Daniel E. Slotnik
January 19, 2010
The motorcycle pulled alongside Carlos Martin’s Renault during a drive in Cartagena, Colombia. It was Dec. 18, 2000. Mr. Martin did not notice the bike, or the two men riding it, until they opened fire.
Carlos Martin, once an adviser to political officials in Cartagena, Colombia, now works in an electronics store in New York. He and his wife, Lourdes Verhelst, are expecting their first child.
As Mr. Martin hit the floor, his brother, riding with him, pulled out a revolver and shot back. He hit one of the attackers, and they drove off, but not before they shot Cesar Baldiris, who was driving the Renault. Mr. Martin and his brother sped Mr. Baldiris to the hospital, but he had already died.
Mr. Martin had asked Mr. Baldiris to drive minutes earlier, so he could review documents in the back seat.
“My friend go to the front to drive, and, therefore, now I’m alive,” Mr. Martin said, shaking his head. “But my friend died.”
A few weeks ago, in his studio apartment in Lefrak City, Queens, Mr. Martin, 41, spoke of these terrifying events. His wife, Lourdes Verhelst, listened intently. Mr. Martin’s current career as a video consultant at an electronics store is very different from his former life as a freelance political and economic adviser to the mayor of Cartagena. But at least nobody is trying to kill Mr. Martin in Queens.
Mr. Martin never learned who was responsible for the attack, and does not believe he did anything to provoke it.
“They don’t see you like person,” Mr. Martin said. “They see you like you are government, and we have to attack you because you are government.” Mr. Martin resolved to leave Colombia because he felt his bodyguards could not protect him.
Mr. Martin hid at a friend’s home after the shooting. He collected his savings and won asylum in the United States, arriving in New York in February 2001.
“For the beginning it was completely, completely difficult. Doesn’t matter if you have bachelor degree, doesn’t matter if you have master degree, whatever,” said Mr. Martin, who holds both. “You don’t know how to write, you don’t know how to read. Worse, you don’t know how to speak.”
Mr. Martin sought out Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. Staff members there helped him find an English program, an apartment in the Bronx and work as a building maintenance supervisor. Mr. Martin landed the higher-paying retail job in 2006.
Mr. Martin’s new job allowed him to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, and about a year ago he returned to Colombia to marry Ms. Verhelst and bid farewell to his mother, who had died. While he was there, he was so afraid that he rarely left his house.
Ms. Verhelst’s visa requires her to return to Colombia after six months away. Now pregnant with their first child, a boy, who is due within days, Ms. Verhelst will go back to Colombia in April. She will stay there with the baby until she can secure documents to be in the United States for a longer period.
“We have no other options,” Ms. Verhelst said in Spanish, as Mr. Martin translated. “So I have to adapt to the situation.”
Mr. Martin earns about $1,600 a month before taxes. In good times, he can earn another $1,600 monthly in commissions. But times have not been good lately for selling electronics, and even after moving to a studio to save on rent, he has been hard-pressed to pay his bills. His monthly expenses run between $1,500 and $1,800 a month, with $900 going toward rent.
So in November Mr. Martin again turned to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, which referred him to Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens. Both agencies are among the seven beneficiaries of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. A grant of $400 helped Mr. Martin pay that month’s rent, when his income was particularly low.
But Mr. Martin does not complain about his straitened circumstances.
“Definitely, it’s completely different than my previous job in Colombia,” Mr. Martin said. “But the most important is to do something honestly, work and live honestly.”