Perder

About the Project

Perder is about loss: a nostalgia for somewhere one was forced to leave behind; a somewhere where one enjoyed the simplicity of the mundane routines of daily life, surrounded by family, friends and neighbours living moments and collecting memories that etched upon one’s soul come to define one’s own narrative of being.

When I embarked on the journey to visit abandoned worlds in the Middle Magdelena region of Colombia – villages emptied in the wake of the impositions and violence of armed groups – I thought to collect the stories of what those places had once been: the joys and travails that people had lived day by day as time and ultimately life slipped wondrously by. However, though I gleaned details of the routines and the sweet and bitter moments that had happened in those places before, it was always the trauma that bubbled to the surface when people related to me what had been before being abruptly uprooted and taking flight. The phrases that were repeated in the interviews I made became mantras of loss that wove their way through every story and each changed life. “Nos quitaron todo,”; “They took all away from us,”;  “Perdimos todo,”; “We lost everything,” were the seeds that took root, sprouted and entwined the stories and photos that became the project “Perder”.

Scrubland being burnt by a family, returned after several years of displacement, to prepare the land for planting in the village of Villanueva, in the foothills of the San Lucas Sierra. Many of those who settled lands here were colonists fleeing from violence in other parts of Colombia who dedicated themselves to subsistence farming, mining and, ultimately, coca cultivation. During the coca cultivation bonanza Villanueva had would be visited by hundred of “raspachines” (coca pickers) and had three bars and restaurants, and two brothels. Money was aplenty. When paramilitaries of the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – United Peasant Self-defenses) entered the region there were combats between them and guerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and soon after the paramilitaries returned and massacred several villagers provoking the mass exodus of the survivors. The village is now desolate: where there were once more than thirty families settled in the village, today barely five scrape a living from the land.

When the moment came to show the work as part of the collective exhibition “Destierro y Reparación” (Exile and redress) in the Museum of Antioquia, without warning they changed the space they had offered me and I rushed to redesign the exhibit in the few days that remained before the inauguration. I hung the exhibit with the help of museum staff in the last minutes before the opening. The digital recordings of the voices of victims I had to put aside but I hoped to use them as was originally planned on another day and somewhere else. However, seven months later they were stolen in a street robbery along with most of my work tools. After some time and much effort, I replaced much of what I once had but the recorded testimonies and mantras of loss that were lost forever and were no doubt erased by those who “fenced” my equipment. I still lament that loss and would have liked others to hear those recorded voices that sometimes I feel I can evoke and hear them in my head. Even though those memories morph with time, I cannot forget them. You see, when we are wronged, I believe it is impossible to forget!

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The Seed

The idea for the project was born many years ago, in Guatemala. I had once stayed for a short while with a friend and his indigenous Mayan family who lived, displaced, in the province of Suchitepequez. Their home was a straw house that blended with the dry foliage of the extensive acres of sugar cane that surrounded them and that belonged to important men in the distant capital who, I assumed, had never laid eyes on what was “theirs.” In contrast, when I would talk with my friend and his family about the land they had once held before the huff and puff of conflict tumbled and expelled them from their abode brick home, they would recall in detail the places where the events that had marked out their lives had happened in those far-off mountains to where they dared not return.

There are many similarities between Guatemala’s armed conflict and Colombia’s both of which have seen the massacre of poor peasants, the use of paramilitary forces and the forced displacements of communities as part of land grab strategies by the wealthy. A collective burial of massacre victims in Chichicastenango (left) and (right) the displaced Mayan family in Suchitepequez.

As they told their stories, I would paint pictures in my head of fields, grasslands, fences and lanes along which small children would scamper, chatter and laugh. But what perhaps captivated me most was the tale of a small chapel that held encased in its cool, dark dampness the reclining figure of a stone maiden. She seduced me and enticed me and then one day as the sun sank beneath the horizon, I told them I wished to go visit their former lands. As we ate thin corn tortillas from a tall stack wrapped in a damp, warm towel, they drew maps with words and guided me through the town streets, along lanes and through meadows to where my stone seductress lay. Her soft profile and hard curves formed a mirage in my mind, which accompanied me as I travelled on old buses that once ferried children to school in the USA to the province and town of Totonicapán from where I walked and hitch-hiking along deserted, dry roads onto the small colonial town of Santa Lucia la Reforma.

