This municipality, which is located right in the middle of the Montes de María region, has long been troubled by armed groups. Its populace has been victimised by guerrillas, paramilitaries, governmental troops, and organisations involved in drug trafficking.
Maricarmen Guzmán recalls fragments of a childhood life surrounded by violent armed confrontations she experienced with her family and neighbours in San Jacinto, one of the municipalities in the Montes de María region most affected by violence in the past 40 years, as she polishes a piece of leather with her old rusty knife.
The 32-year-old woman with a strong Caribbean accent and a bright smile recalls, “When the gunfire started, my mother told us to take the needle and start knitting until we fell asleep.” She continues without pausing to scrape that bit of leather that will become, eventually, a little drum.
Her mother thought that teaching her children to weave would keep them occupied and away from the bloody confrontations between armed factions that were occurring in the middle of the 1990s. The artisan remembers, “By candlelight, we would weave.” It is unknown why, during those years, the power service in the urban core was interrupted at six in the evening and resumed at six the following morning. This population’s cycle of life and death was characterized by that darkness.
“The power would go out about six o’clock in the evening. I’m referring to when I was between five and six years old. They wanted no one on the streets, and they would kill everyone they came across out there. At that time, the only sounds you could hear were the shooting and the crickets,” adds Maricarmen.
Jorge, her husband, is a Sanjacintero farmer who also suffered the atrocities of war. His father was killed by the guerrillas 17 years ago, some of his uncles were kidnapped and several of his cousins were forcibly recruited.
“The youth we experienced was harsh; we spent it escaping and eluding capture”, this farmer, whom Maricarmen trained to manufacture miniature crafts, recalls, “My family is still dispersed throughout numerous municipalities.” In the La Guitarra section of the El Paraíso neighborhood, he cultivates yams and cassava in a tiny plot of land next to the wooden and plastic shack where he lives with the woman’s three young daughters.
Both of them are part of the 17,455 people who, according to the National Information Network, were recognized by the Unit for the Attention and Integral Reparation of Victims (UARIV) to access the measures of attention and reparation, by Law 1448 of 2011.
According to the residents of Sanjacintero, the town has seen numerous negative effects. Records from the National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH), which are included in the “Basta Ya!” (Stop now!) database, show that armed takeovers of metropolitan areas, massacres, kidnappings, selective killings, large-scale displacements, and destruction of civilian property have all occurred. The Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá) (ACCU) and later the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) are credited with carrying out many of these operations, as well as the now-defunct FARC guerrillas.
A macro-case titled “Hostage-taking, serious deprivation of liberty, and other concurrent crimes committed by the FARC-EP” was initiated by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in July 2018. Its goal is to satisfy the victims of kidnapping’s demands for justice while identifying those most accountable and other members of the organization who participated in different crimes.
Reports from this tribunal state that 21,396 victims have already been located around the nation. San Jacinto and the Montes de María region also saw some of these incidents. According to information from the CNMH, at least 28 kidnappings by rebels from the 35th and 37th fronts of the Caribbean Bloc of the now-defunct FARC were committed in this municipality between 1991 and 2005.
The Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), one of the organizations that support and advocate for victims in Case 01, has more than 30 cases where kidnapping is a victimizing event, so this number does not accurately reflect the kidnapping problem in the region. This underreporting may be a result of the victims not disclosing what occurred, or even if they did, the appropriate authorities at the time did not accept their statements.
VerdadAbierta.com visited the community to speak with local authorities, craftspeople, and musicians about the history and current state of violence. Expectations are high for the JEP’s ability to provide guarantees of non-recurrence, truth, justice, and compensation because there are still many open wounds that need time to heal.
Overwhelmed by the guerrillas
Residents of San Jacinto and the other 14 Bolívar and Sucre municipalities that make up the Montes de Mara region have been experiencing the entry of illegal armed groups, particularly those with insurgent roots, since the late 1970s.
