THE OTHER CRISIS IN THE ICBF
By Yahir Akerman, CAMBIOColombia, January 10, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
This is the story of another excruciating reason that Concepción “Concha” Baracaldo, Director of the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) has to resign. I wondered if we had missed it with the excitement of the New Year’s parties, but for the safety of children and minors, we have to pick it up again.
Not just because she’s one of first lady Verónica Alcocer’s neckties, or for her lack experience in the area. No. Not even for the troubling situation of childhood malnutrition in La Guajira at the end of last year, a crisis that up to now has left more than 20 Wayuu children dead, just since the commencement of this administration.
Sra. Baracaldo must resign because of what is going on in Guaviare. Let’s talk about that. According to official data, the ICBF office receives four complaints of sexual abuse of minors every week. Four every week. That’s 16 in a month. That’s 192 girls in a year whose childhood is stolen, their innocence, and the possibility of a life of mental health and of untroubled sexual health. And those are only the cases where complaints are filed or documented.
Another official statistic that breaks your heart is the age of the girls that are forced into a life of sexual service because of the food crisis in the area. Girls between 7 and 15 years old, mostly coming from the Nukak and Jiw indigenous ethnicities, are forced to trade their child-like bodies for money. Or in some cases, for something to eat.
All of this is happening on a street known as 40th in the City of San José del Guaviare, on the shores of the main river, and only five blocks from the local ICBF office. In full view of all the inhabitants and the authorities, these young girls are forced to prostitute themselves for 10,000 pesos (roughly USD $2.00 at today’s exchange rates), or food and sugar cane juice, or a dose of Bóxer, the viscous chemical they inhale to overwhelm the hunger.
Here’s something worse. The majority of the customers are soldiers deployed in the battalions close to the native settlements. The immediate result: 20% of the pregnancies at the main hospital in the city are indigenous minors. And the result in the long run: thousands of lives destroyed, lives of children who are the victims of many years of government neglect.
All of this information is part of an impressive investigation by journalist Gerardo Reyes for Univisión. Its title is “The Law of the Jungle”. The chilling story shows that the besieging of the children appears to be so common in the city that an official notice in one of the bars on 40th reminds the customers that it’s a crime to rape a minor. Like it was necessary to remind them.
Reyes relates that the majority of the indigenous girls in the streets of San José de Guaviare don’t know how to speak Spanish. The only thing they are able to do in their broken language is ask for bread and soda pop. The men that approach them refer to their sexual encounters as “makusear” which comes from Nukak-Makú, the complete name of the nomadic tribe to which some of the victims belong. It’s the last tribe of hunter-gatherers on the American continent and they were the last nomadic peoples never contacted in the Amazon jungle, for which there exists scientific evidence, documented by the Smithsonian Institution in 1981. That’s how we are treating our ancestral and cultural patrimony.
The investigation delves into several horrible cases. One of them is that of an indigenous girl 15 years old who was raped by several soldiers in a public bathroom in San José in August of 2019. According to RAYA magazine, which had access to the minor girl’s testimony, the soldiers locked her in a place where they were sleeping and raped her there for four days, not giving her anything to eat. The teenager was able to escape the rapists, to live a life in which, sadly, her emotions are still kidnapped.
In the year following the episode, the then-commander of Colombia’s Army, General Eduardo Zapateiro, admitted that the Army was investigating 118 of its members involved in abuses and sexual violations in several regions of the country, including in Guaviare. The investigations evidently found nothing, and now, in January 2023, there is not a single conviction for all of those acts. Ajúa!
The Reyes investigation continued into a darker place, where he was able to determine that the Attorney General’s Office has maintained in impenetrable secrecy another investigation about the case of the rape by a United States soldier of a Nukak girl who was ten years old. You read that right. Ten years old!
The file relates that, in 2019, the child gave birth to a baby in the hospital in San José del Guaviare. The little girl was taken to the clinic by a relative who found her next to the flowage of the river that was close to the indigenous reservation. She was trying to abort the product of the rape she had suffered. Reyes documented that the child gave birth to a baby by caesarian section, but she was not even strong enough to nurse it, because she was in shock, and because she was just a child herself; she didn’t have the capacity to understand what was happening to her.
One characteristic of the baby received a lot of attention by the local people. It was a baby boy with indigenous features, with green eyes, of emerald color. This is a rarity in this area. It led to asking the child to describe how she had become pregnant by a “gringo” soldier who had been at the installations of a battalion near the settlement.
The case came to light in October 2021. Journalist Natalia Pedraza of the EL ESPECTADOR newspaper filed a complaint about what had happened. She documented it with sources from the area, who said that the United States soldier had deceived the girl, offering her something to eat, and then had raped her several times, which had left her with severe injuries.
Remember, the child was ten years old when she gave birth. Because of that, she and her son remained in the custody of the ICBF as required by law. And, as is also required by law, not just here but also in the United States, the United States soldier, like other soldiers involved in rapes of indigenous minors in the area, are to receive at least from 10 to 20 years imprisonment. But nothing happened until now.
The journalist’s work would have come to the attention of the area Director of the Attorney General’s Office in Guaviare, Isabel Léon. She established that her investigation of the “gringo” soldier is still active, but that no charges have been drafted. “It’s a case in which the Assistant Prosecutor is aware of the situation, and has been carrying out all of the pertinent investigative steps.” Which says nothing at all.
Especially because this is not the first time that United States military personnel have been involved in charges of sexual abuse of minors in Colombia. In 2015, Univisión gave evidence of the case of a 12-year-old child who was raped by a Sergeant and a contractor of the United States Army at a military base in the City of Melgar in 2007.
Because of that case, a joint commission was created in the framework of the peace negotiations in Havana with the leaders of the FARC. The commission prepared a report that revealed that at least 53 minors had allegedly been abused sexually by United States military personnel and private contractors. This, from a country whose ex-President and now a presidential candidate,, Donald Trump, launched his 2016 campaign with cymbals and drums, accusing immigrants from Latin America of being rapists.
There are no convictions in any of these cases. And in spite of the fact that it’s a historic problem, the current management of ICBF ought to be leading the effort to prevent such situations and accompany the procedures needed to bring the guilty to justice. Somebody must pay for these crimes. Right now the only ones who have paid are indigenous children. They are the ones that end up suffering this crisis with their own bodies, their traumatic past, their cruel and painful present, and their uncertain future.
 Ajúa is a motivational cry in the Colombian Army, introduced by General Navas when he was Army Commander. The letters stand for Arrojo, Justicia, Unión, Abnegación (Courage, Justice, Unity, Self-Denial).