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A Refuge from Violence in a Forgotten Corner of Colombia
A Refuge from Violence in a Forgotten Corner of Colombia

A Refuge from Violence in a Forgotten Corner of Colombia

Throughout Colombia, social leaders are a staple of community life, providing services and defending rights that the state does not. But these activists face growing dangers from the criminals, ex-paramilitaries and self-styled guerrillas whose rackets they disrupt. This is one woman’s story.

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ALTOS DE CAZUCÁ, Soacha – In mid-March, when Colombia announced a lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus, Luz Mary knew what to do. She had faced confinement before. The fast-talking mother of two sealed up her house and started living from room to room. 

When she had shut herself in before, Luz Mary was hiding from a different kind of death threat. The armed men who run her neighbourhood had made it clear to her: if she didn’t disappear temporarily, she might vanish forever.

“There have been days and weeks when I could not leave the house”, she recalled. “You learn behaviours – you learn to see behaviours in the neighbourhood that indicate if things are hot outside”.

Luz Mary is a community activist – someone Colombians would call a “social leader”. Her work outside her home focuses on the children in her impoverished neighbourhood. She leads an enrichment program called Semillas y Raices (Seeds and Roots) that exposes kids to music and theatre while teaching them basic life skills like manners and hygiene.

Semillas y Raices provides more than instruction to its participants. It also offers refuge. Luz Mary’s house looks out over a steep hillside with no paved roads and water pipes poking haphazardly through the stony dirt tracks between blocks of dwellings. Delincuentes, as the locals call them, haunt the neighbourhood and threaten its inhabitants. These toughs are rumoured by residents to be linked to national drug trafficking cartels. Luz Mary describes herself as a pebble in their shoes, because she provides a safe haven for the children they try to recruit – boys and girls as young as eight or nine whom the delincuentes use as lookouts or runners completing small tasks, in exchange for food or treats that the kids’ parents cannot afford. 

Semillas y Raices “is a way to avoid drugs and the street”, said a teenage girl sitting in Luz Mary’s makeshift rooftop theatre. “If I wasn’t here, I would be on the street”.

Luz Mary’s work is unpaid – the program earns no money, so she funds it through odd jobs that she cobbles together, what she collects from trading discarded recyclable materials and the occasional small donation. The work is also unsafe. She has received numerous death threats. When she reported these to the authorities, she says, they essentially shrugged. So, she does what she can to protect herself. Children in the program warn Luz Mary if they overhear people making threats in the neighbourhood, and she spent her savings installing closed-circuit cameras around her house. Late at night, she often stares at the fuzzy black-and-white feed, afraid to sleep. She can’t imagine leaving the children in her program, but she still thinks every day about running away from Altos de Cazucá. 

Extraordinary as it is, Luz Mary’s story is echoed across Colombia. Social leaders are ubiquitous in city districts and villages countrywide, where they often provide services and defend rights that the state does not. Activists and organisers are such a staple of community life that the country’s landmark 2016 peace accord, between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, recognised them and promised state protection for their work. The accord also promised deep reforms to combat inequality and safeguard communities from violent predation.

A wave of assassinations has taken the lives of more than 415 social leaders over the last four years.

Yet instead of gaining a measure of protection, many leaders like Luz Mary have found themselves facing growing danger since 2016. A wave of assassinations has taken the lives of more than 415 social leaders over the last four years. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend. A six-month national lockdown rendered presumed targets like Luz Mary sitting ducks at home. Activists couldn’t leave their residences to report threats or attacks to the police and often lacked the ability to connect to the internet to do so remotely. Policymakers, already prone to overlooking the plight of places like Altos de Cazucá, found themselves still more distracted by the public health crisis. 

Luz Mary became a leader by accident, having moved to a hillside slum in Soacha, a city south of Bogotá, without knowing the misery she would find there. Residents like to say that to understand why Soacha has long attracted narco-traffickers, militias and guerrillas, one need only look at a map. The highway that cuts the city in half is the main artery linking the capital to Colombia’s south, including its largest port, Buenaventura. Even more alluring to criminals are the porous, meandering boundaries between Soacha’s neighbourhoods and Bogotá itself. Police monitor shipments along the main road, but no one watches the flow of goods and people along the rest of the unmarked municipal border stretching across rolling hills dotted with improvised homes. 