Above: Forming new communities (left – 1999) of displaced populations in the Aburrá Valley and protesting State abandonment of displaced communities (right – 2000) on the main Medellín-Bogotá highway. The city of Medellín has been a receptor of successive waves of displaced people since the time of the Frente Nacional in the 1950s and has grown exponentially as a result, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Workings

I began the project “Perder” in much the same way: with the tales of displaced families that showed me the paths that led me to their abandoned villages and hamlets. My guides and narrators more often than not inhabited the poor and often chaotic neighbourhoods on the outskirts of cities and towns far from the former homes they had long since left to the reign of silence, the screech of cicadas and the twitter and hoots of birds.

In all, I had four weeks to imagine, research, plan and execute the project. I was granted a stipend of up to four million pesos (around fifteen hundred dollars) to cover costs and I spent it all, paying boatmen, motorcycle taxis, small hotels and feeding those who accompanied and helped me on the many different parts of the journey. Contractually I was obliged to return the stipend to the Museum of Antioquia should I ever sell a photo or earn a cent from the project until the “debt” was cleared. Though the terms surprised me, I was very grateful for the rare opportunity to fund something I would normally have to self-finance or resign myself to not engage in at all.

Principally, I counted on the help and understanding of contacts from the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Social and workers from NGOs and families with whom they put me in touch in the Middle Magdalena region and then in the Urabá region when circumstances took me there. The folks I met on the way were helpful and generous with their time and the only hiccup was being pulled from a launch and arrested by the Navy and military intelligence who handed me over to the DAS (the intelligence and counter-intelligence police) who took me to their bunker and were angered that I was using such an archaic camera and so could not see the photos. Months later these same men of the DAS were arrested and, I presume, were tried for belonging to paramilitary structures.

My “archaic” camera was an old twin-lens reflex – a Mamiya C33 – that takes a film that comes in a packet like that of a chocolate bar and inside which there is a roll of acetate film in a paper wrap. Each roll was enough for 12 photos and more than half my luggage was the camera and rolls of film.

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The Middle Magdalena Valley

A map showing the location of the region (red rectangle) relative to Colombia and the six locations featured in the photographs and anecdotes.


Los Alpes – San Pablo, Bolívar

Miguel Solórzano came to San Pablo municipality after being displaced from his former home by paramilitaries. With a dozen other families, they settled small plots of unoccupied scrubland by the side of a dirt road leading from the River Magdalene towards the Sierra de San Lucas Mountains. The land was a couple of kilometres from the Army battalion just outside the town of San Pablo.

Like their neighbours, Miguel and his wife were poor subsistence farmers who cultivated enough to eat and scraped together enough to acquire essentials such as clothes and schoolbooks for their two children.

Soon the families began to receive threats: men sent by a local businessman and politician arrived and told them to leave or face the consequences. As they had nowhere else to go the families stayed. Then, one morning several men arrived to carry out the threats. They slit the throats of two peasant men and left them outside their homes to be discovered by their neighbours. That same day the survivors fled, never to return.

Miguel returned with me to Los Alpes for the first time since the murders where we found the settlement untouched but for the passing of time, the sun, wind and the rain that had doused the flames of the burning homes.

Miguel Solórzano’s yucca

“The day they killed the first one I had bought the yucca seedlings to finish sowing the land. We planted rice, corn, yucca… it was with this that we survived. But when the dead… the threats began… they began to kill people and we had to leave. Displaced again! And now we’re in the town over there. Well, you miss the countryside because… I miss the countryside because I’m from the country… I’m a farmer you understand! I had a little piece of land to work and now we have nothing.”

Miguel Solórzano’s yucca. Miguel Solórzano came to San Pablo municipality after being displaced from his former home by paramilitaries. With a dozen other families they settled small plots of land by the side of a dirt road leading from the River Magdalene towards the San Lucas Sierra mountains. Like their neighbours, Miguel and his wife were poor subsistence farmers who cultivated enough to eat and scraped together enough to acquire essentials such as clothes and schoolbooks for their two children. Soon the families began to receive threats: men sent by a local businessman and politician arrived and told them to leave or face the consequences. As they had nowhere else to go the families stayed until one morning several men arrived to carry out the threats. They slit the throats of two peasant men and left them outside their homes to be discovered by their neighbours. That same day the survivors fled, never to return. “The day they killed them I had bought the yucca seedlings to finish sowing the land. We planted rice, corn, yucca… it was with this that we survived. But when the threats began and they began to kill people we had to leave. Displaced again! And now we’re in the town over there… I miss the countryside because I’m from the country. I’m a farmer you understand! I had a little piece of land to work and now we have nothing.” From an interview with Miguel Solórzano on a return visit to Los Alpes where we found his home as he had left it the day that they fled for their lives.

