Exorcising the Ghosts of Paramilitary Violence: Reclaiming Liberty in Libertad
Marco Tulio Pérez arrived in the remote Afro-Colombian community of Libertad in 2000. One of his first acts was to organize a beauty pageant for local girls between 15 and 18 years of age. But this pageant was to be much more than just another example of a community engaging in one of Colombia’s favorite pastimes because Pérez, also known as “el Oso” (the Bear), was the new leader of the right-wing paramilitaries in Libertad. The “prize” for the 15 highest-ranking girls in the pageant was a two-week stay on the small farm that the Bear and his troops had commandeered for their living quarters. The mass rape that occurred during that two weeks signified the beginning of a brutal four-year siege that the residents of Libertad would be forced to endure at the hands of the paramilitaries. It is a violent legacy that the community is now struggling to overcome.
For decades, the 4,000 residents of Libertad, located near the Caribbean coast in the department of Sucre, had managed to avoid becoming embroiled in Colombia’s long-running conflict. According to Yamid Caravallo, president of the local community council, there were no police or army bases located in the village and although leftist guerrillas would occasionally pass through, they never harassed anyone. But Libertad’s relative tranquility came to an end in 1997 with the arrival of a right-wing paramilitary group called “Los Carranzas,” which began laying down their version of the law in Libertad.
Three years later, soldiers from the Colombian military arrived in the region to drive out the paramilitaries. However, it quickly became apparent that the military was not there to liberate the residents of Libertad. According to Caravallo, the soldiers were simply opening the door to allow rival paramilitaries belonging to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) to seize control of Libertad and its surrounding environs. After forcing out the fighters of Los Carranzas, the army withdrew and members of the Heroes of Montes de María, a bloc of the AUC under the command of Rodrigo Cadena, became the new rulers of the village. Cadena and his fighters were responsible for more than 75 massacres in the departments of Sucre and Bolívar in 1999 and 2000 alone—including those committed in the villages of El Salado and Chengue—resulting in the deaths of more than 3,000 people.
In 2000, Cadena appointed the Bear as leader of the paramilitary fighters based in Libertad, some of whom were local youths that had been recruited. Over the next four years, the Bear and his men essentially laid siege to the remote village. According to Josefa Sarmiento, a 35-year-old widow struggling to feed her ten children, “Life here was very rich, but when the paramilitaries came everything changed. They would come to the house and take the crops we cultivated. We couldn’t raise animals because they said that they were the owners of all the animals.” Thirty-two villagers were killed between 2000 and 2004; most of the victims were men taken from their homes in the middle of the night. In 2002, Sarmiento was forced to watch paramilitaries kill her husband. “They forced the door down,” she says. “And they killed him right here inside my house.”
The Bear and his men controlled every aspect of life in Libertad. “We began to live the Law of the Bear,” explained one woman. “It involved psychological torture, physical torture, massacres and disappearances for almost four years.” Local residents could not leave Libertad without permission and the Bear would issue fines to anyone who violated his “laws,” often further impoverishing villagers who had few material possessions. Sometimes, as a form of punishment, women were forced to clean the central plaza under the hot midday sun with a sign hanging around their necks stating: “I am a gossip.”
Rape became the principal weapon of war that the Bear and his fighters wielded against the women of Libertad. In one instance that occurred in 2003, the Bear ordered a 17-year-old girl who had been in an argument with her neighbor to pay a fine of $100. When she did not have the money to pay, she was taken to the Bear’s farm. Several years later, the girl described what had transpired with the Bear to Cecilia Zarate of the Colombia Support Network:
He threw me on the bed and forcefully started to kiss me-they were bitter kisses with a poisonous taste and smell. He did what he pleased with me, he forced me to touch his penis and to put it in my mouth and even to have anal sex with him. This continued for three days. On the fourth day, after he had finished using me, he had his men do the same things to me all at the same time. Then he sent me home and told me that if I told anyone, he would kill me.
Many of the women who were raped by paramilitaries ended up pregnant. According to Adriana Porras, a local nurse who has headed an organization for victims of the violence for the past three years, the fear instilled in the villagers by the threats, violence and rampant sexual abuse left them “dead in life.”
But in 2004, the villagers decided they could not take it anymore and began organizing a resistance to the paramilitary occupation. “The people were very tired; we did not have anything left to lose because we had already lost it all. We knew that the District Attorney’s office had been infiltrated by Rodrigo Cadena, that everyone had been infiltrated and that we were alone,” explains Porras. “We began to organize, we assembled with sticks, with the machetes that we had, women and men, and we began to guard the entrances to the town and only allowed the bus to the shrimp plant and the public bus to pass, nothing else.”
The villagers lynched one paramilitary and captured several more who were present in the village at the time. They also sent letters to the office of President Alvaro Uribe, the Ministry of Justice and to other branches of the national government explaining their plight and pleading for help. Ten days after launching their civil resistance campaign, the villagers received a letter from Cadena. The paramilitary leader claimed he knew nothing of the atrocities that had occurred in Libertad and that he would pay for the harm done to the villagers. He then reminded the resisters that they did not have sufficient weapons to fight him and invited them to join his organization. But according to Porras, “The community was determined. We said that we did not want a single paramilitary and if they were going to kill us, then kill us, but we would not tolerate a single paramilitary in Libertad.”