The Ombudsman’s Office and Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) analysis has determined that the presence of these guerrillas was a response to four circumstances: the region’s geostrategic location, which would facilitate illegal activities; the construction of a road connecting the Caribbean with the country’s center; the State’s absence and ineffective presence; and the unstable social and economic situation of its residents.
According to a 2006 report from the Ombudsman’s Office, “This is how the exploitation of these social conditions allowed them to subjugate the civilian population and maintain an evident population control, through the application of their methods of “justice,” extortion of ranchers, farmers, and merchants, and the carrying out of kidnappings.”
According to the FIP, the region’s marginality up until the mid-1980s “allowed the incubation of a series of tensions and local conflicts that would emerge violently when the expansion of the guerrilla groups met territorially with the central government’s initiatives to integrate the region into the national political and economic dynamics.”
The FIP claims that at the time, the now-defunct FARC “had no place in a territory dominated by other guerrilla groups.” The peace agreements it would negotiate with the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), the Revolutionary Workers’ Party (PRT), and later, in 1994, with the Socialist Renewal Current (CRS), a division of the ELN, would mark the beginning of its armed rule. According to the FIP, the disarmament of these armed organizations “created a power vacuum that was exploited” by the FARC.
By the decisions made at the Eighth National Guerrilla Conference, this armed group’s highest decision-making body, which was held between March 27 and April 3, 1993, in the rural area of the municipality of Uribe, Meta, the FARC solidified its military and political presence in the region with blood and fire.
Seven blocks were to be created there, including the Atlantico, Bolivar, Cesar, La Guajira, Magdalena, and Sucre-based Jose Antequera Ramirez Urban Front and the Caribbean Bloc, which is composed of fronts 19, 35, 37, 41, and 59. According to reports from the guerrillas themselves, this reorganization strategy was implemented in response to the launch of the so-called “Bolivarian Campaign for a New Colombia,” which the guerrilla commanders claimed would enable them to “seize power by armed means” and be carried out over a six-year period with a budget of 52 million dollars.
The Caribbean Bloc was given a target of $6,000,000 in the allocation of duties for attaining these resources. The guerrillas used kidnapping and extortion to achieve this purpose. The JEP discovered that setting up roadblocks was one of the methods used to gather resources: “The guerrillas stopped private cars and public transportation buses, interrogated and investigated the passengers, and, depending on the economic value attributed to the victims, either released them immediately or held them captive to demand different sums of money for their release.”
Owners of profitable farms were kidnapped as an additional tactic. “The selection of the victims, according to the witnesses, was based on intelligence groups specialised in identifying the families who owned farms in the region,” the JEP reported. They also abducted governmental officials, employees of businesses with a presence in San Jacinto and generally in the Montes de María, peasants, teachers, farm workers, and peasants. The victims are still suffering as a result of this horrible tactic.
Alfredo was imprisoned by guerrillas of the 37th Front in his little plot of land in one of the San Jacinto towns under the pretext that he “worked for the government.” The incident happened in September 2002. His situation exemplifies the lasting effects that kidnapping has on its victims.
“I was taken amidst the screams of my wife, who was one day into labor,” claims Alfredo. This was his family’s sixth child. They believed I was working for the government and frequently questioned me, ‘What is this? How much do they pay you for being a snitch?’ My response would be that I wasn’t insane enough to do something like that. And they challenged me, saying, ‘You work with the Army because every time they come to these parts, they always come to your house first.’ However, my ranch was the first one at the trail’s entrance.”
He was detained until five o’clock in the afternoon and was freed just before dusk the next day. “They questioned me about my income as they held me there chained up, blindfolded, and without food. They didn’t believe me and threatened to murder me when I insisted that I didn’t receive a single peso or work for the government.”
Around five o’clock in the afternoon, Alfredo was permitted to leave with the instruction to “vacate the area” within eight hours. He left his home and went back to a brother’s for security reasons. He was informed there that his wife had been told he had been killed by someone. She was so stunned by the incorrect information that it interfered with her ability to reason, and nine days later she lost her newborn baby son.
