After Escobar, the Deluge

With the collapse of the rigidly organized national cocaine cartels, narcotrafficking and murder in Colombia have been democratized, writes the Dromomanosteam in El Universal Domingo. A journey through the surreal and bloody landscapes of small-town Colombia.

The priest Carlos Alberto was taking confession from a child when he heard a blast so intense he thought the roof of the church was caving in. He turned his head while another burst sounded and saw two men, one of them armed, fleeing the temple. Around fifty church-goers, still praying after mass, started screaming and crying. A woman the priest had greeted minutes before lay bleeding on a pew, steps from an image of Christ, with three bullets in her head. Carlos Alberto chased the assassins to the town’s main square, but there was no one.

“They disappeared, in a little town of 20 houses… Two armed people disappeared,” he says a month after the killing, sitting in the same room where he had cried helplessly on the morning the drug traffickers entered the temple. The priest had returned to the church and anointed the body of the victim. Now Carlos Alberto walks through the empty temple, a place now devoid of the murmur of prayers, of lit candles, of saints to pray to. Our Lady of Carmen de El Dovio Church in Valle del Cauca, in eastern Colombia, is under quarantine. A sign hangs at the temple’s entrance: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It was the time of the annual festival, and in spite of the assassination, El Dovio carried on its celebrations for a couple of days. This town of colorful and humble homes nestled in the mountains is accustomed to the violence that has devastated Colombia for half a century now: It is the birthplace of Ivan Urdinola Grajales, alias ‘El Enano,’ one of the heads of the Cartel del Norte del Valle and a notable kingpin in the 90s, when the last big Colombian drug czars still dominated the business. He controlled the area for years, placed and removed politicians, and also gave gifts and made investments in the town. El Dovio, besides, is the gateway to Garrapata Canyon, an enclave that, because of its climate, altitude, and thick vegetation, is ideal for growing coca leaves and a perfect hideout for laboratories. The other side of the canyon spills out to the Pacific Ocean: There the drugs continue north by sea.

The residents of El Dovio, however, had never before seen assassins break the business’s unwritten rule that respects the church. This “double sacrilege”, against life and God, as defined by Jairo de Jesus Ospina — the oldest priest and church’s parish — angered the locals, who were also upset to see their temple, the town’s epicenter, closed down. Carlos Alberto was ordered to flee by a local bishop. “You only have one backside Carlos Alberto. If they fill it with lead, who am I going to hang out with?” said his colleague and friend. But a few days later, this frail, slender priest in his twenties, returned to the town where for the first time in his life he had heard the sound of gunfire, convinced that his responsibilities as a priest were larger than his fear of death. “No one speaks because if you do you’re done. They bribe and nothing happens.

They rape and nothing happens. They kill someone and nothing happens. What will they think if their pastor isn’t here?” he says amidst nervous chuckles, a little after showing us the empty church and the pew where the killing occurred. The murdered parishioner was Nelly Perea Gonazlez, a 70-year-old woman very well know in town, very devout; she was also the cousin of a former mayor, the kingpin Ivan Urdinola’s brother-in-law, who was assassinated.

El Enano (Urdinola) died in prison in 2002, but his legacy still echoes malevolently. As with the deaths of other big Colombian drug czars, from Pablo Escobar to the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, it left a power vacuum that others tried to fill: paramilitaries who never put down their guns, common criminals, middlemen for the big cartels, and survivors from drug organizations who fought the war with the state in the 80s and 90s. In El Dovio and the rest of the country, drug trafficking passed into the hands of these people, criminal bands (called) bacrim, much more anonymous, fragmented and without the rigid structure of their predecessors.