“There is a legal and administrative vacuum here”, says one youth leader who lives along the border. “This neighbourhood belongs to no one”. 

In the 1990s, the FARC’s Eastern Front saw the Soacha-Bogotá corridor as vital to its strategy of encircling the capital. It planted fighters in places like Altos de Cazucá. Then paramilitary groups from the other side of the conflict joined the fray. These right-wing militias, an extralegal force linked to the state, found their way to Soacha around 1997 as both they and the government sought to push the guerrillas out of Bogotá and prevent the FARC from achieving its objective. 

Altos de Cazucá has remained a cauldron of violence ever since. Thousands of paramilitaries demobilised from 2003 to 2006, yet in many neighbourhoods of Soacha, residents say the groups never really left. The names changed but the structures remained in place, particularly hierarchies linked to the illicit economy. Today, uniformed men don’t patrol the streets, as the paramilitaries once did. But the delincuentes don’t need to wear fatigues to strike terror into locals’ hearts. Everyone knows who they are and what they do – they shake down businesses and punish any resident who interferes with their illicit control. 

As they were under the guerrillas and paramilitaries, Soacha’s neighbourhoods are major trafficking corridors, especially for drugs but also for weapons and other contraband as well as smuggled migrants. Cocaine, crack and marijuana move into Bogotá, the wealthiest domestic market. Inputs and commercial products needed to process narcotics move out. Authorities have seized coca paste, but also refined cocaine, indicating that Soacha is also likely home to drug labs that add value – and profit – to what is trafficked in and out. 

The same lawlessness that has rendered Soacha’s mountainsides lucrative for trafficking has made them affordable for many labourers who work in Bogotá but cannot pay its much higher rents. Local officials call Soacha a “receptacle of victims” because much of its population arrived after being internally displaced during more than half a century of internal conflict. In recent years, the municipality has also attracted tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants. Officially, Soacha is home to about 645,000 people, but residents and the mayor’s office tell Crisis Group that the true population surpasses one million. They live – often packed together – in just 200,000 housing units, many of them at risk of landslides or floods.

Soacha’s slum neighbourhoods are known locally as invasiones, because many are built on un-titled or private land occupied by force. Development tends to follow a pattern: tierreros, powerful brokers linked to organised crime, the delincuentes or corrupt politicians, seize patches of land to build substandard housing. Tierreros then sell the plots to the desperate poor, even offering them loans so they can cover the purchase price. Every few years, the brokers resell the same land and displace the residents, who have no legal recourse. 

Luz Mary knows this bait-and-switch tactic all too well. She and her husband couldn’t afford an apartment in Bogotá, but in Altos de Cazucá, a tierrero convinced them that they could own their own house. The sellers said the land would surely be legalised in a couple of years, so they took out a several-thousand-dollar loan to buy it. They are still paying off the debt, but they now understand that the plot will never truly be theirs. 

Since there are few state services in Soacha, illicit actors seek to profit from everything from public transport to water, piling further burdens onto the deprived residents. Many shop owners pay a “vaccine” tax to whichever local group claims to provide protection. The groups engage in extortion and ruthlessly punish non-compliance. By murdering those who defy them, they telegraph a clear message about who is in charge.

Luz Mary’s mother brought her to Bogotá as a child after fleeing paramilitary violence in a small town near Manizales, in the west of the country. They lived in Suba, a working-class area in Bogotá’s north west. As she recounted, “We came [to the city] to find a better way of life, but we encountered very difficult realities”. Her childhood saw poverty, insecurity and abuse. 

After her children were born, she learned to cover their eyes and plug their ears to shield them from the ugly sights and sounds on the neighbourhood streets.

