Saving Victor Peña

Plaza de mercado de Tuchín. Photograph Source: Fernando Montaño Salgado – CC0

Víctor Peña just turned forty. He is a displaced cacique of the Zenú people, Colombia’s second-largest Indigenous group, and since the Covid 19 pandemic began, his entire family has died –or been gruesomely murdered either by narco-paramilitaries of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGN) or AGN ‘dissidents’, Los caparracos (which have been at war with one another). As a result of relief work we did together in Medellín in 2020, namely getting alcohol gel, masks, and food to Zenú mothers during the pandemic, he adopted me as his brother and made me a member of the guardia indígena in Tuchín, Córdoba, which handles issues of justice and law enforcement. In an important sense, I am Victor’s keeper.

Neither of us could ever go to Tuchín: Victor would be killed, probably after being tortured, not long after arriving. Because of my US passport, I would probably receive death threats via WhatsApp and be given 24 hours to leave. Though hypothetical, Victor has often spoken of his desire for revenge, and of returning to exact it, and I have told him that death by his own hand –some form of hari kari– would be wiser than going home. One of his brothers was decapitated to send a message to Victor. I think his sister-in-law was shot in the back of the head to reinforce it (leaving three children orphaned). I have video footage, received via WhatsApp, of their minifundio being torched. Ditto in the case of another brother who was murdered. Victor’s place was also burnt to the ground.

Since his lungs gave out in 2021 and he started having heart attacks, Víctor has been in and out of hospital ICU’s – most recently in Rionegro, the upscale suburb where the airport is located – perhaps a dozen times. Like the US, Colombia does not have a public health system, so it is a minor miracle that he is still alive. Victor’s compañera from Tuchín, Cindy, slept on hospital benches in Rionegro for more than two months, and often had to beg for food or to buy medicine for Victor at the local market (mercado popular). She was beaten up, scalded with burning oil, threatened with rape and forced prostitution, received offers of money for sex, and subjected to racist and misogynist insults and threats daily.

When Cindy returned home to Tuchín with her family, which came to get her, she was shot twice in the back of the head as soon as she arrived. Then the morgue refused to release her body, for days, until her family paid up. She had two young children. I received pictures via WhatsApp of her extended family waiting patiently outside the morgue, while her body decomposed inside. The same thing happened when Cindy’s mother died after being hit by lightning, and because Cindy had returned home to bury her mother, just as Victor had done with his brother, she ended up on the narco-paramilitary hit list. In filing a complaint against the hospital and funeral home with the Procaduria, Victor publicly denounced mafia control of the health care system. Thus he can never go home again.

Cindy’s crime was association with Victor, and verbal confrontation with the mafia running the morgue back home. To get back to Victor’s bedside after her mother’s funeral, she had to escape through the back door and into the mountains for three days, with only sugarloaf to eat and the clothes she was wearing, which were soaked through. As I have written before, Victor had done the same several times (having returned to bury his dead). Via WhatsApp, I accompanied both on these harrowing journeys of grief and loss and rage and fear-danger. (I tried to help them eat something and pay for transportation.) Cindy, too, wanted to take violent revenge. She and Victor both were persuaded that the potential consequences were not worth it.

Now, Doctor Z, the surgeon who successfully performed an open-heart surgery is hidden out with Victor, I know not where. The fewer people who know, the better, which is why, despite my pleadings, neither Victor nor his doctor would talk to the human rights contacts I have in the area. Their fear and mistrust of the state is so great they prefer to operate clandestinely, especially on the run. The problem is getting enough food and medicine so that Victor can begin recovery. This has been the case for several years now, before Doctor Z stepped in.

Hence Victor’s surgeon risked his life – and sacrificed his livelihood, then emptied his bank account – and the lives of his family in order to save Victor’s. (Every day, ordinary Colombians like Doctor Z display astonishing courage that goes far beyond mere heroism.) Doctor Z’s new life plan and goal is to nurse Victor back to health. The hospital officials and administrators gave him 48 hours to pay Victor’s bills, then fired him when he couldn’t. After sleeping at the hospital for three or four nights without eating properly, in his quest to save Victor, he fought tooth and nail to get Victor out of hospital and to a safe location, which, once he began getting death threats via WhatsApp – strange men appeared outside his house on motorcycles, while others came to the door inquiring into his whereabouts – he decided was not safe enough in hiding.