The main bands are the Urabenos and the Rastrojos, and they are all over the country. According to Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris, which has been studying armed conflict in Colombia since 1996, the Urabenos are the “heirs of the paramilitary strongholds in Antioquia on the Caribbean coast and also include representatives from the Cartel del Norte del Valle that survived the war”. After Urdinola’s death, his political heirs aligned with the valley’s bands, the Machos, and ruled calmly for a few years. The Rastrojos wanted to take the place over and started a war. They won, but never established that fragile stability the big cartels once enjoyed. They killed Nelly Perea while she was praying in church in El Dovio because she had hidden members of the Machos in her home. Months later — in El Dovio they say this was payback — assassins killed two brothers of the current mayor, one in a farm field and then other while he attended the funeral of the first. It is said that the mayor had ties with the Rastrojos.

A very tiny man — the editor of the newspaper El Chikito, which denounces the injustices in Valle del Cauca in a very tiny format — protests each week in the Boyaca square, the central plaza in Talua, a city of fewer than 150,000 inhabitants in the heart of the region. The man, a well-known writer, intellectual, professor and journalist named Jose Eddier, holds up a sign reading: “We don’t want to kill or be killed”. In the past months, more than 20 human body parts have been found in the city, products of dismemberments. In the working-class neighborhoods, two different factions of the Rastrojos criminal band are fighting over drug trafficking and extortion. Homicides and brutality have skyrocketed.

“If they have to kill me, I don’t want it to be for nothing,” says Eddier while discussing the situation with us in a downtown cafe.

In this same place, hours before, a businessman who had come from a meeting with colleagues announced to us in a drunken slur that he and his associated had just decided if the police weren’t doing anything, the businesspeople would count on paramilitaries from Medellin to “clean up” the bacrim. During this period of war amongst the traffickers, tired of extortion, the man, who asks to remain anonymous, says things have never been worse. He almost misses the years when “Diego Rastrojo”, the former leader of the band that carries his name, would order him to close down a club so he could drink and snort cocaine surrounded by more than a dozen prostitutes.

The killing of the bands’ leaders has touched off a kind of soccer match without a coach in which each individual tries to get his piece of the action. For Eddier, Talua has turned into a competition in which the objective is to kill as much as possible and with the highest level of cruelty. In Aguaclara, on the city’s poorest neighborhoods, he gave a class recently to raise awareness amongst children.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” he asked the kids.

“A policeman,” answered a student without hesitating.


“To learn how to use a gun.”

Colonel Nelson Ramirez, chief of police in (Cauca) del Valle, moved his office to Talua in September of 2012, just when we were visiting the city, and displayed his commitment with a ceremony in the town’s square. Seven hundred perfectly uniformed, expressionless police officers posed all afternoon in the square and in just a week the police force captured 57 criminals, some of the members of the Rastrojos. One police commander offered the city’s residents 50 million pesos — some $30,000 — for clues about the leader of the most powerful criminal band in Talua. Known as Porron, according to police he is a 32-year-old assassin whose real name has not been released, but who ascended the ranks as the more experienced bosses fell.

“What we have here is a resettling, a readjustment of the criminal band the Rastrojos,” explains colonel Ramirez. “This band has two factions and they have been battling to control the organization.”

The Talua River, which crosses the town has twice, in September and November of 2012, greeted the morning with deposits of arms and legs on its banks. Residents of the Trinidad and Inmaculada districts, which are separated by the river, do not cross it because their neighborhoods are in a dispute over small-time trafficking routes. Along the railroad tracks that link Talua and Rio Frio, people have turned up a garbage bag with a human torso inside it. In August, residents of the town found a suitcase close to the bus station with the remains of a dismembered man. Months later, in February of that year, on Valentine’s Day, police visited a funeral home worker who had his lips sewn shut, his eyelids glued down and a sign reading “rat”.

