By Camilo Alzate for BaudóAP
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
A group of campesinos from southern Bolívar Province exchanged planting coca for legal crops without any government support. But the aerial fumigation with glyphosate destroyed their project and their lives.
Rosalba Pineda has a burning memory of the early morning when her children, without saying anything to her, went to the site where the coca was planted and tore the plants out by the roots. She can’t forget that moment because of one important detail; they left the house without even eating breakfast.
That was almost fifteen years ago. Now she takes care of a henhouse on the outskirts of Monterrey, the small district (corregimiento) in Simití where she lives. But she’s alone; her children have gone far away to earn their living, and her husband has died. Rosalba is sturdy, with copper skin from the coming and going of her sixty years, and a halting voice that loses breath when she relives the hopes and dreams of those days.
She laughs when she recalls the commentaries of her children and her husband, Ángel Pastor Salazar. She can pinpoint the exact number of avocado trees they planted between the cacaos and the four coffee trees that grew at the edges; she can describe the bags of soil for the cacao, the mandarins and oranges that gave so much fruit that frequently it got so ripe that she had to give it away to their friends. She remembers that next to the house there was an enormous garden full of vegetables; that was her great pride.
“Are we really going to do that?” she asked herself and right away she answered, “Yes, let’s do it.” Rosalba Pineda and Ángel Salazar decided of their own will that they would leave the coca behind and go to a legal crop of cacao, taking advantage of a community project pushed by the Small Producers Association in the high part of San Pablo and of southern Bolívar, an organization that in those mountains the people recognize by its initials: Asocasul.
“Jeison, the youngest in the family, said one day that he thought it wasn’t necessary to wait any longer, they should just cut the two fields of coca that they had on their farm. And it wasn’t much, a couple of fields to get money to buy food with. That early morning in 2007 they went out without saying anything, Ángel and the five boys with the scythes on their shoulders. And it was mid-morning when they came back, making jokes.
“Why are you laughing? What did you go and do?” Rosalba asked them and it was her daughter that answered, “Mama, those kids cut down all of the coca.” “My Lord, now what are we going to do?” thought Rosalba. In the middle of the ‘90’s, Ángel and Rosalba found a farm in the heart of the Serranía de San Lucas, where he was working as a “raspachín”, a colloquial name for people that grow coca leaves. In less than a year, they fell in love and were going here and there until they arrived in Monterey. They were scratching away from dawn till dark, between one child and the next. She prepared food for the farm workers; he worked at chopping the leaves in a laboratory or re-selling gasoline. One day they had enough saved to buy two lots that measured 60 hectares of brush land and stubble, and they bought them on June 14, 2003. Somebody had baptized the farm with an eloquent name: “Hope”.
In spite of that, Rosalba was troubled when she thought that she was raising her family with an illegal crop. “That was torture for me, a big worry, because I never wanted my children to get involved in that. You dealt with somebody and you have to keep an eye on them and that can be nerve-wracking. So, since we took the money, we spent it in the same way,” she says.
Many of the settlers and campesinos in the high part of San Pablo, Cantagallo, and Simití shared that sentiment. They were sick of the fumigations, the concern about public order, of the brutality of the armed groups, and the way the government persecuted growers of illegal crops. In meetings and assemblies with the Community Action Boards, settlement by settlement, they talked for months about abandoning the omnipresent coca in these mountains.
San Pablo, Cantagallo, and Simití are river towns on the left hand shore of the Magdalena, surrounded by bogs and fertile lowlands that were taken over by large landowners to grow oil palms or run cattle ranches. But to the west towers the mountain range of San Lucas, the final extension of the Central Cordillera. This chain is cracked and covered by a million hectares of jungles that the colonization by coca growers has been disturbing on all of its flanks since the ‘90’s, with wooden houses and small isolated parcels that look like slits in the midst of the forests.
