Colombia’s Disappeared

Forrest Hylton

In March, I described the way threats against my neighbour, Sara Fernández, a distinguished scholar of gender and sexuality at the Universidad de Antioquia, quickly escalated into an attempt to murder her because of her trade union leadership. I have not seen her since, and can only reach her via third parties. With luck, she will be heading into exile; she asked for official protection but was not given it.

Mateo Martínez Ruíz has not been seen or heard from since 7 July. We have no evidence of his disappearance, and no witnesses, and that’s never a good sign. I know Mateo: he’s the brother of one student, and the cousin of another, at the Universidad Nacional in Medellín, where I work. We have had heated political debates of the sort that are needed in Colombia now more than ever, but have become too dangerous to sustain publicly – and would be even if the coronavirus disappeared tomorrow.

The northern deindustrialised suburb of Bello, where Mateo was disappeared, is ground zero for the most organised crime factions in the world (only Sinaloa or Brindisi compare). They have been inextricable from public administration and local security forces for at least three generations. Bodies don’t turn up in Bello: they are chopped into small pieces and fed to hogs. Although the CTI, the Colombian equivalent of the FBI, put out a notice after Mateo went missing, no one saw or heard anything.

This is not because, or not only because, people are unwilling to talk to the police, or fear reprisals from organised crime factions. It also speaks to the relative sophistication of the operation, not the work of amateurs. Bello has been full of professional assassins since the mid-1980s. Its notoriety is well-deserved. Though it was swept up in the nationwide general strike last November, under current conditions there is no way to mourn, much less protest against, such atrocities. In the limited protests since March, 30 people have been murdered by security forces nationwide and 135 injured. Bello remains at war.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Latin America have been disappeared, mostly by state security forces (lavishly funded by the US). In Brazil and the Southern Cone, this is officially history (despite Bolsonaro, Piñera and Pou), belonging to the darkest days of the Cold War, during the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. Closer to the US border, in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, public and private security forces fuse with narcotics transport and distribution networks. This makes it difficult to determine who, exactly, is behind any given kidnapping, as we saw with the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students in Guerrero in 2014, and the subsequent cover-up.

With more than 80,000 official cases, Colombia has more disappeared people than the rest of the region put together, at least until Mexico began to spiral out of control in recent years. Between 2006 and 2010, during Álvaro Uribe’s second term, the Colombian armed forces (which had tripled in size with US support) disappeared at least 10,000 civilians, nearly all of them dispossessed young men from the urban periphery, frequently dressed up as Farc guerrillas. As president, Juan Manuel Santos signed a historic peace agreement with the Farc in 2016. Ten years earlier he’d been Uribe’s minister of defence. The repression of social movements did not decrease under President Santos; and ‘false positives’ did not cease altogether.

The relatively enlightened urban modernisers of finance and real estate are as complicit with these horrors as the reactionary, narco-paramilitary landlord fraction of Colombia’s ruling class. This elite consensus – with backing from the US – has made Colombia one of the most violent, authoritarian societies in the hemisphere since the 1980s. Human rights organisations have documented in grisly, elaborate detail the intimate ties between the Colombian armed forces and burgeoning narco-paramilitary organisations.

Nothing illustrates this criminal-political nexus better than the recent scandals concerning relations between the former paramilitary chieftain Salvatore Mancuso and the current vice-president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, when she was Uribe’s minister of defence (2002-3). the two had adjoining suites at Bogotá’s exclusive Club El Nogal, which functioned as a paramilitary headquarters until the Farc car-bombed it in 2003. The Uribe government apparently learned of the plot beforehand (from the US Embassy) but did nothing to stop it: 36 people died and more than 200 were injured. With cheers from George W. Bush, Uribe ramped up the war on Farc ‘narco-terrorists’ and conducted ‘peace negotiations’ with right-wing narco-paramilitaries.

The gang rape of a teenage Emberá girl by Colombian soldiers in late June; the murders of the Afro-Colombian leaders Carmen Mena Ortiz and Armando Suárez Rodríguez on 6 July; the murder of the Indigenous leader Wilson Eduardo Baicue Quiguanas on 11 July (which makes 37 confirmed murders of movement leaders in 2020, with 49 cases still under investigation); the murder on 13 July of the ex-Farc combatant José Antonio Rivera (which makes 218 since 2016, and 34 in 2020) – these are not glitches. They are design features of the national security state and the narco-paramilitary organisations to which it gave birth (with consistent, decisive support from the US). The attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, tried yesterday to link the Universidad Nacional to (mostly non-existent) guerrilla terrorism, perhaps to deflect attention from the fact that he and his family flagrantly flouted quarantine by travelling abroad, and got caught.

