The first one was Marcel. Right after, they killed Maicol. Then it was Jair’s turn. Here, in this ceaseless war, where bullets come from all directions, from variegated weapons adorned with all sorts of flags, the Marcels, Maicols, and Jairs can be counted in the thousands.
I called Jose Jair Cortés el Tuerto (the One-eyed) because of that prank call that became popular in social media. In a call, a voice that tries to be funny repeatedly calls a girl saying that it’s el Tuerto. She doesn’t know him, and when asks time and time again who is she talking to, the man shouts: el Tuerto, el Tuerto. As we walked the coca-filled roads of the lower part of the Alta Mira y Frontera Community Council, Jair, with his strident laugh, would force us to listen to that prank over and over again. And he would keep at it until we reached the Mataje River, near Ecuador’s border.
In a significant part of the territory, which after many fights was collectively titled to the afro communities in the higher part of the Mira River, live many white settlers and farmers. They came from several regions from all around the country looking for a new life, and they ended up sowing coca in the black lands. In the agreements between the government and FARC-EP, one of the fundamental points revolves around coca. It must be torn out, they have decreed. The more than 23,000 hectares sowed in Tumaco to produce cocaine must be torn out. It was decided that to accomplish this, two parallel roads would be pursued. On the one hand, civil servants would try to sign voluntary agreements with people so that they could replace coca with productive legal crops. On the other hand, the Army, weapons at hand, would forcefully tear out the plants. All this meant that, even if the afro communities, the owners of the lands, signed the voluntary agreements, there could be a war so long as the settlers refused to sign. Jair realized this.
I remember Jair not only in the way he appears on my camera recordings. I remember him in his house’s kitchen, walking by behind his wife. I remember him by the creek, surrounded by his children. I remember him carrying on his back the plantains that no one would buy, the plantains that can’t be transported outside of the farm towards some place where someone might want to buy them. I remember him opening a coconut and talking to his nephew.
I remember his voice on the phone:
–Do you know who you are talking to?
-With el Tuertoooo!
–Tuerto, are you going to leave? I was told that the community’s governing council is being safeguarded in Tumaco due to the threats.
-No, Tuerta, I am not going leave.
On October 5, 2017, a large group of coca planters were protesting in Tandil, a county of the Alto Mira y Frontera. They were trying to stop soldiers from tearing out the plants –their business, their livelihood. In the end, there were not only plants laying on the ground, but also six dead people. The survivors say that the guns were spitted out by the policemen’s weapons.
The governing board of the afro community is on the side of voluntary replacement of the coca crops. They are on the side of returning to traditional crops and a traditional way of life, because the cocaine business inevitably involves guns, power, and violence. Jair, along with the rest of the governing board, was on that side. But twelve days after the coca growers fell in Tandil, el Tuerto also fell.
Jair’s body was left in one of the southern roads, down by the banks of the Mira river, the same roads that were cleared with hands and machetes by the community. They say that it happened at 4:15 p.m., near the county of Restrepo. They say he didn’t warn the National Protection Unit that he was planning on visiting his family there, as if what happened was somehow his fault. Surely, the bulletproof vest, the cellphone, and the transportation subsidy that the government entity provided, all as part of the “minor risk” he was in, wouldn’t have helped him much against his murderers’ fire.
They killed Jair, and he is not the first one. Ever since the Alto Mira y Frontera Community Council was legally constituted to oversee a collective territory of afro communities, five other members of the governing board and at least ten county leaders have been murdered.
I say, “Jair,” but I could just as well say Francisco Hurtado, Yolanda Cerón, Armedio Cortés, Patrocinio Sevillano, Genaro García. I say, “the murdered of Alto Mira y Frontera, in 2017,” but the murdered started falling at least twenty years ago.
Some of them were killed on the tough path towards the collective titling of the territories. Others, because they denounced the links between the paramilitaries and the Armed Forces. They were shot and condemned: they speak like guerrillas, they write like guerrillas. Some others fell in the roads to the guerrillas’ bullets while FARC leaders negotiated agreements far away, in Havana.
