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  • The Catedral Primada in Bolivar Square looks festive these days. Which is not how a 200-year-old colonial basilica is supposed to look.

    As I walked past it yesterday morning, my eyes were drawn by a conspicuous scatter of neon, a dozen or so hypercolor splotches staining the cathedral's otherwise drab, neoclassical facade.

    Que explica la pintura? I asked a soldier patrolling nearby.

    He smiled at me. Cuanto tiempo ha estado en Bogota, senior? Where have you been, buddy?

    Three months ago, the soldier explained, massive student protests over education reform brought life in Bogota to a near-standstill. Some 200,000 striking college students crammed Bolivar Square last November, protesting a bill called Ley 30, which would have legalized for-profit universities while allowing more government-sanctioning of public universities' curricula.

    The spasms of color on the high cathedral walls were the work of a few overzealous protestors with paintball guns. Whether they could be washed off or otherwise removed, the soldier didn't know.

    Yesterday, the only mob in the square was the usual mega-flock of pigeons and a few families tossing them kernels of corn. On the cathedral side, a couple of old men played chess on a blanket, while wandering tourists snapped photos of colonial government buildings. A crowd of 200,000 was tough to picture.

    Massive strikes are not a new phenomenon in the Colombian capital. "[O]ne strike after another," Thompson wrote from a Bogota hotel room in June of '62, "Students, busmen, bondsmen — forever striking, and it is all I can do to wander around in the mobs and get photos that nobody will ever use...".

    All the same, things have changed. Later in the day, I visited the Museo de la Policia Nacional, a tribute to the history of law enforcement in this famously violent country. My guide, Sebastian, was drafted into the military after dropping out of high school at age seventeen. Conscription is mandatory in Colombia — unless their family can afford to pay them out, all young men serve one year in either the national police or the armed forces. With just two days left on his own hitch, Sebastian was refreshingly candid, sharing his opinions on conscription, US involvement in the war against narcotraffickers, and the sometimes less-than-honorable historical record of Colombia's police.

    Sebastian explained that the cops went into this winter's protests without riot gear, and perhaps as a result, the demonstrations were remarkably conflict-free, with only a few injuries on each side (and one former student in Cali killed weeks before, while tinkering with a homemade bomb). This, Sebastian noted, was a far cry from the bad old days in the 1960s, when frequent student demonstrations were put down violently by the police.

    Thompson was there to witness it. "The students held a protest meeting on the steps of the presidential palace tonight," he wrote, "and it looked like all those shouting photos of Castro...[T]he cops are what give me the creeps; to look at them in the jackboots is bad enough, but to see photos of them firing wildly into mobs of students is a bit unreal. Running them into corners and piling up bodies three deep...[Y]esterday in Barranquilla the army tackled a student protest march with clubs and gas, and it was only because the students fled that nobody was shot."

    So it represents progress when the only shots fired are from the barrel of a paintball gun, and a few cathedral arches seem like minor casualties by comparison. As for Ley 30, the Colombian education minister agreed to scrap the proposal, following six weeks of protest.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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