By the time she was a young adult, Luz Mary was struggling to make ends meet in Suba. Newly pregnant, she came to Altos de Cazucá with her husband hoping to start over. Within weeks of moving into the two-storey home a tierrero had sold them, those hopes dimmed. She learned that there were two drug selling points – ollas – on her block, one up the hill and one below her house. The olla above was run by a paramilitary-style group; the lower one was said to be operated by “guerrillas”. Her neighbours were addicted to crack. After her children were born, she learned to cover their eyes and plug their ears to shield them from the ugly sights and sounds on the neighbourhood streets. 

Luz Mary slowly pieced together what was happening around her. Local bands were running the drug selling points and extorting area merchants. But they were not mere thugs committing crimes of opportunity. As neighbours explained, they were part of a larger and more purposeful scheme. Colombia’s state ombudsman, responsible for monitoring human rights, calls the setup “tercerización”. It is a pyramid-like business structure in which armed cartel-like groups subcontract neighbourhood control to locally rooted militias. The larger groups often pay the foot soldiers in drugs, which the latter retail as a way to earn their keep. The contracting group washes its hands of the violence that the delincuentes use to enforce control. 

Slowly at first, and then all at once, Luz Mary and her husband fell into depression – trapped amid this turbulence by the debt they owed for having unwittingly bought a piece of stolen land. 

Sitting on their yellow and brown couch on one particularly dismal day, Luz Mary’s husband picked up his old guitar and started to sing. The music did something to them, and they decided that they had two choices. They could remain stuck, or they could, in Luz Mary’s words, “get out of this mentality that [they] are victims” and do something. They had both been shocked by how normal violence had become to many of the neighbourhood kids. “It is amazing what children get used to”, Luz Mary recalls. She resolved to find a way to help.

Luz Mary and her husband saw music as the best vehicle to reach young people. But first they had to convince children to join a structured program. The delincuentes gave out food to lure youngsters, so they decided to do the same. 

Luz Mary remembers the first few kids stumbling into her house, looking around curiously to find some reason they should stay. First a few children came, then dozens started to show up. She saw that her work would have to begin with basics. “The children who came smelled horrible”, she says. “They didn’t bathe, and they spoke rudely, because the mentality that they grow up with is to think that they are just trash”. If she could do one thing, she thought, it would be to change how the youngsters valued their own existence. 

The program she and her husband created, Semillas y Raices, offers music classes, puts on modest theatrical productions and also works in the neighbourhood on community projects. In the program’s early days, the state-run water company informed residents that they could have free water if they built their own aqueduct. Luz Mary and the children set to work shovelling concrete and laying pipes bit by bit. At the outset of the pandemic, when government aid was slow in coming and informal jobs evaporated, Semillas y Raices scrounged together what it could to feed the elderly and the needy living nearby. In September and October, the children and other residents worked for weeks to pave a steep local road so that the rains wouldn’t flood the houses. 

“We do all this with what we can get, working our fingers to the bone”, says Luz Mary. “No one helps. We recycle and sell this and that to afford things. We take discarded food”.

Today, more than 100 children regularly visit Luz Mary’s home, becoming the accidental brothers and sisters of her own children. The kids pay nothing, though a few parents offer what they can to help. Some kids come without their parents’ knowledge, sometimes because the fathers or mothers are part of armed bands. For their protection, Luz Mary makes a pact with these kids. If they pass one another on the street, they are to act like strangers. 

The threats started as soon as it became clear that Semillas y Raices was starting to do some good. Luz Mary’s aqueduct project angered some neighbours who had wanted to assert control over the local water supply so they could extort fellow residents. Later, Luz Mary learned that one aggrieved man had paid a local hit man – a 21-year-old rumoured to have dozens of murders to his name – a fee to kill her. She worries that the order for a hit is still standing.

Next, there were the text messages. When the first one arrived, Luz Mary didn’t look at it – most texts she receives are advertisements or junk. When she did glance at it accidentally, the mix of graphic threats and insults filled her with panic. There was an ultimatum: she had twenty days to leave Soacha or be killed, it said. She believes her “offence” was twofold. First, her program had drained the pool of young recruits that neighbourhood bands were dipping into. Secondly, the program had scrimped and saved enough small donations to make t-shirts – leading to whispers that Semillas y Raices was no hardscrabble outfit, but rather a well-heeled money-making ring.

