Massacre in Colombia

Violent drug competition traps peasants, indigenous tribes in middle

By Galle Sévenier
Special to The Denver Post

Madeleine Diaz / La Verdad
Colombia’s civil war between paramilitary groups and guerrillas has resulted in a massive migration of Wayuu Indians into cities and neighboring countries. More than 700 Wayuu, including those above, live in poverty in Maracaibo, Venezuela.

Cabo de la Vela, Colombia - At least 34 farmers near the Venezuelan border were massacred June 15 in the latest violent competition to control drug production and distribution.

The killings followed an incident two months earlier in which a Wayuu Indian village in the Guajira desert of Colombia was wiped out, with more than 100 people dead or missing, according to survivors.

On one side of this lethal struggle are right-wing paramilitary organizations; on the other are leftist guerrillas called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Their conflict, once ideological, now includes control of drug-making territories.

In the middle are peasants and indigenous tribes that, with few weapons and few choices, are pressured into growing coca, from which cocaine is processed. Wayuu are streaming across the border into Venezuela, whose officials have denounced what they call the "Wayuu genocide."


"I asked for international humanitarian attention so that the ... United Nations would investigate the matter," said Noeli Pocaterra, vice president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, who spoke recently to a U.N. assembly on indigenous issues in New York. "A real genocide happened in Colombia, and we need international help."

Government forces in Colombia are stepping up efforts against conservative paramilitary groups and leftist rebels, whose violence contributes to the U.S. State Department finding that "Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world."

Meanwhile, the country continues to endure the most dire refugee problem in the Americas, with an estimated 3 million people uprooted, including 19,000 refugees now in the United States, according to a report in May by the private U.S. Committee for Refugees.

The June 15 killings took place around 5 a.m.

Thirty-four farmers from Tibu, many of them bound hand and foot by ropes from their hammocks, were slain, survivors and government officials in Colombia and Venezuela said.

Government officials and survivors hold the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or FARC, responsible.

According to the survivors, FARC accused the farmers of collecting coca leaves for the paramilitary groups.

Two months earlier, on April 18, it was the rival paramilitary forces doing the killing.

Wayuu villagers had complained about increased drug trafficking in the area, as well as the chemical smells from a nearby drug-processing plant.

"A drug factory was built, planes would land there, many foreigners came to buy contraband," recalls Maria Pinallo, 40, who raised goats with her six children in the small port of Bahia de Portete. She is now a refugee in Venezuela. "When the wind would blow hard, our children would get sick from the sulfuric acid and all the ingredients they put in cocaine."

She said the drug lord who controlled the area heard of the complaints and wanted to ensure that there would be no witnesses to the increased contraband sales.

"They came with the paramilitaries to exterminate us," Pinallo said.

The paramilitary group, known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, were scheduled to begin peace negotiations this month with the Colombian government.

In April, witnesses said, about 200 of them surrounded the 50 ranches of Bahia de Portete.

"In the desert, we can see people coming from far away, which saved our lives," Pinallo said.

She grabbed her youngest child and told everyone she could to run. Many, she said, didn't have time to escape.

Jose Vincente, 8, drew in the sand to show how he ran through the blinding sand to escape Bahia de Portete. He said he saw them killing men, women and children, decapitating them, cutting them in pieces "with their machetes." He reported seeing people being burned alive.

The paramilitary group released only one person, survivors said. The elderly man was shot in one hand and slashed in the other, and he was ordered to tell the others never to return.

After the massacre, hundreds of Wayuu walked for days in the desert, without food or water, until trucks picked them up and helped them cross the border into Venezuela.

Five days later, the Colombian army arrived in Bahia de Portete and found body parts spread over the area. Only 30 bodies were found, according to Wayuu, who helped bury the dead, and more than 80 people are missing.

Colombian officials, supported by American aid, are trying to bring home some of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced in drug and political battles over the years.

Luis Alfonso Hoyos, with the Department of Colombian Social Actions, said that since 2002 the government has returned 80,000 Colombians to their homes.

It's unclear whether survivors of the Bahia de Portete bloodshed will ever go back.

Luis Angel, a fisherman from Bahia de Portete, said he will avenge the deaths of his sons, ages 5 and 7. "Of this I am certain," he said. "We will have our revenge for our dead family members."

Today there is no one left in Bahia de Portete.

"A ghost town," said Pinallo, "with the spirits of the dead."

Galle Sévenier, a freelance journalist specializing in Central and South America, has a master's degree in mass communication from the University of Denver.