bus turned he’d twist the wire to the right or left, producing a map he could follow by touch to the address of his intended. One day Cecilia told Apolinar she’d fallen in love with him.

“People tend to think love enters through the eyes,” Salcedo told me. “They talk about love at first sight. But there’s also such a thing as love at first inkling.”

Nidia Angel, a former classmate at the Free University law school, remembered Salcedo with awe. He got around on foot or by bus, she remembered, expanding his landscape street by street, honing his internal compass, until his memory became like radar. Several times on the bus to her house for study sessions, a laughing and chatting Salcedo would suddenly announce that they’d missed their stop—and he was always right. She also told me how, en route to a radio station in the city of Buga, a two-hour ride from Cali, the blind man guided the driver directly to their destination, down to the last turn, and all the potholes to be avoided along the way. “He’s got an even better sense of direction than people who can see,” said Angel. “I never really understood how he did it.”

*  *  *  *  

Salcedo’s political career began when Lily de Escarpeta, an official in the Finance Office for the Department of Valle, offered him the post of supervisor of tax collections. The salary amounted to little more than tips, but the job represented an opportunity. He was charged with investigating and filing complaints against smugglers of liquor and tobacco products. “I was to prosecute traffickers of adulterated liquor,” the mayor told me, “liquor whose consumption leaves you blind.” He was perfect for the job. “I told people I could test it risk-free.” On Salcedo’s first day, the outgoing supervisor said the official who appointed an invalid must have been crazy, that it was symptomatic of what was wrong with Colombia.

Salcedo considered resigning, but he decided instead to prove he could do the job. So he held on to the post and was eventually promoted to senior assessor of Taxes and Financial Operations for the Department of Valle. In 1987, he received a death threat after ordering the disposal of some adulterated whiskey, and the governor of Valle transferred him to the legal section of the Department of Security. His job was to sanction the possession of personal-use doses of marijuana (up to fifteen grams) and cocaine (up to one gram). The blind attorney took statements from the accused, analyzed their situations, and attempted to resolve their cases in a way his superiors would approve. In 1992, he grew bored and sent a letter to the city’s mayor, Rodrigo Guerrero, complaining that Cali had no policy regarding the disabled, and the mayor invited Salcedo to help him draft the city’s program. Two years later he decided to run for the city council.

Since he had no money for ads, he campaigned by riding the city’s buses and asking fellow passengers for their support. At first, people always thought he was just another blind man seeking handouts, but he told them his life story instead, and then asked for their vote. By the time he got off the bus, he’d have the other riders spellbound. The novelty of his campaign drew media attention, and his popularity soared. “People felt a great sense of solidarity with me,” he said. In 1994, Salcedo won a city council seat by a mere thirty-two votes—receiving the fewest votes of any of the elected members, number twenty-one on the slate.

In his first term on the council, he was the lone member to oppose giving the mayor extraordinary new powers to carry out administrative reforms. When the policy change took effect, five hundred workers lost their jobs. Some labor unions took to the streets with protest signs that said, only the blind man saw it coming, and Salcedo won political recognition citywide.

When he ran for reelection in 1997, his slogan was, say yes to a man who knows how to say no. He won again—this time as eighth on a slate of 123 candidates. After only three years in municipal government, he was selected to chair the city council. By the third time Salcedo ran, he had earned a reputation as a defender of public services in Cali, as someone who spoke up for the city’s poorest neighborhoods. This time, he garnered the most votes of any city council candidate. Taking stock of his accomplishments, Salcedo recognized that he had risen from being the council member with the least votes to the one with the most, and the next step, he thought, was to become mayor.

*  *  *  *  

Ten days before the October 2003 mayoral election, a Gallup poll projected Francisco José Lloreda, editor of the newspaper El País, as the sure winner with over 39 percent of the electorate—and Salcedo running a distant second with 28 percent. But when the actual votes were tallied, Salcedo came away atop the crowded field with nearly 40 percent of the ballots, more than six points higher than Lloreda. Why would anyone change their vote from one of the powerful sons of Cali’s first families to a blind newcomer? In part, it’s the same old Latin American story: David against Goliath, independents versus political professionals, the humble versus the haughty. But to understand how it played out in Cali, one has to understand first that there are essentially two different cities.

