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The Helper

Meet Don Orlando Tobón, a neighborhood hero who has repatriated the bodies of hundreds of Colombian drug mules, inspired by his late mother, and by God

Email icon  jhc389@nyu.edu

Firmate aqui,” Don Orlando Tobón commanded the Colombian couple on the other side of the desk. “Sign here.”

He slipped a stack of papers between the metal jaws of a stapler, and swiftly stroked the device with the heel of his clenched fist.

“This is what you put in the mail.” He shook a manila envelope in his left hand, glaring out over a pair of spectacles resting decidedly lopsided at the end of his nose.

Again he struck the stapler, like a judge banging his gavel.

His fingers are stubby and wide, but work with the kind of certainty and conviction inherited only through thousands of repetitions. “And this…”—he adroitly stuffed a second package—“…is what you bring with you to the office.”

He passed the materials across the desk to his grinning clients.

He has just done their taxes.

That’s just one of the services Tobón, 60, provides to fellow Colombians in Jackson Heights, Queens, since his arrival here over 30 years ago.

Tobón provides all kinds of services, but is most famous for his efforts to raise funds to transport the bodies of more than 300 deceased Colombian drug “mules” – those who carry drugs from Colombia to the United States – back to their families in Colombia. When latex balloons or condoms filled with cocaine or heroin burst inside them, the carriers die of drug overdoses.

Tobón helped produce, and starred in, the 2005 film “Maria Full of Grace,” which chronicled the travails of the drug mules.

Shortly afterward, he received a call from a young man in Bogotá.

“Orlando, I watched the movie last Friday,” the caller told him. “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 said. “I was very happy for the next two or three weeks.”

It’s the happiness to help, without expectation of recompense, that strikes people. Tobón is “very kind-hearted, and doesn’t turn his back on anybody,” said Jenny Vargas, 16, a family friend who works in his office after school. She recalled how he helped a woman retrieve the body of her son, which had been thrown into the Hudson River. “He just helps because it’s natural for him,” Vargas said.

Tobón also finds himself serving as a marriage counselor, community advocate and all-around fixer.

“The problems are different,” he says. “You know, when a husband and wife fight, they come in and I try to help them.”

Tobón was born in a small, impoverished town in rural Colombia, which he and his family fled when rebel guerrillas 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.”

At 21, he came to the United States in search of work. He found a job as a dishwasher at a Jackson Heights restaurant, and within five years had saved enough money to open his own travel agency. Then he studied for an accounting degree at LaGuardia Community College. Divorced and childless, he he makes enough money during tax season to support himself for the whole year. The rest of his time, he helps others.

“At the end of the year I don’t have nothing—[not] even a penny,” said Don Orlando (he is widely addressed as ‘Don,’ an honorific signaling honor and respect.)

He’s also saved lives. In 2005, a dying Colombian man living in the United States needed a kidney transplant, but the State Department had refused to issue a visa to his brother, the only viable donor. After several failed attempts at getting the brother into the country, Tobon approached then-New York Senator Hillary Clinton. 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 the City University of New York, and he had his picture taken with them. It hangs on the wall at the entrance to his office.

In 2006 Tobon published a nonfiction book about his experiences with Jackson Heights’ Colombian community, “Jackson Heights Chronicles: When Crossing the Border Isn’t Enough.”

He’s well-known in his community now, but never takes advantage of his status.

“I never drink and I never smoke cigarettes and I never do nothing wrong,” he says in a thick 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 is a beautiful person,” said his friend, Nelson Hidalgo, 31, whom Tobon 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 Catholicism, 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 to 60, and my health is very good.”

“And I live in the best country in the whole world. It’s 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 mother, who died in a plane crash in 1990, is another source of motivation. “My mother said something: If you do something good for a person just one day a year, that this world is going to change.” He still considers her the most important person in his life, and still grieves for her.

He also grieves for some of those he helps. He recalls sending the body of a 16-year-old boy back to his parents in Colombia. The young man had died of an overdose, after a pellet stuffed with drugs burst in his stomach. “[It was] a terrible time for me,” he said. He sent back the body of an 82-year-old woman under similar circumstances. “We helped the family… and at the end of everything, I find that the person [who sent her] was her own daughter,” he said.

Yet he’s confident of a brighter future for New York’s Colombians.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “If we work together, we can change everything. Thank God we live in the most beautiful country in the whole world.”

Orlando Tobón

Photo by Jordan Hilliard Cooper