17 Years of Solitude
Once upon a time, Chengue exemplified the simple, peaceful campesino life. And every year, around June 29 — a day to commemorate both Peter and Paul — the small pueblo in the tropical hill country south of the Caribbean coast, known as Montes de María, swelled to more than 1,000 people for the local festival. The two-day bacchanals were renowned far and wide for an abundance of food and a wealth of gaiety.
Men and women came from as far as Cartagena to the north, Sincelejo to the south, and everywhere in between. Some spent the better part of a day on their horse, trotting to the celebration. A yearly treat for the campesino’s soul.
“The community collected money from all chengueros. From doctors and engineers who no longer lived in Chengue. So we made sure that all our guests were well-fed,” says Julio Meriño, at 81, one of the oldest surviving Chengueros. “Chengue was then a food basket for the region, especially avocado. These fiestas…were just a small way…to share our wealth with the rest.”
The alborada, a clash of musical noise at dawn, let everyone in town know that the fiestas had begun. Then throughout the day, ensemble brass-like bands played porro, and traditionally dressed musicians played gaita, a blend of drums and flutes. Each musical style has its own way of harmonizing indigenous ethos, afro-Colombian rhythms, clapping, and choral verses that remark on the greatness of Chengue, the alegría of the pueblo, and the general bliss of life in the luscious surrounding hills. The party allowed revelers little time to sleep
Besides the dancing, eating, and drinking, life in Chengue imploded with rural women showing off fancy dresses and colorful scarfs, poker-face elders sitting around card tables playing arrancón, excited children flipping marbles through the village streets, and cockfighters weighing birds and sizing up the pool of challengers. Time passed unnoticed, measured only by the heat’s slow retreat into the evening. When things got cooler, riders sped back and forth through the village in elaborate displays of horsemanship. Some rode standing on their saddles, while another rode in a hammock tied to two horses galloping down the dusty road. The raucous audience clapped and laughed at the show. Sooner or later, a campesinos was sure to stand up on a donkey and do a jig, just another essential antic of Chengue’s festivities.
“They were marvelous parties,” says Meriño with nostalgia. “Everyone was there, on their horses and with roosters. We lived a beautiful life.”
That was more than 25 years ago, before the Montes de María became a battleground for Colombia’s warring factions: after the leftist rebels — the FARC’s Frente 35 and 37 — established a presence in the mid-nineties, the military-sponsored paramilitary armies followed, each trying to consolidate control over a region already fraught with large landholdings and slowly becoming a strategic corner of narcotrafficking routes north.
WIPED OFF THE MAP
Julia Meriño was in a deep sleep, tightly wrapped around her 11-month-old baby when a neighbor yelled through her adobe house that they needed to get out, the paramilitaries were in town. It was early, just after 4am. Even those campesinos, whose livelihoods were enmeshed with the land, hadn’t yet risen.
Julia and her husband took her three children out the back and down the hillside into the safe cover of the forest surrounding Chengue while the paramilitaries, numbering more than sixty, rounded up farmers, telling them that they had a computer and were there to check ID cards. Some were made to stand in line, while the paramilitary invaders murdered them one by one with hammers, mallets and rock. Those who could, fled. Others were caught trying to escape, and killed on the spot. Those who stayed put, sank frightened in their beds praying that their names were not on the list.
The massacre took a few hours and left in its wake 27 men and boys dead. After the killings, the paramilitaries ransacked the town’s stores, burned down more than 60 houses, and left warnings for the FARC on the walls: ‘Get out communists.’ When she came back, Julia Meriño found the bodies of seven neighbors, strewn up and down the road in front of her house. She left and never returned to live in Chengue.
“Your village is gone, if when we come back and we find you here, we will kill all of you,” they said to the terrified women and children survivors. Chengue died that morning.
Two years later, on the same day as the massacre — January 17 — Julia’s husband was travelling in a vehicle back to Chengue when he was stopped at an unexpected roadblock. The FARC shot him on site for colluding with the paramilitaries.