The first is Aguablanca, a district of a half-million people who live in an impoverished swamp in the eastern part of the city. The neighborhood was founded by refugees, mostly Colombians of African descent uprooted by the country’s endless civil war. Today, the squatters live in shacks made of scrap lumber and cardboard, and though their land takeover has been legalized, the quality of life has hardly improved. At times the river running through it overflows its banks, reminding residents that the place was once a marsh. The most dangerous bands of thieves and contract killers in Cali are said to come from Aguablanca. “Women can walk the streets here, but men can’t,” a young waitress told me. Male outsiders are viewed with suspicion, women as curiosities. To reach Aguablanca you must pass a gigantic city dump where the equivalent of two hundred elephants’ worth of garbage is disposed of every day. It is said that the citizens of this swamp put Salcedo in the mayor’s office—that his election was the revenge of the forgotten, the price they exacted for the indifference of Cali’s most privileged.

That wealthy class lives in the other Cali, Ciudad Jardín, literally the Garden City—and, by contrast, it is an oasis. There are more trees than people, and it has the look of a place designed for hiding. It begins at Crocodile Lake, so named for the creature abandoned there by a family of mafiosi fleeing the police. The timid reptile spends most of its time submerged in the turbid waters, keeping its distance from passersby in their armored late-model cars with tinted windows. The district on Cali’s south side is said to be home to drug traffickers and plastic surgeons, people who live in houses ringed by high-tension electric fencing. You get there via an avenue lined with boutiques, gourmet markets, and beauty clinics. Ciudad Jardín is an area of gigantic residences and whimsical architecture, some of which the government has seized from drug traffickers. One Caleño told me of a narco who wasn’t admitted to the Club Colombia, and so made his house a replica of the prestigious club. The citizens of this forested district lacked the votes to put Francesco Lloreda into city hall, and the powerful elite of Ciudad Jardín have never forgiven Salcedo for his impudence.

One afternoon in his office at the newspaper, Lloreda, a middle-aged man in an impeccable suit, told me he didn’t buy the usual narrative of Salcedo’s victory. It wasn’t the poor who had elected the blind man; he won on the strength of a romantic and misguided middle class. “His campaign was based on sensationalism. He stressed his disability, and it resonated,” Lloreda said with a hint of bitterness. He himself walks with a slight limp and uses a cane because of an adolescent bout with cancer. But Lloreda refused to politicize his disability. He looks more like an insurance executive than a mayor, and his English education—he holds a degree in public policy from Oxford and another in public administration from Columbia—makes him aloof and remote. He was a good candidate to restore order and modernize the city, but he doesn’t understand the hearts of voters. Even now, he doesn’t understand that the middle class may have put Salcedo in office, but they voted for Salcedo because of the poor.

A few days after the election, Gallup asked those who switched their votes in the campaign’s final ten days what had changed their minds, and asked those undecided voters—who overwhelmingly voted for Salcedo—what finally had persuaded them. The most frequent answer across both groups for a Salcedo vote was, “He helps poor people.” In divided Cali, it’s not an answer to be taken lightly. One out of every two Caleños may be poor, but even those among the middle class know how easily they could go from one side of the poverty line to the other.

Jacobo Santa Cruz, a guard who minds the door at a building on Carrera Quinta—a street in central Cali whose jumble of cars, street peddlers, and pedestrians is a model of misgovernment—says the vote for a blind man was a snub, a message from the middle class to all the wealthy politicians. Sympathy for Salcedo had as much to do with disgust with a privileged political class as solidarity with a blind man. Still others showed their disdain by abstaining from voting altogether. On election day, at least six out of every ten registered Caleños stayed home. Salcedo won the mayor’s office due in large part to a constituency that had simply written the city off; it didn’t matter who the winner was.

*  *  *  *  

The date of Cali’s founding makes it a Leo. Apolinar Salcedo’s birthday makes him a Pisces. Beginning in 2000, when Salcedo was still serving on the city council, Cristina Lenis, a fortysomething woman with a degree in communications and the former host of her own show on Caracol Radio, began working as Salcedo’s personal astrologer. It was just a few days before Christmas 2006 and the annual Cali Fair when we met in her office in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, very close to the Institute for Blind and Deaf Children, where Salcedo was once enrolled. Outside, whole families strolled along the avenue bordering the river, gazing at the ornamental lighting that from a distance became a spidery web woven in neon. She wore a lilac T‑shirt and glasses in ocher frames. Behind her hung a chart of the solar system.

