Humanitarian Space El Tamarindo Completely Evicted

An article I wrote with fellow accompanier Sophie Duval, originally published as a longer version here:


On November 30th the FOR Peace Presence team arrived in El Tamarindo to find that the inhabitants of the plot “El Mirador” had received what turned out to be a final eviction notice. The inhabitants, farmers of ASOTRACAMPO (Asociación de los Trabajadores del Campo, Association of Land Workers), were shocked by the news, as they have been fighting for their land rights for more than 8 years.

The land of El Tamarindo, located on the outskirts of Barranquilla, has been occupied since the early 2000s by campesinos and victims of the armed conflict. Displaced from their homes in a time characterized by a rise in paramilitary violence throughout Colombia, they came from Magdalena, Urabá, Bolívar, and Cesar. They found refuge in El Tamarindo, whose land was fertile for growing crops and the retaking of their campesino lifestyle.

Unfortunately, their peace wouldn’t last. In 2007 DIAN (The National Tax and Customs Department) created a Free Trade Zone in Galapá which included the four plots of El Tamarindo: El Mirador, Granja Catalina, Campo Natacha, and Beitjala. Furthermore, the construction of the “Ruta del Sol” was announced, a highway which would go through El Tamarindo to link the ports of Barranquilla and Cartagena. The price of the land shot up and out of nowhere appeared some “presumed owners”.

The community of El Tamarindo has always said they’ve occupied these 120 hectares in good faith. They were using this land because they thought it was non-cultivated and government owned (tierra baldía). But the politically connected and economically influential owners rejected this, and used the courts to evict the campesinos who they considered “invaders.”

To continue claiming their right to the land and to counter pressure from the presumed owners, more than 120 families of El Tamarindo created Asotracampo, 80% being victims of Colombia’s armed conflict. Nevertheless, by the end of 2012 the plot Granja Catalina was evicted, followed by Beitlaja and Campo Natacha. The eviction of the two latter plots took place without any judicial order, and the ESMAD (Colombian riot police) used excessive force.

Along with the evictions came threats to those who had decided to stay in the last plot, called El Mirador. Members of Asotracampo received various death threats from illegal armed groups called “Rastrojos” and “Aguilas Negras”, and ultimately assassinated the son of the Asotracampo’s vicepresident in 2013. In response, Asotracampo declared El Mirador a humanitarian space in April of 2014.

None the less, on December 9th 2015 El Mirador was evicted. The community and their accompaniers could only observe trucks fill of Police and ESMAD arrived, coming to assure the eviction order. Also present were The Police Inspection, mayor’s office, Office of the Ombudsman, municipal attorneys, the victims unit, and representatives from the Company Inversiones Agropecuarias SAS, the company claiming the lands of El Mirador.

While there was no physical violence, extremely important given earlier evictions of El Tamarindo, the symbolic violence was stronger than ever. The eviction continued on the following day, December 10th, the international day of human rights- an incredible symbol for a country aiming to construct peace. One campesina said, “Why are they even making peace? What is peace if they don’t give us space to live, space to work, if we have nothing to eat?”

Despite a protective measure from the Constitutional Court[1], the house of the company’s guards at the entrance of El Tamarindo is the only remaining memory of the campesinos’ struggle. The residents of El Tamarindo now live in various places. Some managed to negotiate some land outside of Luruaco, a town an hour and a half from Barranquilla. They currently now live in makeshift housing of tarp, wire and wood while they construct permanent housing and are relying on humanitarian aid from the Presbyterian Church who gave them 3 months of food in .

These are the conditions under which the victims of Colombia’s armed conflict live. Victims who had been working for years towards a dignified, collective resettlement. And the Colombian state still has not fulfilled their responsibilities to resettle these victims and vulnerable campesinos.

Although the people of Asotracampo are tired, their struggle for a life in dignity as campesinos continues. This is the greatest challenge they will have to face going forward. As stated in the report from Amnesty International on land restitution in Colombia “The process of land restitution must give the families of El Tamarindo the certainty that they will never again be forced to leave their lands, and that they can live with dignity while having their fundamental human rights respected. A long road for Asotracampo and the campesinos of Colombia.


This article has been written by FOR Peace Presence members, Thomas Power y Sophie Duval, an organization of international accompaniment based in Colombia. They have been accompanying Asotracampo since 2014. For more information, click here or write to

[1] This protective measure was given in the framework of a tutela made by the Comisión intereclesia de Justicia y Paz (Colombian organization of human rights that provides comprehensive accompaniment for community processes and has given Asotracampo legal and organizational accompaniment since 2013) regarding the legality of the evictions in El Tamarindo.