Going around in these mountains where there aren’t any penetration roads or electric light, in the middle of the decade of 2000, they did an analysis in order to replace the illegal crops. The push for the analysis came from the Program of Development and Peace in Magdalena Medio; it was an organization process close to the Jesuits, who had a long trajectory in the region. The director was a campesina, Esther Julia Cruz, and she was part of it.
In June of 2005, an assembly of campesinos in the Alto Berlín settlement in San Pablo, decided to create Asocasul to manage productive projects. “The idea was to plant cacao as an economic alternative, and also to demonstrate that they could generate income in a legal manner, that they would be able to live well,” explains Esther Cruz.
Manuel Durango, another leader in the area, adds that they were always thinking of a model like the “integrated campesino farm”, where families produced their own food and could count on a legal crop that would offer some income, at least enough to “raise the children in a legal manner, and guarantee the schooling and food for our children.”
They spent two years on bureaucratic procedures, and finally Asocasul obtained a line of credit that added some funds from international financial cooperative financing for the establishment of 725 hectares of cacao in the high zone of San Pablo, Cantagallo, and Simití, where an association of 146 families owned their farms.
“It wasn’t a substitution program; that’s the government’s obligation, not the campesinos,” clarifies Esther Cruz, although later she adds that one of the conditions was that those who were benefited “could not have any coca on their farm, nor in nearby areas in any direction, because that would be a risk for the project.”
Some of them speak enthusiastically about Doña Carmen, a campesina who for weeks made several trips to go alone with her mules over the cacao plantings from the point where they unloaded the truck, up to her farm, by a precipitous trail within the brush land. Others tell about the trip to San Vicente de Chucurí in Santander, to learn about successful cacao projects that could serve as examples. From there the delegation from Asocasul returned with their cars loaded with seeds for their future crops. Or they mention the community sancochos (chicken stews) they made in the towns (veredas) every time there was a work trip with training by the technicians from the association. Anybody that wanted to could come to share the lunch and learn more about raising cacao.
That enthusiasm for escaping from the unlawfulness was encouraged by the possibility of formalizing the title to their farms, one of the purposes of the project, as 90% of the land in the high zone is below the concept of forest reserve, and that impedes the settlers and de facto occupiers from obtaining the legal documents for their properties.
Many families like Rosalba and Ángel pulled out the coca plants by themselves; in other cases, like those of Rodrigo Padilla, Rafael Galvis, or Aldemar Granada, they had already lost their coca plots from the fumigations with glyphosate that came to the region from time to time ever since 2001.
The fumigations with glyphosate are the hard line of the “war on drugs.” They are financed with billions of dollars from the North American government; they started to use them to eradicate coca crops after Resolution 001 by the National Council on Drugs on February 11, 1994. Soon that intensified when Washington constructed Plan Colombia, an ambitious counterinsurgency offensive that then-President Andrés Pastrana presented in 1999 from Puerto Wilches, a municipality neighboring to San Pablo, Simití, and Cantagallo. They referred to the Plan “as a policy of investments in social development, shutting down of violence, and building peace.” The truth was that 80% of the funds had nothing to do with development or building peace, but rather were direct military assistance to escalate the war on subversives. John Walsh, an investigator from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) pointed that out.
The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation calculated that from the start of the fumigations of coca in 1994 until their suspension in 2015, 1,896,709 hectares in Colombia had been sprayed.
According to data from the Observatory on Drugs in Colombia and the Anti-Narcotics Division, between 2001 and 2015 the National Police planes bathed more than 61,400 hectares of coca with glyphosate in Bolívar Province, most of it in the southern area. The surface area sprayed with the agro-chemical is twice the size of Bogotá.
Lt. Colonel Jorge Enrique Furtado, Area Chief for eradication of illegal plantings, claimed in an official letter that in 2010 the National Police had reported 473 hectares fumigated with glyphosate in the Simití Mountains. But not all that was fumigated was coca; the planes sprayed poison on five hectares of cacao that Rosalba and Ángel had planted two years earlier, and more than 18 hectares of pasture land lost all of the grass for grazing. They destroyed a banana plantation, a field of cassava, and 180 trees that were producing lumber and fruit, plus a hundred avocado trees, leaving only three of them standing.