La Yuca de Miguel Solórzano

“El día que mataron el primero yo había comprado la semilla de yuca para terminar de sembrar la tierra. Nosotros sembramos el arroz, el maíz, la yuca… y de eso sobrevivíamos. Pero ya cuando los muertos… empezó a amenazar… empezó a matar gente y ya… nos tocó desplazar otra vez. Y ahora estamos en el pueblo allí. Pues, a uno le hace falta el campo porque… a mi me hace falta el campo porque yo soy del campo… Soy cultivador imagínese – Tenía un pedacito de tierra para trabajar y ahora no tenemos nada.”

The House of Adalberto

“When the… this man had threatened us and told us we had to leave because if we didn’t… in the end… in the end he called us together and said we had to leave or they would kill us. No one took any notice, so… that was when he killed… they killed the man who lived here. Here was his home. He lived here. Here was his house. Here was the door and there was his body with his throat slit. And we all had to leave.”

La Casa de Adalberto Manjarrez

“Cuando el… el señor nos había amenazado, ya que teníamos que salir porque si no.. al ultimo, al ultimo al reunir o salimos o nos mataba, y como que ninguno le paro bolas, entonces… cuando ya fue que mató, mataron aquel señor quien vivía aquí. Aquí en la casita. Aquí vivía él. Aquí estaba la casa, y aquí estaba la puertica y allí estaba él muerto degollado. … y a todo el mundo nos toco salir.”

Miguel Solórzano

The home of forty-year-old peasant farmer Adalberto Manjarrez where he was found in the doorway by neighbours with his throat slit after armed men pulled him from his home and murdered him in the doorway. That same day one other young man was also murdered in the same manner and the rest of the community fled, never to return to the hamlet which now lies in ruin.

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Villanueva Serranía de Santo Domingo

The Beautiful Town

“Before it was beautiful here as there were shops; restaurants; there was a health post… a health worker. There was good fishing; there were businesses, and now there is nothing. It’s all finished!”

Miriam’s bar and restaurant / El bar y comedor de Miriam

El Pueblo Bonito

“Antes eso fue muy bonito porque aquí habían almacenes, habían restaurantes, había un puesto de salud… una promotora. Había buena pesca, habían negocios y hoy en día no hay nada. Todo está acabado.”

Many of those who settled lands in Villanueva were colonists fleeing from violence in other parts of Colombia. They dedicated themselves to subsistence farming, mining and then to the cultivation of coca leaves. During the coca bonanza, the hamlet of no more than thirty constructions would be inundated by hundreds of coca pickers known as raspachines and there were three bars and eateries and two brothels.

The Brothel

When paramilitaries of the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia United Peasant Self-defenses) entered the region there were combats between them and guerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Most recall when a gas canister packed with explosives fired by the guerillas exploded in the river which rained down on the homes. Soon after that, the paramilitaries returned and massacred several villagers. This provoked the mass exodus of the survivors and the hamlet is now desolate.

Once there were more than thirty families settled in the village but now barely five returnee families scrape a living from the land. Those who returned lament the passing of the coca boom when money was aplenty.

The remains of Don Carlos’ house

Miriam’s Business

“When the paramilitaries came back they destroyed everything. They threw me to the ground; they smashed the television; they smashed the sound system; they broke the motor… everything, everything, everything. In the health post, well… they took all the drugs away; they destroyed the place too. And from then until now I haven’t seen the health promoter or the health post. Everything was destroyed.”

Miriam, a returnee to the hamlet.

The Health Post

“Cuando los paracos regresaron ellos acabaron con todo. Me dieron contra el suelo; el televisor lo dañaron; el equipo lo partieron; el motor me dañaron… todo, todo, todo, todo… El puesto de salud, pues… toda la droga lo llevaron; el puesto destruido también… y de aquí para allá no he vuelto a ver esa promotora ni el puesto de salud. Quedó todo destruido.”