Theft of Information from Human Rights Defenders in Colombia

Last month the office of Tierra Digna, an organization whom my organization FOR Peace Presence accompanies, was robbed. It is clear it was not petty crime but a robbery for information. Tierra Digna is an organization dedicated to the defense of territory, life, and culture of communities affected by extractive industries in Colombia.  Below is an announcement released by Tierra Digna last January.


On Wednesday, January 20th 2016, as we began our work day at 9:00am, the members of Tierra Digna discovered that unknown persons broke into our office and stole the computer of one of our organization’s founders. Despite having access to other parts of the office, other equipment, easy to carry property and valuable objects, the robbers’ actions were specifically directed at taking the computer in which we stored important information that is necessary to do our work.

Tierra Digna is a non governmental, non-profit organization, dedicated to the defense and promotion of human rights that are principally violated by the industrial exploitation of natural resources in Colombia. We promote investigation, litigation, training and accompaniment to communities affected by the exploitation of natural resources.

The robbery happened at a crucial moment for our organization’s work as we were preparing to accompany the communities of the department of César in the following: environmental public hearings during the amplification process of the carbon mines owned by Drummond and Glencore, a visit from the Constitutional Court to Chocó in a acción de tutela (direct action) trial in defense of the rights of the ethnic communities settled in the basin of the river Atrato, and in the preparation of requests for a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

This theft adds to a chain of irregular events that include followings, communication interceptions, and other robberies of the members of our team. Consequently, we demand guarantees of security and protection from state authorities so that we can continue defending and protecting human rights.

For more information, please contact:

Ximena González.

Cel: 3204994783.


Mayor’s Office of Barranquilla Displaces Families of Tamarindo (Video in Spanish)

Text translated from the end of the video:

11 families were displaced on the 9th and 10th of December under orders from the mayor’s office of Barranquilla.

On December 18th 30 more families will have to leave the property of Tamarindo.

These families were displaced without any guaranties to the right of relocation.

The territories of of Tamarindo will be used to create an International Free Trade Zone and the zone of support infrastructure for the development ZISD.


Further Action:

Please email the mayor’s office of Barranquilla here to express your concernand the Colombian Embassy in your country (a list of contact information per country can be found here:…/Misio…/enExterior.aspx), asking where these families will go, expressing concern over the displacement and re-victimization of these families, and letting them know that this is not the end of Asotracampo Tamarindo’s organizational process!

You can sign this online petition in Spanish to send a message to the mayor of Barranquilla.



Land of Corn

Made by Peace Brigades International, Land of Corn is the story of four environmental and land rights defenders in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and Honduras. In 2014, a Global Witness report found 116 cases of killings of land and environmental defenders in 17 countries. Central and South America account for more than 75% of all deaths.

Wall Murals, Conflict, and War: Preliminary Thoughts by Bill Rolston

An article I wrote originally Published by Rodeemos el Diagolo

A conversatorio held by Rodeemos el Diálogo at the University of Los Andes

19 October 2015

Professor Bill Rolston from the University of Ulster talk to ReD about political murals at the University of Los Andes. Bill, now retired, spent 35 years lecturing on sociology and transitional justice. Beginning in 1981 he took an interest in political murals as he liked how one could take a complex political idea and make it recognizable. He says he loves the art even if he hates the politics.

A lot of his interest is centered in his home country of Northern Ireland, but he has also studied street art in Chile, Gaza, Iran, and other countries. The Leverhulme Trust is supporting his investigation of street art in Colombia and he has now done research in several Colombian cities.

Before moving onto specific images, he qualified that graffiti was not as important to him as art. Academics are more attracted by the explicit messages found in art rather than intricate “tags” of graffiti artists; “old lefties” such as himself need things to be explicit.

He gave examples of murals with clear political messages around Bogotá, including one that had the number of victims of forced displacement and another with victims of the UP (Patriotic Union leftist party) as well as several images found in and around the National University. However he found the art of indigenous cultures in the Candelaria less authentic. He said the “exoticism” of these was more pronounced than the politics.

He finished Bogotá by admitting that his rejection of graffiti doesn’t work in Bogotá. Street artists in Bogotá have a reputation throughout Colombia of having it easy. Bogotá hasn’t had the massacres –its artists do politics from a distance. However, Bogotá is the only city he found in which a grafitero had been killed. Diego Felipe Becerra was 16 and was shot by a policeman who claimed he thought Diego had been armed robber.