Lenis put it to me this way: astrology works with archetypes. Salcedo was born February 22, 1955, and Pisces are martyrs, romantic dreamers. Cali was founded on July 25, 1536. If you’re born a Leo, you’re meant to be boss, to lead. But Leos are ruled by the sun, so they want everything around them to glow. Cali is a city of pleasure, the capital of salsa, a city that doesn’t tolerate bad dancers (like the mayor). Lenis explained all this in a well-modulated tone that exuded perfect calm and reason. It isn’t uncommon in Latin America for politicians to have witches and sorcerers among their advisers, but Salcedo, since his days on the city council, had always wanted to show he was above that; he believed in astrology—a science. When people began telling him he could be mayor, he sought out Cristina Lenis’s advice. She told him that he had a good chance of winning but warned that he would suffer for it. “You like taking the blame for others,” she told him, “and you’re going to get hurt because you don’t know how to defend yourself.”

As it turns out, Lenis was right on both counts. He won the election and took office, and he was a worthy Pisces, a martyr. He tried to do everything on his own, didn’t go to see her for months, until Saturn rose above the constellation Leo on August 17, 2005—and that put the city in a bad temper. The General Procurement Office opened an investigation into Salcedo’s fiscal practices. Caleños began a major reexamination of their identity, and the result has been an emotional polarization of the city’s people. Saturn, the lord of the rings, cast a shadow over Little Miss Cali, and curses rained down on Salcedo.

“It’s as if since then nobody tolerates a thing,” Lenis explained.

I asked her if she thought her friend and client would serve out his term.

She thought for a moment before answering. “I think he will,” she said, but I got the sense that this prognosis wasn’t based on any astrological analysis. It was what she wished for her friend, the blind mayor who never really took her advice anyway.

“To tell the truth,” she confessed, “he puts more faith in his own intuition.”

*  *  *  *  

A week after the December announcement of the attorney general’s order of removal, the mayor of Cali presided over the swearing in of a new commandant of Metropolitan Police. It wasn’t an ordinary ceremony: General Luis Alberto Moore was about to become his country’s first Afro-Colombian police chief. For the occasion, Salcedo wore chocolate-brown shoes, a tie, and a beige striped suit that seemed out of place in the humid tropical heat of Cali. He was the picture of elegance. Everything was coordinated—his mustache, his graying hair, and his classic white cane with the black handle.

Salcedo rode to the event in one of the three armored SUVs at his disposal. In front of and behind his four-by-four were two more security vehicles, their windows also darkened. In all there were some ten police officers in his retinue and six more agents in the motorcycle escort whose job it was to protect him and remove any obstacles along the way. Salcedo seemed happy and at ease.

It was no time for a mayor on the verge of being driven from office to appear so calm. A wave of terrorist attacks had begun three weeks before. Bombs attributed to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had already killed two police officers, and another six bombs would go off in Cali the night following this official ceremony. Over the decades Colombians have grown accustomed to a violent struggle between the government and the guerrilla groups and private armies who underwrote their campaigns with profits from the drug trade. The warlords’ violent stranglehold has turned the country’s less accessible regions into mini-states and left three hundred thousand Colombians dead in half a century.

When Salcedo arrived at the plaza, he was welcomed warmly by the crowd. He stopped to talk, listened patiently, and expressed gratitude when the well-wishers vowed to stand with him in opposition to his removal. He took time to respond to their complaints with a natural kindness one rarely sees in politicians.

During the ceremony, Salcedo pinned awards on the lapels of recently promoted officers, improvising a short speech for each one, stressing how honored he was to bestow the decoration. When it was over, Salcedo unfolded his cane, and, after taking questions from the press, he was approached by a police officer who gave him a military salute. The officer’s name, Leal, means “loyal” in Spanish. “Colonel Leal,” the mayor said, smiling. “You’re all the loyalty we have left.”

Behind him, Cali Tower loomed forty-five stories high, the tallest structure in a city that grows horizontally. Salcedo needed to get back to his office, but some workers from the mayor’s office asked to have their pictures taken with him first. The mayor chose to pose with the skyscraper in the background, an odd choice given that the ill-fated building has become something of a symbol of Cali’s arrogance and decadence: going from apartments to offices to a makeshift five-star hotel then demoted to four stars after becoming the scene of a fire set off by a car bomb.

The tower is also famously the setting of an awful porno, titled Hot Latin Pussy Adventures. The movie opens with star Nacho Vidal looking out one of its windows. Speaking awful English with a Catalonian accent, he points to the green mountains surrounding the city and describes the coca plants and terrorists and guerrillas hidden there. This is the stereotype of Colombia that most gripes the natives and most enthralls foreigners—because it panders, like a magnifying glass, to nearsightedness and exaggeration. “You don’t see,” Vidal intones, “you don’t see, you don’t know.” His wisdom soon vanishes into the pursuit of a girl, but now it seems he might have been addressing the blind mayor below, who smiled blissfully for the cameras.