Miriam – retornada al pueblo

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Cuatro Bocas – Yondó, Antioquia

“This was a very good town. There were no problems until the illegal armed groups appeared & everything ended. In the end we had to leave because they told us that we had to leave. So we left! Before then there was lots of life. We had money! We fished. There was good fishing and we made good money. We worked hard cultivating the land, growing yucca, corn and plantains. But then it ended! Sincerely, it all ended! Today that no longer exists!”

Don Remberto, a displaced peasant farmer and fisherman Cuatro Bocas village.

The men with guns

“If you don’t do what we say then we’re going to rape you. If we don’t do it, then the ones that come after us will.”

The testimony of a Colombian peasant woman

Cuando llegaron los armados

“Si no hace caso de lo que decimos, la vamos a violar. Si no lo hacemos nosotros, lo hacen los que vienen detrás de nosotros.”

Testimonio de una campesina
Beer bottles abandoned next to where Don Remberto’s house used to stand in the village of Cuatro Bocas in the Department of Antioquia. Don Remberto would bring the beer to sell to locals who would spend the evening drinking and talking before they were displaced and the village deserted after 300 paramilitaries descended, sacking local stores and killing two. Today the village’s school building, health clinic and homes stand empty and decaying and the village is deserted but for Doña Margarita, a displaced woman, who lives with her three daughters and their three infant children.

Beer bottles are abandoned next to where Don Remberto’s house used to stand in the village of Cuatro Bocas in the Department of Antioquia. Don Remberto would bring the beer to sell to locals who would spend the evening drinking and talking as the sun went down. The village was deserted after 300 paramilitaries came and sacked local stores, killing two villagers.

Today the school building, health clinic and homes are derelict and decaying and the village is empty but for Doña Margarita, a displaced woman who lives with her three daughters and three grandchildren (one who was prenatal). When locals returned they did not inhabit the old town but settled on the banks of the river nearby, leaving the structures of the old town empty and deserted. The local school (below) stands roofless and empty and is now the territory of a troupe of monkeys who throw sticks and hard fruits at trespassers.

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San Blás – Monterrey, Bolívar

The village of San Blas was occupied by paramilitaries at the end of 1998 and for a number of years the village served as their capital in Southern Bolívar. Here, they held court unmolested by the Colombian military and authorities and would bring detainees before the paramilitary leaders of the BCB (Central Bolívar Block) who would interrogate suspects. Many people brought here were held in an underground tank during their detention and torture. Many of these were killed and disappeared according to locals.

As the paramilitaries controlled the town, that meant that whatever the BCB commanders were willing to allow could come to pass. The town was at the mercy of its occupiers who acted with total impunity. On my visit, some locals walked me around the town to different locations recalling events and abuses that had taken place.

La Casa Verde

“Abraham Sánchez & his wife had to leave when they arrived. The paramilitaries took over the house & named it Casa Verde. It was here that they brought Paula. She was nine or ten years old. Her mother sold her for… How much? For one hundred dollars? She sold her to one of them &… a young girl… they sent her! “Go to where you’ll find so and so waiting for you!” They dressed her, they made her up & they sent her.”

Villagers’ testimony

“Triumph or die. Never, never retreat” · La Casa Verde

La Casa Verde

“A Abraham Sánchez y su esposa les tocó irse cuando llegaron ellos. Los paracos tomaron la casa y la pusieron la Casa Verde. Aquí trajeron a Paula. Tenía nueve o diez años. La mama le vendió por.. ¿Cuanto era… por 200 mil? Se la vendió a uno de ellos y… una peladita… la mandaba. La vestía, y la organizaba, y la mandaba. “¡Vaya donde fulano que él le está esperando!”.

Testimonio de moradores de San Blas

I later established that Paula was perhaps eleven or twelve at the time – not nine or ten as was said in the above testimony. According to the locals, her mother had sold her to a paramilitary for two hundred thousand pesos (US $100 at the time). She was dressed up and sent over to the Casa Verde where she became the unwilling concubine of her buyer, later when he got bored with her, she became the property of his companions too. Finally, when the paramilitaries had to leave San Blas, Paula left with them and that was the last they knew of Paula in San Blas.