Rosalba tells how they had to drive the cattle away from the farm and how they got in the truck and went to see if any grass remained alive beside the road, so they could collect it. They planted cacao a few more times. The Police plane came back the same number of times, in 2011 and 2013, and, as set forth in the formal complaints that Ángel Pastor Salazar filed with the San Pablo Mayor’s Office, the plants never grew.
She remembers that after the second fumigation she saw her husband throw himself to the ground in the middle of the dead leaves, just holding onto his head. The crop was burned up, totally dried. Rosalba uses a word to refer to that state of mind, the same word that a number of the protagonists in this story have repeated.
Beaten, that’s the word. Later she remembers herself destroying the garden with her own hands, pulling out stems, sticks, and clumps of cilantro, breaking down furrows, tomato plants, carrots and onions, in a sudden attack of fury.
She has no memory of what happened next, because she awoke crossed over with wires and with tubes that entered her flesh in a hospital in a distant city, without really understanding what had happened. She had had a stroke that interfered with her mobility, and required her to walk with a cane. She knows it happened on December 6, 2011, because just the next day the campesinos used the procession on the Day of the Virgin to pray for the recovery of the poisoned crops.
“Old lady, this is over. I don’t think we will get anywhere, nor ever recover what we lost,” confessed Ángel a few times. But other times, he would be in good spirits after the association told him that yes, that the government would take responsibility for the damage, that there was a lawsuit being pursued, with proof, with evidence.
“If we get that, we can plant again, old lady, because the third time’s the charm,” he said. “And we can buy the neighbor’s land where they have coca, because they probably won’t be back with the fumigation, and we can fix the pastures and keep a few cattle there, and you will be able to make your garden.”
Ángel Pastor Salazar died on May 18, 2019 when he was on his motorcycle coming back from mass in Simití. At a stop on the highway he wasn’t able to see a cow lying down on the road and he crashed right into the animal. He never received any compensation for the crops that were destroyed three times.
There are things that Rosalba doesn’t want to forget. That she lost her old man, who was never able to return to the farm after what happened. When I married him, we had nothing; we started from zero and we got everything the hard way, the two of us working with our hands,” she says in a halting voice.
She doesn’t want to forget that it was Ángel who showed her how to plant potatoes in her garden, reproaching her because she planted them too deep. “Girl, it’s stuck down there in the last corner of the world,” he said, “Come on, that’s not how you do it.” Then he started digging down with a little stick. Every time he went down to the village he carried a ton of tomatoes, vegetables and fruit, to give them to friends. If I don’t eat, somebody else will. “They destroyed our banana plants, our cassava plants, our corn crops, the cacao that was our future, our pastures where we had our few cows,” insists Rosalba. “They destroyed my family. Everything is gone and the coca is still there. And we aren’t.
Diomedes Páez Tarazona laughs with that expression small children have when they fall and hurt themselves, an innocent laugh that really foresees tears. Rodrigo Padilla’s laugh, on the contrary is a mischievous guffaw, with the cunning spark of a mule driver under his brows.
Diomedes is a young man from Aguachica, with pink clean-shaven skin, and with hair so bright red you would think he was an albino. Rodrigo, on the other hand, is a dark Colombian with dark eyes and a mustache that looks as if he trimmed it with a machete. He wears his shirt open almost to his belly button, with a Sacred Heart of Jesus dancing in the middle of his hairy chest. He had lost his accent, even though it came back when he talked to his mare on the curves of the trail. “She’s flustered with men, she’s mild with women,” he says, and you recognize that unmistakable timbre that comes from the mountains of Caldas and Antioquia.
Diomedes doesn’t live on the farm. He got another parcel and left for San Alberto—a village three hours on a motorcycle and crossing to the opposite shore of the Magdalena River—after the last fumigation bankrupted him, when even the chickens died from the poison. It wasn’t the first time he left; he had already been displaced during the last paramilitary incursion of the decade of the 2000’s. Many of the people that lived in Triángulo, his town (vereda) in Simití, were kicked off their land in 2007 when the guerrillas ordered them to get out. Now the paramilitaries are back, they were saying, they don’t care about anybody’s life. “It’s very crowded, lots of bullets,” says Diomedes.