“She was lost,” Alfredo painfully recalls. “She wanted to kill her children, she bit herself, she pulled out her hair”, he was told on that occasion. Despite multiple medical treatments, she never regained her mental health, but they still live together in the same place, out in the country.
Mara, a hammock weaver who also experienced severe psychological traumas, still sobs when she thinks back to what her husband experienced as a result of the conflict two years ago. “We looked after farms and planted crops concurrently, but due to the violence we were forced to leave the area and travel to the city. He even helped me wrap the thread to weave the hammocks as we assisted each other here. We never again worked on farms during those years”, according to the weaver.
Montes de María was one of the first places in the country to experience the effects of the Democratic Security strategy after Alvaro Uribe assumed the presidency of the Republic in August 2002. The weaver says, “Things improved, and then my husband went back to work in the fields,” but her life partner did not get over his prior anxieties. He perished as a result of the conflict, I am certain of that. Two years ago, he committed suicide. “He warned me a few days ago that things were going to get worse and that more things would be harmed. In the middle of the day, he left the house and never returned. The following day they discovered him dead,” María recounts, her voice breaking.
By the time of the farmer’s passing, residents of San Jacinto and other nearby towns were reportedly subject to new armed groups’ operations in addition to the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 epidemic. There were rumors that the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) (AGC), also referred to by the government as the “Clan del Golfo,” might be present. The people of San Jacinto were once again overcome by fear.
Damage to culture and the economy
The repercussions of the conflict can also be seen in the agricultural economy and cultural expressions. They have been recuperating gradually, but there is still more work to be done. “Our effort was lost during the war because the visitors stayed away out of fear. The selling of hammocks, handbags, and other handicrafts, which provided a living for hundreds of Sanjacintera women, “began to decline,” recalls María.
The weaver notes that the weaving activity was also hampered by the instability in rural areas, which prohibited people from hunting for natural raw materials to dye the yarn. “The merchants did not dare to come and buy fabrics and handicrafts to take to other places,” the weaver says. Many of the plants, according to her, were two or three hours from the town.
Additionally, the element that has made San Jacinto famous throughout Colombia and the world, music, was impacted. Bagpipes and drums were constrained due to nighttime power shortages and restrictions on movement enforced by illegal armed organisations. “The gaiteros would congregate in the houses and play, which was a distraction for us.” According to craftsman Maricarmen, “the gaitas wheels had to be completed before six o’clock in the evening.”
Héctor Rafael Pérez García, a well-known Sanjacintero musician and winner of the 2007 Latin Grammy award for the best folk album entitled ‘Un fuego de sangre pura’ (A fire of pure blood), is the one who speaks out about these affectations.
“With my father, we would leave for the fields at four in the morning and return at five in the afternoon, carrying a load of food to share with others. It was there that we forged a social network. That’s how we went about living our lives. My mum was also weaving a hammock at home to sell later.” According to the piper, “That is how we lived—in peace and tranquilly.”
What Pérez García disclosed altered drastically when the armed groups’ brutality started to show up: “One day they forbade us from going out and established a rigid timetable for us to be in the countryside and in the town itself. We started experiencing that anxiety and haven’t fully recovered.”
The gaiteros’ predicament was so complicated that it prevented them from attending concerts and presentations in other parts of the country because of travel restrictions brought on by armed conflicts and unauthorised checkpoints. Additionally, their songs’ lyrics were altered. According to Pérez García, who also quotes interactions with other gaiteros, “We are now committed to singing about so much violence,” they “confronted all the violence with verses, and on stage, we sang that they should stop all the gunfire,” which he says is true.