On the way back to the office, as Salcedo’s four-by-four sped down Avenida de las Américas, the mayor offered me a poem from Kahlil Gibran’s A Tear and a Smile. There was nothing at all solemn in the way he recited the words; indeed, he delivered them with the relish of someone telling a joke. He told me then that the city’s intractable problems had led him also to Gibran’s The Prophet, looking for solace. “I’m not in the habit of reading,” the mayor cautioned, but he found Gibran’s words a remarkable mix of sorrow and joy—and had committed them to memory.

In a culture as oral and devout as Latin America’s, this was perhaps Salcedo’s greatest asset. He didn’t speak as a politician, but as a preacher or a teacher might, albeit with a sense of humor that dispelled the mustiness of the classroom or the pulpit. The blind are taught to write with a pencil guided by rulers, but Salcedo admitted he had always been too lazy for that; the skill struck him as useless if he couldn’t see. Oratory on the other hand, seemed a vital skill to develop. In public, his style was clever and rich with metaphor. Salcedo didn’t read poetry; he heard it. Sometimes, he told me, he even wrote it himself, in Braille, composing as he went, by feel.

*  *  *  *  

In Latin America politicians preaching goodness are foolish, naïve, or fraudulent, and voters soon become suspicious of them. “My greatest strength lies in believing that good is good,” Salcedo told me one afternoon in his office. He’d gone to a concert by the singer Facundo Cabral recently and come back with a passage he now recited from memory: Be good because it’s good to be good. Being good is good business. If bad people knew what good business it is to be good, even they would be good doing business. Few politicians anywhere would agree with the singer, but in Latin America—and more specifically, in Cali—this kind of earnest optimism is all but laughable.

It was natural then, that Salcedo had an innocent explanation for the charges of cronyism being leveled against him. He was suspected of corruption because he had put old friends in positions of power. This was nothing more than a simple misunderstanding of how government and power work. “You have to govern with friends,” he told me matter-of-factly.

Salcedo’s friendship with Maria del Rosario Peña, the member of his cabinet to be removed from office along with him, was a perfect illustration of what he meant. They met by coincidence as children, when Peña’s younger brother was undergoing treatment for a visual impairment at the Institute for Blind and Deaf Children. They became friends, and the Peña family ended up paying Salcedo’s tuition there, helping him with clothes, giving him gifts and even a monthly expense allowance when he transferred to the Colegio Eustaquio Palacios to finish high school. Years later, upon being elected mayor, his old friend and benefactor became his new director of finance.

This was not cronyism, as far as Salcedo was concerned, but merely appointing someone you could trust. Nevertheless, this kind of arrangement won Salcedo numerous critics. Whether this was corruption, loyalty, or something more complex was hardly relevant anymore. In the late months of last year, more and more Caleños seemed to make up their minds. The polls showed that seven out of ten Cali residents disapproved of the mayor, that the goodwill he had built up in his years as the defender of the city’s poor had evaporated. Salcedo had made a career out of beating the odds, but this time, it seemed, he would not.

*  *  *  *  

On Tuesday, May 8, 2007, the Office of the Attorney General ratified the mayor’s removal from office. Coincidentally, it was the same day his elder son, Andrés, received his paperwork and became, in legal terms, an adult. Also on that day, Salcedo’s old political rival Francisco José Lloreda announced his intention to mount a third bid to become mayor of Cali. The stars, it would seem, had aligned against Salcedo.

It was hard to understand any other explanation. In April, prosecutors had cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing in the tax-collecting contract scandal—the very same charge for which the attorney general was now dismissing him. Nonetheless, Salcedo reacted to his removal with decided resignation, as if it were already yesterday’s news. The attorney general’s final decision did come with one wrinkle, however; he had reduced the length of Salcedo’s banishment from public office from sixteen to fourteen years. That is, the blind mayor could return to politics at age sixty-six.

Upon hearing the announcement, Salcedo left his mayor’s office for his other office at the Great Social Enterprise—a charity he helped found that offers the city’s poor everything from health care to haircuts. By two that afternoon, his phones wouldn’t stop ringing, so the mayor called a press conference and stood before the reporters in a gray pin-striped suit with a blue shirt and tie. “Today I feel vanquished, defeated, but I bear no grudges,” he said, with a tone of sincerity. “Thank the Lord I managed to show the prosecuting authorities I committed no offense concerning the bidding process, and, as a result, I have the dignity to be able to tell my children, my family, the community, and those who voted for me that I am not a criminal.” Standing at his side, his wife cried silently. “I’ve been stripped of the mayor’s job, but not of my humanity,” Salcedo said.

Leaving the press conference, the blind man ran into his elder son. They embraced, and Andrés couldn’t contain his grief. “What moved me the most was my father’s moral strength,” he told me afterward. The news, though not unexpected, knocked down what remained of the emotional wall the family had built up around itself. His wife told him the time had come to “get the hell out of politics,” but Salcedo reminded her not to be mean-spirited; it’s not right to think of politics as a blessing when you’re elected and a curse when you’re sacked. He ended the afternoon in a meeting with his cabinet; he said that the best way to support him was to avoid any sense of anarchy or any appearance of a governmental power vacuum. “This is the mayor’s personal problem, but it mustn’t be the city’s.”

Despite the advice of his attorneys, he decided for the moment not to seek a court order that would delay the official notice of his removal and allow him to remain in the mayor’s office for a few more days. “That’s would be like giving me artificial respiration and refusing to accept reality.” That night he went to his foundation and locked himself in his office. Then he dialed his private voice mail. The greeting was the first lines of “A mis amigos,” a song made popular by the Argentine singer Alberto Cortez, followed the mayor’s own recorded voice: “Hello. Welcome to my mailbox. We humans live to be useful; otherwise, what’s the use in living. Please leave a message. Thank you very much.” He had received almost ninety messages. They were the voices of his relatives and friends offering their consolation and support.

Man Talking into Microphone
Salcedo at the press conference after the announcement of his removal.

That Friday, Salcedo took a plane to Bogotá and went to the Office of the Attorney General. Javier, the brother who witnessed the accident that robbed Apolinar of his eyesight, was with him. Javier told his brother that the woman who handed him the order of removal did so with an anguished look on her face. It was up to the governor of Valle to name a temporary substitute, but there was a legal hitch: because the order of removal included both Salcedo and his finance director, it was not valid until both presented themselves before the attorney general. Since Peña had not appeared in Bogotá with Salcedo, the removal could not be processed. It was a technicality that placed Salcedo in an uncomfortable legal limbo. For three more days, it was uncertain whether he was mayor of Cali, and who would be in charge if there were to be an emergency. The following Sunday would be Mother’s Day. “I want my mother to greet me as her son and not as mayor. I don’t want her to suffer anymore,” he told the governor. He spent the weekend with the governor discussing ways out of the impasse, before finally, on Monday, the governor of Valle gave in to Salcedo. He handed the mayor’s office over to the cabinet secretary for education on an interim basis and declared the political career of Apolinar Salcedo, for the next fourteen years, at an end.

*  *  *  *  

That same week, the blind ex-mayor signed up for English classes. “Communication with international leaders has always been a problem for me because I don’t know English,” he told me one afternoon in his office at the Grand Social Enterprise. On his desk was a book from the American System Service, whose motto was: “Learn English practicing, not studying.” On my first visit to Cali in December 2006, I’d asked Salcedo what he might do if he lost his appeal. “I dream of getting involved in international diplomacy,” he’d said then. “I’m interested in the subject of peace processes.” But if the blind former mayor wanted to save the world, he had to learn English first.

Meanwhile, the legal process continued. His advisers had finally prevailed upon him to file his appeals. First, he petitioned to stay the order removing him from office. Second, he filed for an “order for suppression and restoration of rights.” Were he to win, the prosecutor’s findings would be void and his right to hold public office reinstated. El País accused him of wanting to regain the mayor’s office, something Salcedo denied. To him it was a simple matter of safeguarding his reputation. He wanted to continue to work on his signature issues—the rights of the disabled, discrimination, and peace—but if he was forbidden to hold any public office in Colombia, he would be forced to work with international organizations.

But if he didn’t appeal, he feared that even those opportunities would be closed to him. “It leaves the impression that I’m a crook,” he told me that evening while riding to his foundation in his armored car. So Salcedo decided not only to file the petitions but also to represent himself in the proceedings. “If I am not able to win these lawsuits, I should study to become a veterinarian,” he joked. He reopened his law office in the historic Plaza de Caycedo in downtown Cali, and whenever asked about the future he made frequent use of the verb to see—speaking of where he saw himself going, or when discussing the appeals always adding, we’ll see—but despite his expressions of optimism, his face looked worried. He fretted that the title of “deposed mayor of Cali” would stigmatize him internationally as just another corrupt Colombian politician.