We then moved to Cali. Bill displayed a famous mural by Museo Libre de Arte Publico de Colombia which had series of naked women outside a subway station. The diversity of the women was seemingly saying that although women are not all the same –don’t just “throw them in as one group” – they all still have equal rights. However, Bill used this opportunity to point out how murals can sometimes become a “white noise”. Of the 20,000 people who walked by that mural every day, how many of them would pick up on that message of diversity and equal rights?

We began Buenaventura with a picture from the humanitarian space of Puente Nayero. After a brief history of this humanitarian space Bill showed an enormous mural displaying the history of Buenaventura. From there we went to Toribio; Bill said it was his favorite spot for street art. Inside the town, with its links to the Nasa indigenous people, he found indigenous murals to be political as opposed to the exoticism of Bogotá. There were examples of indigenous resistance with corn as a central symbol.

While there weren’t many murals In Mocoa, there were some supported by women’s rights groups. Bill contrasted that with Barrancabermeja, where he found murals more influenced by the struggle between unions and paramilitaries. Cartagena was quickly passed over, with very little murals of note, to Mampujan where he found political messages related to paramilitary violence. Every city in Colombia has a unique political situation, and therefore the political murals are very particular to their city.

We finished in Medellin, which has a thorough influence of hip-hop. While it may appear at first to be a smaller version of Bogotá, it is a different place to work. As there is a greater level of paramilitary presence in Medellin, the graffiteros need to be a bit more discreet than in Bogotá. Here is an example from Comuna 13, which had suffered Operación Orión:


We then started a vivid discussion. The first question was on similarities and differences between Colombia’s street art and that of Norther Ireland’s. Bill’s conclusion is that every country is different –even cities within Colombia are different. The politics of each context determines what street art appears. The one common factor is that political murals often deal with memory –a fact specifically pronounced in Colombia.

There was a question on his mobility within Colombia, and he praised the help and support of Colombian academics, without which he would not have been able to do this project. We also talked about local government’s relationship with street artists, and how there was some support in Bogotá after the death of Diego. Another member asked about anti-North American murals in Colombia to which Bill replied he couldn’t find much specific anti-North American murals.

Another participant asked: how do we learn to “read murals?” Bill’s response was simple: you learn from the people who are able to read them. It centers in symbols. For example, in Gaza the most common symbol is a key. The keys represents keys to homes of Palestinian villages displaced by Israel. The key, therefore, represents memory, repression, and the hope of returning to use the keys again.

Another posed the question if murals had changed in Northern Ireland after the peace agreement had been signed, and if he had noticed any changes in Colombia. Had there been a pivot to the future? While in Colombia he hasn’t seen anything, Bill urged us not the think literally. The same symbols appear during and after conflict, but their meaning becomes redefined. He gave the example of Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland, whose image was transformed from “support the war” to “we haven’t given up on Bobby Sands, come with us (into the peace process)”.

We briefly touched on murals opposing the peace process, or if there was graffiti of the right. While graffiti is normally associated with the left, you can find right-wing graffiti. The dividing line between victims and perpetrators isn’t always clear; often, the perpetrators feel, or have felt, victimized in some way. Should they be allowed to put messages on the wall? Ultimately, from the conflict comes a new type of battle –a battle over memory, over victims, all taking place in public space.

This idea was expanded upon with a question on the weaknesses of the Northern Ireland peace process and how they might relate to Colombia. Perhaps the idea of memory wasn’t treated so thoroughly during the peace process, and for that reason conflict has been lingering. Perhaps, but Bill believes that normally when you move away from war you move towards a “meta war”, a war over memory. Therefore, we concluded that after a war, there is a conflict over what the conflict was about, and murals are one avenue through which this battle is displayed.

The Investigation. Yolanda Paternina gave her life for justice.

This is a translation I have done from that tells the story of Yolanda Paternina, a member of the fiscalía (district attorney’s office) in Colombia who was assassinated while investigating members of Colombia state security. Below you will find the link to the original article in Spanish.

The Investigation. Yolanda Paternina gave her life for justice

“I believe she was the only honest person in the Sincelejo district attorney’s office. She was the only person the people trusted… But honesty in the midst of so much corruption is very dangerous.”

Yolanda Paternina was the honest and brave director of the Sincelejo regional district attorney’s office. A young public prosecutor named Monica Gaitán was sent from Bogotá to work alongside Yolanda to investigate the massacre in Chengue, and Monica quickly learned of the precariousness of Yolanda´s situation.

