The Roads of the Photographer, the Pilgrimage to the Abode of the Gods

Stories Heard in the last conference of FARC-EP as an Armed Group.

15/02/2017 D-Day +76

County

Yarí

City

San Vicente del Caguán

State

Caquetá

Peasant hands wielding machetes cut down the jungle to plant the sacred leaf of the Andes. Five or six peasants would level a hectare of forest every day. They would then burn whatever they had razed and place the seed right after. A year later, the first yield would be ready. Perga’s father was –he probably still is—one of those peasants who picked the leaves of the coca plants with his bare hands until his skin, just like the jungle, opened in gorges. The wife of that peasant, young as she was, was pregnant once again. One day in March 1983, she unexpectedly went into labor in the ranch. The child was two months early, though the truth was that nobody was really keeping track of the time. When the man stepped into the room, his wife was panting. The baby was by her side, connected to her by the umbilical cord.

–What you had is not a boy. What you had is a piece of perga.

That’s what the old man said with contempt when he saw the tiny and purple child –purple like perga: potassium permanganate, a solid and crystalline substance that is used to extract impurities from cocaine paste, to oxidize the venom from certain snakes, and to cure the ulcers of animals that afterwards walk around without knowing that they have purple furs and skins.

It’s been 33 years since that day, and, even though his skin is no longer purple, he is still Perga. His childhood nickname ended up as his moniker in FARC-EP. Today, he has tanned skin and huge, rugged, peasant hands. He glances at a television set that they have just set up in the guerrilla camp. Several men, a couple of women and a kid watch the screen attentively. They stare at a man in tight pants that jumps acrobatically over the roofs of many cars while he shoots his machine gun amidst the nightly chaos of a big city.

There, by the TV, sitting under the drawn-out plastic that sometimes serves as the roof for his straw and bamboo bed, Perga shuffles around some papers and clothing. His rifle hangs from a stake five meters away. A few beds down the line, a girl sleeps. She wears military green pants and a teeny pink shirt. The enormous hand of a man laying by her side caresses her lower back while he stares at the moving ceiling and whispers an amusing anecdote to another man standing by their side, almost looming over them.
Perga, his shirt rolled back exposing his stomach, takes out a computer from his backpack and enters his password smiling.

Many were lost. Thing is, my girlfriend, the blonde over there, she changed the password and then forgot it. We had to start the computer forcefully and everything that was there was lost. But then there were other photographs, many photographs.

Perga selects a folder: creeks and waterfalls. He opens another one: tepuis and rocks. Dozens of images appear on the screen. Table-topped mountain ranges. Waterfalls that slice steep cliffs. Rivers seen from a moving canoe. A woman half submerged in a creek. Two men in olive green uniforms smiling in front of imposing, far-away mountains.

Until a few months ago, in one of Colombia’s least explored regions, one which many consider a chimeric throwback where you can catch a glimpse of a prehistoric past, a guerrilla unit, machete in hand,clearedfrail paths and fought against the violent currents of the Mesay and Apaporis rivers. Each guerrilla fighter carried a Galil 7.62, a Pietro Beretta Cougar 8000, and a machete. As part of his gear, Perga also carried a Sony HDR-CX405, a small video camera that can take landscape photographs.

Perga and the rest of them walked like tiny creatures among the colossal and sandstone columns that stand like islands rising from the jungle – antediluvian giants that are part of a geological structure that could be characterized as the sage forebear of everything there is on Earth. The columns are tepuis, those abrupt, vertical walls with flat or round peaks that resemble domes. According to scholars, they received their name inpemón *, a local indigenous language, and it translates to the “abode of the gods.” This tepuisshapeChiribiquete, make up a vast mountain ridge that rises in the middle of the Amazon rainforest in Colombia, in the departments of Caquetá and Guaviare.

The Pemón, are an indigenous people that live in the southwest of Venezuela, in the border with Guyana and Brazil.

Before Perga’s column of guerrillas walked through Chiribiquete, others had already visited the area. Nearly three centuries before, Franciscan missionaries and Spanish soldiers ambled through the forests searching for the sneaky inhabitants of the place –indigenous people that a German anthropologist who came to study the Amazon would meet a century later. Then the rubber planters arrived, and they enslaved and killed the native population to bleed the trees and collect the latex. After that, in the 1940s, Evan Schultes arrived. He was an explorer who traveled Colombia and other countries in search of sacred plants, a man charged searching the Amazon for a species of rubber that might be able to aid United States in the middle of the war.

