Victor Peña’s Odyssey

Forrest Hylton

On 1 October, one of Medellín’s leading radical public intellectuals, historians and humanists, Campo Elías Galindo, was tortured and murdered in his apartment. There was blood everywhere. The neo-fascists who killed him burned a book on his chest to make their point. During a meeting in the Parque del Periodista on 8 October, organised by the Unión Patriotica to honour his legacy, there was an explosion nearby. The police ruled it an accident: no bomb was involved, they said, just a gas leak.

The original UP, founded by the Farc and the Colombian Communist Party in 1986, was all but wiped out by 1991, the year the new Constitution was passed, with somewhere between 3500 and 5000 militants murdered or disappeared. Today the UP consists of a tiny, courageous minority who are being hunted down and eliminated again.

One of the people in the park was Heidy Elizabeth Ocampo Granadas, a member of the UP and of the Asociación de Despedidos de las Empresas Publicas de Medellín, the union that represents three hundred cleaners fired from the mayor’s office in late September. The following day she disappeared. She was found dead on a farm in Copacabana, just outside Medellín, on 17 October.

I didn’t know Heidy Elizabeth, and I hardly knew Campo Elías. He was a professor at the Universidad de Antioquia, across the river from my university. But we had been introduced at one of the dozens of marches during the student strikes of 2018-19, and I remember him from the general strike of November 2019. He was a regional leader of Senator Gustavo Petro’s remarkably successful Colombia Humana campaign, which pulled in 42 per cent of the national vote in 2018 – no left-wing party in Colombia had ever obtained more than single digits before. A colleague of mine marched with him frequently, exchanging ideas and views about the city and the world, talking about plans for research and writing.

(As foreigners, my colleague and I are fortunate: we are both exiled in Europe, along with Sara Fernández, my former neighbour and the secretary of the Asociación de Profesores at the University of Antioquia, who was nearly murdered in her bed in March.)

One of Campo Elías’s last political acts was a denunciation on Twitter of the Ituango dam, a public-private mega-project mired in corruption. Through his teaching, scholarship, writing and activism, Campo Elías hit the most delicate political nerve in Antioquia, Colombia’s most populous and wealthiest department. It would be revealing of the region’s power structure to know who, exactly, gave the order to murder him, and who was responsible for carrying it out. The motive is not in question.

On 20 October, Gustavo Herrera, the leader of the Colombia Humana campaign in Cauca in south-west Colombia (Medellín is in the north-west), was murdered by hitmen on a motorcycle on the road from Popayán to Puracé. The list of murders and massacres will go on, with ultra-conservative Antioquia at the top, and the more radical democratic Cauca not far behind.

Cauca is in the vanguard of Colombia’s radical politics not least because of the strength, resilience and initiative of the Nasa people. On 21 October, their minga, or mass march, made it to the Plaza Bolívar in Bogotá, and helped trigger mass marches by students – currently Colombia’s largest urban social movement – as well as trade unionists, whose numbers, like teachers’, but unlike students’, have been much reduced by state and paramilitary terror as well as the neoliberal political economy.

In Antioquia and Córdoba, the possibilities for indigenous collective action and radical democratic coalitions are reduced by the concentration of terror: this is where narco-paramilitarism was born. Displaced by the paramilitary presence in his hometown of Tuchín, Córdoba, north-east of Medellín, Victor Peña founded the Zenú Indigenous Council in Medellín to fight for those who have left or been forced off their resguardos and therefore cease to exist as Indigenous people for the government. His job as an urban cacique is to help people, mainly single mothers, navigate the turbulent waters of state and private bureaucracies: health, employment, housing and education. During the pandemic, we have worked together closely to get food, masks and hand gel to Zenú people, especially women and children, in Medellín and Tuchín, because everything in Tuchín costs double.

Victor and his brothers recently buried their mother and grandmother; they had to borrow money for coffins and for Victor to get home and back. Victor’s nieces and nephews were also sick with Covid-19, and needed medicine sent from Medellín. Victor’s younger brother then got the disease and was hospitalised, so Victor had to return to Tuchín yet again to fight for his right to healthcare. Paramilitaries control the health sector up and down the Caribbean coast, as the Lancet has reported; it is one of their most lucrative rackets. The doctor wanted to overbill, but Victor prevailed and got his brother out of the hospital without having to pay exorbitant fees, and then returned to Medellín in fear.

When his brother was hospitalised again last month, Victor was afraid of what might be happening to him. The doctors initially said it was Covid-19 but then test results showed it was pneumonia. They were going to put him on a respirator anyway before Victor got him out again, knowing the doctors were looking to maximise costs. This time he denounced them at the Ombudsman’s Office. Knowing what he’d done would get back to the narco-paramilitaries, Victor slept outdoors in an undisclosed location.

The following day, 24 October, they came looking for him, trying to find out where he was staying. They followed his sister-in-law all day, and patrolled the streets of the town on motorcycles. The Zenú indigenous guard, of which Victor has been a member for 17 years and a cacique for one year, with recognised police powers in Indigenous territory according to the 1991 Constitution, told him he would have to co-ordinate with them to make it out of Tuchín alive.

For three days and nights, Victor was on the run, surviving on a homemade sugar loaf (panela) and water, and walking untrodden mountain paths to the nearest town, Caucasia. Exhausted, he slipped and fell on a rock, badly injuring his shin and unable to staunch the bleeding. Barely able to continue, he stopped for food and shelter at a hut belonging to Zenú people he did not know, fearing that they might report his presence to paramilitaries for a small reward out of economic desperation.

Still on foot, he took to the nearest highway and tried to find a driver to take him to a hospital in Medellín, then got stopped at an ELN checkpoint in Cáceres. The ELN didn’t negotiate with the government or demobilise as the Farc did, but it doesn’t enjoy a monopoly, since dissident Farc factions are also active there. Like Caucasia, Cáceres is one of Antioquia’s most violently disputed areas, with some of its highest levels of homicide. Both are located in the lowlands of the Lower Cauca River, and serve as transit points for cocaine made in the highlands and headed for export through Antioquia, Córdoba and Sucre on the paramilitary-controlled Caribbean Coast.

Seeing Victor’s injury, the ELN soldiers assumed he was a paramilitary, but he talked his way out of it, and made it to the hospital in Medellín with about 12 hours to spare before his leg would have to have been amputated. He spent two nights and days there after doctors removed the infected flesh from his shin, and is now at home.

Victor recently helped launch Medellín’s first Inter-Ethnic Working Group in co-ordination with representatives from the Wayúu, Embera and Nasa peoples, as well as smaller indigenous groups including the Inga, Nutabe, Chibcariwak, Kichwa and Qullasingas Pastos. He says he is eager to get back to the work of co-operation.


  • 3 November 2020 at 5:26pm
    Ted Eames says:
    The only possible comment is simply to say 'thank you' for these reports on what is happening Colombia. These are hugely important stories that are routinely ignored in the UK media.