Medellín Diary: Remembering Our Dead

Gustavo Marulanda mural. (Hacemos Memoria.)

Twenty years ago, on August 7, 1999, student leader Gustavo Marulanda was shot and killed in Medellín by far right AUC paramilitaries (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) under the command of Éver Veloza García, alias H.H., near the Universidad de Antioquia, where Marulanda studied philosophy. Paramilitaries had murdered Hugo Ángel Quintero, who ran the university law school’s cafeteria, on campus the day before, and Professor Hernán Henao, director of the university’s prestigious Institute of Regional Studies (INER), in his office on May 4. What set Marulanda’s death apart from so many others in those years, when the Colombian government of Andrés Pastrana negotiated peace with the insurgent guerrilla movement, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and the paramilitaries targeted intellectuals as well as social and trade union movement activists as guerrilla supporters, is that Marulanda publicly forecasted his murder at a student assembly.

A death foretold by the victim and denounced to the requisite authorities with enough time to have prevented it. Marulanda came from Santo Domingo Savio, a barrio popular in the northeast that was caught up in the city’s urban wars during the period in the 1980s and 90s, when Medellín became the world capital of homicide and cocaine exports. He grew up politically at the notoriously combative Marco Fidel Suárez High School, which faced fierce state repression in those years. With lawyer and human rights activist Jesús María Valle, whom paramilitaries murdered in 1998, Marulanda investigated and denounced the growing threat of paramilitarism—and the links between paramilitaries and politicians—in the region and the university itself. In April 1999, he warned of the consequences of privatizing public education during the assemblies of students, professors, and workers that met to discuss the Universidad de Antioquia’s Development Plan. Paramilitaries accused him of belonging to the Colombia’s other major guerrilla insurgency, the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional). Following the circulation of a list of targets via the internet, Marulanda’s murder in August 1999 triggered an exodus of student activists into exile. Murders and disappearances of professors and student activists spiked throughout the country in 2000-3, as the country shifted from a bloody peace to an even bloodier war under President Álvaro Uribe and US-sponsored Plan Colombia.

The FARC no longer exists, and the ELN, such as it is, is concentrated in Venezuelan border regions, so is this history now? In terms of counter-insurgency, what has changed and what has remained the same? On Friday, August 2, 2019, at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín, through its self-organized lecture series, the Student Office invited Miguel Ángel Beltrán and Jorge Enrique Freyyter-Florián to present their new book, Universidades bajo S.O.S.pecha: Represión estatal a estudiantes, profesorado y sindicalistas en Colombia (2000-2019) (Universities under S.O.S.picion: State repression of students, professors, and trade unionists in Colombia, 2010-2019), co-authored with Professor María Ruiz Aranguren, who was not present, and published by the Universidad del País Vasco-Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

Beltrán, a sociology professor at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, authored one of the most important studies of the history and evolution of the FARC from his maximum-security prison cell in La Picota. While on a post-doctoral fellowship at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 2009, Beltrán was kidnapped and extradited to Colombia as part of a criminal conspiracy by then-presidents of Colombia and Mexico, Álvaro Uribe and Felipe Calderón: criminal because every aspect of the operation was illegal, and conspiracy because it was done with as much secrecy as possible until the media spectacle began. Beltrán was imprisoned on false charges of “terrorism,” and stood accused of belonging to the FARC and organizing FARC cells in México, D.F. In this as in other cases involving students and professors from public universities, the Colombian media pre-emptively condemned Beltrán—without evidence—in the court of public opinion. In 2013, Colombia’s arch-reactionary Attorney General Alejandro Ordoñez removed Beltrán from his post, alleging that he recruited students and penned official FARC documents of a “revolutionary stripe.” The Rector of the Universidad Nacional duly followed suit, taking refuge in legal subtleties and constitutional niceties rather than defending university autonomy or academic freedom. In December 2014, Beltrán was condemned to prison for one hundred months for the crime of rebellion, and banned from public employment for thirteen years. Released on September 1, 2016, because of the use of tainted evidence against him, he was back at the Universidad Nacional on September 2, where students who fought tirelessly to free him received him with a shower of rose petals. In May 2018, the Council of State ruled (provisionally) that Beltrán could return to his post and resume teaching duties at the Universidad Nacional.

