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It Seems Impossible To Believe: A Survivor Describes the Massacre that Destroyed Her Wayuu Community

After living with paramilitaries for several months, one morning in April the village of Bahía Portete, in Colombia’s northern Guajira peninsula, suffered a massacre that left 12 people dead, 20 missing, and 300 displaced, according to the National Indigenous Organization in Colombia (ONIC). On August 4, Francisco Ramírez Cuellar, president of Colombia’s Sindicato de Trabajadores Mineros (Union of Mine Workers), interviewed Débora Barros Fince, a Wayuu indigenous woman who survived the massacre.

Who lives in your community?

Two families live there: The Fince Epinayuu family and the Fince Uriana family.1 They have been there for over 500 years.

What work do you do there?

For a long time our families have lived from fishing and artisanry. Mostly from fishing. We live along the sea coast. People come from Riohacha, and other places, to buy our fish. Or sometimes we trade in the stores.

What kind of trade?

For example, we take our fish to Uribia, and we exchange it for food, to buy rice, oil, sugar, corn. So if we sell 100 kilos of fish, and that’s worth 100,000 pesos, we would bring back 100,000 pesos worth of goods.

Besides the traditional fishing economy, there have also been outside influences in this zone: shipping, multinational corporations. What else is going on there?

In Bahía Portete itself, there are several natural harbors. Boats used to come there from Panama, Aruba, and Curaçao, bringing merchandise. But two years ago the government decided to crack down on this trade, because they said it was illegal. So the only people shipping there now are the Medellín public enterprises, like the Parque Eólico,2 and the Cerrejón Zona Norte coal mine. There were also studies done in the community over 10 years ago showing that there are natural gas deposits there. These are the three elements that are really destroying us.

How did the paramilitary groups begin to come to the area?

They began to arrive in civilian dress, in groups of three or four. We used to see them with a group called the POLFA, which works with the DIAN.3 But we never imagined that they were paramilitaries.

But a few months later, they began to identify themselves as paramilitaries. Especially at night, they would put on their uniforms and say that they were paramilitaries. That was when they began to disrespect the community, to take things. For example, they would come to the stores and ask for things and refuse to pay. People would say, “But why aren’t you paying?” They would respond, “Because we’re paramilitaries, so shut up, because if you don’t we’ll kill you.” They did the same thing if someone had a gas station, and with animals. They would come to the corrals and get on an animal and just ride away, and because it was them, nobody could say anything. And if you did say something, they would abuse you.

Did they work with the police or the army?

It’s a very serious thing to say this, but we are sure that they worked with the police. The police were there, and the paramilitaries were there too. The police knew that they were paramilitaries, because the groups would walk around saying that they were paramilitaries. None of the police said a thing.

It seems impossible to believe. Two Wayuu compañeros were tired of having their animals taken away. They couldn’t stand it any more. So they innocently went to Uribia, which is the municipal headquarters for our area. They went to the police station and lodged a complaint, saying that there were some people in Bahía Portete who claimed to be paramilitaries, who were abusing people and taking their animals.

A half hour later, they were driving their car back to the community, and there was a white Toyota waiting for them. The men in the Toyota took the two of them, and knew exactly who they were. The men said: “Hey you, informer! Why did you go to lodge a complaint against us?” The men from the Toyota tied the Wayuu men up, and killed them right there in the community. This happened last year [2003], at the end of September.

Who were these paramilitaries?

They were from the interior. They talked like paisas [people from Antioquia]. They were white.

After those murders, what else did the paramilitaries do, before the massacre?

Last September [2003], I think it was the 21st, they killed two officers of the POLFA. Those two officers were in front of our house. There was a generator in the house, and the officers said “turn off the generator” so that the lights would go out and it would be dark. So my family followed the orders, and went inside to turn off the generator, and then they heard shots. And the paramilitaries killed one of the officers and dragged him away. And since it was night, nobody said anything. They left the other officer in the doorway of the house.