Rodrigo, on the other hand, has never abandoned his house built of boards painted a scandalous purple and green, not even when the guerrillas and the Army were exchanging machinegun bursts, choosing the meadow just two blocks from his farm, over the trail that leads to the road, as their battlefield.
Rodrigo and Diomedes. So different, so much the same.
They both arrived in southern Bolívar at the age of 19 without a peso in their pockets. They both lived as freeloaders in the homes of people they knew, or family, or people they were working for, always reaching for the coca bonanza. They fertilized the crops and chopped stubble for a wage that never was more than 6,000 pesos (roughly $2) a day. Later they learned to scrape the leaf and that earned them three times as much. They grew, they matured, they found wives and their wives found them. They saw their children born, Rodrigo had four, Diomedes had seven. Then they wanted to own something, a piece of property where they could work without a boss.
Diomedes bought nine hectares of mountain from a settler, paying with a TV set and 50 days of work. Rodrigo got sixty hectares from another campesino in exchange for a house that he had built with his savings in the district (corregimiento) of Monterrey.
So similar, so different.
The two of them joined the cacao project. They both had given up on the coca, and in spite of that they were surprised when they saw the little airplane flying over their houses. Fumigation happened to Rodrigo in 2009, and the same thing happened to Diomedes in 2010. The little airplane always came protected by helicopters, a noisy swarming that fluttered over their heads and their crops, almost touching the tops of the trees, before there was a shot of that thick white cloud that, in Diomedes’ words, looked like a whole lot of little specks of oil gleaming in the sun. They saturated your clothing before you even noticed it. “It was only eight days after I got done planting the cacao, just eight days, when the little plane came and it happened right away,” says Diomedes, waving his hand in a gesture that I couldn’t understand. “I had planted 5,500 cacao plants that I had hauled up to the farm with five mules. Nothing was left.”
A cloud of glyphosate landed on Diomedes, getting him all wet, and he spent a week in the hospital sick with nausea and dizziness. Rodrigo, on the other hand, didn’t feel anything in spite of the poison falling only 50 meters away from his house, which was built on a mountain ridge.
Rodrigo knows his farm, palm tree by palm tree; that’s why he’s able to show the only two cacao plants that survived the flight of the little plane. They were hidden next to a majestic fig tree in an overgrown gully in the hillside. He points out that there was a ceiba tree 12 to 15 meters high in the middle of the pasture. “It was partly burned, it turned yellow, but it didn’t die,” he says admiringly. “That timber is really tough.” What they say in the area is that glyphosate sterilizes the ground, and that that takes ten years to recover. The poison is so strong that when it falls on parts of the jungle, it usually burns it all and leaves a big pile of dry and rotten trunks. Only last year, insists Rodrigo, one of the plains where they dropped the poison in October of 2009 had its first harvest of corn since then.
Daniela Mosquera and Daniel Ortiz Gallego, researchers with the Center for Alternatives to Development (Cealdes), explain that you can’t understand the problem of illegal crops without dealing with the agricultural problem. “The coca crops are capital for negotiation,” Ortiz points out. “It permits the campesinos to sit down and negotiate with the government, not as campesinos that are pressing their right to plant coca, but as citizens that are pressing their right to have rights.”
Because of that, the conditions for the growers to stop planting coca have always been tied to historic agricultural demands such as “getting the land titled, the right to a healthy childhood, the right to education, to health,” emphasizes Mosquera. The coca exists in places where the government doesn’t go, at the margins. And the campesinos’ call is very simple: to obtain legality there must first be institutions that are present.
