The First Journey · San Pablo (Part I)

December 1994

The launch sat low in the water and lapped a few inches from the border of the hull as we motored past the oil terminal and began our journey down the Magdalena river. We had intended to travel on the first boat to San Pablo but had changed plans for some reason I cannot recall and took the second one instead. It was fortunate, as the first launch had sunk in the middle of the river. I was assured that nobody had drowned.

Sat next to me was my guide and travel companion for the day, Marco Tulio Torres, a human rights worker with a local NGO in the oil port of Barrancabermeja called CREDHOS. We had exchanged little more than a few pleasantries since we had met on the quayside. He told me that we could talk during the journey after we had cleared the first military checkpoint.

At the checkpoint, troops from the Navy took our identity documents and made notes of the details whilst looking up and down the boat and its passengers. There were no questions and after a few minutes, we were on our way.

The Barrancabermeja quayside.

Unloading produce on the quayside · San Pablo

Several years later, during the Presidency of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, I would be pulled from a launch at the same checkpoint, taken into custody and handed over to the DAS, the administrative police, who took me to their bunker in the centre of Barrancabermeja. Nothing came of my retention and after a few hours and a few phone calls, I was released. Many months later, several of the agents of DAS in Barrancabermeja were detained for belonging to paramilitary structures.

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As we pulled away from the military base and accelerated downriver, the hull of the launch thwacked small waves on the water’s surface repeatedly. Showers of droplets exploded skywards into a golden haze, illuminated by the first rays of sunlight to break through gaps in the clouds. Rainbows hung in the air and the spray stung and prickled my cheeks. The little boat was stacked high with people, bags and sacks and it stank of gasoline. The groan of the Yamaha engines was deafening.

Marco Tulio leaned to within a few inches of my ear and half-hollering began to explain the dynamics of the Middle Magdalena region. His knowledge and expertise were very much appreciated as I was new to Colombia and knew practically next to nothing.

The guerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) were the de facto authority in the region he told. They each had their territories and areas of influence. They resolved personal disputes within the communities and regulated local extractive industries such as mining, timber and fishing, determining who could practice these and how much they could take out. Their justice system meted out sentences according to the offences and could consist of labouring for community and infrastructure projects, financial reparations for wronged parties and in the most extreme of cases executions. Apparently, they could more or less count on the community to toe the line if their mediations were seen to be just. They were the law but the local population was not totally subjugated.

Between 1990 and 1992, the Colombian Army had a significant presence in the area but community protests and guerrilla activity had pressured them out and they now operated as heavily armed roaming mobile units. Paramilitary activity had increased in the towns along the Magdalena River in recent months and there was an ongoing paramilitary advance in the river valley, particularly in Santander province on the other side of the river from where we were headed.

The paramilitaries are the military were often one and the same I was told and were slowly wresting control from the guerrillas by wearing the riverside communities down by terrorising the population with selective killings, massacres, forced disappearances and displacements.

When we arrived in San Pablo, Marco Tulio disappeared for a few minutes and I idled on the quayside taking pictures with the two cameras that I carried – one for black and white negative film and the other with colour transparency. As far as I could tell, no one gave me a second glance as I nosed around and pondered the river whilst enjoying the absence of the deafening din of outboard motors. When he returned, we left the quayside immediately and walked a couple of blocks before turning left and heading off along dirt streets and into the poorer neighbourhoods on the town’s periphery. We walked past single-storey, modest brick-built homes and then in a matter of a few metres, all the houses were made of wooden planks and zinc sheet roofing.

María Janet Acosta holds a photo of her only son Pedro Antonio Monterosa – pictured with his girlfriend – who was disappeared and killed by the Colombian Army in Southern Bolívar province in February of 1994.

The first house we visited had a swept clean and spotless earthen floor. It was the home of Rosa Melin and her five children and her niece, María Janet Acosta with whom we had come to speak. María Janet greeted us, gathered up a couple of chairs and sat us down at a table covered with a print tablecloth. Maro Tulio explained who I was and the reason for our visit and she left us briefly and returned holding a laminated photo. It was the only picture she had of Pedro Antonio, her only child, that had been taken shortly before his disappearance and murder.

In the image, Pedro Antonio sits on the ground with his girlfriend who smiles as she looks at the camera. Her arm rests across Pedro’s shoulders and he seems slightly self-conscious and looks off to one side with just a faint hint of a smile on his lips. The photo looks like that a couple of good friends or a couple who are starting to go out, which was the case. Pedro’s left arm holds her in a loose embrace, resting lightly across the girl’s back.

They had broken both of Pedro’s arms María Janet told us in a catatonic tone as she recounted the tale of his last days and his murder at the hands of the Colombian Army. It was as if with the death of Pedro, her only son, something had died in her too. Only when she spoke of how she demanded justice, that his killers pay for what they had done, did a flicker of emotion seem to stir from within her and a flame of purpose burn in her eyes.

Pedro had gone to work on his uncle’s farm not so far from San Pablo. There, he had encountered one of those roaming mobile Army units and they had taken him away with them. Later, witnesses would tell that they had seen the boy a week after his disappearance walking with the soldiers and after that, nothing was known of him until an Army helicopter in a nearby cemetery.

When María Janet heard the news of the helicopter’s arrival, she rushed to the cemetery fearing the worst. Pedro had been missing for fifteen days. On arriving, she soon identified her son in a line of eighteen bloodied and dirty corpses laid out side by side in the cemetery dressed in military fatigues. The Army claimed that they were guerrillas killed, or rather “decommissioned in combat” – dado de baja – as they say. Pedro’s body showed signs of torture, as did several others. None had identity documents.

María Janet looked into a void as she held up that photo of Pedro for me to photograph. Click. Click. Click. I took three pictures, smiled hesitantly and thanked her in a hushed tone. I felt like an intruder in her grief. I felt useless. What use was my photo? What use was my denunciation? And given the context of the conflict unfolding in the town and the region, I doubted anyone going to take any notice.

We thanked her and went on our way.

Extrajudicial killings, the murder of civilians by soldiers and accomplices who presented them as “decommissioned” guerrillas came to be known by the euphemism of “false positives” fourteen years and four Presidents after Pedro’s murder in February of 1994 when César Gaviria (1990-1994) was the President. They had continued under President Samper (1994-1998) and under his successor President Pastrana (1998-2002) and had increased exponentially during the government of President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) when thousands were executed. After President Uribe, his defence minister and later Noble peace laureate, Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018), became President.

It is impossible to believe that all these men were ignorant of these systematic extrajudicial executions, particularly when one considers the good work of brave human rights defenders who constantly denounced them to the authorities. Back in December 1994, I was new to Colombia and somewhat “green” but after less than fifteen days in the country, I knew of the killings that would later become known as “false positives.” When I returned to Magdalena Medio and looked for Marco Tulio Torres, I was told he had been forced to flee into exile.

(Posted 25 October 2022)

Coming Next:

Alejandro’s Final Portrait

San Pablo (Part II)

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