The two corpses were taken to Bogotá. I remember that the officers’ names didn’t appear in the papers or anything, because they had been killed by the paramilitaries. Nobody said anything. Even the deaths weren’t registered, they just took the bodies away.

So what happened next? One of my brothers, and a cousin, were called to give testimony in the prosecutor’s office in Maicao. Well, the paramilitaries, because they were in touch with people in the prosecutor’s office, knew that the case was coming up. This was February. A lawyer came to my brother and cousin, and said, “No, you don’t have anything to tell, you haven’t seen anything. You know, don’t you, that you haven’t seen anything?” And my brother said, “Right, it doesn’t matter to us, we haven’t seen anything.”

But what happened? The paramilitaries came on February 2 and killed my two brothers. They killed one of them at 6:30 in Portonuevo. They said “give me a pack of cigarettes,” and they shot him in the back. He was 18. Then they went to Portete, to our house. My other brother, who was 24 was a truck driver. He came home to eat at around 7 o’clock at night. They came there, and killed him in front of my mother. Ten men grabbed him and all of them shot him in the face. It was lucky they didn’t kill my mother!

Tell me about what happened when a person lodged a complaint with the army.

That happened a few days before the massacre, around the 15th of April, because the massacre was on the 18th. People were getting nervous because the paramilitaries were saying that they were going to kill people, that they were going to finish up this job because it wasn’t much; there were only two families. They could kill them and the land would be freed up. But I, in particular, didn’t pay much attention. I said to myself, “it’s just talk.”

One of my uncles, though, was getting desperate. My mother and my sister refused to leave the house, and he said, “There is no reason you can’t go out, this is ours, you don’t have to give them anything. We haven’t done anything to them.”

He called up the Cartagena Battalion in Riohacha on his cell phone. It’s almost impossible to believe. He told them, “There are some men here who are paramilitaries, and they are threatening to kill everyone, to destroy the community. We need you to send some troops here.”

And they said “Yes, we know. We are preparing to send some troops over.”

So what happened? A half hour later he got a call on his cell phone. The paramilitaries told him they were going to kill him, that they were going to cut him to pieces. They said a whole lot of things to him. We were just paralyzed when we found out they had called him like that.

What happened in the days before the massacre? Where were you? And what happened during the massacre itself?

I was in Uribia. I was the police inspector for the municipio. The massacre happened on a Sunday. I personally had received threats a week before, saying they were going to kill my family. It happened that they were in the house of an aunt of mine, and my aunt could not stand it any more, and she said, “But why do you have to come here to abuse me?” She was serving lunch, and one of the paramilitaries came and kicked the food. She spoke rudely to him, she said, “I’m going to leave here, I’m going to go somewhere and lodge a protest against you.” Because of what she said, the guy mistreated her.

So they called me, and they said, “Tell her to keep her mouth shut, because if she doesn’t, we’re going to finish her off. And we’re going to kill you too.” And I guess they carried out their threat because they cut all of the women’s heads off, they put a grenade in one woman’s head. All of that … It was a Sunday.

I’ll tell you what happened, quickly. At 6:30 in the morning on the 18th of April, 150 men came down from the Macuira mountain. There is a military base there. A lot of people saw them. My grandmother said that she saw men in uniform, and that she did not pay much attention. I said, “Why not?” My aunt, who was one of those killed, in front of my little cousin, said, “Why should we be afraid? It’s the police,it isn’t those sons-of-bitches who come around here sometimes, it’s the police. We should stay where we are, because it’s the army.” And it was true, it was the army. So they let themselves be grabbed. The men took my aunts by the arms and they pushed my grandmother; she had fractures in her legs when we found her.

People began to run. The children ran because people said, “Go tell so-and-so to watch out, that these are bad people, that they are killing people.” That’s why there are a lot of children missing. The houses aren’t close together, they are far apart. People began to realize what was happening when they began to drag Rubén away.