The next foreign eyes that saw Chiribiquete walked among the tepuis almost fifty years later. The geologist Jaime Galvis, a camera in his hands, and Fernando Urbina, a philosopher who specialized in indigenous thinking, came upon the magnificent jaguars, the men in soldierly formation or enraptured in a magical trance, the ferocious dogs, and the ancestral snake from whence all life comes –all of them traced nearly 20,000 years ago on the walls of the gigantic island-rocks. After that, it was Carlos Castaño Uribe, then the National Parks director, who saw the ridge’s vastness through the window of a small airplane. Since then, helicopters started landing and researchers from various disciplines started navigating the rivers. The scientists saw the millenary wall paintings, the birds, the rocks, the waterfalls, and the plants that had never been recorded. They saw part of what ancient men had seen, what Perga and the rest of his unit would see some time later.

In 1989, Chiribiquete was delineated and declared a National Natural Park*. Today, it’s an enormous reserve that, after a couple of expansions, has the size of Haiti. Even though the declaration signaled a triumph for the scientific establishment, it also implied that Colombia, as a State, had suddenly discovered the monumental dinosaur that slept in the backyard of its house, many kilometers from Bogotá.

Chiribiquete National Natural Park has an extensión of approximately 2’782.354 hectares. It is the largest protected area in the National Natural Parks System. +INFO

The gigantic Chiribiquete, its tiny inhabitants, and the rocks on which they painted as a testimony to their presence remained isolated for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. The tepuis were sheltered from outside interference by the natural barrier formed by the surrounding forest and the state’s incapacity to look beyond its center. The people who did manage to look beyond and recognize the enormous advantages of the area were the entrepreneurs from the buoyant drug trafficking industry. In 1984, Colombian Police airplanes flew over Chiribiquete and DEA undercover agents visited the park. They were tracking a satellite transmitter that they had installed in ether tanks –an indispensable precursor that is used in the production of coca paste—that had traveled all the way from New Jersey and arrived in the middle of the Colombian jungle. The ether, and then the bombs, reached Tranquilandia, an enormous coca complex owned by Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa brothers, and Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha. Not far, Perga’s father and other peasants from his village picked the leaves that probably fed Tranquilandia’s nine laboratories. After being transformed, the cocaine was hauled onto airplanes that took off from clandestine tracks in Chiribiquete (one was located on the top of a tepui). Close by, the police found sewing machines and uniforms that apparently belonged to guerrilla fighters from FARC-EP. Following that discovery, politicians and the public in general realized that there was a connection between FARC and drug trafficking. Accordingly, and for the first time ever, FARC were dubbed –and became for all the world—a “narco-guerrilla” by Lewis Tambs, the Ambassador to the United States at the time.

In 1996, in a small town on the shores of the Guayabero River, in the department of Guaviare, Perga, a boy of 13, joined the ranks of the Seventh Front of FARC’s Oriental Bloc, the same group whose insignias had been found in Chiribiquete 12 years before. Hundreds of kilometers from there, as part of an operation coordinated by various fronts, FARC attacked a military detachment in Las Delicias, Putumayo. The dead, the wounded, and 60 prisoners of war boarded rafts on the Putumayo and Piñuña Blanco rivers, spurred by the guerrillas’ rifles. A few months later, FARC attacked a group of marines in Juradó, Chocó. Once again, there were dead, wounded, and another 10 prisoners of war. The 70 men in FARC’s power became “canjeables,” men whom they were willing to exchange for imprisoned guerrillas. In June 1997, following months of intense negotiations, the exchange took place in an area that had been cleared of military presence in Caquetá. After that came the attacks on Patascoy, El Billar, and the stronghold of the antinarcotics police in Miraflores, which was located in the town’s main street. The guerrillas’ gas pipettes and mortarsflew over the nearby houses, along with their bullets and those of the Army and the Police.

More than 30 years after “Yarí 84,” the name given to the operation against Tranquilandia, and more than 20 years after Perga joined FARC, his unit received the small camera and a set of detailed instructions. Perga’s unit was ordered to photograph something, to film something, and to gather information with that little device that, in principle, no one knew how to properly operate. The guerrillas marched, perhaps they fled. They were the spearhead of an operation, or maybe the rearguard of a larger group. They were en route to a new mission; or perhaps walking through the jungle was the mission.