Doralin, a thin, 37-year-old woman with an enormous absence in her gaze, lost her son close to one of the drug warehouses where the bands do battle. It was in the San Francisco development where she lives, a complex of brick homes with metal roofs for refugees from Colombia’s conflict. That night she heard a hail of bullets close to the K block, lot 8, parcel 1, and had a bad feeling. Minutes later she learned her son had taken a bullet in the back. They took him to the hospital but there was nothing they could do. Carlos Andres, 19 years old, had died, becoming one of 198 victims of violence in Talua last year. The homicide rate doubled that of Medellin — itself a symbol of the violence of Pablo Escobar’s rule – a place where in the past years the number of homicides has actually dropped dramatically, from 381 for every 100,000 people in 1991 to 49 last year. Residents testify that upon hearing the gunshots that killed Carlos Andres, they heard a man say: “Aw, son of a bitch. That’s the wrong guy.” They think he was confused with the son of the owner of the warehouse who, according to people who know both of them, looked very similar. Dolarin can only say: “I fled the violence and look what happened.”

Three decades looking for miracles

afterescobar-portraitsTumaco, Colombia. Photo Dromomanos.

The central square is full of portraits: an 18-year-old kid, an old woman with glasses, an older man, a woman with a timid smile… There are thousands of photographs here, thousands of names of people who have disappeared over the past 30 years. In Tumaco, the maritime capital of the Narino province, bordering Ecuador and Cauca, each year there are between 220 and 250 homicides, and thousands more displaced or disappeared. Like Talua and El Dovio, the bands fight for control over neighborhoods and cocaine smuggling routes to Central America and the United States.

Ana Ludi is one of the women who spent the weekend hanging the photographs, which had accumulated from her in the church over the past 22 years. The church has taken up the cause of the disappeared people. This week they are having an exhibit to raise awareness about the issue. She is in charge of speaking with the residents, explaining their rights to them, asking them to denounce any cases of violence. Yolando Ceron, one of the sisters at the church, was killed on September 19, 2001 for doing this kind of work. Yolita, as she’s known, was one of the first people in Tumaco to criticize the paramilitary groups and denounce their ties with the Colombian army. After various threats, one day two men on motorbikes finally shot her while she was leaving church in the same square where Ana Ludi hangs photographs of the disappeared people. The 47-year-old woman, who uses crutches as a result of polio she had as an infant, talks about her uncle’s assassination two years ago. “Up until now I haven’t asked much, but according to what I hear it might have been people from his own neighborhood. I heard they killed him for talking. They killed Yolita for talking too, so she would shut her mouth.”
Deaths and disappeared people are a result of a network that controls part of Narino’s economy. Luis Jorge Tovar, a tall, greying and eloquent man, is a rear admiral in the Colombian navy, stationed in Tumaco. He came here in February of 2012 and has a quantity of information that is only comparable to the infinite network of estuaries that weaves through Narino’s coast: “From one hectare of coca leaves they get more less three kilos cocaine, sometimes up to ten, depending on the yield. The farmers get 50,000 pesos ($26) a day,” the military official explains. Once the coca leaf is turned into cocaine paste, he adds, a kilo costs up to 200,000 pesos($100). And when it’s turned into cocaine chlorohydrate, the figure keeps rising: 2.5 million pesos ($1300). Upon arrival in the United States, that kilo can cost up to $25,000, and double that in cities like New York.Tovar heads the anti-drug force Poseidon, with jurisdiction in Narino, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca to the port of Buenaventura, one of the so-called ‘doors’ for Mexican cartels to move drugs north. While he dissects his first months in charge — 18 cocaine labs destroyed, 110,000 gallons of gas seized from labs, breaking up the Rastrojos ring — Tovar alludes to his latest ‘toy’, a semi-submergible submarine, a small boat shaped like a torpedo with the capacity to transport a few tons of cocaine. “A ton of cocaine isn’t as much as one would imagine. It would fit on this table,” he says as he looks at a typical office desk about 50 inches long.