Being only thirty years old, Gaitán was young to direct an investigation as horrific and complicated as that of Chengue. However, she had already spent six years working in a group of regional public prosecutors to curb growing paramilitary power in the department of Valle del Cauca, a region dominated by one of the most powerful drug cartels.  The atmosphere of Sincelejo wasn’t new for Mónica- she was used to it after Valle del Cauca. She didn’t need to be warned to take care of what she said in front of Paternina’s collegues.

Monica had experience working in small towns. The type of people she would have to work with- judges, public notaries, mayors, at times other public defenders, other district attorneys- they were all corrupt. “It’s unreal how the corruption and violence had infiltrated everything, even my own institution,” she said, adding, “But at the same time I realized I was getting to know the real Colombia. The violence and corruption, the murderers’ indifference, the ease with which they kill people, destroy towns- this was Colombia’s reality.”

Yolanda Paternina was the first person on the scene in Chengue on January 17. She wanted to investigate the scene of the massacre before the police arrived and trampled all the evidence. She took photos, gathered evidence, supervised the raising of the bodies. She spoke with the people, police, and also members of the first infantry brigade when they finally arrived and deployed around the town. She spoke at length with the young police commander of the municipality of San Onfre, Lieutenant Jami Gutiérrez Muñoz, who had tried to alert military commanders close to Chengue that paramilitaries were entering the town. Most importantly she spoke with the survivors. She wanted to find out exactly what happened, why they thought it happened, why they suspected military participation. What she took away from those conversations made the foundation of her investigation.

Five days later she had the exact location of the paramilitaries, including a paramilitary operating under the alias “Cadena”, believed to have committed the massacre. They were resting nearby in a safe-house identified as “El Cerro”. She asked marine captain Camilo Martinez to support her with his men while she took the house and arrested Cadena. Martinez refused, saying he didn’t have the authority to arrest Cadena and would need authorization from his commander, rear-admiral Quinoñez. The rear-admiral’s exact location was unknown and waiting for a response would delay pursuit of the paramilitaries. There was a heated discussion between him and Yolanda, but the captain insisted he couldn’t and wouldn’t go. It came as no surprise that when they went to the safe-house the following day Cadena and his men had fled. An opportunity to capture one of the cruelest members of the AUC was sabotaged by a state official charged with finding him.

Yolanda made the initial investigations alone, searching nearby farms and plantations owned by wealthy ranchers and landowners who were known to support paramilitaries and provide possible safe-havens. Mónica Gaitán arrived two months after the massacre and began to take testimony with the information Yolanda had gathered.

“The first time I came I took declarations from the victims in Chengue and also from the Armada, from the police, and above all from the officials who commanded the camps of the Armada closest to Chengue. I also took testimony from Lieutenant Gutiérrez of the Police… After he gave me his testimony they sent him out of the area to a very dangerous town.”

Mónica traveled from Bogotá to Sincelejo twice to work with Yolanda. Years later she recalls the devastating meetings she had in Chengue with the widows, mothers, and children of the surviving victims. “I will never forget the look in their eyes,” she said. “They were dead. They had no future. I will never forget the emptiness in their eyes.” She took statements from military personnel who were in the town, from police, and from military commanders in surrounding bases.

Up to then, the investigation had been pretty routine. Mónica and Yolanda worked together, collecting and analyzing available information. The biggest mystery of the case was the most important actor of that tragic night: the first infantry brigade of the armada. The brigade had been in the right place at the right time; they had a clear mandate to protect civilians; they had all the necessary equipment- helicopters, trucks, weapons, ammunition, fuel; they had all the best intelligence. That same night, they had been alerted by police to the presence of three trucks full of armed paramilitaries moving towards towns they had been charged with protecting. Despite all this, they hadn’t acted. There was no rational argument as to why they never mobilized, not before, not during, not immediately after the massacre. The passivity made no sense. They didn’t understand it.

When all of a sudden everything changed.

Days after Mónica returned to Bogotá the telephone rang in her office. A co-worker from the regional office of Córdoba was calling to tell her a young paramilitary from the neighboring department of Sucre was in his office claiming to have participated in the massacre at Chengue. He wanted to hand himself over to the D.A. running the case because he had “sensitive information”.

Elkin Valdris was a nineteen-year old recruit of the north bloc, which included Catatumbo and Córdoba. The northern bloc was commanded by Salvatore Mancuso and he had sent a group of twenty men to Sucre to support Cadena, who was supposedly preparing for a big operation against the FARC. When Elkin realized that instead of combating guerrillas they were killing the elderly, that they were beating to death men and women who had nothing to do with the FARC, he felt sick and betrayed. Instead of returning to his house in Córdoba, Elkin searched for the regional district attorney´s office and became an informant.

