Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Where threatening graffiti and mud baths are all part of a day’s work

AUC”. The letters were very clearly drawn on the wall of the house in charcoal from a cooking fire. The clear, sharp outline of the letters was a clear indication that the writer or writers just recently left their mark. Perhaps the same individuals had been the ones who scratched “AUC 14” into the cement stove of the house we had just visited. Concern was evident in the faces and voices of the community members we were with: The intention to threaten and intimidate Peace Community members was clear: “AUC” stands for Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-defense Forces of Colombia - the principal paramilitary organization in the country, and the houses, though empty at the time, belong to Peace Community members, who stay there when tending the farms some of them maintain in the area, called Las Nieves.

We were passing through the vereda of Las Nieves (a vereda is kind of like a rural township; see * below for more explanation), on our way home from the vereda of La Esperanza. Our job was to accompany a couple of Community leaders to a meeting with Peace Community members in La Esperanza, hang out while the meeting was happening, then go back with the leaders. We don’t always accompany community leaders on trips to other settlements of the community, but there had been combat recently in the area and the military was maintaining a strong presence, so leaders were worried for their safety and asked for our accompaniment. In hindsight, the graffiti we discovered was another good reason for our presence.

La Esperanza is about a 3-hour hike up and over the mountain that rises above the cluster of homes where we live. Well, it’s 3 hours if you’re a campesino used to that kind of hiking. For us gringos, especially for Julia and me who had never done such a trip, racing up narrow rocky paths and trudging through calf-deep mud is no easy task. Though I managed not to loose a boot to the quick-sand-like mud, I came close several times. When we finally arrived 5 hours after our departure, I wasn’t sure my legs would ever be the same again, and could not imagine how I was going to do the reverse walk the very next day. I felt pretty defeated, to be honest, because with all the biking and yoga I’d been doing before I came here, I considered myself to be in pretty good shape. I’ve been telling myself that the heat and the altitude here make the exertion more difficult, which sort of makes me feel better.

Despite the difficulty of climbing the mountain, parts of the journey were certainly extraordinary. From the top one can see above the tree-covered hills all the way to the Golf of Urubá and even distinguish all the shipping vessels slowly making their way in and out of the ports. We can also get cell phone reception up there, which is a rarity around here. And during the journey we passed through quite the range of flora, from dense jungle complete with birds of paradise and other exotic flowers to abandoned cane fields. And lots of mud.

Not only was this my first accompaniment to a vereda, it was also my first time trying to spend the whole night in a hammock. I did succeed in spending the night in said hammock, but the sleeping part didn’t go quite as well. I’ve taken many a nap in hammocks, so I don’t think comfort was the issue; I think it was more an issue of the dogs and pigs that kept running underneath and knocking my butt, as well as 4am wake-up call from the roosters and the cooking and chatting of the women soon thereafter. (Not that roosters don’t crow at 4am at home… I’ve just learned to put in earplugs and deal with it.)
Upon returning home – after a long night of recovery sleep in real beds – my teammates and I reflected on the AUC graffiti we had seen: Were these threatening letters left by compatriots of the soldiers we had seen throughout the area, and whose boot prints we had seen climbing the path to Las Nieves? Or had those soldiers simply allowed the perpetrators to go about their dirty work? 

Regardless, the graffiti is significant not just because it’s a clear attempt to threaten and intimidate members of the community, but also because the government has been claiming that paramilitaries don’t really exist anymore. Claiming victory in efforts to demobilize paramilitaries under the “Justice and Peace” law (which I described in a previous post), the government says that the presence of non-military, non-guerrilla armed actor is the work of bandas emergentes. These so-called “new groups” are supposedly just criminals and narcotraffickers, not politically motivated death squads with ties to the military like supposedly-no-longer-existent paramilitaries. 

The graffiti we saw, as well as other incidents such as checkpoints manned by civilians with non-army-issued weapons that colleagues of ours have encountered in a nearby town, make it clear that by no stretch of the imagination are paramilitaries or their influence extinct. In fact, as of late 2006 new paramilitary groups have been documented throughout Colombia, including here in Urubá. One group began to send out “official” threats and warnings to individuals, groups and communities (including the Peace Community) in late 2006. Another group has also remobilized in the area and the two groups have been fighting for control of the contested narcotrafficking corridor that is Urabá.

And, after that trip our 2 hour walk home from town seems like a piece of cake!

*Vereda: a large area of land in which folks have farms, some have houses, and there’s typically a caserío, or cluster of houses that one might call a town center, if one could even call something so small a town. The vereda I live in is called La Unión.


Robin M. said...

I'd like to publish little bits from your blog in our Quaker meeting newsletter, since we were involved in supporting Chris when he was the accompanier in La Union. I hope that will be all right. If you want to tell me otherwise, you can contact me through my blogger profile.

Robin Mohr
San Francisco Friends Meeting

Moira said...


Sara Koopman said...

you are both shining in that photo! it's fabulous! (and I don't just mean with sweat :)

well done on the walk - that there hike is no joke, I know. I really can't imagine how the 5 vereda international walk is possibly going to work.

MaryB said...

I love to read your posts and share your experiences. I'm so glad you're doing well--and are safe!