The effect of the fumigations was devastating to the Asocasul project. “They took away your desire to work,” said Aldemar Granada, one of the campesinos who were the most committed to the project.118 hectares of cacao were wiped out, directly affecting 42 of the families in the association who couldn’t plant their crops, losing their work and the investments they had made over several years. And even though the fumigator arrives in a fleeting moment that doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes, everybody remembers that moment, where the little airplane came from, how many helicopters came with it, what color was the machine.
Diomedes says that the little plane shot out over the gully on his farm, nose-diving as if it were going to crash, and that’s exactly why nobody thought that an airplane would be able to get there to drop poison. Manuel Durango says that the glyphosate stayed on the roof of his house, as if it was calming down, trickling big drops, oily, and that the cloud of poison ended up getting into the rooms, the kitchen, saturating everything. Rafael Antonio Galvis points out that it was 11 o’clock in the morning and he tells how he took all of his children to the front of the house with a white flag, trying to get the Police up there to understand that there wasn’t any coca there, only people, and pasture, and legal crops. Rodrigo Padilla says that it only took two little squirts of poison to burn all of the cacao he had planted. Rosalba Pineda remembers that the little plane flew so low that they could see the pilot, and Aldemar Granada can’t forget that there were always little silver airplanes, but his father Eleazar Granado was fumigated by a purple one while he was pruning his cacao plants.
Asocasul couldn’t find a way to deal with all the losses and handle the debts to the banks. Their accounts were frozen and they never even requested the last disbursement of credit, which ended up affecting the rest of the 146 families in the project.
Why did the little planes pour down poison on the legal crops? That question has no precise answer; every case is different. It could be that there were mistakes in the coordinates, or that the planes were hit by guerrilla gunfire and had to dump the cargo of glyphosate somewhere before they tried their emergency landing. At other times there were fumigations on coca plantings that ended up being blown by the wind toward the farms and crops nearby.
What’s true is that in the Agency for Legal Defense of the Government, there are files containing 263 lawsuits filed against the government for events like these. Forty-one of those cases have been decided in favor of the campesinos and the communities that were victims of fumigations, in every corner of the country. But 57 cases were decided in favor of the government. And 156 cases have not been decided; one of those is the Asocasul case.
“If a campesino was fumigated on a Friday, he would go to San Pablo the next day and we would arrive there before the eight days allowed to file the complaint. But then the story would start. It wasn’t safe to travel, or the technician couldn’t get there because he had no gasoline for his motorcycle, or that it was pretty far away, and they would start delaying,” explains Esther Cruz, who at that time was working as the Association’s legal representative. “Because of those delays, there were a lot of people that couldn’t start the action in time, especially at first.”
Often the campesinos’ individual complaints didn’t succeed, so on June 7, 2013, the members of Asocasul, represented by the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, filed a class action before the Bolívar Administrative Tribunal, demanding compensation for those that were affected. The damages amounted to more than 3,240 million pesos (roughly USD $845,000). In addition, they requested complete reparation by the government, which contemplated activities such as the creation of a seed bank to recover the native species that were destroyed by the fumigations. And, above all, they demanded guarantees that there would be no repetition.
A decade has gone by since the first plantings of cacao that never bore fruit. A decade turned into memorials and complaints, into public or private hearings, into summonses, into conciliation meetings, a decade of expert testimony and technical evidence to demonstrate the harm and the detriments, a decade of trips to Cartagena to testify before the tribunal, to appointments in Bogotá to meet with Congress, a decade of coming and going on the eternally muddy trails of the San Lucas mountains, collecting soil samples and evidence. A decade until in the end the Administrative Tribunal in Bolívar denied the claims in the complaint on September 27, 2018, concluding that “there was no proof whatsoever” of the damage done to the people and their property.
“The Tribunal didn’t do any real analysis of the technical and scientific evidence that described what happened to the crops,” says the attorney in the case, Rosa María Mateus. So they appealed to the Council of State, the highest administrative court in the country, and are waiting anxiously for a decision, as many of the plaintiffs, like Ángel Pastor Salazar or Eleazar Granada have already died without obtaining at least the damages for the harm to their crops, and others will soon be very old, or are suffering from serious sicknesses. One of them is Ángela Alemán, a single mother who has cancer and left her farm abandoned after the fumigations. She is now surviving by selling catfish that she takes from the Magdalena River.