Jair, el Tuerto, with his machete on his belt, spoke to us about plantains, cacao, and coca. He told us about the poison that fell from the skies, the poison that dried up the trees, reached the waters, and killed subsistence crops while coca hectares kept growing. Sitting in front of his house, Jair told us of the difficulties faced by a leader in a land that everyone wanted. While he recalled Génaro’s death and the video apologies they received, he said:
-When you are dead, then what? Who is going to compensate you for your life?
I say, “They killed el Tuerto, my friend,” but I could just as well say that they killed them all, the men and women who are leaders, the men and women who stand up for their communities. n.
According to official registries, his name was Gratiniano. For me though, he was called Maicol, Maicol Stiven Guevara, his nom de guerre, who finished off his signature with a five-pointed star.
I met Maicol in September 2016, in the legendary lands of Yarí, a nest of colonization stories, a vast plain that smells like the jungle. He was a 24-year-old guerrilla fighter, fully armed at the time, like the rest, though even then most of the rifles were beginning to hang on the entrances of shacks. It was FARC-EP’s last conference as an armed group.
I remember Maicol the way he appeared on my camera: reading a newspaper, smoking a cigarette with that strange calmness that those armed men and women lived back when they suddenly became attractive to journalists and onlookers. A few days before he was murdered –one year after we met face to face—Maicol saw those images now stored in my camera and my memory. He sent me a message saying he had trouble recognizing himself in those images, that surely his brother, if he saw them, wouldn’t believe that it was him. -But well, -he wrote in the chat -, that was who I was in that life, now I am someone else.
When I met him, Maicol, and other guerrillas, was calmly wasting his time in front of me. In return, I pretended to be very busy with them so that other professionals-with-cameras would stop pestering them. Back then, Maicol spoke about his childhood, love, the future, and fear. In the meantime, a radio, in one of its news programs, spoke about the national anxiety about the referendum, which had been chosen as the way to validate the agreements signed between the government and FARC.
Under a white and incredibly strong light, I shot tens of photos of a formation of a Southern Bloc’s Front. As bodies played football in rubber boots, it poured down. Afterwards, Maicol showed me a photo, protected by a plastic frame, like a keychain. In the picture, he was carrying his rifle alongside two other guerrillas, who were already dead.
Maicol had a scorpion tattoo in his left wrist. Further up, he had a five-pointed star, another star, and, on the other side, the word Laura, his mother’s name. Instead of being a guerrilla fighter, he would have liked to be a professional football player. He said he was a fan of América and Barcelona, but things went a different way, even if dreams last forever – he said. My biggest wish [right now] is that this is the end of the war… that’s my wish.
Then they killed Maicol. On September 12, 2017, they killed Maicol. Seven bullets. His body was left in the middle of the county road until some peasants walked by. When they did, the white motorcycle and its riders were long gone.
They killed Maicol, and when I say “Maicol,” it’s as if I was saying thirty other names that were also noms de guerre. Former combatants, the families of former combatants, the dead in Antioquia, in Caquetá, in Nariño, in Cauca, in Putumayo, in Chocó, in Valle del Cauca, in Norte de Santander, in Arauca.
Maicol had left the normalization zone and returned home to the Peasant Reserve Zone El Pato Balsillas. The zone was the first of its kind in the country. It has also been a scenario of war for several decades.
They say that Maicol was killed while walking home at 10 p.m., in El Roble county. His text message reached my phone that same night at 8:38 p.m.:
-Hello, my little heaven, how are you?
My reply was delivered to his phone at 3:01 p.m. of the following day. He was gone by then:
–Hello, hello. How are you?
They killed Maicol.
On September 4, in one of his messages, he said that he had left the NZ, the Miravalles Normalization Zone, in Caquetá, twenty days before. Miravalles was one of 26 such locations across the country were FARC-EP combatants gathered to lay down their arms.
-I am completely out of the NZ, I am a civilian!”he wrote.
Further down, he added:
–My plans: to study and work.