“Elkin’s testimony was the key for our investigation,” Mónica said. “He made the connection with the armada and solved the mystery for us. Then we knew the paramilitaries weren’t acting alone. We transported him from Córdoba to Bogotá and put him in a bunker at the D.A.’s office for his security. We didn’t dare put him in a public prison; we knew he would be killed there.”

QUESTION: Say to the dispatch- did any members of the AUC who participated in the massacre at Chengue have any confrontation with state security organisms?

RESPONSE (Elkin Valdiris): ” The marines knew we were in the town. Everything had been coordinated a few days before, everything was a farce. Any communication that said there was fighting between paramilitaries and state security was a lie- not a single confrontation occurred with any member of state security because everything had been planned a few days before. It had been set up to give us time to leave before the marines entered Chengue.”

Elkin told Mónica that on the morning of January 16th, a day before the massacre, two sergeants of the armada arrived and met with Rodrigo Mercado Pelufo (alias Cadena) and Juancho Dique.  He saw the sergeants give Cadena radios, cell phones, marine uniforms, and ammunition and Cadena give “a wad of bills” to one of the Sergeants named “Bossa.” Furthermore, during the massacre, Elkin said he saw paramilitaries speaking to the armada by radio.

Elkin drew Mónica the interior of El Palmer to show her where they could find uniforms, radios, and cell phones to confirm his story.

Chengue was no longer a story of paramilitaries killing and displacing campesinos. Now it was about paramilitaries and the state acting together to commit atrocities. And now the D.A.’s objective wasn’t only Cadena- himself a psychopathic thug- but also the first brigade of the armada, lead by a high profile commander who had many reports of human rights abuses. From one moment to another the stakes had risen dramatically. And so had the danger.

Yolanda began to investigate. Using Elkin’s information she requisitioned El Palmar and found the uniforms, cell phones, radios, and ammunition exactly where he said they would be. She found the serial numbers of the radios and cell phones and obtained access to the brigade’s accounts through the telephone companies Comcel, Telecom, Bellsouth, Telefónica, and Celcaribe. By comparing the accounts against the cell phone numbers she was able to make a record of the hour and destination of all the telephone calls made from the phones of the paramilitaries the night of the massacre. Now she could prove what Elkin told Mónica about the paramilitaries communicating with officials of the armada during the massacre was true: that they spoke with members of the armada during the night of the massacre. She also established that there had been calls made to Cartagena during the same time period. However, she still didn’t have proof of ownership of the radios of El Palmar. And there was only one way to find out. Each radio had a distinct number. The D.A. would have to access all the inventory documents in the storehouses of the First Infantry Brigade’s headquarters to physically compare the numbers in the inventory against that of the record Yolanda made of those found in El Palmar. Later they would need to requisition the storehouses of the battalion to confirm if the radios brought by Sergeant Bossa to El Palmar were in the inventory of if they were missing.

Mónica’s trip to requisition the battalion’s storehouses at the First Infantry Brigade’s base would be her last time in Sincelejo. “It was terrible. They didn’t want us there and were furious we had arrived without permission… they were hiding everything… ‘the person who knows about supplies is on vacation’… ‘the person there doesn’t know anything’… ‘the documents are in a different building’. I stayed there three days and all I could do was tell Bogotá were I was… I told the brigade that they were in charge of my security. But it was horrible- I couldn’t sleep- I was afraid they would kidnap me. When we went to the airport I insisted they escort us to the last minute. I told them, “if something happens to me, you are responsible.”

An investigator from the procuraduría who was doing an investigation parallel to Mónica’s on the massacre came with her. They spent many tedious hours looking among the supplies and comparing the inventory against their list. As each radio had its own number, and the radios Yolanda had registered in El Palmar were on their list but were missing from the inventory, they could confirm the testimony of Elkin Valdiris- that the radios used by the paramilitaries to communicate during the massacre belonged to the First Infantry Brigade of the Marines.

When Mónica returned to her office in Bogotá she brought the evidence to her immediate superior Pedro Diaz, director of the human rights department,  to show him the strength of her case. She would need his advice and support because it was going to be problematic politically. He told her they would have to draw up charges against the rear-admiral and those under his command and told her to go to the District Attorney General, Alfonso Gómez Méndez, and show him the evidence. They needed his support, and when Mónica showed the evidence to Méndez he gave it. Next Diaz told her to order notarized copies so that the district attorney’s representative before the supreme court could investigate the rear-admiral.