“This case could be a very important landmark, as we face new fumigations. It could suspend or cancel all of the plans they have for aerial and even terrestrial aspersions,” Mateus observes. She is convinced that the anti-drug policy is really a policy intended to harm the campesinos. “It’s a failed strategy. They always have to pursue the weakest link in the chain, drag the campesinos away from their land.”
Her assessment is in agreement with what WOLA pointed out in its 2007 report: glyphosate doesn’t work to combat the production and trafficking of cocaine. In three decades, it has never been able to deter the growing increase and expansion of the drug traffic. Glyphosate isn’t even effective to eradicate the total number of coca plantings. In 2005—to cite a case—they sprayed 139,000 hectares, but the total area planted in coca increased by 30,000 hectares instead of diminishing, according to US government data.
What glyphosate does do effectively is displace and send thousands of campesinos to ruin. WOLA says that fumigations coincide with drastic changes in the tenancy and ownership of land.
“This has been my life ever since I started out and became independent. I wanted to be on my own. I have lived practically my whole life that way, struggling, battling to stand up and then falling; I stand up and then I’m on the ground,” says Diomedes with a smile.
The talk goes on, but children’s laughter is deceiving: it has masked something different the whole time, hidden an explosion of pain that emerges with watery eyes. “We got onto the back of the truck and we went. We grabbed our stuff and we went, but there was nothing more we could do, because we saw then, there was nothing left to pick, because, how? You go and you leave your stuff behind . . . That hurts, it hurts because you . . . you have your things, and you have to leave them in the trash. I don’t know.” Diomedes is crying.
Mono Blanco’s house in San Pablo preserves signs and signals of his presence in every corner, as if the imposing and overwhelming personality of the old man has resisted the abandonment of the premises, now that a long year has passed since his death.
There is the chair where he used to rest, looking for the coolest spot in the afternoon, with his Sucre-style hat. In another corner, the nets and the fiber hammock that he wove himself. In the back, the earth patio is full of old stuff; on the wall there hangs an enormous iron saw that El Mono Blanco used to clear brush in the San Lucas mountains in the years of his youth, a half century ago. Luis Blanco came to San Pablo from El Socorro, a village in Santander, when he was 12 years old. Only a child, but he already was going round and working as a day laborer by himself, and he used to tell about how he had seen all of the bonanzas of southern Bolívar: the corn, the rice, the lumber, the gold, and the coca. It was another time, when the lumberjacks cut down the hundred-year-old trees with sharp axes, just using the energy of their bodies.
Here, the family pictures in the living room. The daughters, the sons, looking at the camera stone-faced and with their pants properly pressed. In another you see El Mono Blanco with his hat from Sucre and his blue eyes set off by his light blue shirt.
You notice a small sore at the end of his nose, the mark of the cancer that was consuming him inside and out in his last years. Beneath the photo you read a version of the 23rd psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul . . .”
Luis Francisco Blanco Ayala, whom everybody in San Pablo knows as El Mono Blanco, was famous because at parties in the campo he frequently won the contest for the largest cassava or the bunch with the most bananas, and because he sold some fat pineapples that were like a clump of sugar. He himself planted the crops and weeded them on his farm.
He was a settler in Cerro Azul and that’s where he raised his children in the midst of poverty, working together with everybody in the mowing. But he was also a visionary, because he promoted the building of the first school with community labor, and he, with his own hands, used a machete to build the desks out of rustic wood.
One afternoon when he was cleaning out weeds in his pineapples, the helicopters started flying around over the settlement of Alto Berlín. It was the unmistakable sign that the little plane would appear on the horizon soon; there were always four or five helicopters securing the perimeter to avoid guerrilla attacks.
“ You heard a helicopter, went out to see if they were alone, that time, no,” recounts Adelaida Blanco, his oldest daughter. “But if you saw the little planes coming behind them, yes, it was the fumigators. So, when they saw it coming, where could they run? Which farm were they heading for?
