SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia — Over the high-volume sputtering of low-powered motorcycles and the amplified whine of accordions blaring from cantinas without walls, Alberto Suaza brings the news to this steamy river port.
He ventures out each morning at dawn, bullhorn slung over his right arm, notes scribbled on scraps of paper in his left hand, to spread the word of daily life in San Vicente del Caguan: the menu at Olga's Restaurant, the sale at El Rey Department Store and the funerals of townspeople who died in the night. Suaza is a modern descendant of medieval town criers in a world on the cusp of the 21st century.
For the past 43 years, he has kept this jungle town apprised of local and global developments, from the triumph of Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba to Neil Armstrong's moon landing. Now, this community cut from Colombia's Amazon jungle is itself news. It is the largest town in a Switzerland-size no-fire zone where the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC--the country's oldest and largest rebel group--are negotiating to end 35 years of civil war.
"San Vicente has been designated by God as the town that will soon give Colombia a secure peace," Suaza said. And he lives for the day when he can announce the news of the peace to his fellow townsfolk. Because of that hope, he refused to leave with the thousands of people--including his wife and their three teenagers--who fled the area when the army pulled out late last year, ceding the territory to rebel control.
"I am not leaving San Vicente until the day that true peace arrives," he said over coffee, seated on one of the plastic lawn chairs at a modest cafe. At 60, he is slightly bent from decades of lugging a bullhorn from dawn to dusk, and deeply wrinkled from hours in the tropical sun. Over the years, his strained voice has taken on the metallic tones of his bullhorn. He is friendly in a courtly, provincial way, and looks up from his notes to greet friends with a handshake as he drones his way through the unpaved streets.
Suaza wanted to be a radio announcer back in the 1950s, when U.S. households were buying their first television sets but radio was still a novelty in this remote area of jungle. Even today, technology takes its time reaching San Vicente, where plane tickets are still handwritten and the only air-conditioning unit is at the telephone company office.
He never realized that dream because his father died when he was in high school, obliging him to halt his studies and find a way to earn a living. Suaza picked up a megaphone and stood, scribbling down the news, outside a store that played a radio to attract customers.
Then he walked toward the outskirts of town repeating what he had heard. News-hungry residents began to give him tips, and local businesses asked him to give them a plug for a modest fee.
"One day, I was announcing in a humble neighborhood over by the cemetery when an old woman came out of her house to offer me a cup of coffee," he said. "She told me, 'You are our Voz Sonada 1/8Dream Voice 3/8.' " That was 41 years ago, and he has used the nickname ever since.
"Here, he has been our radio station," said City Manager Hugo Hernandez, explaining why the municipal government recently honored Suaza with the Founders' Order of Merit for outstanding service to the community. "He does it this way because he could never afford to have his own radio station."
When San Vicente finally got a radio station seven years ago, the broadcaster was the Roman Catholic Church. Later, a commercial station opened.
But, Suaza said, "Even though two radio stations and a regional television broadcast are now on the air, I still have my place here."
One of his best advertisers is Juan Aguirre, owner of El Rey Department Store, two rooms of shelves holding neatly folded bluejeans and plaid shirts.
"Radio brings in more customers," Aguirre said. "I advertise with him to help him out because he is old and has been doing this for a long time."
Down at Olga's Restaurant, co-owner Madeleine Diaz said the Dream Voice attracts more diners than any other medium to the 8-year-old eatery, which advertises heavily on radio and in a newspaper published in the provincial capital, Caqueta.
"Don Alberto has a lot of credibility," she said.