As all but one of the most prominent candidates for the Mayor of Bogotá sign a pact this week promising to make reconciliation and reparation for victims of the Colombian armed conflict a priority of their potential administrations, I think it’s an appropriate time to consider the very real consequences of Para-politics. This is my latest article published in The City Paper.
The plight of the 200 farmers and ranchers of Pichilín, in the verdant Montes de María
mountains, is familiar to those who follow Colombia’s trail of violence. But the resilience of
its residents is anything but ordinary. Working on a documentary in northeast of the country, I visited this community last December and at a poignant time when locals were remembering how their end of year celebrations ended in bloodshed.
“The parties were beautiful and many people participated,” reminisces Yarlis Salgado,
describing Pichilín’s famous patron saint festivals. “We had horse racing, brought a priest
to perform first communions and had a big gathering at night. Because of everything that
happened, this disappeared.” Pichilín is emptier these days, having lost more than half its
population by displacement. Those who remain live scattered between overgrown cinderblock homes, crumbling after a decade of neglect.
It’s early as I pile into a dented Land Rover in chaotic Sincelejo, capital of Sucre department and the largest city near Pichilín. Even extra-strength coffee can’t keep me awake as the sun turns the sky neon purple. One imagines a similarly sublime morning on Pichilin’s Saint’s Day in 1996, until trucks carrying 50 armed men interrupted the pre-dawn cacophony of roosters and grazing cebus.
Before leaving, the masked invaders killed 11 people– nine men and two women. The choice of victims, all community leaders and organizers, emphasized the apparent goal of the violence: to dissolve the community. They failed.
For that reason, I clench the seat of a dirt bike, weighed down by camera bags and supplies, trusting my teenage moto-taxista as we travel to a tiny village where power lines seem anachronistic next to thatch huts and mud floors. Pichilín did not disappear- at least not completely.
Expecting signs of civilization, I’m caught off guard when our motorcycle caravan stops instead near a few mud huts spread among scraggly bushes and wildflowers. Residents soon trickle out of their homes, curious at the prospect of visitors. Tourism is not an enterprise that has come to Pichilín.
Enjoying a coffee with our host, Pedro Salgado, whose relatives comprise a significant
chunk of the town’s population, the generous hospitality of Pichilín’s residents impresses me immediately. I can’t help but wonder who would want to harm such decent people. “Probably the paramilitaries,” suggests Pedro.
Conservative to the point of fascism, paramilitary organizations wreaked havoc in the Montes de Maria during the late 1990s and into this new century. As the sun begins to set, I fend off an onslaught of mosquitoes and continue pondering what might motivate such violence.
“It’s a strategic corridor,” explains Yarlis over a dinner of mote de queso, a cheese soup typical of the region. “The Montes de Maria are a good way to bring drugs from the interior to the coast without being detected.” It’s a logical explanation considering disputes over land still spawn violence in rural Colombia, especially as the recently sanctioned “Victim’s Law” encourages displaced persons to return to their homes.
After a restless night in a hammock, I spend the next day digging deeper into Pichilín’s pre-massacre history with one of its founding residents.
“We came here for the first time in 1971, as a group of 25 compañeros,” explains Ismael Rivera from the shade of his house’s dense palm roof. The relatively recent date takes me by surprise. “We formed a committee of farmers and worked the land. We kept creating to the point that we had sports fields and communal projects. The children could study and we had professors. Like that, we grew and strengthened.”
At its peak, Ismael remembers, Pichilín was home to almost two hundred families. The
massacre reduced that number considerably. Hundreds fled to nearby urban centers like
Sincelejo, Cartagena, and Barranquilla.
Local artist Miguel Feria left too, but quickly returned. Though saddened by the absence of old friends and neighbors, he remains optimistic for the future of the community.
“The most precious thing is that, if you go to bed happy and calm and, not at midnight, before dawn, or at any hour, somebody comes to do you harm, that’s beautiful,” notes Feria of the town’s current peacefulness.
Indeed, the town continues to grow as residents speak out against the past and present violence of their region. Ultimately, that seems to be the attraction for residents of Pichilín, who crave little more than the peace of natural rhythms and a simple life.
When the moto-taxis arrive to take us back into the folds of Sincelejo and a metropolis mindset, I feel relief at the anticipation of a shower. Yet, what strikes me more powerfully is a sense of shared humanity. Though we have little in common, the people of Pichilín welcomed me without question, opening their community to me.
The massacre of Pichilín was a failed attempt by criminals to break the back of strong
campesino values. Even though they were shaken to the core, the bonds of friendship and
family that brought a group of farmers together some 40 years ago remains profoundly strong.
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