Where were they headed? For the farm of El Mono Blanco, but his children at home didn’t even suspect that, because they weren’t growing any coca. The little plane started spraying the poison on the coca growing on a neighbor’s farm, on the next mountain, and ended up dropping it all over El Mono and his pineapples. The wind did the rest. “He got home soaking wet, all over, and smelling bad,” recalls Adelaida. “And that same night my father started to have a lot of itching. His skin got really red, especially his arms. His face looked terrible. So that weekend we all went to San Pablo. He started rubbing, and his face broke out in something like bumps, in his arms too, and that made him itch terribly.”
Adelaida describes the next years as a time of great sadness and nostalgia. Like the majority of the campesinos, Luis Blanco filed complaints and went around to the Mayors’ Offices nearby with a file full of papers and photos; he went to the Clerk’s Office in Barrancabermeja; he went to the Public Defender’s Office in Bucaramanga. He never obtained any compensation for his field of pineapples that were poisoned, nor for the damage to his health.
His health started to deteriorate right away and he developed a skin cancer that metastasized into several other organs. He endured operations and treatments, appointments and consultations, and at the end gangrene appeared in his leg and that led to a generalized infection. “So much labor, so much struggle, and there came a time when my father wasn’t even able to care for himself anymore,” says Adelaida. “He had to depend on other people, so that made him feel weaker in the face of all the adversity.”
For a while El Mono still had some determination to keep working, and his children bought him a cart to use when he went out early in the morning to sell vegetables in the village, but he had to take shelter in mid-morning because the sun bothered him a lot. “I’m the one that had to be there, at the exact moment that they came to fumigate,” he used to lament. Then Adelaida would tell him that he should try to try to release that hatred, that he could free himself from that which was ending his life. The atmosphere in the house turned disastrous; the old guy became more quiet and irritable every day. “My little farm, it was such a good farm,” El Mono would complain, “when we harvested the tomatoes, the beans . . .”
The effect of glyphosate on plants is very well known. It’s a poison that’s absorbed by the leaves and hearts of the plants. It inhibits the synthesis of several amino acids that are fundamental for plant life. Drying out and death of plants are a question of a few days. Its effects on human health continue to be argued, even though there is a huge collection of scientific evidence that relates exposure to the herbicide with genetic damage and different types of cancer.
The house on the corner that used to be green is now painted with a sheer and serene blue, the same color they painted the tomb of El Mono Blanco in the San Pablo cemetery. There are numerous oití trees all around the house, challenging the dreadful heat here, and in a large window, there is the store that El Mono Blanco’s wife, Doña Luisa, used to take care of. There was always some grandchild or other nearby, out of the many that he had; people remember that he was moving the hammock to the hallway in front until he turned the whole corridor around, trying to get away from the hot sun that really bothered his skin, irritating and weakening it. Any time he heard any military helicopter, he would call out, “There they go, the scumbags, wrecking people’s health, damaging the little that people have, destroying all the food there is in this region.”
Can you dry a man out, burn him until there’s nothing left but crumbling pieces of dead leaves? Can you turn a community into something like a parched and barren desert, a sterile wasteland where nothing will ever grow again?
On July 17, 2020, Luis Francisco Blanco Ayala, El Mono, got worse at the International Hospital of Colombia in Piedecuesta, where he agonized for days. Adelaida tells how he was no longer able to speak words; he was just looking with those blue eyes, so full of rage, so intimidating that they frightened her. At 5:00 in the afternoon a priest arrived, and a half hour later her sister Alvis. Adelaida grasped his hand; Alvis took the other. Then they began to talk to him. “Father, the Lord is my shepherd, we shall not want, with Him we will be at peace, it’s time to go now.”
She felt a gust of wind in the instant that life left her father’s body. Then she finished praying Psalm 23, the one that speaks of no fear of evil, lying down in green pastures, and beside still waters, to find, at least for one time, the paths of justice.