By Camilo Pardo Quintero, EL ESPECTADOR, June 5, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The armed groups in northern Cauca are pursuing the boys in this municipality in order to recruit them and load them up with guns or coca. According to the indigenous authorities in the area, the government has left them on their own. The families don’t complain because they are afraid to, and the people in both rural and urban areas are left to the mercy of those violent people.

The day we got to Caldono, May 11, the streets were empty and the businesses already closed, although it wasn’t even near nightfall. It wasn’t even 6 p.m. and none of the traditional stores in the town, which are usually open until late at night, had the doors open. The Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column had decreed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in the municipality, starting May 4. They circulated a pamphlet that declared the indigenous authorities to be “military objectives”, and gave them 24 hours to resign their positions. “If you don’t, the same thing that happened to Yesid Caña, (a leader and artisan who was murdered on May 1) will happen to you,” reads the message.

Caldono was the Colombian municipality that suffered the second-most armed takeovers by the now-defunct FARC during the armed conflict, after Toribío (Cauca). The demobilization of the FARC guerrillas in 2016 signified a partial calm for these Nasa people during the first year after the Agreement. It was because nearly 400 members of the Jacobo Arenas column began reintegrating successfully to civilian life in the ETCR[1] Los Monos. The coca plantings were reduced significantly, in accord with the government, and as the months went by, more and more of the Caldono families returned to their properties to rebuild their houses and way of life, which at the time of the bullets and tatucos (homemade mortar shells) had been torn away from them. The campaign of return was headed by the local parish.

The great majority of these advances are now in the past, and remembering them always leaves a sensation of nostalgia; a knot in your throat when you talk about a peace that is just about gone from this municipality. The boys of Caldono have turned into constant targets of the armed groups which, now that the FARC are gone, are fighting to the death over the control of territory, whether it’s to take over drug trafficking routes—for which Caldono is strategic because of its geographic position—or to exercise control over the population with their military actions.

According to the Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca (CRIC), in this last year more than 100 Caldono young people have disappeared. Of this total, the authorities estimate that more than 70 were recruited forcibly by armed groups in the region and taken to other municipalities in Cauca and the Pacific part of Nariño Department. The indigenous authorities in the municipality have documented only one formal complaint of recruitment so far in 2022, but they insist that the undercount is enormous.

According to the Police Inspection Office in Caldono, in the first four months of this year, ten people have been murdered, among them a fisherman, two campesinos and two teenagers (14 and 17 years old). In 2021, the Police there recorded 20 homicides of people younger than 25, and three murders of women. The most violent towns (veredas), according to them, are El Tablón and Santa Bárbara.

Julio César Pascue, indigenous Vice Governor of the San Lorenzo Assembly, explained that the organizations of the dissidents called Carlos Patiño, Dagoberto Ramos, and Jaime Martínez are the armed groups present in the municipality, and that they are fighting each other for control of the drug trafficking routes. “For months now, they have normalized killing, and taking our kids away to join their ranks. We see police in Siberia and the main town in Caldono, but the soldiers are not to be seen anywhere. The closest military we have is the José Hilario López Batallion in Popayán. We are all alone.”

Why do they kill them or take them away to the war? What do they have against the youngest people in Caldono? Those are two of the questions heard most often by the indigenous authorities here. Some of them say that it’s a difficult struggle to carry on because “it’s against ghosts.” According to Lucio Güetio, the Territorial Counselor for CRIC in Caldono, that’s the way that the groups operate in public, but you don’t necessarily know exactly when they are going to attack, or go to the boys as a strategy to toughen their fronts in combat, and you don’t know their way of running their illegal economies.

“They’re taking our kids to El Tambo, El Naya, Argelia, to the district (corregimiento) of Tacueyó and to Suárez. There’s quite an undercount, because the families are afraid to complain, so there are cases that are out of our hands. There are agencies like Family Welfare or other organizations that wash their hands of it with prevention campaigns and pursuit of the recruiting, saying that as we are an indigenous territory, it’s our job to look after our communities—we are the guards. They turned us into plenipotentiaries with a jurisdiction that ought to be shared by more agencies. We have been able to rescue four boys this year, but the work is incredibly complicated, because the armed groups themselves know exactly who we are,” says Güetio.