He went to La Sierra, high up in the central-eastern comuna in Medellín, to retrieve Victor’s meager belongings, and found that Victor had been sleeping on an earthen floor, which flooded when it rained, because the only thing holding the water out was plastic garbage bags and cardboard. Local gangs-cum-narco-paramilitaries told Doctor Z not to come back. They would kill Victor should he return.

Real estate markets run on violence, extortion, and displacement, especially in neighborhoods like La Sierra. No wonder Victor couldn’t recover from the respiratory disease that became chronic once he got Covid in 2021. He was beaten up badly several times, threatened many more times than that, and displaced by local gangsters in perhaps a half dozen neighborhoods – as well as the popular market (la mayorista) where he used to go to beg for food – in the span of two years. He was constantly on the run, because chronically behind on rent for what, it transpires, were mostly holes in the wall.

Doctor Z spoke to a policeman he knew in Rionegro, and the following day the local narco-paramilitaries told him – via WhatsApp – not to go talking to the police. They have their people inside who are paid to keep track of such things (the infamous nómina paralela, whereby corrupt officials receive two salaries, one official, the other off the books). Most likely, the mafias in Rionegro, where former president Uribe owns vast tracts of land, have nothing to do with the mafias that run Tuchín (or those in La Sierra, for that matter), even if they are nominally part of the vast franchising operation that is the AGC. Victor’s constant persecution, in other words, is not part of any centralized conspiracy.

In Colombia, local and regional sovereignties, implemented through force of arms, have long been fragmented and decentralized, whether in cities or the countryside. Córdoba, where President Gustavo Petro was born and Tuchín is located, may as well be another planet with respect to Medellín, even though, as Petro and many others have demonstrated, Córdoba’s recent history is inseparable from Antioquia’s, especially regarding the growth and consolidation of narco-paramilitary fiefdoms via terror, displacement, corruption, traffic in weapons and drugs, electoral campaigns, and state making.

Police and military participation and complicity with this project have long been documented, especially in the intelligence services, although the army and the police have recently sought to fight the AGC as well. The AGC controls nearly all the suburban and rural areas outside Medellín, while local mafias in the Oficina de Envigado – frequently at war with one another, and the AGC – control most of the city. There is method to the madness. And exorbitant profits.

Soon after he began their epic journey to safety, somewhere far from Medellín, remote and mountainous (which describes most of the countryside in Antioquia and the ‘coffee axis’, or eje cafetero), Doctor Z was stopped by highway cops and threatened with arrest on charges of kidnapping, because although he had Victor’s release papers from the hospital, he didn’t have official permission from hospital officials to transport him: Victor’s verbal or even written consent being immaterial. A bribe of nearly $100 took care of that situation.

Doctor Z was out of funds, and still owed the truck driver who ferried him to his hideout over $100. The struggle to buy food and medicine began. Doctor Z’s wife pawned their wedding rings, and the quinceñera ring of his teenage daughter, but then got robbed when she was on her way to wire the cash. Most recently, Doctor Z’s teenage son was nearly beaten to death by narco-paramilitaries and taken to the hospital where, until recently, his father worked. Message sent, message received.

No one besides a group of my former union colleagues at the Universidad Nacional, and my co-author, Aaron Tauss, who worked at the U Nacional for seven years, pitched in, and none of us had much to spare. Most everyone I know in Medellín is overwhelmed economically and in general and has been since the Covid 19 pandemic began. People are busy trying to sort out a range of tricky situations of their own, usually involving family members. Solidarity and humanitarian relief are scarce in such hard times.

Our goal now is to get Doctor Z’s wife and children to the hideout, make sure everyone has enough to eat for the time being, and to get Victor and Doctor Z’s son their medications.  Should we achieve it, we can be relatively sure that Doctor Z will restore everyone, including himself, to proper health. If you wish to help – the US dollar is still very strong against the Colombian peso, so a little goes a long way – please contact CounterPunch:

A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in the London Review of Books.

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.