He continues, “I never quit playing the gaita, but I did stop travelling to performances. Inviting me over the phone, they would then call the day before to cancel due to a guerrilla takeover or something similar. You killed your dreams by staying at home.” (See complete interview)
Farmers in San Jacinto were in the same predicament as artists and musicians. One farmer, who wished to remain anonymous, described the absence of avocado crops in the early 2000s as having had one of the most significant economic effects on the area.
“I don’t know what could have happened, but the avocado crops started to fail overnight, and soon we had nothing left. Only for family consumption, we didn’t need to have any alternative products to sell, like cassava, yams, or bananas. Our heritage was the avocado,” according to the farmer this outlet spoke with.
A fungus called Phytophthora cinnamomi, which, according to the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA), causes yellowing, leaf drop, loss of fruiting, and immediate death of the plant, had spread to San Jacinto, one of the largest producers of the fruit in Montes de María. In the area, there is conjecture that the war contributed to the invasion of this bug.
Some farmers think that the fungus was disseminated by the Army to undermine the former FARC insurgents’ ability to support themselves, as it supplied their coffers during harvest by extorting money from avocado producers, who, according to the ICA, totaled roughly 8,000 families. Additionally, the trees’ lushness gave them the best possible camouflage.
The farmer contacted in San Jacinto states, “There are people who agree with the fumigation, but I do not share that version,” but it is unclear how the fungus got to the avocado fields, which at their peak spanned over 7,000 hectares in the Montes de María.
Every resident in San Jacintera suffers from the stigma that the armed conflict left them with because of living in a region where the now-defunct FARC insurgents had a significant presence since the early 1990s. “An army officer once told me that if these bagpipes were also firing bullets. I feel that human principles are not being respected,” the piper Perez García reflects.
About this, Leonardo Pacheco García, attorney for the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) and representative of San Jacinto victims in macro-case 01 before the JEP, explains that illegal armed groups were able to consolidate because the State failed to take a comprehensive stance against them. As a result, “when the military response from them [the State] comes, the population feels stigmatized because the institutions never distinguished them from the armed groups, but rather they were treated as if they had some link with the guerrillas, even when they were victims of violence in the area.”
The communal fibre, as seen in the community action boards, was also impacted, according to a resident who was interviewed: “The leaders were the ones they persecuted the most. People were also reluctant to organise. Nothing was planned by anyone. Furthermore, leaders had to depart from the villages.” This kind of forced relocation was largely brought on by the stigmatisation they endured.
A recycled war
According to JEP analysis, the armed hegemony of the now-defunct FARC imposed by the Caribbean Bloc in the Montes de María region started to be challenged at the end of the 1990s by paramilitary groups that entered the area with the assistance of cattle ranchers and businessmen who were overburdened by the insurgents’ demands for money and who were supported by portions of the security forces.
Even though paramilitary armed groups had been active in the area since the 1980s, according to reports from the Observatory of the Presidential Program for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, it wasn’t until 1997 that the AUC factions arrived there to oppose the actions of the Caribbean Bloc.
From that point forward, the paramilitaries established several goals, according to this Observatory, including seizing control of the Montes de María through direct conflict with subversive groups, obtaining financial support from productive sectors, and expanding their force “by encouraging the desertion of members of active guerrilla groups and incorporating members disengaged from the Armed Forces and personnel of demobilized guerrillas.”
Studies by the FIP indicate that the AUC also benefited financially from the drug trade and had the backing of local and regional political establishments. In contrast, this research center claims that “the evolution of paramilitarism did not mean the reduction of the FARC in terms of military strength, but rather a sustained dynamic of violence against the civilian population that produced greater imbalances in land ownership, thousands of families displaced by violence, massacres, and the co-optation of the public administrations of several municipalities in the region.”
According to several papers, paramilitary organisations linked to the AUC broke into San Jacinto in 1997. One of their first acts was the murder of Juan Carlos Quiroz Tietjen, the municipality’s elected mayor, on November 6 of that year after he was accused of opposing this illegal armed group. The government brought charges against local leaders, the military, and the police in this case.