Rubén Epinayuu. He was 18 years old. They tied him with a chain to a Toyota, and began to drag him. That’s when everybody started running. The majority, practically everybody who escaped, fled to the mangrove swamps. People were also running for the sea. People preferred to drown.

The uniformed men did not kill the women right away. Instead they turned them over to 30 men in civilian clothes, who were the same ones that the community already knew [the paramilitaries]. They are the ones who carried out these massacres.

Do you have the names of the people who were killed, and of the children who are missing?

Yes, I have the names. There is Rosa Fince Uriana, there is Diana Fince Uriana, there is Reina Fince Pushaina, there is Rubén Epinayuu, there is Graciela, a six-year-old girl, there is Vicki, who is seven years old, there is Rolán Fince Eber, Eliso Eber Fince, Nicolás Ballesteros Barros, and Rubén Epinayuu, another Rubén Epinayuu, who is a Fince, Rubén Epinayuu Pushaina.

The children who are missing, whose children are they?

The children who are missing are my cousins. I have a girl cousin, two little boy cousins, they are children of relatives of ours who are from the same community as us.

How old are the children?

They are seven, eight, and nine years old.

What happened after the massacre ended. Did you file any report? Did you go back?

It’s sad to have to tell this, what happened to us. We called the army, we called everybody. It seems impossible to believe. And the army said, everybody said, “No, this is just a conflict between two families, they’ll have to work it out.” That’s what they said, and so we went to get the corpses on April 21, three days after the massacre. We decided that if we were going to die, we were going to die, but we were going to go in, just us women, to pick up the bodies. At first we thought that they had killed the whole community, because nobody was coming out.

It turned out that all of the children, and some of the women, were in the mangrove swamps. They were there for almost three days, drinking salt water, with nothing to eat. That’s why many of the people, when we arrived, were dehydrated.

You said earlier that the paramilitaries wanted to take over the land in Bahía Portete?

Yes, they wanted to be able to use it without interference for drug trafficking. And to bring in arms and export whatever they want through the port. That’s why they wanted to do away with the community.

More or less how far is the area where the massacre took place from the army headquarters?

The army base in Uribia is an hour and 10 minutes away. The other base is a bit further, about two and a half hours away.

What is happening to you now? Where are the people who survived the massacre?

All of us who survived the massacre decided to go to Maracaibo [Venezuela]. Why Maracaibo? Because we don’t trust the Colombian government, we don’t trust the army. It was the army that captured the women so they could be killed. That’s why we made the decision to go to Maracaibo, and ask the Venezuelan government to help us. That’s where we reported the massacre. Because we were afraid that if they realized we were still in the area, they would come and finish us off.

What do you think of Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos’ statement to the press on August 1 that the communities have returned to Bahía Portete?

What the vice president said was a bad joke. How could he possibly talk about the return of the community to Bahía Portete, when the community of Bahía Portete is in Maracaibo? There are 320 people there!

What he said is a lie. Maybe some people have returned to the surrounding areas. But the community of Bahía Portete has not returned, and will not return until we have guarantees for our safety. We will wait until the government gets the paramilitaries out, because they are still there.

Look what they did. Four months have passed, and they put a new military base in Portete. All of the houses are empty, and the paramilitaries are still there. With the army on one side, and the paramilitaries on the other, how could the government think that we would return? What they did was gather some people from the surrounding areas. They brought them to Portete for a few minutes. They distributed a lot of food.

We want to return to our territories, and we are going to return. But we will not return until the government gets the paramilitaries out. The government is using the strategy of not getting rid of the paramilitaries because it does not want us to return. We know that they have an interest in taking over the land.

1. These are not nuclear families, but large extended families or matrilineal clans, which are the main units of Wayuu social organization.

2. An energy-producing windmill project.

3. Policía Fiscal y Aduanera, the Judicial and Customs Police; Dirección de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacionales, the National Tax and Customs Directorate.

This interview was translated by Aviva Chomsky.


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