Since his early days on the city council, Salcedo had worked hard to combat that image by developing a network of international friendships. As mayor, he’d been invited to New York by a United Nations program to speak about technology and disabilities. Just days before his removal from office, Salcedo was in Washington talking to the director of the International Development Bank about funding and job opportunities for the blind in Latin America. He also gave speeches about peace: in Lyon at an International Assembly of Peace Educators, at a summit for peace with the mayor of Hiroshima; in 2006 he’d hosted and introduced Deepak Chopra at a conference held at Cali’s Plaza de Toros. “I’m a follower of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa,” he told me. “I’d like to work for peace with their philosophy.” And he wasn’t giving up the struggle against racial discrimination in Colombia, either. He’d been president of the Colombian Association of Municipalities with Populations of African Descent, and he now dreamed of sharing the stage with Desmond Tutu, whom he’d already met, or with Nelson Mandela, whom he hoped to meet.

Now, however, everything seemed to hinge on his court battle. If he were granted a stay on appeal, the victory would be largely symbolic, but he would be allowed to return to the mayor’s office for a day and name a successor. This was his wish: to salvage the reputation of his mayorship. He pointed to his modernization of the municipal tax collections. To the initiation of work on a mass-transportation system. To the construction of thousands of low-cost housing units. To the restoration Cali’s reputation as a major South American sports city. To the inspiration he had given the city’s disabled, the poor, and black citizens. These are the things he wanted to be remembered for. “The day this unfair sanction is overturned I’ll have a party—not to mark my return to politics but to mark the clearing of my name,” he told me later by phone. “Politics is war, and I am a man of peace.”

What hurt the most was the people’s disapproval. One afternoon in December, days after the announcement of his pending dismissal, the blind mayor went to a benefit soccer game for three former players at Cali’s Pascual Guerrero Stadium. The crowd in the south grandstand booed him. They called him corrupt, they called him a thief. “It hurt because the catcalls came from the cheap seats,” he later told me.

And even with his removal complete, his political enemies were more ferocious than ever. One June Sunday, twenty-five days after his removal, Salcedo checked his voice mail and was surprised to find fifty-nine new messages. It made no sense: the number was unlisted, and only a few friends and relatives had it. The messages ranged from vulgar curses to charges that he destroyed Cali, to dire warnings of what would happen if he so much as thought of running for office again, interspersed with a few messages thanking him for what he’d done for the city. That Sunday morning, Salcedo took part in a soccer game for blind players, and when he got home that night, he checked his voice mail again. There were another twenty-seven messages, one, he recalls, that said, “I’d lost track of you, and today I see you put your number in a news item in El País. I’m calling you because you released this number.”

Only he hadn’t released it. That day El País had run the voice mail number he’d used for years for private messages. “It seems that, having left the mayor’s office, he does not want to lose touch with the people,” the story said. “The former mayor has set up a phone number where his friends may leave whatever message they wish. Could it be the number Apolinar will use to win back the friends he lost while mayor?” El País had been waging a smear campaign against the mayor for months, but this tactic was something else. It was a political hit job.

*  *  *  *  

One night in late June, the ex-mayor went for a walk through the streets of El Calvario, the sort of Cali neighborhood where no outsider goes without a police escort. It was raining, and the streets were filled with beggars, prostitutes, thieves, drug addicts, trash pickers, and unwatched children. The ex-mayor was walking with the Street Samaritans, a humanitarian foundation run by a priest who sought to change the lives of three thousand of Cali’s poorest residents by filling these streets where they lived with hundreds of volunteers. The Samaritans provided warm food, hot showers, and free carts for hauling recycled waste. They explained how to apply for social security benefits and how to expunge criminal cases when the statute of limitations ran out on them.

The priest who led them had long frequented the area with no more protection than the reputation he’d built over the years for charity work. People who stole by day were his protectors that night. Salcedo was no longer accompanied by the squad of sixteen police officers that protected him when he was mayor, though he was still entitled by law to four bodyguards and an armored SUV to get around in. That night, he was accompanied by only three bodyguards. “You can tell there’s been a change, but the responsibility of looking after him is still the same,” said Andrés Felipe Franco, an officer with three years’ experience protecting Salcedo.