In March 1999, five kilometers outside of the city, they killed three truck drivers and one of their aides in a massacre that is still very recent in the minds of the inhabitants of Sanjacintera. At that time, the paramilitaries put a stop to passenger transit to outlying sections of the Sanjacintera mountains.
In response to the paramilitary advance and the escalating conflict with the now-defunct FARC, the administration of former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez declared a State of Internal Commotion in September 2002 and ordered that the municipalities of the Montes de María would be designated as one of the Rehabilitation and Consolidation Zones, which implied a significant expansion of the force footprint.
According to San Jacinto’s residents, the territorial control achieved by state forces, the demobilisation of the Bloque Héroes de Montes de María on July 14, 2005, as a result of the agreements reached by the AUC with the Colombian State, and the death of Gustavo Rueda Díaz, alias “Martín Caballero,” the head of the FARC’s Bloque Caribe, on October 24, 2007, following a bombing in a rural area of the municipality of Carmen de Bolívar.
The area experienced a period of relative calm for several years. In 2012, when peace talks in Havana, Cuba, between the national government and the now-defunct FARC guerrillas, were starting, the situation started to deteriorate. In May 2012, the Ombudsman’s Office’s SAT provided an early warning about the problem.
“[…] versions of the locals suggest that a group of armed individuals (men and women) would have presented themselves as members of the FARC in a number of the villages in the south-western part of San Jacinto, and in a number of the Carmen de Bolivar villages that border the municipality of Chalan, messages painted on the wall with the legend: “We came back for what we left,” according to the document.
Two years later, the SAT would once more stress the security issue in San Jacinto: “Several of the sources reviewed suggest that teachers, small cattle ranchers, and shops in the municipality of San Jacinto are targeted for extortion […] Evidently, out of fear of retaliation, the victims would choose to pay the extortion rather than disclose it. Who the perpetrators may be is unknown.”
The AGC has recently positioned itself through blood and fire following numerous conflicts between various illegal armed organizations in San Jacinto and several municipalities of the Montes de María. On July 19, 2022, many armed members of this criminal group attacked the police station in the town center with rifle bullets, making their presence well-known.
The incident made the locals anxious and reawakened previous anxieties from the guerilla takeovers of 1997 and 2000. A local who was briefed on the issue said, “It was like going back in time.”
Attorney Pacheco makes the point that despite the Final Peace Agreement, which was signed with the now-defunct FARC six years ago, “the population continues to recognise the perpetrators, particularly those who are involved in similar or the same activities as they were before demobilization, which is why it is difficult for them to report such situations in San Jacinto.”
The Ombudsman’s Office’s most recent early warning on the threat to human rights defenders, released on May 19, rated San Jacinto as high risk, particularly for women leaders. This public ministry agency explained that the configuration of the area, which is strategic for illegal activities, “has put at serious risk the life, integrity, security, and freedom of women who exercise their leadership and defense of human rights,” extending the analysis to the Montes de María as a whole.
The San Jacinto victims accredited before the JEP in macro-case 01 are accompanied by CCJ psychologist Laura Correa, who brings up two points that explain why new acts of war might make people feel like they are returning to the past.
On the one hand, she claims, it is because of “the lack of attention from the State in the territory, the invisibility of San Jacinto, of the State actors, which makes the perception of security, for example, very unfavorable,” which would make it challenging “to heal the damages, the affectations, and the impacts that they lived with the FARC and other armed actors for so many years.” Furthermore, “there are the financial struggles of the victims, many of whom have not been able to recover from “the financial damages left by kidnapping and other related crimes”.
Because of all these factors, Correa thinks it’s essential that this JEP proceeding “leads to a successful end, that justice is done, and that the expectations of the victims are realized in terms of recompense, truth, and guarantees of non-repetition.” Additionally, she claims that the unique characteristics of the Caribbean Bloc must be given more consideration.