Recruitment. And kidnappings?

Mother Laura School is located at the entrance of the urban part of Caldono when you come in from the District of Siberia, very close to the Pan-American Highway. This school year opened with 625 students and by the middle of May there were only 615. Of those ten that dropped out we know that three moved away from Caldono, four more left to work growing coffee, but there is no precise information about the other three.

There are those who say that they left the municipality in search of other living opportunities; and others are spreading the rumor that they went with an armed group, whether voluntarily or forcibly. Alberto Silva, the Director of the School, prefers not to speculate on those versions. He doesn’t want to contradict his neighbors, but he is inclined toward caution, respecting the families of the people who have disappeared.

“We can’t say who our enemies are now for two reasons. First, because before, all the combat was only between the Colombian Army and the guerrillas, and now there are several illegal armed groups fighting among themselves. Second, if you make a specific allegation, you automatically become a military objective for them. We have some clues as to who they are that take the kids most often, but you can’t say much more than that. We know that some of the boys have ended up in Tumaco, in the municipalities in the Cañon del Micay and in Tacueyó . . . no more than that,” he said.

For Silva, the armed groups in Caldono haven’t just limited themselves to taking the boys away with promises of a better future. They use force, no matter the day, the time, or whether they are in a rural or an urban area. “Before, they would show the kids money, motorcycles, and luxuries. Right now they’re starting to take them away in any manner whatsoever. Some high-end SUV’s that nobody in town recognizes, or, lacking that, a couple of high-cylinder motorcycles have been going around the school, trying to abduct the kids. In the beginning of May, I witnessed the suffering of a mother who saw how her daughter escaped being taken away by one of those motorcycles as she fought back against the attackers,” added the Director.

The Police in Caldono have learned that there is a pattern behind these kidnappings and attempted kidnappings that has raised awareness. The vehicles they use for these crimes have been reported stolen in areas that are widely controlled by the Dagoberto Ramos Dissidents. “Some kidsnatchers in the Dagoberto are assigned to grab boys and girls for their commanders. And they do it coldly and brashly . . . they don’t care if they are in front of the school or beside the church. They act and they move any way they want,” said a Police official who asked that his identity not be revealed.

The arrival of the ELN

To Father Javier Porras, the parish priest in Caldona, it’s a major development that the ELN have arrived in his municipality. “Here the armed gangs have painted graffiti on our walls for years, but never with the indicia of the ELN. This speaks of the maximum complexity of the conflict in Caldono,” he says.

According to the priest, the members of this guerrilla group have come because of the temptation to take over a territory that historically had been coopted by the FARC or their dissidents. “Their interest in our town is because we are a corridor for drug trafficking. They take the kids to help them pick up speed and move in with the people that reap coca like they do in places like Suárez or El Plateado (Argelia Department). I feel tired out, they are killing our boys and pushing them into a no man’s war . . . We always look for them when they disappear, and there’s no feeling more horrible than when you find one of their bodies, when we still had hope of getting them back together with their families,” he said.

Lucio Güetio has rescued young people and has seen throughout this year how four of them had been killed after having been recruited. His task is painful and emotionally exhausting, because he has to organize the search campaigns, talk with the commanders of the armed groups that probably have them, locate them, and furnish information to their families.

For Güetio, the complaint is clear and correct: “They stigmatize us because we’re from Caldono, and they put down our children as coca growers or new armed actors. Ever since the Minga we had in the town of El Caimito, they have their eyes on us and they won’t leave us in peace for who knows how long. I don’t want to see any more mothers crying or any more children out of school and taking up arms. Even though they are trying to shut us up, we won’t leave it alone . . . we will always fight for our kids because they are the soul of Caldono,” insisted the indigenous leader.

[1] ETCR are Country Spaces for Training and Re-incorporation.

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