Beltrán thus embodies the subject of the book as few others could, but what about his co-author, Jorge Enrique Freyyter-Florián? On August 28, 2001, Freyyter-Florián’s father, Jorge Adolfo Freyyter Romero, a law professor emeritus at the Universidad del Atlántico who was active in the university’s retired peoples’ union (ASOJUA), was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by a combination of police special forces (GAULA), the Colombian Army, and AUC paramilitaries in Barranquilla. Death threats drove Freyyter-Florián into exile in Basque Country, where he found allies at the Universidad del País Vasco-Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, in particular media sociologist María Ruiz Aranguren. In his undergraduate thesis, Freyyter-Florián focused on the paramilitary takeover of universities along the Caribbean Coast—Córdoba, Magdalena, and especially Atlántico—where violence was most concentrated, impunity most naked, and collaboration between the organs of state repression, local politicians, and narco-paramilitary forces closest.

The book is the product of collaboration with organizations of victims and victims’ families in Bogotá, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta, and opens with a prologue by Renán Vega Cantor, a well-known radical historian, who suggests that Colombia suffered the genocide of its youth (juvenicidio) as a result of the creation of an “internal enemy” as part of Cold War counter-insurgency. The book is divided into two separate parts. Part I of the first book consists of a long essay on the political, military, and social context of repression in the twenty-first century, and provides a useful synthesis of developments since the late 1970s, particularly the rise of narco-paramilitarism in relation to the state and social movements. Part II discusses the paramilitary takeover of public universities in the Caribbean (Montería, Valledupar, Santa Marta, and Barranquilla) beginning in the mid-1990s, along with the resulting forced displacement, exile, disappearances, and extra-judicial executions. It contains detailed discussions of specific cases, including the case of Jorge Freyyter Romero. Part III outlines cases of students who were detained on bogus charges, frequently following police infiltration of student groups, and the role of the judicial branch in waging counter-insurgency and defining the “internal enemy.” Part IV explains the role of the media in stigmatizing, criminalizing, and condemning student activists, and Part V offers recommendations as to how to remedy the situation. The second part of the book is far more devastating, since it narrates, case by case, the students, professors, and workers murdered in Colombia’s public universities in the twenty-first century. The authors are to be commended for the patient reconstruction of lives and deaths that would otherwise be deliberately missing from the official historical record.

The event on August 2 concluded with a discussion of what it means to exercise the right to critical thought, university autonomy, protest, and mobilization in a context in which violence and state-led political repression are so pervasive and diverse in their modalities. In light of the students, professors, and workers murdered or disappeared in 2015-17 (six, four, and one, respectively), it seems fair to say that the limits of Colombia’s oligarchic, semi-authoritarian parliamentary democracy continue to be defined over the dead bodies of Colombia’s public university communities. This comes as no surprise, for despite the FARC’s disappearance and extermination, Cold War discourses and practices of counter-insurgency remain in place in state and civil society, and, as Gustavo Marulanda’s murder illustrates, inter-twine with the neoliberal push to privatize higher education. There are repressive peaks and troughs, however, and compared to 2000-3 or 2009-12, the recent period has been a trough, though certainly not for social movement, trade union, and community leaders, or de-mobilized FARC soldiers and officers.

The great fear, of course, is a return to peak levels in cities and public universities, which adds a degree of pedagogical urgency to the task of remembering our dead and making historical and political sense of their deaths. Like the event on August 2, Universidades bajo S.O.S.pecha: Represión estatal a estudiantes, profesorado y sindicalistas en Colombia (2000-2019) (Universities under S.O.S.picion: State Repression of Students, Professors, and Trade Unionists in Colombia, 2010-2019) could not be more timely. As the region, the country, and the hemisphere continue to lurch right, we seek to explain how the recent past became the present. Though memory provides few guarantees, as both authors and participants stressed, forgetting opens the door to repetition. We have our work cut out for us, but Beltrán, Ruiz Aranguren, and Freyyter-Florián have performed an important public service.


Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.