This is the context for Mateo Ruíz’s disappearance and the attempted murder of Sara Fernández, events so routine that they fly under the media radar. It is also the context for Colombia’s Covid-19 epidemic, which is following a path more like Brazil’s than Uruguay’s, and could mean genocide for Indigenous peoples, people of African descent, and mixed-race settlers on the country’s rural and urban frontiers.

Following four months of poorly enforced lockdown, in which the number of cases remained relatively stable, Colombia’s Covid-19 curve is now headed inexorably upward. So is state repression, as major cities are militarised, with police and soldiers patrolling the streets. With ICUs in Bogotá at 90 per cent capacity and in Medellín at 76 per cent, there have been 165,169 total confirmed cases (87,619 active) and 5814 deaths. The Green Party mayor of Bogotá, Claudia López, ordered lockdown early in the capital, challenging the national leadership of the right-wing president, Iván Duque. In Barranquilla, the capital of the Caribbean coast, there have been more than 35,000 cases, with over 1900 deaths, perhaps best explained by endemic corruption in the healthcare system. In Medellín, with 1000 new cases on 14 July alone, the virus has spun out of control in recent weeks, and the mayor closed the city centre, triggering protests. Lockdown has returned nationwide from 16 to 30 July. Official unemployment (an underestimate) reached 21.4 per cent in May, compared to 10.5 per cent a year ago.

Outside major cities, healthcare has all but collapsed: in the Caribbean, Pacific and Amazon basins, where the Colombian state exercises limited sovereignty, as well as more the consolidated areas of the Andean heartland (Antioquia, Risaralda, Quindío, Valle). This disproportionately affects people of Indigenous and/or African descent in far-flung territories without basic infrastructure (roads, sewage, electricity, water) such as the Chocó. As you might expect, given contemporary Latin American history and demographics, most of those affected are nonetheless mixed-race frontier settlers and their descendants in urban and rural areas.

This is also true in the Brazilian interior (o sertão) and the Amazon; ditto Peru and Bolivia, in the Amazon as well as the Chaco, the semi-arid borderlands with Paraguay and Argentina. In all these countries, along with Venezuela, Ecuador, the Guyanas and Suriname, the possibility of genocide through disease and famine looms large, not only for Indigenous people. Similar to the Navajo Nation in the US, the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon have never faced a threat from disease comparable to Covid-19, not even following Diego de Almagro’s ill-fated voyage in 1538. The conquest, a process rather than an event, continues, presently under US – rather than Spanish, Portuguese or British – dominion. The IMF is projecting an economic contraction in Latin America of 9.3 per cent for 2020, the greatest on record, while the UN projects 10 million more people in poverty and 14 million more hungry this year.


  • 17 July 2020 at 4:33am
    Podge says:
    Thank you

  • 19 July 2020 at 4:17am
    wse9999 says:
    "The conquest, a process rather than an event, continues, presently under US – rather than Spanish, Portuguese or British – dominion. "
    The virus originated in China, like a bunch of others, and its global spread was facilitated early by relevant authorities allowing infected individuals to fan out across the planet. Hard to blame the US for this one.

  • 19 July 2020 at 4:23am
    wse9999 says:
    Staying with facts, if you believe the official nos then deaths per head of population in Colombia at around 110 are way below Peru [380], Chile [380], Brazil [300] and Mexico [280].
    Who knows why.
    But Vietnam is still.. NIL!
    Which can only come from long term immunity, living in vicinity of virus origins.

  • 20 July 2020 at 10:31am
    hereami thereami says:
    There is no mention on how the Nobel Piece prize of Juan Manuel Santos was pure corruption in between his government and Norway. Also how under his presidency coca fields grew from 40.000 hectares. to 250.000 hectares. Also he permitted Chavez and Maduro do as they pleased and we have milllions of Venezuelans all over the world. Not to mention farc leaders still dealing with drugs.