In Medellín

Forrest Hylton

When Mateo Martínez Ruíz disappeared on 7 July in Bello, a deindustrialised suburb just north of Medellín, I assumed his body would never be found. But on 8 August, Mateo’s badly tortured corpse was discovered in Potrerito, a rural area of Bello. According to a trusted local source, Mateo was murdered by Los Chatas, an organised crime faction, because of his political activism. He was involved in the student protests last November, which became a nationwide general strike, the largest in Colombia since 1977. Photos of Mateo’s body made it into the local penny press, which leads with what bleeds. Otherwise nothing.

Since the Chatas boss was jailed in December 2017, the fragile system of pacts among factions in Bello and the metropolitan region has broken down, and murder and mayhem have escalated. I can report on Mateo’s murder because the Chatas don’t read widely in English, or pay people who do; nor do their associates in Brindisi and Sinaloa. Apart from family, friends and the public university community, no one cares what happened to Mateo. Most homicides in Colombia go unpunished. After more than four decades of impunity there is no end in sight.

Meanwhile, on 4 August, the former president Álvaro Uribe was placed under house arrest on suspicion of witness-tampering, bribery and ties to narco-paramilitaries. He is confined on one of his largest ranches, and has tested positive for Covid-19. A march demanding that Uribe be ‘freed’ snaked from Medellín’s leading private university, EAFIT, to the mayor’s office. It was farcical, and tiny, compared to the student marches that shut the city down more than a dozen times, without rioting or looting, in 2018 and 2019.

Despite the weight of evidence against Uribe, President Duque has declared his conviction that his predecessor is innocent. Mike Pence concurs, calling Uribe a ‘hero’ who must be freed. The Colombian courts are fighting for their life as an independent branch of government. Iván Cepeda, the senator whose tenacity led to Uribe’s arrest, has received credible death threats. So has his family. Cepeda’s father, a left-wing activist, was murdered by paramilitaries in front of him in 1994.

There has been a string of murders and massacres in the south-west, where many of the most important cocaine corridors to Mexico are. On 9 August, narco-paramilitaries murdered two schoolchildren, aged 12 and 17, in Leiva. On 11 August, five Afro-Colombian boys, aged 14 to 15, whose families have been displaced from the Pacific by war, were murdered in southern Cali, possibly by police and the local cocaine distribution gang. During the funeral service, someone threw a grenade at the nearby police station, killing one person and injuring 16.

On 13 August, two indigenous Nasa men, one of them a journalist, were murdered by Colombian soldiers in Corinto, south-east of Cali. On 15 August, eight people aged between 17 and 24, most of them students, were massacred in a house in Samaniego, Nariño, where right-wing paramilitaries and FARC dissidents are fighting over cocaine export routes. So far this year the homicide rate in Nariño is the world’s highest, at 100 murders per 100,000 population. A video circulated of the paramilitary murder and dismemberment of two FARC dissidents in the province.

In 2019, Colombia had the world’s highest number of murdered environmentalists, and the highest number of any country since 2012. In 2018, 53 trade unionists were murdered around the world; 34 of them were Colombian.

It looked for a while as if the centre-right Green Party, represented by Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López, and Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellín and governor of Antioquia, were best positioned to lead the country following the general strike at the end of last year. That was before the repression of 2020. Sensing that it’s a hair’s breadth away from euthanasia, the radical right is fighting for its life. Colombia’s politics have never been more polarised.

It’s a dangerous time, and a frightening one, especially with Covid-19 raging out of control. A month ago, Colombia had 165,169 cases and 5814 deaths; the figures are now 468,332 and 15,097. Medellín and Cali are at 80 per cent of ICU capacity, and Bogotá is at 87 per cent.

The borders are due to reopen soon, after being closed for more than five months. I look forward to visiting family abroad, but fear what will happen when I return, in part because I am active in my union. An escalating spiral of state-led terror – a return to the bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s – looms, as the pandemic shows no sign of abating.


  • 21 August 2020 at 9:16am
    CollinR says:
    Thank you for your brave reportage (though, I must say, unfortunately, that every time I prepare to read your posts, I know I will feel miserable).

  • 30 August 2020 at 10:46am
    RobotBoy says:
    A chilling and dispiriting snapshot of a country where even the slightest resistance to injustice can be a death sentence. I was going to add 'shocking' above but it's been many years since we became numb to the shock and horror. It's particularly sickening to see the U.S. continuing to use its billions to support the people and policies that have wrecked so many lives in Latin America.