Terrified, Luz Mary set off down the mountain to Soacha’s city centre in hopes of getting help from local authorities. The town’s colonial central square is surrounded by government offices, where often-overworked officials meet the lines of citizens who bring their concerns each day. Luz Mary recounts going to the attorney general’s office and filing a crime report. She also says she visited a police station as well as the local ombudsman to report the death threats. Yet as the days passed afterward, she heard nothing by way of follow-up. “I came back down to earth”, she says. “I realised that there was no one to help me”.

Neighbours suggested that she lie low for a while. If she stopped working, they said, then the threats would also cease. She recalls hearing the same advice from the mayor’s office when she raised alarms again several months later. “I told them my story, but they said I was responsible for the situation because of where we live”, she said. 

For social leaders who get such threats, Colombian law looks to local governments to be the first responders. But while Soacha offers temporary housing and relocation for a small number of individuals facing similar threats each year, the authorities too often fall short with their response, and then social leaders have few places to turn. Luz Mary wanted to apply for protection from the interior ministry’s National Protection Unit, which provides everything from flak jackets to bodyguards to roughly 5,000 social leaders across Colombia. She spent months trying to gather the required paperwork and decipher the confounding application form, which she says she finally filled out at a police station. Nearly 7,000 leaders have requested help from the agency this year – only 16 per cent of those requests were granted.

Instead of the government, Luz Mary relies on her web of connections through Semillas y Raices to keep her safe. On several occasions, children from families linked to armed bands have warned her that their parents were talking about her. She has taken this cue to shut herself in the house with her closed-circuit cameras as companions. She has watched the neighbourhood goings-on late into the night, hoping that if something did happen the cameras would at least make a record of it. 

That was all before the pandemic. Now, as Luz Mary puts it, “all the problems of our society are suddenly boiling to the surface – and they are tripling in number”. 

As happened in numerous pockets of Colombia, armed groups in Altos de Cazucá saw in COVID-19 – and in the national lockdown to limit its spread – a golden opportunity to tighten their own grip. With few state authorities around to enforce the quarantine, the delincuentes laid down their own restrictions on movement. In August, the government ombudsman reported instances of groups in Soacha dictating which shops could open for resupply, thus demonstrating who has true authority in Altos de Cazucá. The only law here is the ley de silencio – the law of silence. Anyone who reports a threat or speaks out against the intimidation is labelled an informant, a sapo. Anyone who works against the armed bands’ interests is at risk. Even so much as filing a crime report can brand someone as an enemy. After two people were murdered during the lockdown, Luz Mary says, “no one said a thing”. 

Public schools in Colombia have been closed since March because of the pandemic, creating new opportunities for armed groups to pry children away from their homes. Most children in Soacha have no virtual instruction; instead, they receive daily study guides requiring a level of parental supervision that for many families is simply impossible. In June, the country’s Inspector General reported increased criminal and guerrilla recruitment from urban areas like Soacha, with youth joining up with local bands and also armed outfits across the country. Social leaders trying to prevent the worst must work harder than ever to provide safe places for these children.

On a recent day, Luz Mary gathered her neighbours in the street for a theatre lesson in the new reality of COVID-19. “In areas like this, the only way to teach is to make an interactive school for the people”, she said. A man dressed in a trash bag and face paint swerved from one side of the street to the other, acting as though he were an airplane carrying the virus from country to country. He “infected” everyone he touched.

The future for leaders like Luz Mary seems bleak, but it is harder still to imagine a future without them. “Horrible things are happening here these days”, she said. “They continue to threaten me. I sometimes feel I cannot go on. But then, I stop and think, who else will do this if not me? … There are many bad things in this life. But my input to this world is to teach these children”. 

Illustrations for this commentary are by Alejandro Montoya.