It was now clear that Mónica couldn’t return to Sincelejo. She and Yolanda would have to work via telephone and e-mail. A second ex paramilitary came forward, now a bodyguard of one of the wealthiest supporters of paramilitaries in Sincelejo, but said he would need to leave Sucre before he could talk. Yolanda and Mónica brought him to Bogotá where Mónica took his testimony and made arrangements to put him in a witness protection program for him and his family. Later, he fled the country.

Jairo Castillo Peralta, alias Pitirri, knew all the people who were in contact with paramilitaries in Sucre, from the ranchers and businessmen to the most powerful politicians. Mónica spent two days taking his testimony. “He had their  confidence because he  was a paramilitary. He had taken note of their conversations in a small notebook. He knew how much money they had given Cadena. He knew their telephones, their bank accounts- he even had a copy of a check. He gave the license plate numbers of politicians who had attended meetings. He could testify against Governor Arana… and he could confirm almost everything.”

On June 5 2001 attorney general Alfonso Gómez Méndez made a historical decision: for not having acted, and in consequence facilitating the massacre of 27 people in the town of Chengue by paramilitary forces, he initiated criminal proceedings against rear-admiral Rodrigo Quiñonez Cárdenas, commander of the first infantry brigade of the armada as well as nine other officials of the counterinsurgency unit.

Mónica Gaitán sent documents of her case against the rear-admiral to the district attorney delegate before the supreme court as they were the only entity with legal authority to arraign a general. The remaining processes stayed in her power.

In Sincelejo and Bogotá an unpredictable chain of events would put everything Mónica and Yolanda had achieved at risk. And their anonymous informants- who had risked their lives to shed light on the criminal reality of Sucre- they were also about to see their dreams of justice destroyed. Now that the investigation was public there was nothing Yolanda or Mónica could do to protect themselves or their collaborators.

Violence began to engulf the investigation in Sincelejo. Pedro Díaz sent two young investigators of the CTI to support Yolanda and to confirm information provided by Pitirri. On May 27th, only a week and a half after their arrival in Sincelejo, both young  investigators disappeared.

Yolanda continued to work alone. She was investigating some of the politicians from Pitirri’s testimony, and continued to get closer to Cadena. The more she followed information given to her by trusted sources, the more she was dragged into the darkness of Sucre’s corruption- and she would pay with her life. She knew she was in trouble. She knew someone in her office was passing information to Cadena. One day a large portion of evidence disappeared from her desk. The threats turned uglier. She began to fear for her life. Yolanda had two children in school and didn’t have the luxury of giving up. In July she wrote to Bogotá explaining her situation, asking for more and better protection, or relocation to a new city. She wrote several letters during the month of August, each one with greater desperation and urgency.

On the day she died she was with her 18-year-old son.

“I was the last person who spoke to my mother the day they killed her. She sensed something was wrong. She had told me that neither her security nor car had appeared, that the colonel of the police wasn’t answer his cellular, and that the director of the CTI wasn’t answering his… I don’t remember very well. I told her to stay in her office, to lock herself in and not leave… and with the saddest tone in her voice she told me to trust no one, to be strong, that the only person I could trust was her and that if she wasn’t there to trust no one. She told me she loved me. I felt like she was saying goodbye…”

“Cadena’s lawyer was named Oswaldo García Ochoa (they already killed him in Bogotá). He was in my mother’s office a few days before they killed her, maybe between the 25th and 28th of August 2001. She told me the lawyer had proposed that she work for them, but she refused. The lawyer told her, ‘Doctor, give my regards to San Pedro.’ The offer had been withdrawn.”

When Yolanda arrived at her house with her son the night of August 29, 2001 and was putting the key in her door, two men approached her from behind and shot her. Her bodyguards had been out sick. Her driver hadn’t been at the office to bring her home. When she tried for help to get a safe vehicle to bring her home, neither the chief of police Colonel Norman Arango nor the investigative director of the CTI in the D.A’s office returned her calls.

Mónica Gaitán said, “I remember the last conversation I had with her before they killed her. She called my office asking for my help, ‘please help me. I feel surrounded by people trying to kill me… I’m followed when I leave.’ I knew it could have just as easily been me. Pedro Diez, my chief in Bogotá, told me that if I went to Sincelejo again they would kill me… and I knew I couldn’t help Yolanda. I told her, ‘Send me a letter! Now! To help I need a letter!’ and she said, ‘I’ve sent so many letters.’ I did nothing, and two days later I received a call saying they had killed her.”