“The hardest part of being a victim like this, was then raising my three daughters on my own,” says Julia. “The cowards of the FARC murdered my husband, unjustified, unfair, claiming he helped the paramilitaries in the massacre.“
After the massacre, the peaceful portrait Chengue was ruined. Every member of the community lost a cousin, an uncle, a father, or a brother. Julia, like many, moved to nearby Ovejas burdening strangers with their needs. For several years some returned on risky missions to continue caring for their crops, removing produce in small amounts to sell in town. The houses back in Chengue — mostly made from mixtures of adobe, cement, and organic material and framed with wood, fell to the ground, or were dismantled by bandits and soldiers. Many thought they would return, but the majority still have not.
The people of Chengue had no idea why their town was attacked, but this is normal in the complex battle for the control of land, people, and ideology. Throughout Colombia, campesinos lived similar scenes of terror, containment, uncertainty, and the pressure to submit to whomever was in charge. There were rumors that the commander of FARC’s Frente 35 had a girlfriend in Chengue, but many villages were attacked for much less. For example, if a FARC solder happened to pass through a village and eat breakfast or lunch, then the village was targeted for sympathizing with rebels, and vice versa.
After 2000, the same paramilitaries killed and disappeared thousands of campesinos in Montes de María, including 100 victims from Colombia’s bloodiest paramilitary massacre in the village of El Salado, not far from Chengue. In a matter of ten years, the violence drove more than 200,000 people from their homes.
WHEELS OF JUSTICE
While the battle for control of the region Montes de María continued, local prosecutor Yolanda Paternina began working on the Chengue case, and a key witness came forward pointing to both the paramilitary leaders as well as a general from the military as the authors of the massacre. Soon after, Paternina was shot at the door of her apartment in front of her family. Her replacement was murdered the following year, and another local prosecutor went into exile in the US. It was clear that the paramilitary massacres were more than the alleged coalition of land owners fighting the FARC.
In 2006, the families of Chengue united and took the Colombian government to court in a class action lawsuit. They won a settlement that paid on average of US$8,000 to each family, but the families claimed they were owed much more, and that the lawyers and “corruption” had bilked them of the settlement.
Attempting To put aiding and abetting paramilitarism behind them, the Colombian army built a cement soccer field with roofed bleachers in the main square of Chengue. They turned it into a media spectacle, patted themselves on the back, and disappeared. Displaced Chengueros were incensed and viewed a new soccer pitch for an abandoned pueblo as a morbid joke, considering none of them had homes to live in. After the cameras left, Chengue remained essentially empty for another decade… maybe longer.
Castaño was killed in 2004, Cadena disappeared from the area in 2006, and in 2008, Juancho Dique agreed to eight years in prison as part of the government’s paramilitary demobilization program. Dique was released in 2015 and today is a free man.
In 2009, a local judge determined the police and the Colombian army did not do their job to prevent the attack, and awarded more than US$1 million (total of 2.500.000 Colombian pesos) to the surviving families. The court decision made history as the largest victim settlement to date in Colombia, but was also quickly appealed and buried in a legal graveyard. Once again, the hopes that Chengueros would be able to return to rebuilt homes dissipated.
In 2011 — a decade following the massacre — the government created the all-encompassing Victim’s Law. It established a system for the nation to begin doling out reparations to its more than 7 million victims. With the Victim’s Law, came the Land Restitution Unit, a government agency mandated to deliver displaced victims back to their land and return them to the lives they had before the violence.
In 2013, Jairo Barreto Lopez — leader of the Chengue Victims Association — worked with the Restitution Unit to collect evidence of the violence that led to displacement as well as evidence of land ownership. The latter, proved especially difficult since land in Colombia’s rural areas is often bought, sold, and traded without properly informing land authorities or formalizing ownership. The restitution case brought only 38 families into the claim. Many have not been easy to find.
Jairo Barreto, community leader in Chengue, and wife. (Pol Cucala)
“We are Chengue. We want every family to be part of this process, but the truth is that we don’t know where every single person and family is located. You can think back, today, more than 20 years ago and you have a mental map of the village, but there were nearly 100 families. At this point, it requires a lot of work and research to figure out who is where,” says Barreto.
