The Tapestry Through a Strand: An Incomplete History of la Ceja through the Eyes of Maria
See more articles from:
When I ask Maria what she learned about the history of La Ceja as a child the first thing she says is “That it was a safe place”; she then adds that they were taught its indigenous origins, colonial history, and that the name had changed. “La Ceja del Tambo”, literally “The Eyebrow of the Dairy farm”, was indeed originally the home to a corn-based indigenous society which, ostensibly in a similar fashion as many other regions of Colombia, gave way to an agriculturally-based colonial society in the 1500’s. The Ceja website’s welcome page gives a brief and rather pleasant history of this town I spend half of my time working in, from the early indigenous period up until about 1951. As I read the nonchalant mentions of conquest, private land rights passing to Catholic church institutions and the late-blossoming of industry in the region, I can’t help but wonder how these long-past factors played into the history I’m actually going to tell you today: that of Maria, one of the many victims of the armed conflict I have be blessed to get to know in the past six months.
Maria was born in 1963 about five blocks from the town square in a house her sister now lives in. It is eerie to note that by this year, the US government was already training Colombian troops in “counterinsurgency” methods in their military academies in Fort Bennington and Fort Bragg. Long before personal tragedy at the hands of paramilitary forces would strike Maria, the Colombian government was publishing training manuals stating that modern warfare consisted in confronting “an established order in the very heart of the population”, focusing on civil targets.
In any case, to Maria, La Ceja in the early 60’s and 70’s was a quiet, family-friendly place to grow up in. “There was much more green space then” she says, which is funny given that I think of La Ceja as the country/clear-air counterpart to my time spent in the urban jungle of Medellin. Maria comes from a very large family—her father at 52 married her mother at 21 after already having had one family of 11; adding the 10 children her mother had, that makes Maria one of 21 sibblings! She rattles off a long list of games they used to play in the street, noting that it was a more “innocent youth” back then, people didn’t get into relationships so quickly, you knew all your neighbors, etc. Her father started his life as a lumberjack and through personal study and passion became the town’s unofficial medical expert. He died when she was fifteen and so for the next six years before getting married she helped take care of her widowed mother and siblings along with some of her sisters.
Maria is one of the co-leaders of the Victims’ Association in La Ceja, and so after hearing her rather rosy portrayal of growing up, I have to ask her when things started to change. “Around the 80’s”, she tells me, “when there was a sudden influx of people moving to La Ceja from nearby villages and municipalities; people said they were infiltrators from paramilitary and guerilla groups”. “Was it true?”, I ask; “Yes, it was true”, she answers. Not long after, “Death to Marijuaneros” and the like started being seen on the literal writing on the wall; massacres of prostitutes and home-raids in the shady-sections of town became common. By the early 90’s an atmosphere of fear reigned in La Ceja. “Kids would get killed if they came home too late from school”, she tells me, “it didn’t even matter if they were good kids or not.” The late 70’s, early 80’s were a time of much change in the wider Colombian context as well. The Betancur administration, by seeking peace talks with guerilla groups which would perhaps lead to agrarian or other socio-economic reforms, strengthened the push of alliances between military forces and newly burgeoning paramilitary groups; at the same time US demand for cocaine and other narcotics was skyrocketing, making narcotrafficking the driving economic force for all sides of the conflict..
The wheels of cyclical violence were in motion, but it wasn’t until 1995, a year after the Ministry of Defense legalized special “CONVIVIR” paramilitary groups (with strong support from then-Antioquia governor/future President Alvaro Uribe) that the tragic violence of the region struck close to home for Maria. Her 16-year-old nephew, walking back late from a party with a friend, was shot and killed along with his companion by two of the neighborhood “paracos”, or paramilitary affiliates. The friend had been the target, apparently because he consumed marijuana; “social cleansing” was a common paramilitary practice. Her nephew just happened to be there as well. His mother Rosa reported and denounced the killing, and two years later, she was also killed. Rosa was an ambulatory lottery-ticket-seller and was killed by the same men who killed her son about a block away from the Mayor’s office, close to the restaurant my church group hosted our end-of-year celebration with the Victims’ Association at in December. Maria and one of her sisters had spotted a known local paramilitary cruising by their mom’s house, where Rosa lived, around the time she usually left for work that morning. They had all planned to meet at the theatre at 7pm that night, so when she didn’t show up, they went looking for her.
The police actually apprehended one of the two men responsible for the killing that very night, and told the family they could go see him if they wanted. One of Maria’s sisters, Luisa, decided to go. When she got there, Maria tells me, the second man responsible, “el Maron”, was already there, trying to get his partner released. The police at the station wouldn’t have let Luisa through except that she had gotten explicit permission to see the young man they’d arrested. “What did she say?” I ask Maria. “She asked him why he did it, told him he’d left a four year old daughter behind...” and the young man didn’t respond, just looked away.
Not long after that night, Maria’s mom got a visit from the sister-in-law of one of the known “paracos” warning her that Luisa and one of her other sisters were on the black list and needed to get out of La Ceja as fast as possible. “Wasn’t she one of them? Why would she do that?” I ask. Maria reminds me that even if you’re part of a paramilitary family you don’t necessarily agree with everything they do, that she probably felt bad for Maria’s sisters. Maria has an amazing capacity for empathy. When reflecting on her mother’s justified complaints at her daughter’s funeral that the politicians in the town were in the paramilitaries pocket and doing nothing for the victims, Maria notes that one couldn’t blame them entirely, “No one wants to die” she says. In any case, that very night Luisa and her sister Anna moved to a different place within La Ceja, and the next day took their two children each out of school, and, without much else but the clothes on their back, became displaced people in Medellin.