“One thinks that the time heals all wounds, but it doesn’t. Because it’s life and death, isn’t it?”

Copies of the letters from Yolanda to the district attorney’s office were found in an envelope in her apartment after her death.

The Road to Exile

Another reason Yolanda Paternina had been abandoned when she turned to the D.A.’s office for help was the replacement of Alfonso Gómez Méndez, whose term as attorney general ended on August 1, by Luis Camilo Osorio. Osorio purged investigators and D.A.s working on cases of atrocities by paramilitaries and crimes against humanity, even when it resulted in disruptions in the department. Within 48 hours of Osorio assuming office, the two highest ranking attorneys investigating crimes against human rights- Pedro Díaz, director of the human rights unit, and Pablo Elías González, deputy attorney general- were forced out of office (see Reporte de Human Rights Watch sobre esta actuación del fiscal: Un giro erróneo. Osorio responded to this report by saying that as few as four public servants were dismissed from office, and that they were dismissed because “at least half were seriously inept at what they were sworn to do and were disloyal to the justice.” See Tomates al fiscal)

When Luis Camilo Osorio assumed office, Mónica said she asked for an appointment to bring him up to speed on the Chengue case, including proof against the Admiral Quiñonez and various colonels of the first brigade of the Armada. The new attorney general told her he couldn’t pursue cases against personal of the Armada as they would be a political issue, to which Mónica responded she would only defend justice and victims of the case. This made Osorio very angry and he told her to wait for the coordinator of the Human Rights Unit, Alejandro Ramelli, who had a lot of experience in human rights cases.

A few days later Mónica was removed from the investigation. The case was given to a public prosecutor who was now in charge of both the case against the rear-admiral and against the colonels and officials of the Armada, cases Mónica had been leading in the human rights unit. The prosecutor paralyzed the case by wasting four months without ordering a single piece of evidence. In December, as the case faced risk of expiration, the investigation returned to Mónica’s hands. A resolution was obtained to indite all those linked to the case.

After a brief vacation, Mónica returned to find she had been once again removed from the case.

As a result of the change in prosecutor of the Chengue case, a scandal broke in the media claiming possible mismanagement of the investigation, saying that the change in prosecutors was way to shield personnel of the Armada. Mónica was called to the office of the chief of the unit, Alejandro Ramelli, so that she could speak with a journalist over the phone and deny reports of corruption. When Mónica refused to deny allegations, Ramelli was infuriated and ordered her to speak in favor or the justice department, saying it was her duty.

Hours later, staff from the press office arrived in Mónica’s office with a letter addressed to the media, saying that she was handing over the case because she was sick. José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch, had offered to help Mónica in case she was at risk or if his advice was needed in the case against the admiral, and had given her his cellular number. Mónica refused to sign the letter and called Vivanca to ask his advice. He asked her to send him a letter by fax, with which he immediately sent to president Andrés Pastrana so he could give an explanation of what was happening in the attorney general’s office.

Ramelli summoned Mónica to his office and in a threatening tone told her he was going to have her investigated. A few days later however, Ramelli left the district attorney’s office.

After Ramelli left, Luis Camilo Osorio held a meeting with Mónica’s staff in the Human Rights unit. According to Mónica, this meeting turned into Osorio publicly attacking Mónica. He accused her of not being patriotic or loyal for criticizing the government. He discredited her and the reputation of her staff in front of the international human rights community.

Having been made into a pariah, there was no future for Mónica in the district attorney’s office. “When I realized I didn’t have support inside the justice department, I left. I felt like my worst enemies were inside the institution. Everyone knows who the enemies are outside- it’s clear. I was more afraid of the people around me.” Despite having so many illusions of working for justice, for the victims of the war, for her country, Mónica Gaitáin was left with no other option but to give up her place in the justice department. After leaving the death threats got worse. This coincided with Osorio withdrawing office protection and armored car, forcing Monica to flee Colombia in March 2002 with her husband and two sons. With the help of Human Rights Watch and the ambassador of the United States, she escaped to the United States, which gave her asylum.

“I left for asylum in a new country. I felt as though I had lost my identity. I lost my family. My profession. After twelve years, I still feel lost. When that happened, I feel like I lost faith in people, in justice… in my passion for justice. My hunger and thirst for justice.