“But a ton is worth $29 million to finance terrorism,” he adds.
The rusting apparatus is in impound outside his office along with other artifacts and vehicles used to transport drugs, mostly speed boats. “They made a stupid mistake,” he explains, “And we were on their tails and simply pursued them, which lasted four days.” According to Tovar and other official sources in Tumaco, the Rastrojos are in bed together with the FARC in Narino. The guerrillas normally take care of growing the coca leaf — in Narino there are some 14,000 hectares of coca leaf, a fifth of the country’s total — and turning it into paste and cocaine and storing it. The criminal bands usually take care of transport. It’s not that they are allies, says Tovar, “they use each other”. The transportation works in loads. The submarines, semi-submergibles and speed boats have the capacity to store up to eight or nine tons. The owners put the word out and offer space for those who want to move cocaine.
The bands that transport cocaine work like franchises, “like McDonald’s”, says Tovar. The rear admiral’s men caught the head of the northern cell of the Rastrojos, Luis German Cortes, alias Fantasma, last year. Now, they say, it’s run by someone known as ’08,’ although the real boss of the entire northern cell is an old acquaintance of Colombian authorities and the DEA. His name is Victor Patino, alias El Quimico, a seasoned kingpin from the Cali and Norte del Valle cartels who got out of prison in the United States a few months ago. Tovar says Patino is living in Medellin and that he literally bought the loyalty of the organization and the chain of transport towards the north.
Night falls in Tumaco but the heat is still asphyxiating. The air here is more humid than up in Valle del Cauca, thicker, stickier. On a simple tavern table two beer bottles are opened. Two women begin to speak in low voices. They are not from here. They work in a foreign organization that evaluates the impact of drug trafficking, among other things, on the country’s isolated areas. They are just back from a trip of a few days through the estuaries of Narino and seem resigned. One of them starts in and explains: “Coca leaf has changed everything here. Until a year and half ago everyone planted coca leaf. The people tell you. They lived well. There was time when cocaine paste turned into currency: You could buy clothes, motorbikes… Eating habits changed. No one fished anymore. They bought canned food. In towns like Olaya Herrera or Bocas de Santinga a true drug culture took shape. You could buy Mexican food!”
She talks about it with the sad eyes of someone who looks on and can’t do anything. Sometimes she lets out a laugh, trying to diminish its importance. Other times she lowers her voice and leans over the steel table, looking up and down the street. Cars and motorbikes pass by. The reggaeton blows out eardrums.The deployment of Colombian troops in the southeast of the country has stopped coca leaf fever in Tumaco and Narino for now. There are towns like Llorente that revive in a perverse bloom when the fever returns. (Llorente) is the typical example of town that arose because of coca leaves. There is a transportation company there that when the coca boom started opened a highway to the town of Hormiga, in Putamayo (a mountainous region on the Ecuadorian border where coca leaf has traditionally been planted). It’s for the raspachines (people who harvest coca leaves) to get to work.

The rise of coca leaf in one area or another depends on pressure from the government. Before Narino, Cauca and Valle del Cauca, the government cracked down on Putamayo. Real Admiral Tovar predicts that when they break up the rings in Narino, the drug industry will move to Choco, in the northeast of the country. Then they will follow them there. He says then they will not have anywhere else to go in the country and (authorities) can celebrate victory.afterescobar-AK47Tumaco, Colombia. Photo Dromomanos.

Across from the portraits of people whom no one ever saw again, a group of young people is preparing a performance in Tumaco’s main square. In the theater piece, an armed group barges into a party, seizes the women, consumes drugs, threatens people. (The actors) are just 12 or 13 years old. One of them carries an AK-47 made of steel pipe. His buddies carry guns made of cardboard. There are fights, gunshots. A boy runs away from his family to join the gangs and ends up dead. The actors cry in front of 80 spectators. The boys wrote the play trying to imitate daily life in this port on the Colombian Pacific, a weave of estuaries taken over by the FARC and the cells of the Rastrojos.

Around the kids, some residents search the photos for their loved ones. They try to identity relatives and friends who have disappeared in the past years. They walk around the square looking at the portraits as if they were an art exhibit. Others are simply attracted by curiosity as the audience applauds the actors, who join hands. The organizers from the church explain that this how the kids see Tumaco today and they demand that things change. They want peace. The actors hold a pot with a small plant and pass it to each other. The plant represents Tumaco itself, which needs to grow in peace until turning into a tree.


Jose Luis Pardo Veiras and Pablo Ferri Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard