Colombian army tanks advance in the dark on a dirt road. The night has fallen over. The silhouettes that are projected threateningly through the bushes test the mettle of the soldiers.
“This is where most of the murders have taken place,” says General Diego Ducuara, of the special forces, pointing to a black spot at dawn.
Saravena has one of the highest homicide rates in the world (181 per 100,000 inhabitants). Since the beginning of the year, the last active guerrilla in Colombia, the National Liberation Army, and the FARC dissidents have been waging a hand-to-hand battle throughout the department of Arauca, which has its main focus in this oil city located on the border with Venezuela.
In this city of 43,000 inhabitants there are no homeless people or thieves. A taxi driver can leave the window down because no one is going to steal the radio. In Bogotá, the capital, it wouldn’t take two seconds to take her away. No one is going to take away his mobile here while he makes a call on the street. Whoever dared to do so would appear dead the next day with a sign above him: thief.
However, in this 2022 it has become one of the most violent places on the planet, statistically only behind Ciudad Obregón, in Mexico. Authorities have reported 78 murders in the municipality. It is likely that there are others who have escaped the bureaucracy of death: the police, the prosecution and the funeral home. Almost everyone has the same modus operandi: Two men on a motorcycle shoot at point-blank range someone who is walking down the street unawares. No messages are left on the corpses, nor does he need to. Everyone knows that they are due to the war between the armed groups.
“Colonel, how many murders have been solved?”
Ducuara gets into an SUV with his helmet and bulletproof vest on. Behind, the tanks and more vehicles with soldiers armed with rifles and hand grenades. This is how a one-hour night patrol begins that will show that in Saravena there is a superficial reality, the one that is visible and is reflected in that child who licks an ice cream on a terrace while watching the tanks go by; and another hidden one, that of the deceased to whose wake nobody goes for fear that they will come to finish off the corpse. In Saravena they kill you alone and bury you discreetly. A mantle of silence is spread over this hidden truth, as is the case in Europe with the ‘Ndrangheta, the mafia in southern Italy.
The colonel and his men stop the driver of a limping car that was driving without lights through the center of the city.
—Where is he headed?
—To home. I come from work. I just work, work and work and keep my mouth shut.
The man makes the gesture of sealing his lips as if closing a zipper.
Ducuara arches his eyebrows.
He knows that the population is not going to reveal anything to him for fear of turning up dead the next day with a sign above him that says: “Sapo (snitch)”.
Saravena was founded 50 years ago when the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform was installed here. The place is so recent that one sees a fifty-year-old who was the first baby born walking on the sidewalk in front of him. Or to the oldest lord of the first who arrived, who recognize each other as a tribe. Violence is still not history in the books, but is part of everyday life: in that alley they killed four, in that sidewalk seven and in that other eleven more. The car bombs that the armed groups have once planted to terrorize the population are still there, charred in a vacant lot, like museum pieces.
Through the window of the SUV in which the colonel is sitting very straight, there are bar terraces, nightclubs with fluorescent lights, restaurants, shops open after hours and a volleyball championship that lasts all night. Saravena has the air of a cosmopolitan city. No one is moved by the imposing presence of the army, it is part of the landscape. The neighbors know that they are not going to be robbed, a recurrent paranoia in the rest of the country, but that it is quite probable that they will witness a shooting.
For criminal groups, controlling the city means having privileged access to illegal crossings into Venezuela. In Arauca the coca leaf is not cultivated, but tons of cocaine pass through it every year that ends up on the other side of the border. From there it is distributed to the rest of the world. The ELN, the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla that has cultivated a historical presence here, had that control for many years without anyone questioning it. The FARC, when drug exports skyrocketed, had so much power that they could afford to threaten ELN dominance. When that guerrilla signed the peace in 2016, they demobilized the vast majority of their men. Some rogue groups did not lay down their arms and continued with the drug business. For a time, the ELN and the dissidents coexisted with relative normality.
The dissidents controlled Saravena’s prostitution and gambling establishments. They extorted merchants from very specific neighborhoods. The two groups shared the border crossings through which the cocaine passes. The agreement between the two, however, broke down earlier this year and turned the city into a funeral home. The ELN, Colombian military sources say, is sweeping the ex-FARC off the map, who have taken refuge in the savannah to buy time. The third actor in the conflict is the army, which is fighting both with helicopters, tanks, US weapons and more than 8,000 soldiers, a force far superior to that of the insurgents. But the ELN is so deeply rooted in society that it is not easy to eradicate: it administers justice by punishing criminals, mediates divorces, establishes paternity pensions and resolves conflicting inheritances. If someone in Saravena has a problem, they don’t call the emergency number.
The military man in charge of this entire hornet’s nest is Major General Jorge Eduardo Mora López, also trained in the special forces. He greets with a strong handshake and a blow to his shoulder despite the fact that the motto of his unit hangs on the wall of his office: “Confidence kills.”
“The ELN has a very well structured political management of the masses. He knows how to manipulate the masses, he plays with the heart and the mind and they have a lot of support. They are a very special organized group, like ETA”, he explains.
The FARC lost its ideology along the way, Mora continues, while the ELN did not. In fact, he took advantage of the fact that the government during the time of Álvaro Uribe focused on the FARC to grow without attracting much attention. Right now they are a real authority in the shadows. His business is in Saravena and its surroundings, and his commanders live sheltered in Venezuela.
The presence of the State is ostentatious in Arauca, a region that produces 17% of the country’s gas, 284 kilometers of pipelines cross it. It is not very clear to what extent the government apparatus is effective. Citizens have to deal with the taxes and laws of the Colombian government while enduring the parallel jurisdiction of the ELN. And, if they are very unlucky, they can also please the dissidents. “Whoever controls Saravena controls Arauca for the armed groups,” adds Mora.
Since the beginning of the conflict they have seen the groups kill each other. In total, 169 homicides. Among the dead are 29 Venezuelans and 20 more unidentified corpses that await in refrigerators. One day the legal deadline will be met and they will be buried in unmarked graves.
—Major General, how many of those dead could be ordinary citizens who have nothing to do with it?
—Most of the homicides are related to the ELN. Innocently fallen? Yes, maybe some, but I would say they are few.
The commanders emphasize that the military risk their lives in this cross combat. Two young soldiers rest in the small hospital of Colonel Ducuara’s regiment. —they barely have a beard— gunshot wounds two days ago. They were ambushed by a group that killed two companions from the battalion. “Hello!” the boys greet with a smile, amazed by the miracle of still being alive.
Colombian cities are often misunderstood, and Saravena is no exception. They say to Bogotá the fridge, despite the fact that you should never wear real winter clothes. Medellin, shrapnel, for its time of the Pablo Escobar cartel, when in reality it is also a city full of culture. saravena…. Sarabomba. Stigmas mark everyday life in Colombia.
Yehin Cañas fights to fight them.
Cañas travels at full speed on a motorcycle: in the mornings he works in his erotic toy store; in the afternoon she is a presenter on Araucana de Televisión. And she once a month she organizes something that she has called Culture in the Parka fair of entrepreneurs.
Days before the May event, a boy about 10 years old approaches her. First, he offers her empanadas that her grandmother makes. She then becomes suspicious because of her journalist ID hanging around her neck:
—Aren’t you from family welfare (those in charge of prosecuting child labor)?
The social control of the armed groups allows the children to go out at night without fear. Adults leave the front door open. But Yehin, like the boy, moves in an atmosphere of suspicion. You never know who you’re really talking to.
Cañas organizes the event since January. He intended to turn it into a message of peace. However, on the day of its inauguration, two people were killed in the surroundings. Now it is purely an event for young entrepreneurs where they sell everything from Venezuelan arepas to handicrafts made from plastic bag waste. “In the midst of an absurd conflict, and with the government forgetting, it is a way of showing that we want peace, tranquility and harmony, that we want to achieve through dialogue and cultural spaces,” he says.
When she was young, she went to Bogotá to try to be an actress. A few years ago she has returned to Saravena even though she is on fire. She is convinced that people have to build spaces that produce normality. The borders of the armed groups are uncertain, their presence is gaseous. But the reality is that they are there and contaminate the air that is breathed.
Day happens to night. The tanks have gone to sleep and the scene of war that seemed like Saravena vanishes. What the soldiers saw in the dark was Hugo Chávez’s neighborhood. The authorities believe that many of the ELN militiamen are hiding here. Its inhabitants, on the other hand, consider that it is a stigmatization of armed forces that have the logic of the internal enemy, that is, that of seeing Colombians themselves as a threat.
—They ask us: Where does it come from? One gives the address, the name of the neighborhood, and from one they call him a guerrilla.
Monchi, a social leader, says that the neighborhood was built ten years ago on illegal land by people displaced by the armed conflict. Poverty, lack of studies and opportunities make the adolescents of the neighborhood tempted to take up arms.
The Saravena bike path ends where Hugo Chávez begins. From there, do not enter, recommend the authorities and the inhabitants of other neighborhoods. Comanche territory. Monchi, from within, considers that the distrust is mutual. No one here is going to raise their arms to stop the SUV in which Ducuara is traveling and ask him for help.
The night before the soldiers saw them as suspicious shadows lurking in the shadows. Seen from the other side, the neighbors contemplated the shadows of men with rifles. A partition separates both realities.
This video and text report has been produced in collaboration between EL PAÍS and FRANCE 24.
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