Some of those who greeted Salcedo in El Calvario were unaware that he was no longer mayor. He hastened to give them the news. He leaned on Franco’s right shoulder as he walked, and his bodyguard helped him negotiate the muddy streets, the puddles, the cracks in the slick pavement. All sorts of people came up to him. A black woman with a scar on her left temple who introduced herself as Margarita Caicedo said she’d stumbled into prostitution and alcoholism. A small boy with a toy pistol who walked by his side said he liked being bad and was watching out for him. The ex-mayor cautioned that he’d been blinded by a weapon like that. Then there was a former thief named Codfish. He had no teeth and looked like a beggar but credited the Street Samaritans with saving his life. Children gathered by the dozen. They looked desperate and were grateful when given bread. There were others who used drugs in part to stave off hunger, people who had once done well and wound up in the street as addicts, people so desperate they were not above selling their own teeth. Through it all, Salcedo was kind and welcoming, listening patiently. He was no longer campaigning, but the skills that had taken him all the way to the mayor’s office had clearly not abandoned him.

If the former mayor had not changed all that much, truth be told, Cali hadn’t either in the six months since my previous visit: the same desolate scene, only with more dead and more injured. The headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Command Unit—where Salcedo had officiated at the swearing-in ceremony—had been partially destroyed by a bomb that had also killed a taxi driver and wounded a dozen others. The FARC claimed responsibility. Sundays, once a day of rest, were now the city’s most violent, crime-ridden day of the week. With or without Salcedo, Cali’s problems weren’t going away. A new campaign for the mayoralty had started, with all the usual bluster and promises and accusations. This time Salcedo would watch from the sidelines. No matter: there were thirteen other candidates to keep Caleños entertained.

*  *  *  *  

Mayor Shaking Boy's Hand
Salcedo on the streets of El Calvario.

A source, who preferred not to be named, finally explained to me what none of the ex-mayor’s supporters would even acknowledge: the nature of his alleged corruption. The source was a lawyer, whom I’ll call doctor, and he seemed more indignant than bent on settling a score. He claimed that during his nine years on the city council Salcedo developed a loyal following, but was unable to resist the mafia’s siren song. Every council member had a corps of ward heelers, electoral mercenaries who worked for the highest bidder and who bought votes every four years in the slums of Cali. This is one of the keys to getting elected, so every candidate needs campaign money. To get it you wheel and deal. It happens all over the world and the blind candidate was not an exception. According to the doctor, the money behind the Salcedo campaign came from gangsters who specialized in skimming government contracts, and from other shady characters connected to the drug trade. What made matters worse for Salcedo was that he made deals with people who’d never been in positions of power before. In a nutshell: it may not have been illegal to allow your cabinet secretaries to handle public funds and grant contracts, but the scope of their greed and cynicism was unheard-of, and they made certain the underground financiers got what they wanted. According to the doctor, the blind mayor wasn’t a puppet. He was a member of the mafia.

From time to time, the doctor got phone calls that interrupted his narrative. At this point in his testimony, the ex-mayor of Cali, with whom I had walked the streets of El Calvario only the day before, seemed like the villain in a comic strip. But the fact remained that no judge had convicted him of any criminal offense. According to the doctor, it was naïve, even blind, to suppose that every-thing that went on in the ex-mayor’s administration happened behind his back, or could be explained by Salcedo’s misplaced trust.

Of course, one of the lessons widely drawn from all this was that another candidate from the less-privileged classes was bound to be a disaster. Among the leading contenders in the current campaign was Francisco José Lloreda.

*  *  *  *  

A city best known for drug trafficking elects a blind mayor. Soon after, he comes under suspicion for crimes he claims he never saw. Colombia is not a mythical country; it is daily proof that reality is more horrifying than fiction. A summary of Colombia’s nightly newscasts would in itself be a masterpiece of tragedy. Forty-four criminal complaints per hour are filed nationwide, while in Cali seven of every ten residents polled think it’s useless to call the police. For decades Colombians have lived beneath the same dark cloud of crooked politicians, guerrilla fighters, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers. They live in a funereal culture of assassinations, kidnappings, and robberies. This promiscuity of evil, this confused familiarity with the tragic, seems to have blinded them to the idiosyncratic drama of their political life. The extraordinary is routine, and you would be hard-pressed to concoct an atrocity that could surprise a Colombian.

