By Carlos Marín Calderín, CAMBIOColombia, September 17, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
On Monday, September 11, soldiers from the 11th Brigade, disguised as FARC dissidents, arrived at the town (vereda) of Bocas del Manso (Tierralta), and threatened the residents with their weapons. A video showing the harassment went viral and the soldiers were suspended pending an investigation. Here is an account of what it has been like to live in that region.
High up in the Alto Sinú, far up in those rural solitudes of the Paramillo, close to Antioquia, but always far away from everything. As to the soldiers that threatened the people in the town of Bocas del Manso (Tierralta, Córdoba) this week, according to experts on strategy, among all of the mistakes they made was one of calculation: they forgot that the people that live in these jungle expanses have wide experience in losing everything. For more than 70 years, they have been losing family, land, and natural resources. More than 70 years in which they’ve been murdered time and time again, so therefore, one more camouflage doesn’t mean anything different from the terror they have already experienced.
Those of us born in Tierralta have got used to hearing shots and then, when we find out where, they’ve stopped, and then we hear some more shots. They’ve murdered the priests, Bernardo Betancur, asleep in a hammock, and Sergio Restrepo, in the doorway of the San José parish church; the former Mayors Edinson Salcedo and Héctor Acosta; the former City Clerk Carlos Londoño; the indigenous leader Kimy Pernía Domicó; Colonel Luis Díaz; Don Nicolás Negrete Babilonia; Neder Castellanos, Bishop Vidal’s nephew; social leader María del Pilar Hurtado in front of her son, and other hundreds of people whose names never appeared on the news. One statistic regarding this Department allows us to see the dimension of the conflict: 3,257 people registered as having disappeared in Córdoba, according to the web site of the Unit for the Search of Persons Believed to be Disappeared.
Along with a violent tradition, a seed of resistance was also sown here; for one thing, this is the territory of the Zenú indigenous people, with all that that implies with regard to slavery, which has been here for centuries; and for another thing, in more recent times, the Jesuit priests, in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, worked with the campesinos’ social organizing systems for the recovery of their rights. One of the members of the Society of Jesus, Mario Calderón, then retired, was murdered along with his partner by the AUC in Bogotá. Besides that, in different territories of Alto Sinú, international cooperation trained some of the communities in human rights, as it was a PDET (Development Programs with a Territorial Focus). That doesn’t mean that the fear has gone away, because in the video complaining of the attack by the soldiers disguised as guerrillas, you can see the fright of both children and adults. That means the people living in the region are different, people that may no longer be disposed to keep on being killed in a war that’s the same as all the other wars, where death follows them as it always has. THEY, the owners of productive soil bathed by dozens of rivers and streams which, while they have been the fountain of life for them, are also cemeteries.
The fact that some soldiers have dressed up as guerrillas generates a misconception that isn’t new either. The residents of Tierralta can tell you how, decades ago, when the EPL (Popular Liberation Army) was making an incursion or kidnapping someone, they would distribute FARC bracelets, and when the FARC did the same, they would distribute EPL badges in the area. Carrying out an attack without showing your face, like the masked and hooded soldiers in the video, is nothing new in this area.
Questions do arise: What was the purpose of pretending to be guerrillas? What could they do as guerrillas that they couldn’t do as military? And what was it that in the end they weren’t able to do it because they lost control of the situation? That resulted in President Gustavo Petro stating that what happened in Tierralta was not an isolated case, and also in his wondering what those who gave the order were trying to accomplish. “This wasn’t a message to the residents of El Manso,” said the President. “This was a message to Colombian society, trying to tell them that Colombia was drowning in chaos. The message was meant for a very specific group, the ranchers of Córdoba. Those who gave the order for what happened (. . .) those who gave the order did it because they want the ranchers to go back to being paramilitaries.”
Tierralta is located some 80 kilometers from Montería, the capital of the Department of Córdoba, between the Hills of Abibe and San Jerónimo, and in the ridges of the Parimillo National Nature Park. Founded in 1909, and with a population of 100,000, in early years it was a settlement formed by colonists who arrived there looking for lumber and fleeing from political fighting. In one of its districts (corregimientos) Santa Fe de Ralito, they conducted the dialogs that led to peace between the government and the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia). Santa Fe de Ralito is a village formerly known as El Cielo. That’s where they used to say that politicians and “decent people” from all over the country were coming to see the paramilitary bosses, including Salomón Feris Chadid, alias El Diablo (The Devil) or 08, in whose house they signed the Pact of Ralito. And they said, “Let’s go on up there,” meaning towards El Cielo, where the gods of those days were living.
Here, in the jurisdiction of this place, where the artist Delcy Morelos and the goal scorer Miguel Angel Borja were born, there have also been myths and legends surrounding the war: that the bullets didn’t hit El Paisa, the killer, because he was bewitched; that there were bags of dollars buried in the ranch that belonged to the narco-paramilitary. They had also given pardons to the lords of the war, some of them out of fear, and others for convenience, some to lords who were already well-known personages in society, and to others who were climbing and who ended up turned into the same: they turned into authorities who responded to the complaint of a stolen chicken, and up to a complaint of marital infidelity; they decided the color the houses should be painted and even the time that people were permitted to be in the street.
Here, the criminal and political influence has transcended the decades, and has passed from some names to others: Mariano Sandón (liberal guerrilla), Francisco Caraballo (EPL), Jhoverman Sánchez, El Manteco (FARC), Fidel Castaño, Carlos Castaño, Salvatore Mancuso, Diego Fernando Murillo, Don Berna (AUC); Daíro Úsuga (Clan del Golfo), and more. Some of them have produced crime and terror, starting their wars right there, and exported them, and bringing them there from other regions, but the dead, in the great majority, come from the side of the campesinos.
Speaking of campesinos, and of the assault in Bocas del Manso, the Córdoba writer, José Luis Garcés, familiar with the social comings and goings in the region, says that it’s unconscionable in any contrivance, to attack a defenseless campesino community that way. “The campesino is an entity of production and culture, and has to be protected and encouraged, and his work supported. In this country, it’s still not understood that our food and our living are directly connected to agricultural production, and the work of the campesino is almost always hidden or forgotten.”
The author invites us to rejuvenate our memory and social practice and to understand that the country depends entirely on what the campesino plants and raises. “And that campesino has to be supported completely. The government’s forces are there to protect them, not attack them,” said Garcés.
The paradox of this attack is that these government forces that he is referring to, by constitutional mandate, are required to defend the population, and it attacked them instead. It’s also ironic that a month and a half ago, these soldiers received training in human rights, in the protection of boys, girls, and teenagers, in legal and appropriate use of force, and in legal land operations. This would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.
The countryside of Tierralta has suffered from the same violence caused by different violent entities. After El Bogotazo, the liberal guerrillas deployed in the area; later, the EPL, the FARC, the AUC, the Clan del Golfo, but at all times, the drug traffickers, because this land, which is so productive, for good and for bad, offers benefits for planting coca and it has corridors for transporting the processed coca, perhaps in a couple of hours or less, to the ocean and from there to the whole world. Its geostrategic patrimony is also its curse.
Going back to the images showing the soldiers terrifying the people, you see two actions of bravery by the campesinos. First you see a woman with a baby in her arms. Moved to action by her feeling of dignity, she confronts some of the supposed FARC dissidents, potential killers up to now, because she didn’t know they were soldiers in the Colombian Army, armed with pistols and rifles. The words she uses to scold them are not her words alone, but rather the words of so many victims in so many areas of Colombia, mistreated so many times. Her words are a declaration of freedom and campesino fortitude, “You don’t get to order me to keep quiet, because I have rights, and you’re violating my rights! You’re criminals! Let’s see if you have the nerve to shoot me while I hold my baby in my arms! Tell me if you think that’s right, all of you compared with us, who don’t have any way to defend ourselves.”
The second act of bravery you can see in the images is the one of the person who recorded the video who, in spite of hearing the soldier click off the safety on his pistol, seeing him point it at her and threaten to shoot her, she doesn’t stop her recording. She records it so that people will believe her, because these people have never been believed, because their word has never been sufficient.
With regard to that, Victor Negrete Barrera, the social investigator and director of the Sinú Foundation, explains, “When a person has the conviction that he has done nothing wrong or blameworthy, he reacts in this way, the way of human beings, in spite of feeling exposed to violent actions. The people were convinced that they had done nothing wrong; that moved both men and women to react so bravely and with so much dignity, which must have surprised the soldiers carrying out this activity.”
Negrete Barrera believes it’s good to make events like this known widely, referring to the fact that now in the communities, no matter how poor they are, there is at least some technology that allows them to make complaints. “Reporting these things is fundamental, but not only in this kind of case, but also in letting them tell what their lives are like, especially these communities that are so remote, mistreated, forgotten, so they can tell us, remind us, of the necessities in the countryside, the basic services, education, and health, which they don’t receive; what is happening to nature, to the birds, so that they are able to tell us that there is a multitude of people in Colombia who are living in lamentable conditions.”
When they learned of the images of the phony guerrillas that went viral, the Women’s Network for Peace Corporation in Córdoba told CAMBIO that what happened in Alto Sinú is a violation of the human rights of the “campesino population at the hands of armed men who were part of Colombia’s Armed Forces.”
“Defending the peace should not cost us our lives,” said the women of the Corporation. “We call for support and accompaniment for this community, which right now is feeling rather disturbed. We demand that these actions not be repeated; they were just like what happened with the old Self-Defense Forces, when they massacred the people and raped so many women,” several women from different regions of Córdoba and who belong to the Corporation told this newspaper.
On this matter, the matter of the rapes and the abuses, a source in Tierralta, who asked that their name not be published, for fear of retaliation, told CAMBIO that in some of the schools here, they know of cases where girls and teenagers are showing signs of mental health problems after being “recruited” by people who took them to ranches in the region where they had sexual relations with armed men. The source said that some of them were “recruited” with gifts and special 15th birthday parties. “What’s going on here has no name, it’s a horror. There’s a network of teenage girls at the service of these people,” said the source.
At any event, in spite of their bravery and resilience, the campesinos of Bocas del Manso and surroundings are alone once more, although surrounded by the Manso, Madre de Dios, Esmeralda, Verde, Sinú Rivers; by the Mutatá, Saiza, Pechindé, El Viejo, Caimán streams. So much pain, forever pain, in contrast with so many natural riches and with that other kind of beauty: the Alto Sinú.