The Casa Verde where they took Paula is no longer coloured green as its name suggests. The rooms where paramilitary troops were barracked are covered in graffiti and drawings. They took a shine to the place as it is a large property with a good view over the surrounding area from a small hut where locals would drink beers and chat at the end of the day until the paramilitaries arrived.

(Above) Graffiti on the walls of the rooms in the Casa Verde – “I only fear God and not any sonofabitch” reads one.

Villagers showed me a house they said was used by paramilitary commanders and where they held court, held, tortured and interrogated prisoners. There was an underground chamber (left) where they held captive detainees.

The hospital

There was a small hospital in the village where the daughter of one of the women I met had worked during the paramilitary occupation. She would attend to the wounded paramilitaries and tell of one occasion in 1999 when some eighty dead paramilitaries were brought o the village after the hijacking of an aircraft by guerrillas of the ELN (National Liberation Army) that landed near San Blas. The paramilitary chief alias Ernesto Báez also recalled the time in an interview, saying that each day there would be 10 to 15 dead in the wake room of the village that had been brought in by helicopters. Báez said that after fifteen years with the Self-Defenses (paramilitaries) he did not really know the face of war until he came to the South of Bolívar.

Cecilia’s house:

“Cecilia’s story was that she left at around three in the afternoon to bring some yucca that they had on the outskirts of the town. And she went, & it turned six…  seven at night & she still hadn’t come home. And the children… two girls… three girls that she had & a boy went with her husband & started asking & asking. Well, she didn’t turn up & the next day they searched & searched but she didn’t appear. Around a week later, now disappeared, was when they said that over there they’d found a body on a farm. They went to look and it was the wife… the mother of the children. They had ‘disappeared’ her; they had killed her; they had… how they gouged her eyes out; they slit open her belly from the chest to there below… to the belly button & they had done many things to her. And they found her & they brought her from where they had found her buried in a little hole… After that, the children & the husband went away.”

The padlocked home of Cecilia Ardilla (32) who was murdered by paramilitaries in the town of San Blas.

LA CASA de CECILIA:

“La historia de Cecilia fue que se fue ella como a las tres de la tarde para traer una yuca de una finca que tenían en las afueras del pueblo. Y cuando se fue, llegaron las seis… las siete de la noche y nada que llegaba. Y los hijos, dos niñas… tres niñas que tenia y un niño junto con el esposo pellizcaron a averiguar y averiguar. Pues, no apareció y al otro día a averiguar y averiguar y no apareció. Como a los ocho días, ya desaparecida fue cuando decían que por allá encontraron un cuerpo en una finca. Se fueron a mirar y era la señora – la mama de los niños. La habían ya desaparecido; la mataron; la… como sacaron los ojos; la abrieron el pecho hasta abajo… como hasta el ombligo por ay… ya la habían hecho muchas cosas… y la encontraron, la trajeron de donde la habían enterrado en un hueco pequeñito… Después los hijos y el esposo se fueron.”

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Monterrey

Don Fabio’s farm

“When they liked a farm they would approach the owner. If the owner said that he didn’t want to sell, they said that he had to – “We’ll give so much for it, & that’s that!”

Anonymous testimony

La Finca de Don Fabio

“Cuando les gustaba una finca abordaba el dueño. Si el dueño decía que no quería vender, ellos decían que tenia que vender – “damos tanto por ella, y ¡ya!”

Testimonio anónimo

My guide and I paused in the near-deserted small town of Monterrey to refresh ourselves before riding back to San Pablo. A man who had been watching us for a while approached and presented himself but asked us not to divulge who he was before going on to tell us about the plight of Don Fabio, in which he said nobody was interested and that he could not formally denounce the case himself as there would be reprisals.

Don Fabio had “been disappeared” and his lands were being managed by reinserted paramilitary fighters who received finds from the central government to cultivate oil palm. Fabio’s wife, traumatised and terrified by his disappearance, had fled to the coast. By chance, we had visited the ruins of Don Fabio´s home when we had left San Blas.

A couple of years later, I returned to Monterrey and found that the vast majority of the land had been ripped-up and raped to extract gold.