The Chengue Victims Association and the Land Restitution Unit presented the lawsuit in 2014 to restitution judges. Because nobody in Chengue had a land title or much evidence of ownership of their land, and because much of the land actually belonged to the state, the case hit a dead end and languished while hundreds more restitution cases were piled onto the understaffed agency.
The USAID project that I went to Colombia to work for, stepped in to help the Restitution Unit figure out these types of bottlenecks. The “case clinic” method brought different land agencies together to examine the case, share information, and disentangle the methodology. “Chengue was a very complicated case, and for us to properly recognize the land rights of the victims, we first had to clear up issues with land use and ownership,” explains Restitution Unit social worker and case manager Elina Rivera. “Without establishing a route to bring this case to fruition, these victims would likely lose the chance to be able to pass their land on to the next generation or have the option to sell. In some cases, that link to their land might be lost forever.”
After adjusting the lawsuit, in April 2016 a judge ruled in favor of 37 families, recognizing their rights to more than 72 hectares of land as well as ordering government entities to undertake comprehensive reparations such as new houses, a paved road, and investments in agriculture. Would the ruling be just another example of symbolic justice or would it finally set them on the path back to their village?
More than a year later, the National Land Agency stepped up and formalized the parcels of land included in the ruling and issued property titles for 27 lots, mostly located around the main road and the village square. A land title may not convince Julia Meriño and her neighbors to move back to Chengue right away, but it does provide some sense of security in the ownership of the properties they abandoned. Just as important, a land title means she can pass the land down to her daughters.
“We are now in a transition and starting to believe in the institutions,” says Chengue Victims Association leader, Jairo Barreto. “When we start to work as a team, things start to happen. We know that if we can get more institutions involved in the restitution ruling, we can get it done”
Land rights. (Pol Cucala)
A LAPSE OF MEMORY
In July 2017, I joined Jairo Barreto and Julia Meriño in Chengue for the pueblo’s first fiestas patronales in more than 20 years. They were the main force behind the monumental task of organizing the party in the ghost town, where only 13 families had returned over the last five years. With just a little bit of money from the Ovejas municipality and the support of the Colombian armed forces, they put together an unforgettable weekend.
Before the party, soldiers stationed around Montes de María had helped paint some of the buildings, including one crumbling cement house near the main square. On the day of the party, large Caribbean women set up shop inside, slow cooking turkey sancocho around a makeshift hearth. After 10am, people slowly trickled into town, some on foot, some on horseback, others in the back of old Nissan Patrols. Even the mayor of Ovejas was on hand. Following a morning mass, the music put an end to 16 years of silence.
A porro ensemble from the University of Cartagena came and played throughout the day and night. The Chengueros danced around the main square and up and down the main road, swinging their arms and shaking their hips. The true reclamation of their town was not through legal writs, sentences, or government compensation schemes. Reclamation was a performance before my eyes, carried out on their terms, through music and dance.
Fiestas in full swing.
“We didn’t organize this party for the sake of throwing a party. We did it to show everybody that Chengue did not die. Chengue is still alive,” Jairo Barreto said as the sun was going down. “This is the first time in a long time that we watch the sun go down in Chengue. And that is the best thing that has happened to us in twenty years.”
The cement soccer pitch built by the Colombian army, once the symbol of the town’s disgust with everything that never happened post-massacre, became suddenly, and a little bit ironically, very useful as a dancefloor for more than 200 people. Chengue was once again the idyllic outpost, far flung from modernity, a fictional Colombian town where people get sick with love. For those two days, the town’s survivors could only remember the magic of Chengue.
Julia Meriño came to the party in a t-shirt fashioned for the occasion. It read: Si no me acuerdo, no pasó. Y si nadie vio, tampoco!
(If I don’t remember, nothing happened. And if nobody saw it, nothing happened).
For two days, the people of Chengue embraced their collective forgetfulness, and through the rich traditions of music, food, and dance, each person joyfully played the role of a character, who is condemned to the past.
Photography: Pol Cucala & Nicholas Parkinson
Julia Meriño dances into forgetfulness.
Children of Chengue.
Julio Meriño (right) plays card with another Chengue Massacre survivor.