I think of Maicol, I think of Jair, and suddenly I find myself filled with fear remembering some of the people I’ve met and loved, people with whom I shared time in far away corners of Colombia. I think of the girl who was playing with a world map in a Nasa reserve. I think of the Zenú women proudly growing eggplants in what used to be a war field. I think of the Wayuu returning to their bay, overcoming the fear of traveling that desert of sand and salt while the motorcycles stalked their ranches every night. I think of the leaders of the afro and indigenous territories traveling roads or navigating rivers, fully conscious that their lives will eventually end in a burst of violence. I think of my town’s mayor, murdered. I think of his blood, which I think I remember, flowing by the sidewalk of our main street. I think of my grandfather, a liberal, standing on the cliff where red and blue corpses have fallen for decades. I think of the screams that cliff has heard, the gunshots and explosions. I think of the turbulent place where I ended up being born. I think of a night without electric lights, of a shooting and a young and frightened woman, my mother, running in search of cover with her three small daughters.
I think of the dead in the books, in the stories that date back hundreds of years. I think of those that end up in the television newscasts wrapped in black or white plastic bags, in those quickly buried in the jungle, in those that were falsely accused. I think of all those who are about to die. I think about our endless war, which only changes its garments, though often it doesn’t even do that.
I think of the living and the dead. I think of the wars I don’t understand. I think of Maicol, Jair, and Marcel.
Marcel was young, like Maicol, even younger, perhaps
This was more than 17 years ago. He and I met each other in a martial arts school where I was fighting to learn to control my breathing, to understand my body, and move it with grace. I failed, but I was proud of being strong and hitting hard. Our teacher forced me to look at my body’s reflection on a mirror while I breathed. In the meantime, I used to think of hitting the sandbag one more time.
In a customary matchup, I faced off against Marcel. He was beautiful. He had brown skin and very large ears, like the doors of an open Volkswagen, as my dad would later say. He looked as if he had come all the way from India, or an Arab country, somewhere far far away.
First, it was the Ma bu position: your back straight, your legs forming a right angle with the ground, as if you were riding an invisible horse.
Right fist, left kick, a quick sidestep, right kick, and then, suddenly, his hand grabbed ankle and, while containing my blow, he slowly turned me. My body rotated, but my foot, the one that was still on the ground, refused to follow. My ankle broke slow motion, so much so that Marcel was the only one that believed in my pain.
Filled with guilt while I was in a cast, Marcel spent some time visiting the small apartment where my sisters and I were struggling to live and interact with each other. One day, Marcel stopped coming around. When I finally took off my cast, I returned to the martial arts school and found out that he had quit. We didn’t know much about Marcel. He disappeared as quickly as he appeared.
Time went by and then, another day, our apartment’s phone rang. The voice on the other side said that it was Marcel’s brother. He said Marcel had spoken to him about “the girl with the red shoes,” my sister. He wanted to talk to her because he had some message. She and I went to the appointment. I don’t remember much about it. I remember him, though: he was similar to Marcel, a bit skinnier, a bit taller, more real, somehow. He told us about the things Marcel remembered about my sister. And he also said something else. They had killed Marcel. He said it happened in a small town in the Atlantic Coast, which was the place they came from. He had gone back to work and start his life anew. Then one afternoon his uncle’s bar with the usual crowd when a group of armed men, paramilitaries, came in and opened fire. His brother told us:
–Marcel, and others, died.
For my sister and I, the whole episode seemed like a story out of a detective novel: everything was so distant, so fiction-like, it didn’t fit in our small conception of the world. We believed him, and we cried hugging each other. As we walked home, we decided this was going to be our secret. Perhaps it was decision spurred by fear, by the terror of making that violence a real fact if we allowed the proofs of its existence to touch our lives, however barely. They killed Marcel, and we kept quiet.
After hearing Marcel’s brother, I spent a year carrying a black rag on my left wrist. I won’t wear one for Maicol or for Jair. I am afraid that if I did, I’d accumulate so many pieces of cloth that they would end covering all my arm, my two arms, my whole body, and I would end up as mourning mummy.
Here, we have all silently cried for our dead. And now I can see the terrible sadness that underlies the fact that my dead are only those whose paths crossed mine. We only have pieces of their memories –a glance, a touch. The others, the ones that are not ours, the ones that belong to someone else, they disappear amid an avalanche of events. They are dead and they are news for one day, and sometimes not even that. They are so many and they multiply so fast, like weeds in a field, while we the living, try to tear them out, try to remove them from our path, because they tarnish our peace and happiness.
They killed Marcel, they killed Maicol, they killed Jair. They’ve killed so many, they’re killing them right now. And they are also my dead. They are all our dead.