Gold mining – Monterrey, Bolívar

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Matapique – San Pablo, Bolívar

La Escuela Rural Mixta

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The Gateway to Urabá

A conflictive region and strategic corridor contended by armed groups that seek to control the south-western slopes and approaches of the Nudo de Paramillo and the Serranía de Adibe that separates the banana region of Urabá and the cattle region of Córdoba.


Caucheras (Villa Arteaga y Bejuquillo) – Mutatá, Antioquia

At dawn on the 10th of July 1996 troops of the right-wing paramilitary ACCU (United Self-defences of Córdoba & Urabá) group arrived in Bejuquillo and ordered the villagers out of their homes. The first of the victims of the massacre were shot dead on the tarmac of the main Medellín-Turbo highway from where the killers moved on to search out more of their victims. They finally parted three days later. In their wake, they left 11 corpses along the main road that passes through the hamlets towards the banana plantations of Urabá and onto the port of Turbo.

Mr. Macondo’s cabañas

“Brother, here they taught me the secrets of life; the secrets of the countryside… until I was seventeen years old. After seventeen years, the displacements came; the violence came and finished off our happiness.”

Giovani, Caucheras

The home of Don Macondo on the banks of the River Leon.

Las Cabañas del Señor Macondo

“Hermano aquí me enseñaron los secretos de la vida; los secretos del campo… hasta los diecisiete años. Después de los diecisiete llegó el desplazamiento; llegó la violencia y acabó con esa felicidad.”

Giovani

The crystal clear waters of the River Leon descend from the Serrenia de Adibe and flow into the Riosucio River, which flows into the Atrato River, which empties into the Caribbean Sea. Don Macondo’s house stands on the banks of the River Leon in the cool shade of a large rubber tree that is a refuge from the hot sun that beats down on the cool clear waters of the River Leon. It was such a beautiful place that it occurred to Don Macondo that perhaps others would also be tempted to come and enjoy this little paradise. He built some cabañas on the banks of the river but before he could start his little eco-tourism project the paramilitaries arrived and Macondo fled for his life along with his neighbours.

The beginning of the end

“The day of the massacre… everyone with their bags, and “Ciao!”. First, they killed Don Hernán Arias & after Miguel Gonzalez & Piedad Carmona were killed here in this spot… in this place. They took them from there… they were asleep. I don’t know what they asked them. They walked them to until a certain point; they returned; they brought them here (to the middle of the road) and killed them before their three children. That was the most terrifying thing: Doña Piedad & Don Miguel! They were a Christian couple; a good example; industrious. How could it be? If it happened to them, then what would they do to us?”

El Inicio del Fin

“El día de la masacre… todo el mundo con el costalito, y “chao”. Primero mataron a Don Hernán Arias, y después los señores Miguel Gonzales y Piedad Carmona fueron acribillados aquí en este punto… en este sitio. Los sacaron de allá… estaban durmiendo. No sé cuales fueron las preguntas. Los caminaron hasta cierto punto, volvieron, los trajeron y los acribillaron delante sus tres hijos. Eso fue el terror más grande: ¡Doña Piedad y Don Miguel! Era una pareja cristiana, una pareja ejemplar, muy emprendedora. ¿Cómo así?  Si a ellos sí ¿a quién no?”

Giovani, Caucheras
A bullet impact in the wall of the now derelict home of Hernán Arias Restrepo. Hernán was the first victim of a massacre of 11 villagers by right-wing paramilitaries of the self-named Farmers’ Self-defences of Cordoba and Urabá (Autodefensas Campesinas de Cordoba y Urabá – ACCU, in Spanish). At daybreak on the 10 of July 1996 a heavily-armed group of men dressed in combats arrived, waking villagers and taking several of them from their homes. First they killed Hernán Arias Restrepo, and then they woke Miguel Gonzalez and Piedad Carmona, taking them from their home and walking them back and forth along the main Medellín-Urabá highway. Then they returned them to where their three children waited and gunned the couple down. Eleven villagers were massacred by paramilitaries that morning. Minutes after the armed men left, the survivors began gathering what little they could and they fled. Within hours the village was empty and over the years that followed it fell into decay. One day, years later a bulldozer contracted by a large landowner arrived and flattened the homes on the western side of the highway and now cows graze where the homes once stood. “On the day of the massacre everyone took their bags – and ciao… the most terrifying thing was [that they killed] Don Miguel and Doña Piedad. They were a Christian couple; a good example; industrious. How could it be? If it happened to them, then what would they do to us?” A villager speaking about the massacre of Villarteaga.

