By Carolina Ávila Cortés
EL ESPECTADOR, April 23, 2019
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The Truth Commission has visited five settlements that were hard-hit by the massacres that the paramilitaries committed twenty years ago. Some of them are villages that are nearly uninhabited and continue to endure in the midst of new armed groups.
Almost forty people have arrived at the community center in Rincón del Indio, a police station in southern Meta Province, to meet with the Truth Commission team, headed by the sociologist and journalist Alfredo Molano. It was the conclusion of the four-day trip that the delegates of the agency were making to the places where there were massacres like the ones at Mapiripán and Puerto Alvira in the decade of the ‘90’s. The team came and explained their mission and that they were there thanks to the Peace Agreement signed with the FARC, in order to collect testimonies about what happened during the armed conflict.
The campesinos were confused. They thought that a mission from the government had come once more with promises of reparation to the victims and of productive projects. The Commission repeated that they were only there to listen to their testimonies. Some of the people who came were offended. They weren’t interested in talking about paramilitaries again, nor guerrillas, nor the death of their loved ones. They had come to the meeting ready to demand that the officials furnish energy, potable water, a health center and roads for marketing their products.
Others didn’t want to talk because they wanted to avoid problems with the Farc dissidents and the bastions of paramilitarism that are growing in the area. There was only a small group of men and women remaining who were willing to relive what that settlement had suffered, based on the promise that we would not reveal their names, nor the details of their testimonies. They told the Commission how once the school was in the middle of combat between the Army and the guerrillas. They told how the paramilitaries used to kill people to instill fear and to get them to leave their farms. They said that now nobody respects their possession of the land where they lived for so many years, and when they complain about it, the threats come again.
“The FARC were a ‘necessary evil’”, said one of the people there and several nodded their heads. “In spite of the murders they committed, the ex-guerrillas were the authority in this area forgotten by the government,” said the campesino. “At that time, there wasn’t any crime, and if anybody committed a crime they took him to a ‘citizenship day’ and put him to work on the road without receiving any pay. If he did it again, they held a war council, and then they put him to death,” he added. Now, since the ex-combatants in those areas have left to rejoin civilian life, several of these towns have neither God nor laws.
Rincón del Indio was the fortress of the FARC’s 39th Front, and The Cooperative, another station, was controlled by the paramilitaries. The savannah that separates both settlements was their battleground. The campesinos told how at that time they would see Army planes that were firing on the guerrillas, but not at the paramilitaries.
During the trip, we saw how the savannahs in the Eastern Plains were disappearing under hundreds of hectares of agro-industrial cultivation, of oil palm, sugar cane, rubber, and pine and eucalyptus trees for the exploitation of lumber. Before the war, some of these properties belonged to campesinos who have been displaced.
“The majority of those massacres had the function of evicting campesinos from their farms, and in the long term, facilitating the occupation of the land by private interests favored by the government. The massacre at Mapiripán is associated with the growth of palm planting in the area, and the same thing is happening in the area of Puerto Gaitán,” said Alredo Molano about the patterns that he saw behind these massacres.
The Commission began its trajectory with Mapiripán. (https://colombia2020.elespectador.com/verdad-y-memoria/mapiripan-del-conflicto-de-la-guerra-al-conflicto-de-la-paz) It is part of the nation’s memory that 120 men from the United Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá arrived, between July 15 and July 20, 1997, with the support of the Army, and killed 49 campesinos, according to figures at the National Center for Historical Memory.
The people who live there now fear that history will repeat itself. In December six people were murdered near there. Some versions insist that a drug-trafficking dispute was behind it, while others say that they were looking for something stashed by an ex-paramilitary. What is certain is that there are dissidents from the 1st and 7th Fronts of the FARC on one side of the Guaviare River. Los Puntilleros, originally paramilitaries, are on the other side.
History recounts that, after Mapiripán, the paramilitaries passed through The Cooperative. That was part of Vicente Castaño’s plan for the areas where the guerrillas had influence. The passage of time revealed that it was also a strategy for acquiring farmland. His partners were Miguel Arroyave and Don Mario, or Daniel Rendón, from the Centauros bloc (https://colombia2020.elespectador.com/pais/las-tierras-ocultas-del-bloque-centauros).
The violence in and around The Cooperative was repetitious. (https://colombia2020.elespectador.com/territorio/la-cooperative-meta-coca-falsos-positivos-e-ilusion-de-paz) In 1998, eight merchants were murdered. A year later 40 paramilitaries came in and killed some more of the people who lived there. There are very few people still living in that District (corregimiento). Some people went to La Jungla, a station that was founded after the destruction of the settlement. The war is still inscribed on the houses with graffiti alluding to the AUC and also by the bullet holes.
One of the survivors of these events told us how she escaped, thanks to her daughter, who is now 21 years old. She believes that her daughter’s birth was early because of her terror at the arrival of the paramilitaries and they had to rush her to the hospital. Her daughter was born one day after the massacre at Mapiripán, but 40 days later, her husband disappeared. Today, in the sunshine, she remembers him with tears in her eyes and she wonders where his remains might be lying.
On May 4, 1998, in Puerto Alvira, also known as Caño Jabón, almost six hours away from Mapiripán, the United Self-Defense Forces of Urabá killed 27 people and burned down half of the village, where the people had been living in prosperity from the coca. (https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/politica/volver-la-coca-la-paz-que-falta-por-llegar-al-suroriente-articulo-849808) There had been 300 houses and a lot of businesses. On the next day almost everybody who lived there had been driven out. Today, only five of the families that founded that place are still there. They are Sikuani and jiw indigenous people, also displaced by the violence, and some of them have slowly returned. Even so, a lot of the houses appear to be abandoned, lost in the weeds.
In spite of the feeling that it is a ghost town, Julio Escobar, President of the Community Action Commission, is trying to get it going again, without expecting any help from the government. Everybody is raising money and making an effort to build a wooden bridge that would save them three hours of travel from Mapiripán. And they hope to obtain the resources to buy a radio antenna.
Mapiripán is one of the largest municipalities in the country, with nearly 13,000 square kilometers. There are three stations in its jurisdiction that we visited. However, the demand by the inhabitants of these places is for resources for reparations to the victims that are remaining in the urban portion, without recognizing the needs of the rural part.
“Why did they kill our families; why did they chase us off our land; why did the government turn its back on us,” were the recurring questions. Even though the arrival of the Truth Commission was difficult at first, the hope of obtaining those answers rests on them.