Forrest Hylton

Last Friday, I received news that Dr Z had died in hospital from kidney cancer. Two months ago his daughter was still in school, living at home with her family. Now she is orphaned and on the run from the narco-paramilitaries who targeted her family because her father protected the displaced Zenú cacique Víctor Peña after they warned him against it.

The hellscape that Víctor and Dr Z’s daughter have to navigate is the legacy of former president Álvaro Uribe. During Uribe’s long reign, first as the governor of Antioquia (1995-97) and later as president (2002-10), then senator and éminence grise of the far right during the presidencies of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-18) and Ivan Duque (2018-22), the Zenú were displaced and forced into the peripheries of small towns like Tuchín, and cities like Montería and Medellín. Lacking such basic public services as sewage treatment, they eke out a proletarian living in Colombia’s large informal sector, which grew by leaps and bounds during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The loss of land to speculators, cattle ranchers, miners, loggers, palm plantation owners and narco-paramilitaries has had devastating consequences for Zenú health and life expectancy. The same is true for most Indigenous groups in Colombia, but because of its proximity to the Pacific, the Caribbean and Panama – all drug routes to the United States – Antioquia-Córdoba has long been the epicentre of narco-paramilitarism and organised crime. It is where the Castaño dynasty had its principal haciendas and headquarters, and where paramilitarism fused with narcotics exports and arms imports during Uribe’s terms as governor and president. Uribe owns extensive cattle ranches in the region. The trial of his brother, Santiago – for organising paramilitary death squads on one of them – ended two years ago. As yet, there is no verdict.

Thanks in part to the generosity of LRB readers, Dr Z’s daughter is on her way to join Víctor where he is hiding out. At some point, he will need to travel to Bogotá – though it’s unclear how he will pay for transport – to speak with representatives from the central government and the Unidad Nacional de Protección. This would represent significant progress.

He has found a house close to Medellín. I asked a colleague at the University of Antioquia what can be done to help Dr Z’s daughter, and she gave me the contact details of the local state child welfare agency (Confamiliar) as well as the Protection of Minors hotline. She also recommended the Defensoría del Pueblo (ombudsman’s office). I have been in touch with Dora Saldarriaga, a feminist city councilwoman from Estamos Listas (early and strong backers of Vice-President Francia Márquez), who may be able to help in the place where Víctor and Dr Z’s daughter hope to live.

Yet Dr Z’s daughter refuses to call or approach any government office because she’s afraid they will try to take charge of her (though she has nothing to lose by calling the hotline). She and Víctor are both suspicious of everyone except a tiny handful of people.

Víctor, who graduated high school during the pandemic at the age of 38, is hoping to train as a lawyer, or study planning and development, to advocate for Zenú people, both in their ancestral territories and far-flung cities. Childhood friends from Tuchín, both missionaries, have promised to help him get grants and fellowships at the Colegio Mayor. They paid part of the cost for Dr Z’s daughter to travel to Víctor’s hideout.

Yesterday, on the way there, the truck broke down, but the driver fixed it. Later, the transmission went. It is supposed to be replaced today. Dr Z’s daughter has not eaten since Tuesday morning and was unable to sleep last night because of hunger pangs. As before, anyone who wishes to help should email

Read Forrest Hylton’s next post about Víctor Peña here. The first one is here.