“What gives you the chills”, Maria tells me, reflecting on when she got to “el Maron’s” hearing during the demobilization process, “is how wide their network is, how much they know.” A detail in the story of her sisters’ displacement illustrates this: Luisa’s son, who had left without his identification card and military-service card, was stopped on the street sometime after arriving to Medellin and brought to a police-station. While there, he met the very many who had killed his aunt, the one also at the jail the day Luisa went to visit the captured young-man. This man started a conversation with the youth, trying to enlist him into the paramilitaries and describing what could be his first target: a woman from la Ceja. Describing her, it was clear it was his mother, Luisa.
Luisa’s sister Eliana was also displaced after her husband’s life was threatened. She and her husband owned a restaurant along the highway that guerilla groups, paramilitaries and military groups would stop by, sometimes paying, sometimes not, sometimes spending the night uninvited, and always requiring that they never serve the enemy. This of course was an impossible order to fulfill and led to them having to leave behind all they had and start again in la Ceja.
The question I always come back to, the question that led Maria to go to the hearing of her nephew and sisters’ killer in 2010 when she had the chance, is always “Why?” There are many answers to this question. “He said it was to get rid of guerilla groups”, Maria says. “But why?” I ask again. “I can’t remember if it was his mother or another family member, but someone in his family had been killed by the guerilla groups early on.” So there’s the personal trauma and cycle of violence, and the political ideology of course; let us not forget the 80’s and early 90’s were also the time of the War on Communism and the United States was financing violent repression of leftist groups all over central and Latin America at this time, not only in Colombia. There are also clear economic factors that come into play. I don’t mean only in terms of the boom to the weapon’s industry the internal conflict here provides, but also the financing of paramilitary groups by large multinational companies. For example, Maria is one of many victims in la Ceja whose victimizers have been proven to be paramilitary groups hired by Chiquita Banana to “protect” their investment in the region. And then, of course, as in any war, there are those that die because of the inherent evil within a system based on violence as is the case for Maria’s friend Margarit’s son who was killed by a young paramilitary as an initiation right.
CONVIVIR ended, after much political pressure related to human rights abuses, in 1997, and President Uribe lead a huge demobilization effort for paramilitary groups between 2003 and 2006. Maria says that’s around the time when the most egregious and wide-spread violence calmed down. Essentially the government promised to pardon and aid to re-integrate any paramilitaries who turned in their weapons. “Why didn’t they make the same offer to the guerilla groups?” I ask. “The guerilla groups do things…but they’re not as bad as the paras”, Maria answers. “It’s ironic, isn’t it, “ I say, “the worst groups get the best benefits”, “It’s contradictory…” she admits. Yet Maria is grateful to the government, without which she’s convinced the Ceja would be in the same climate of fear as before.
“How do you feel here now?” I ask Maria. It’s been 15 years since the death of her sister, she and Eliana are respectively leaders of the Association of Victims and of Displaced People, she is helping lead a crochet group with other victims in la Ceja and the struggle to get promised-reparations continues. “It’s so much better”, she says. After the arrival and boom of the flower industry brought by multinationals in the late 1990’s the town is much bigger; it’s charming, has lots of cultural activities, and even though some of Medellin’s gang and youth problems are filtering in, it’s still a whole lot safer than it was ten years ago. These days a major struggle related to the global economic crisis’ affect on the flower industry is unemployment.
I’m caught up by all the beauty and pain of this story—Maria’s, the Ceja’s—all the paradoxes: the same government who originally invested in “counterinsurgency” and paramilitaries saving the Ceja from continuing ravage; multinationals paying paramilitary groups and investing in the killing of civilians and also providing much needed employment; even me being here, for faith and commitment to a church organization, is an interesting paradox in a place with a past of colonization and religious persecution.
There is so much healing left to do. “The work now is dealing with the trauma, with the hole left in all the families who’ve lost someone”, Maria tells me. After hearing her story, one small thread in the varied tapestry of la Ceja, I sit down to lunch with the girl who at four years old had her mother taken from her. She married young. Her newborn daughter sleeps two rooms away.
Now I think about principalities and powers, US foreign policy, babies sleeping, and what this whole story has to do with the Mennonite Church in the US, Canada, and all around Latin America. I think maybe it comes down to knowing, to unity and interconnectedness, but also to proclaiming. So I leave you with this prayer:
“O God, the power of the powerless,
you have chosen as your witnesses
those whose voice is not heard.
Grant that, as women first announced
though they were not believed,
we too may have courage
to persist in proclaiming your word,
in the power of Jesus Christ. Amen.” 
 All names have been changed at the request of the interviewee
 Alcaldía de Medellín a 30 de abril de 2006. http://www.google.com.co/#hl=es-419&cp=1&gs_id=j&xhr=t&q=ANTECEDENTES+DEL+FEN%C3%93MENO+PARAMILITAR+EN+ANTIOQUIA+Y+MEDELL%C3%8DN&pf=p&sclient=psy-ab&source=hp&pbx=1&oq=ANTECEDENTES+DEL+FEN%C3%93MENO+PARAMILITAR+EN+ANTIOQUIA+Y+MEDELL%C3%8DN&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&gs_sm=&gs_upl=&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.,cf.osb&fp=dbb588dfa7c71d07&biw=1366&bih=643
 Informe de Amnistía Internacional, Colombia los paramilitares en Medellín: ¿desmovilización o legalización?, publicado el 01 de septiembre de 2005, página 12 y 13.
 180 Worship Resources, Sing the Story