“It must be considered,” she continues, “that it has been the members of this block who have attended the proceedings with the least frequency; of course, we understand that during the conflict, as they say, many were “discharged,” but it has been a territory to which little attention has been paid within the process, which seems to have been overlooked, and it is important that the accredited persons also see that importance is given to it.”
And what do the victims expect from the JEP?
Everyone in San Jacinto, according to the gaitero Pérez García, is a victim of the conflict in some capacity. Due to this, they have great hopes for the JEP’s potential reparations resolution when it rules on the 01 macro-case.
Numerous victims who have been surveyed by this portal want to acquire specific restitution measures in response to the harm done by the insurgent organisation. Others seek constructive projects to alleviate the harm done to the avocado plantations, while yet others are pessimistic and claim they have no expectations from the JEP. Nonetheless, others focus on cultural alternatives.
Others, however, advocate for collective reparations. “It would be crucial to have a project for something native, like the harm perpetuated to avocado producers, in each location the FARC has affected.” A Sanjacintero farmer who was abducted and was identified by the JEP adds, “I don’t know if we can receive compensation because we are all wrecked.”
The creation of an aqueduct system is a long-standing demand that the local, regional, and national political classes have been unable to solve, according to a teacher who was also arbitrarily imprisoned. The majority of their water requirements are satisfied by rainwater, which is gathered and kept in enormous tanks.
Also requesting consideration in the restitution measures are the organizations of women weavers and artisans. To revitalize their work and preserve this cultural legacy, they need the help of various state entities. They haven’t stood still and are working hard to find economic uses for their bags and hammocks.
“The weavings have brought about internal tranquilly.” According to Ledis Jaramillo, legal representative of the Asociación Artesanal Tejedoras de Esperanzas, which consists of at least 50 Sanjacintera weavers, “We have been healing wounds and sequels that violence has left us through each weaving and each product we make.”
The bagpipers join these petitions and express their hope that the JEP will consider them when determining its restitution policies. They believe that the harm done to their internationally renowned cultural events has been severe, and nobody has yet taken up their cause. Pérez García claims, “I feel that no one who works for culture has been mended in San Jacinto.”
Given that many of them were kidnapping victims, psychologist Correa claims that those who seek individual economic reparations are justified in doing so. She backs up this claim with the following statement about the demands made to free family members: “The demands for payment of sums of money were very high.”
The material losses incurred by those who were forcibly relocated must be added to this, as must “the impossibility of carrying out any work or economic activity given the physical and profound psychological damage caused by the kidnapping”.
According to Correa, “the crimes they experienced as a result of the armed conflict, especially those committed by the FARC, generate that people recognize and express that they need this compensation to be able to get a little closer to the life project they had planned before everything happened.”
In this regard, Pacheco draws attention to a fact that the accompaniment of abduction victims in San Jacinto makes clear: some are accredited before the JEP but are not recognized by the UARIV. Pacheco states that this is the first barrier to the Unit’s support. “We have made the Chamber aware of this situation so that it can attempt to order the UARIV to address it. The Chamber is looking into Case 01 in the JEP. Due to a gap left in the normative development, the system ignores these victims.”
Faced with the insistence of some victims on individual compensation, Pacheco recognizes that it is a complicated issue that they have tried to resolve with their representatives, because the JEP does not have an individual economic reparation component.
On the other hand, “We do explain the component of the TOAR, namely the works and activities with restorative content that the ex-guerrillas who appear before the JEP will have to carry out and deliver complete and exhaustive truth and accept responsibility for the conducts committed.” It is anticipated that they will address the victims in its formulation, but with a distinct sense of community.
For victims to organise themselves, offer their recommendations to this transitional tribunal through their solicitors, and receive feedback from the former guerrillas who testify in these courts, the CCJ is trying to increase collective consciousness.
Regarding compensation, the JEP faces a tremendous problem. The victims in San Jacinto hope they won’t be let down. Will the SJP be in a position to provide thorough reparations?