A potential massacre was thwarted when Colombian marines were deployed to the region shortly thereafter because Cadena and his paramilitary fighters had refused to participate in the demobilization talks between the AUC and the government. The marines captured the Bear and not long afterwards the militant villagers forced his successor, known as Diomedes, to jump to his death from a bridge. Finally, with the help of the Colombian military, the villagers successfully liberated themselves. Since then, the residents of Libertad have struggled to come to terms with the legacy of the violence bestowed upon them.
One entity that has been helping villagers cope with their ordeal is the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (CNR). The CNR was formed under the Justice and Peace Law, which established the rules for the demobilization of the AUC. The CNR consists of representatives from civil society organizations and its objective is to oversee the healing process of communities affected by paramilitary violence. It is currently funded in part by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international donors. The project is also supposed to be utilizing the wealth turned in by demobilized AUC leaders under the Justice and Peace Law to provide reparations for communities affected by paramilitary violence. However, according to Ana Teresa Bernal of CNR, “We have seen very little of this money.”
The CNR not only dispatches people from Bogotá to help the communities in which it is working, it also recruits local residents to become engaged in the process. One such resident in Libertad is Porras, who coordinates the CNR’s activities at the community level. Porras explains that things are slowly improving in Libertad. The community now has a doctor. She and others are organizing women and children in an effort to overcome the psychological problems that many villagers are experiencing as a result of the violence they have endured or witnessed. “I personally believe, at least in Libertad, there have been great advances with the presence of the CNR’s pilot project, with people beginning to speak and learning their rights,” says Porras. “But I also believe that we still remain in a difficult situation.”
While there is no longer an overt paramilitary presence in Libertad, the threat of violence still exists. “There are groups that are rearming. Moreover, many did not demobilize and many of them remain in the communities,” explains Porras, who has received death threats because of her work. “Many small groups remained inside the communities and began to organize, and they began to act inside the communities, not in as visible a form as previously, but the people of the community know they are there and the fear still exists.”
Daniel Rocha, who directs a popular theater project in Bogotá, is working with the CNR in an effort to use the arts as a means of empowering the residents of Libertad by helping them to process what has happened to them and to become aware of their political, social and civil rights. But the process of reconstructing social and cultural spaces is difficult, explains Rocha, because “trust within the community and even within families has been shattered. Some of those who collaborated with the paramilitaries still live here. And many women are angry with their husbands for doing nothing when they were raped.”
Because the recent presence of the paramilitaries, and the corresponding violence, has come to dominate the identity of the community, Rocha is seeking to reconstruct Libertad’s history. “This community has a history, and we need to reconstruct the history that existed before the armed groups arrived,” explains Rocha. “That is to say, they do not exist only because they are victims. Historically, they existed before the conflict and so we are trying to regain that hidden history for them.”
In addition to the CNR projects that are addressing the many psychological problems experienced by villagers, people’s physical health needs are also being attended to through the provision of water purifiers and access to a doctor. But the national and departmental governments have done little to improve the dire economic situation in Libertad that has left most villagers mired in extreme poverty. One reason for the neglect is the infiltration of both federal and departmental government posts in Sucre by the paramilitaries. In fact, Sucre sits at the center of the “para-politics” scandal with 35 politicians having been investigated or tried for links to paramilitaries.
It was the armed presence of paramilitaries during the late 1990s and early 2000s that led to electoral victories at every level of government for pro-paramilitary candidates, not only in Sucre, but throughout Colombia’s Caribbean coast region. As Caravallo explains, “Here in Libertad, the armed men would tell a person ‘vote for so-and-so, and if you don’t vote for them we will kill you.’ There was a lot of pressure here.”
For many, the collusion between the government and the paramilitaries lies at the root of the violence perpetrated against the villagers. “The Colombian government has yet to assume any responsibility for what happened in Libertad,” says Porras. “The CNR is a project assisted by the international community but the harm caused by the paramilitaries is the responsibility of the State. Why is it the responsibility of the State? Because it did not maintain a presence, and the presence it did have was extensively infiltrated by the paramilitaries.” Meanwhile, the residents of Libertad, with the help of the CNR, continue their struggle to exorcize the ghosts of the paramilitary violence that ruptured their community for more than four years.
In an ironic twist, Porras found herself wielding the power of life and death over several paramilitaries from Libertad while working as a nurse in the hospital in the nearby town of San Onofre. During the two months of intense fighting between the Colombian marines and Cadena’s men in 2004, several wounded paramilitaries were brought into the hospital. Some people in Libertad wanted her to kill the paramilitaries by injecting gasoline into their veins. Porras, however, refused to exact revenge for either herself or her community.
“When a wounded paramilitary arrived, I never saw him as a paramilitary. For me, he was a patient. And besides, many of them were our boys, from our community,” she explains. “It filled me with pain to see them in that situation because they were part of our community, our youths. They ended up in the paramilitaries out of ignorance or economic necessity. Despite what the people demanded of me, the people of Libertad are very good, and in the end they understood. And that fortified us.”
The degree of compassion and humanity exhibited by Porras suggests that the residents of Libertad just might succeed in their struggle to free themselves from their violent past. It is a struggle that is being waged by millions of other Colombians who have also suffered from the country’s ongoing conflict; people who are much more than just victims.