For years, whenever they appeared in public, Colombian presidents were trailed by an ambulance ready to act in the event of an assassination attempt. Before becoming the latest foreign affairs minister, Fernando Araújo spent six years in captivity at the hands of the FARC. He escaped from the guerillas and walked five days through the jungle to freedom. Only a few weeks later, President Uribe named him foreign minister. Araújo’s predecessor had resigned in scandal, after her brother, a senator, was arrested for his ties to paramilitary groups. It was just another case of para-politics, a term invented to describe the incestuous relationship between paramilitaries and the politicians who abet their violent activities. And though it’s never been proved, President Álvaro Uribe is also suspected of paramilitary links. It’s as if some wondrous criminal ingredient permeates the atmosphere of this country, and those in power can’t help but breathe it.

“People think you’re a great man who’s incapable of being a good mayor,” I told Salcedo one afternoon at his foundation.

“Precisely. That’s my tragedy.”

“Do you admit you weren’t a good mayor?”

His sound system played a song by de Nino Bravo. He seemed captivated by it.

Instead of answering, he said, “This is another song that sums up my life. It’s called ‘Libertad’”—Liberty.

Salcedo gave me the date of the singer’s death, then added that Bravo died a day after the anniversary marking the death of another singer, the Argentine Carlos Gardel.

“He sings better every day,” Salcedo said.

Just when I thought he was avoiding my question altogether, he said, “My life has been marked by the need to get out of bed every day and prove that blindness is not a handicap.”

Had he learned anything from being sacked? I asked.

Salcedo thought for a moment, then answered, “My grandfather said even shit is useful if it serves as fertilizer.”

*  *  *  *  

In June, the former mayor and his blind friends played soccer on a field built specially for them during his administration. The greenish yellow turf makes it look like taffy. They played five against five, plus the woman who refereed. By rule, the goals had special padding to prevent injury to the blind players. The ball had a bell inside, and a guide behind each goal shouted directions to his team. The rules of the game specified that only the goalkeepers could be sighted. In official tournament matches, the blind players must all wear blindfolds, but this afternoon, since it was only an exhibition match, this rule was dispensed with. With characteristic ingenuity, Salcedo had named the new acoustic soccer field “The Bell Bowl.” The contending teams were Liberty A and Liberty B, and the former mayor led the Liberty A squad. A blind forward got the game under way by flicking the ball into the air with his right foot. No one received the pass.

A few days before, at the same soccer club, Salcedo chanced upon the new mayor of Cali—that is, the man completing the term in his stead. As almost always happens with acquaintances, Salcedo recognized him by voice: Rodrigo Tafur, ex-president of the Valley Farm and Ranch Society. The ex-mayor greeted the new mayor as a friend. After all, one of his chief qualifications as mayor was that he had served on the board of the group that nominated Salcedo. What goes around comes around.

Mayor Playing Soccer

But on this day, everyone’s attention was focused on the field and the spectacle of blind players running after a ball that sounded like a baby’s rattle. They looked like children learning to walk—so inept and at the same time so fearless, so clumsy and yet so calculating. Among them, Salcedo alone played as if he could see. He broke away from his opponents several times, managing each time to get the ball in front of him and test the goalkeeper with a difficult shot. He played like a bull barreling toward a bullfighter he still thought he could defeat.

In the stands, I ran into Argemiro Cortés, Salcedo’s ex-communications adviser, who had resigned in 2005, hounded by rumors of corruption. Now he ran a communications services company, and his former boss had asked him to film the game. “He’s not the marvelous man people think he is, but he’s not that crooked, either. He’s politically naïve,” Cortés told me. As Cortés spoke, Salcedo found his way to the rattling ball but was set upon by Liberty B defenders, who kicked and hacked at him blindly. “I feel the community has been harder on him than on others,” Cortés continued. “And if it has, it’s because people expected more of him.”

Watching him play, it was easy to see why. One minute into the second half, the former mayor got the ball, avoided one defender, spun around another, set up in front of the goal, and kicked the ball home. He walked away with a smile, his goal making the score one to nothing. But Cortés was unmoved by the appreciative cheers from the stands.

“He was a victim of adulation,” Cortés said. “He needed people who would tell him the truth.” Maybe so, and yet here he was, the mayor’s former adviser, shooting video for a blind man. And long after the goalkeepers complained they could no longer see the ball and the dim lights of the stadium proved too weak for filming to continue or even for those of us in the stands to see the field, the ex-mayor kept waiting for the ball.

He wanted another chance.


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