From the moment they first met, Bernardo Jaramillo and Mariela Barragán talked about death. As the two drove to the beach in her beat-up Honda Accord, he casually mentioned that he and all his colleagues were probably going to die. Maybe he was trying to impress this woman who he wanted to sleep with. But for Mariela, it was less about seduction than insecurity. Behind the couple were several cars full of bodyguards. There were fifteen armed men in all. They were assigned to protect Bernardo, the president of the UP and arguably the most threatened man in the country.
Once at the beach, the two strolled hand in hand chatting aimlessly under the stars. The bodyguards followed. The couple had been introduced just a few hours before, but Mariela felt she had known Bernardo her whole life. "We understood each other immediately," she told me later. "It doesn't happen all the time, so you know when it does." She had seen him on television, and then suddenly he had arrived for a conference in her hometown, the coastal city of Barranquilla. The UP organized a party afterward, where he grabbed her during a steamy salsa. "He was charismatic," she said. "He had a presence. He was a leader."
He was also a lady's man. Standing just over six feet tall, with curly hair and a thick mustache, the women called him "bizcocho" or "sweetie." He liked his role and played up his romantic side without shame. He wrote poems and recited them to his admirers. He listened to and sang Cuban boleros and Argentinean tangos. "He was cursi [corny]," one ex-lover told me. "But he was one of those guys who could get away with it." Bernardo had been married and had two children. But his trysts continued, and by the time he met Mariela, he was separated and living every moment as if it was going to be his last. So the two of them, bodyguards in tow, walked the beach and talked about life and death. It was the beginning of something special.