Perga marched amid the others. The camera in his hand, he would press the shutter every now and then. Stunned, he watched the flat peaks of the monumental rock tables. Through the camera viewfinder, looked at the trodden ground. He saw a tunnel that resembled a beast’s toothless mouth. He saw his comrades nearly covered by the thin veil of a waterfall. Click, click, click, click. Perga marched in a line behind the other guerrillas and, if someone had seen them, they would probably have looked like a group of explorers traversing a timeless place.

Unlike Schultes, Perga surely does not think of God when he recalls the striking sandstone mountains, but it’s likely that he does think sometimes of the dense mist blanket that fell over the mountains every night and disappeared at sunrise. Perhaps he senses that life over there is special, that the living beings that thrive in the tepuis probably can’t be found in any other corner of the world. Perhaps he knows that the ground that his rubber boots trod was the home of the gods of another civilization, the beginning of the world for the Karijona indigenous people and its millenary ancestors.

And who is the good guy?

It’s the kid talking. There’s another sound: the furious rattling of yet another shooting in the movie that some guerrillas are watching in the temporary camp. The bullets in the movie finally stop and give way to a scene in which a burly man argues with other men in a room surrounded by large windows.

The other one, the other one is the good guy.

A guerrilla answers as they keep on watching the screen.

A few feet away, in another screen, the photos keep on changing without much comment from the photographer, who stares at them with the pride of someone who has taken photographs. Even though they don’t appear in Perga’s photographs, the one watching them suspects that somewhere amid the large green spots there are bats, armadillos, monkeys, ocelots, emerald-colored hummingbirds, giant ants, and feces-eating beetles hiding and rolling their food uphill.

Behind the mountains, you can picture a harpy eagle flying over the greenery to catch a prey that can weigh three times its own weight. Variegated parrots, huge colonies of birds soaring from a cave in the middle of a black night. Crocodiles, butterflies, river otters. Animals that only the rivers know. People that only the ancient rocks have seen. Sounds that only the gods have heard and locked away in the vertical walls of the mountains.

Perga’s eye saw all that from behind the camera. He saw everything that the photos do not show. He saw faces, animals, smoke columns rising from fires, remains of what was once a guerrilla training camp where you could still happen upon shards of rusty gas cylinders. He saw the remains of Tranquilandia, bombed 32 years ago. Maybe Perga even saw “the isolated,” those indigenous people that no one has ever come in touch with. That’s what happened years ago to a group of guerrilla fighters –deserters who were fleeing through the jungle when they glimpsed some men painting on the stones, just like others did thousands of years before. Perhaps Perga also saw them and noticed that they were holding their breaths to keep on living in their sacred places, removed from the inventories created by “the whites,” in their books, in their lists of ambitions.

Chiribiquete saw the wandering gods, the men and the animals that rose from the water, and the sacred serpent. Chiribiquete saw the coca leaf turning into cocaine, and then traveling in planes or heading south following old rubber paths. Chiribiquete saw many times the fire that fell from armed planes. It saw men and women guerrillas marching in lines. It heard a newborn child crying in the line of the armed men. It saw three Americans and noticed that they were prisoners. It saw thousands of years go by like windstorm, since the time it first rose during Earth’s infancy. Chiribiquete saw Perga with his rifle slung over his shoulder, wielding the camera. Chiribiquete has seen it all and barely anyone has seen it. Perga has. Perga saw it.

He has also remained unseen by almost everyone. Only a few will recognize his face when his body no longer carries his gear. And only a few others will be able to connect his face with his nickname. Only a few know who he is, and perhaps, just like “the isolated,” he will stay away and avoid contact, keeping clear from the inventories, the lists, the registers. Like them, maybe, he will try to avoid being branded: the uncivilized, the barbarians, the guerrilla, the killer.

The photographs of Chiribiquete that you can see in this story are images taken by Perga during his travels, using a small videocamera. The resolution and texture of the images are characteristic of this kind of camera. The photographer’s framing has been preserved. Disarmed Chronicles has curated and given a final edit to the photographs for this publication.

We thank Perga, who generously shared part of his story and his images with us during an interview in the X Conference of the FARC-EP, in the Yarí Plains.