Miguel Gonzales y Piedad Carmona were a couple who belonged to the local Pentecostal church. Their home – of which there is no longer any trace – was beside the highway from where they ran a small store selling the normal items of sweets, soft drinks, milk and yoghurt, batteries, sugar-loaf, rice and the like. Sometimes the guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would come down from the hills of the Serranía de Adibe and onto the highway. They would buy chocolate bars, sweets and drinks from the store and go on their way. When the paramilitaries came they shot the couple dead and left them on the tarmac in front of their store. Their “crime” had been to sell sweets and drinks to the guerrillas.

The hamlets of Villa Arteaga, Bejuquillo and Caucheras stood abandoned for years and little by little many of the now displaced owners were obliged to sell their homes and their lands for a pittance in order to pay for rents and essentials in the cities like Medellín to where they had fled.

One morning, on the opposite side to where the home and store of Miguel and Piedad once stood a digger arrived and levelled the houses. Villa Arteaga was erased from the face o the Earth and now all that remains of the hamlet are a scattering of bricks and debris whose forms one can still see hidden among the grass of a field where cattle now graze. Some say that the rich rancher Raúl Hasbún.

The killers were from the Arlés Hurtado Front of the paramilitary Bananero Block, which was under the command of Hasbún whose paramilitary aliases were Pedro Ponte and also Pedro Bonito.

In the zone, some of the fertile lands from where many poor families were forced to flee were acquired by Sor Teresa Gómez, the sister of paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño, whilst other lands passed into the ownership of the sons of Álvaro Uribe Vélez according to locals.

At the time of the killings in Villa Arteaga/Bejuquillo, the “Pacification of Urabá” was underway. This was a joint military and paramilitary counter-insurgency strategy to clear FARC guerrillas from the region through massacres and mass forced displacement of the civilian population who did not actively collaborate with the 17th Brigade of the Colombian Army, under the command of General Rito Alejo del Río, and paramilitaries of the ACCU.

The US ambassador, Curtis Kamman, reported in 1998 that the “systematic arming and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries” was “pivotal” to the military success of the General1. Nevertheless, the ex-governor of Antioquia and future president of Colombia (2002-10), Álvaro Uribe Vélez, eulogised Rito Alejo, then withdrawn from active service and under investigation, as “an example for police and soldiers in Colombia”. The event of reparation and homage for General Río Rojas and General Millán – also accused of human rights violations, withdrawn from service and under investigation – was in the Hotel Tequendama on 29 April 1999. An event that marked the beginning of Uribe’s candidacy and subsequent ascendancy to the highest office in the land.

1 – NSA Archives – https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB327/index.htm

Caucheras – the decline of a small rubber empire

“We all had a little bit of land & lived from the rubber crop. We all lived very well until the violence began & then the displacements. To go from here to there [Medellín] was the most difficult for us. It all began to get very difficult and we had to leave for the city that we had never known, and we had to live there… We had everything we needed and then we lost everything. I had a plot of land and… because of the violence I had to abandon it. Later, when I was displaced, I had to sell it for less than it was worth. I gave it away. In the city, we were living hand to mouth and the little money that remained, that went paying the rent in the city until we ended up wandering from place to place.”

Bernadino Torres Güisao – a farmer who fled with his family during the paramilitary violence and went to live in a slum in the city of Medellín.

Between 1936-96 Caucheras was the centre of a small thriving rubber business run by a US company of which nobody seemed to recall the name. Locals told me that there was a landing strip for light aircraft and that there was a laboratory and a factory, whose ruined buildings still stand, and at it’s peak, some 300 people worked on the plantation of almost 900 hectares. The latex was prepared in concrete troughs (above centre(.

Around the troughs where the latex was prepared (above centre) in the days of the plantation are derelict homes, many of which are occupied by displaced families from elsewhere, mainly from neighbouring el Chocó province. The displaced were living in abandoned homes of the displaced.

