Queens Colombian Fights Drug Trade and Saves Lives

jordan_040309.jpgDon Orlando Tobón at his travel agency in Jackson Heights, Queens. Photo by Jordan Cooper

“Fírmate aquí,” or “sign here,” Don Orlando Tobón demands.
He slips a stack of papers between the metal jaws of a stapler and swiftly strokes the device with the heel of his clenched fist.
“This is what you put in the mail.” He shakes a manila envelope in his left hand, glaring out over a pair of spectacles resting decidedly lopsided at the end of his nose.
His lower lip juts out and he licks his thumb. His tongue flicks the side of his mouth.
Again he strikes the stapler like a judge who bangs his gavel at the end of a hearing.
His fingers are stubby and wide but they work with the kind of certainty and conviction inherited only through thousands of repetitions. “And this…”—he adroitly stuffs a second package—“…is what you bring with you to the office.”
He passes the materials across the desk to a Colombian couple grinning with satisfaction.
They have just done their taxes.
But to meet the sixty-year-old Tobón under such ordinary circumstances reveals very little of his remarkable life outside of work.

Since his arrival in Jackson Heights, Queens, over thirty years ago, he has raised enough money to send back to the families of the deceased, the bodies of over 300 so called “drug mules,” who died of an overdose of cocaine or heroin when a latex balloon or condom filled with the narcotic burst inside them on their way to America.
In 2005, shortly after the release of “María Full of Grace,” a film about drug mules that Tobón starred in and helped produce, he received a call from a young man in Bogotá. “’Orlando, I watched the movie last Friday’” Tobón says, paraphrasing the young man, “’and I changed my mind because I intended to bring some drugs in my stomach to New York, but after seeing your movie, I changed my mind and I don’t want to go.’”
The feeling was “so good,” Don Orlando says. “I was very happy for the next two or three weeks after this call came.”
In 1968, when Don Orlando was twenty-one, he came to the U.S. in search of a job. He found work as a dishwasher at a local restaurant, gradually saving enough money to own his own travel agency, which he opened five years later. Tobón now makes enough during tax season to support himself for the whole year; he uses the rest of his time to help others. “At the end of the year I don’t have nothing—[not] even a penny,” says Don Orlando. People use the title, ‘Don,’ when speaking to him to convey honor and respect.
Tobón was born in a small, impoverished town in rural Colombia, which he and his family fled when the rebel guerillas invaded.
“I remember that time was a very crazy time for us,” he says. “We had to move to the city and we lost everything and my father had to start over again.”
These days Tobón uses his business mainly as a hub where people can come to express themselves and seek help for a variety of reasons. “The problems are different,” he says. “You know, when a husband and wife fight, they come in and I try to help them.”
But he is also known for saving lives. In 2005 a dying Colombian man living in the United States needed a kidney transplant. The man’s brother, and the only viable donor, was unable to enter the U.S. to undergo surgery because the State Department refused to issue him a visa. After several failed attempts at getting him into the country, Tobón approached New York senator, Hillary Clinton, with the problem. She called the consulate in Colombia, and the State Department issued a visa shortly thereafter. The brothers were reunited and the operation was a success.
Later that year, the Clintons invited Tobón to a function they hosted at CUNY, where he had his picture taken with them. You can see it hanging on the wall as you walk into his office.
In 2006 Tobón published a non-fiction book based on his own encounters with people in the primarily foreign-born and second generation Colombian community in Jackson Heights, where he has lived and worked since his arrival to the U.S.
But while the self-described, “community leader,” has received a great deal of notoriety in the last several years, Don Orlando isn’t in it for the glamour. “I never drink and I never smoke cigarettes and I never do nothing wrong,” he says in a thick Colombian accent. Occasionally when he speaks, you catch him fording the still somewhat dim and foggy realm of the English language, groping for a term that will crystallize his thoughts. “When I help somebody, I sleep like… very good,” he says.
“He is a beautiful person,” said his friend, Nelson Hidalgo, 31, whom Tobón helped find a job for five years ago. “God gives him a special gift for understanding how to help people.”
Don Orlando is fiercely dedicated to the Catholic religion, and draws much of his inspiration from it. He goes to church every Sunday, and describes himself as “very, very, very, very religious.” “I have to thank god that everything I have is from him,” he says. “He give me chance to live already sixty years and my health is very good.”
While speaking, he creases the folds in some documents with the broad side of a yellow highlighter. “And I live in the best country in the whole world. Its because God give me that chance. And I have my good work and people love me. It’s because God helped me a lot.”
His deceased mother, who died in a plane crash in 1990, is another source of motivation for Don Orlando. “My mother said something: If you do something good for a person just one day a year, that this world is going to change.” When asked who the most important person in his life is at this moment, his first response was, “My mother.”
Along with the joy of Don Orlando’s work, comes grief. “Sometimes I feel terrible,” he says. “Sometimes I cry.”
One situation that was particularly hard on him happened when he had to send the body of a sixteen year old boy back to his parents in Colombia. The boy had died of an overdose when a pellet stuffed with narcotics burst in his stomach. “[It was] a terrible time for me,” he says.
He also recalls a tragic incident when he sent the body of an eighty-two year old woman who died from the same causes back to her family in Colombia. “We helped the family… and at the end of everything I find that the person [who sent her] was her own daughter,” he says. “It’s a terrible thing, you know.”
But even though he has witnessed extreme suffering, Don Orlando is confident that things will improve in the future. “I’m very optimistic,” he says. “If we work together we can change everything. Thank God we live in the most beautiful country in the whole world. New York has problems but we can fix them.”
Jordan Cooper
MA Candidate at CLACS and in Journalism

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