In 2013, after almost 12 years in exile, the Olaya Gaitán family returned to Colombia where Mónica once again works with victims of the war. She and her husband accompany the displaced and survivors of massacres, helping them to resolve immense difficulties as they fight to return to their lands in the face of terror threats. “Perhaps,” she says, “this time could be different… that’s why I have returned.”

Servicio Nacional del Aprendizaje

My new English class in the Colombian vocational college SENA (Servicio Nacional del Aprendizaje) filed in and took their seats as my the educational coordinator introduced me. I had decided to teach English in the SENA because I wanted to work with a new population as well as move to Colombia. I was fine with my boss talking to them as long as she wanted- I always get nervous before first classes. She then stopped abruptly, gave me the floor, and left the room, leaving me alone with my new class.

I collected myself, took a second to analyze how I should proceed, and began to teach. Teaching is like a car accident- it happens fast- and you have little time to come up with what to say and how to say it. I utilized the whiteboard to communicate who I was, where I was from, and my teaching history before moving into my name game activity. After five minutes of waving my arms up and down, pointing at the stage, and miming a circle, I was able to corral the group of 18-21 year olds into a circle.

“Say your name and one English word that begins with the same letter,” I instructed and then received the ‘blank stare’ of incomprehension. “Teacher Tom,” I said to demonstrate and the students let out an “Ohhhhhhhhhh,” which means, “at last I understand.” We had fun, all the students participated, and I was able to learn their names. The English classes at SENA are compulsory and I had been afraid I would find myself with unmotivated, undisciplined students. But they have been excellent.

I came to work for the SENA not only so I could continue my work as an English teacher in Latin America but also so I could work with a new population as I had previously only taught business English. The SENA was created in 1957 on the heels of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla’s military government and at the dawn of the Frente Nacional and was charged with providing professional training for workers and youth in industry, business, mining, and ranching. Rodolfo Martinez Tono was head of SENA for its first seventeen years of existence which has since expanded into fields such as biotechnology, agribusiness, even fashion design while remaining 100% free for students. While the SENA is open to all Colombians, most students come from lower socio-economic levels and are between the ages of 17-24.

A high school diploma is required for enrollment into the different training options. These which include technico, a year-and-a-half program, technologico, a two year program, and complementarios, which are short term programs. In 2014 SENA enrolled 7 million students, 19.8% of all higher education in Colombia, although only 1 million of those were enrolled in face-to-face training classes while the remaining 6 million had online courses or short term programs.

There are 116 SENA “centers” throughout Colombia, and are present in every department (province). Each center has a focus, such as gastronomy or hotel management, and all centers have autonomy from each other. I work in the Centro de Electricidad, Electronica, y Telecomunications (Center of Electricity, Electronics, and Telecommunication) in a SENA complex in Bogotá called the Complejo Sur (South Complex). The Complejo Sur houses three different SENA centers and each center has its own independent administration.

Apart from training programs, SENA provides continuing education classes for private businesses, helps students find work, and has various national and international allies. SENA has also created Empleadad to aid vulnerable population in Colombia including those affected by the armed conflict between the FARC guerrillas and government.

SENA is taking part in a government initiative to raise English levels in Colombia with the “volunteer teachers” program being one aspect of this initiative. An organization called Volunteers Colombia (VC) helps with logistics. What is today VC started in 2009 when Luis Enrique de Brigard and his organization “Off Bound Adventures” brought five volunteers to teach English on Baru Island. Brigard, along with Pablo Jaramillo, and Pedro Linares, wanted to provide quality English education to those who would otherwise not be able to afford it. Jaramillo told us at our first day of orientation about when he met with Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia. At this meeting, Jaramillo claimed he could bring over 130 English teachers to Colombia- a logistical challenge- but by 2014 Volunteers Colombia achieved this goal and has continued its project into 2015.

I have two two-hour classes that meet five days a week. Classes are quite large with one having thirty-one students and the other having twenty-two but we have a good time and those who want to learn are learning. Last week we worked on the prepositions ‘in, on, at’ for time and place and after the students made an itinerary for a fictional trip to NYC. Students always ask me to give instructions  in Spanish but I remain firm, speak slowly, meet their eyes so I know they are paying attention, and with the proper combination of gestures and words they understand- communicative success in English.

My students don’t let me get away that easy, however. One of my students’ names is Harly with the ‘r’ in his named is slightly trilled and the trilled ‘r’ still gives me problems. Harly drills me for pronunciation of his name in the same way I drill them for English pronunciation of new vocabulary. When they discovered my ignorance of El Chavo del 8, a Mexican comedy famous throughout Latin America, they assigned me a research project and I had to give them a full report in Spanish.