One displaced woman was from Tumaco, on the Pacific Coast by the frontier with Ecuador. She had fled, she told, as local mafias had taken a shine to her small business selling fast food and when she resisted the grab for her business, they murdered her best friend and she fled. It was humble business, but enough to cause her problems with the local gang nonetheless. She was stoical recounting the details of her plight: it was just another hurdle in life that she could leap over and build it all up again. All her close family were still alive she told and she was tough enough to carry on regardless. But when I asked her, “What about your friends you left behind in Tumaco?” She fell silent and tears rolled over her cheeks.

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La Llorona – Dabeiba, Antioquia

Bullet holes in the wall of the now derelict Vallesí Rural School which was abandoned as the violence increased in the zone. The school looks over La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), a steep gorge that descends over a hundred meters to the Rio Sucio (Dirty River). Right-wing paramilitaries brought many dozens of their victims to the precipice of La Llorona to cast them into the abyss below – their bodies being carried away in the fast mountain current of the river below – or dumped them on the Medellín-Urabá highway for all to see. Vallesí and La Llorona also often saw combats between the Colombia military and left-wing guerrillas, when the latter would block the highway or be detected moving through the heavily forested mountains, and the area was often strafed by machine-gun fire from Army helicopters.

The deserted rural school of Vallesí stands by a verticle gorge that descends over a hundred meters to the Riosucio river below. Right-wing paramilitaries brought many dozens of their victims to the precipice of La Llorona to cast them into the abyss where their broken bodies would be carried away torrent. Sometimes they left their victims on the Medellín-Urabá highway for all to see and sow terror among the local population.

The Legend of the Llorona

La Llorona, is it said, is a woman who wanders along valleys and by rivers at night wailing and crying – in Spanish llorar means to cry. Some versions say that she drowned he children in the river and others that her children were drowned at the hand of others. Folklore often depicts women as the wrongdoers but reality rarely bears this out and more often than not women are those who are wronged and then demonised by their wrongdoers. La Llorona is a steep gorge, perhaps one hundred meters deep at the bottom of which rush the turbulent and brown waters of the Riosucio (literally Dirty River). It is a place of much lament, where many a mother’s children have been cast into the river after being murdered at the hands of others, usually paramilitaries but also the military (as they could also be one and the same).

List of victims:

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La Balsita – Dabeiba, Antioquia

Five days in November

On Sunday a large group arrived which identified itself as the ACCU. More than 30 houses are burnt and one thousand people are displaced. Sunday – the bodies of Ananias, Milton y Pedro appear with signs of torture, hacked to pieces, burnt with acid & their throats slit. Monday – Alejandro’s neighbours find his corpse with signs of torture & rope marks on his neck. Rosalba & her son Joaquín are killed before three of Rosalba’s children. Tuesday – Simón is tied to & blown up with a dynamite charge. In the afternoon Reinaldo is ‘disappeared’. Luz & Marco are shot dead; their bodies eaten by vultures. Wednesday – Heriberto is found with a shot in the head & without eyes. Jesús is captured, tortured, hung & strangled to death. Ricaurte has his throat slit after his eyes are gouged out & his legs burnt with acid. Thursday – Oscar & his son, Alfonso, members of the Pentecostal Church are shot to death.

Cinco Días en Noviembre

El Domingo incursionan por el río un grupo numeroso quienes se identifican como “ACCU”. Más de 30 casas son quemadas y mil personas son desplazadas. Domingo – los cuerpos sin vida de Ananías, Milton y Pedro aparecen con signos visibles de torturas,  descuartizados, quemados con ácido y degollados.  Lunes – los vecinos de Alejandro encuentran su cadáver con señales de tortura y marcas de cuerda en el cuello. Rosalba y su hijo Joaquín son asesinados frente de tres hijos de Rosalba. Martes – a Simón le amarran y le vuelan con una carga de dinamita. En la tarde “desaparecen” a Reinaldo. Luz y Marco son asesinados con disparos de fusil, sus cuerpos son comidos por los gallinazos.  Miércoles – A Heriberto le encuentran con un tiro en la cabeza y sin los ojos. Jesús es detenido, torturado, colgado y ahorcado. Degüellan a Ricaurte luego de quitarle los ojos y de quemarle las piernas con ácido.  Jueves – Oscar y su hijo Alfonso, miembros de la iglesia Pentecostal, son asesinados con armas de fuego.

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