The Town that Survived a Massacre to the Sound of Bagpipes

Photo: Ricardo Gómez Ángel, Unsplash.

It just so happens that murderers—I suddenly realize as I walk past the tree where one of the seventy-six victims was hanged—reveal to us, at the point of the sword, the country that we know neither in textbooks nor in tourism pamphlets. Because, as I’m sure you’ll agree, and forgive me for being so crude, if not for this massacre, how many citizens of Bogotá or Pasto would even know that in Bolívar department, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, there’s a little town called El Salado? The residents of these poor, isolated places are only visible when they suffer a tragedy. They die, therefore they are.

José Manuel Montes, my guide, a plump and reserved farmworker who has spent his whole life growing tobacco, nods his head in agreement. Saturday evening falls, the cicadas begin their sonata. The sun is already hiding but its stifling heat remains concentrated in the air. Then my companion tells me that at this very spot where we’re standing, more or less, in the middle of the soccer pitch, the paramilitaries tortured Eduardo Novoa Alvis, the first of their victims. They stripped off his ears with a butcher’s knife and then stuffed his head into a sack. They stabbed him in the stomach, they fired a rifle into the nape of his neck. In the end, to celebrate his death, they let sound the drums and bagpipes they had stolen from the Casa de la Cultura. On the desolate outskirts of this mini soccer field there is little more than a couple of listless donkeys, scratching at each other to flick the fleas off their bony backs. Nonetheless, it is possible to imagine how these spaces looked that morning, on Friday, February 18, 2000, when the defenseless inhabitants of El Salado found themselves assembled there by the executioners’ orders.

“Almost everyone was sitting on that side,” says Montes as he points to a mound of brown sand, at a right angle to the church, about twenty meters away.

This very morning, as dawn broke, Édita Garrido had shown me that same hump of earth. A scrawny villager with olive skin, she also survived to tell the tale. The paramilitaries, she said, arrived in the town shortly before nine, firing bursts of bullets and throwing around insults. On the floor under her bed, where she was hiding, Édita heard the racket of the barbarians:

“Bunch of bastards, stand up tall, we’re the paracos and we’re gonna wipe this fucking town off the map!”

“This is what happens when you rat to the guerrillas!”

In mere moments, they dragged the residents out of their houses and drove them like sacrificial lambs to the field. There—here—they forced them to sit on the ground. In the center of the rectangle, where the ball usually sits when the game is about to start, they sat down three of the criminals. One of them brandished a piece of paper on which were noted the names of the locals who were accused of collaborating with the guerrillas. On the list, after Novoa Alvis followed Nayibis Osorio. They dragged her by her hair from her house to the church, they accused of being the lover of a guerrilla commander. They publicly humiliated her, they shot her. And after that, at the peak of their cruelty, they drove one of the sharp stakes that the farmworkers use to skewer tobacco leaves before drying them in the sun into her vagina.

“Who’s next?” one of the murderers asked in a mocking tone, looking out at the terrified spectators.

The soldier who held the list gave him the requested information: Rosmira Torres Gamarra. They separated the lady from the group, tied a rope around her neck, and started to pull her from one side to another as they imitated the typical cries of the local stock herders. They strangled her in the midst of a new clamor of drums and bagpipes. Then they shot, in succession, Pedro Torres Montes, Marcos Caro Torres, José Urueta Guzmán, and a stray donkey that had the bad luck of sticking its snout into that unexpected corner of hell.

One of the paramilitaries threatened the crowd: whoever cries gets ripped apart by bullets. Another raised his gun into the air like a flag and swore he wouldn’t leave El Solado without blowing someone’s brains out.

“Tell me which one’s mine, tell me which one’s mine,” he repeated while he walked among the crowd with the air of a big screen heartthrob.

There were more deaths, more humiliations, more drum rolls. Toward midday, several stretches of the field were carpeted with heaps of cadavers and spilled organs left by the butchery. Then, since it seemed there were no remaining names on the list, the paramilitaries came up with a perverse game of chance to prolong the nightmare: they put the residents in a line and made them count off out loud. Whoever gets number thirty—warned one of the executioners—is kicking the bucket. And so they killed Hermides Cohen Redondo and Enrique Medina Rico. Then they pushed their cruelty, by then transformed into amusement, to the most deranged extreme: they pulled a parrot from one house and a fighting cock from another and pitted them against each other in the middle of a frenetic circle. When the cock had finally carved the parrot into pieces with its sharp beak, it was met with a hearty round of applause.

Now, José Manuel Montes explains to me that the death toll on the field was just one small part of the disaster. Our country has learned, after the fact—thanks to the families of the victims, the confessions of the executioners, and the copious archives of the press—the minutiae of the massacre. It was carried out by three hundred armed men who wore armbands of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). The paramilitaries began to converge on the area on Wednesday, February 16, 2000. While they closed in on El Salado, they murdered the farmworkers who traveled unarmed down the nearby rural paths. They killed them not with gunshots but with hammer blows to the head, to avoid noises that might alert the unsuspecting inhabitants who were still in the village.

On Friday, February 18, when the invasion was underway, they forced their way into the houses that were still locked and shot the occupants. They sexually abused several adolescent girls, they forced some adult women to dance a cumbiamba naked. At night, they ordered the survivors to return to their homes. But, nonetheless, they demanded that they sleep with their doors open if they didn’t want to wake up with their skin full of holes. In the meantime, they, the barbarians, stayed to keep guard over the streets: they drank liquor, they sang, they banged the drums again, they made the bagpipes howl. They left on Saturday, February 19, at almost five in the afternoon. At that time, the residents ran in search of their dead. The panorama that confronted them was the most horrendous thing they had ever seen: the soccer field they had built with so much effort for their children five years before was transformed into the drain of a public slaughterhouse: stains of dried blood, swarms of flies, an atmosphere of pestilence. And, to top it all off, the stray pigs had fallen upon the dead with their teeth, their bodies already rotting under the sun.

“My husband,” Édita Garrido told me that morning, “helped to carry one of those bodies, and when he was done his hands were covered in rotten skin.”

I repeat to José Manuel Montes that my visit is due to the massacre committed by the paramilitaries. If that vile act hadn’t taken place, I’m sure at this moment I would be wasting time in front of the shop windows of a shopping mall in Bogotá, or lost in an indolent siesta. Terrorism, you see, makes those of us who are still alive listen beyond the nice little world that we, by luck, were assigned. That’s why you and I know each other. And we walk together, surveying the one hundred fifty meters that separate the soccer field from the cemetery where the martyrs lie buried. As we advance, I say that maybe the worst part of these atrocities is that they leave an indelible mark on collective memory. And so, the bond that the shrinks establish between the place affected and the tragedy itself is as insoluble as the bond between the wound and the scar. Let’s not deceive ourselves: El Salado is “the town of the massacre,” just as San Jacinto is the town of hammocks, Tuchín is the town of sombreros vueltiaos, and Soledad is the town of butifarra sausages.

We have finally arrived at the monument built in honor of the massacre’s victims. In the center of the circular plot where the bones lie, the locals raised a huge cement cross. They put it there as the typical symbol of Christian mercy, but in practice, since there’s no welcome sign on the way into El Salado, this cross is a sign that indicates to outsiders the boundary of the town’s territory. Because in many forgotten regions of Colombia, you see, geographic limits are not drawn by cartography but by barbarity. As I make out the names carved into the headstones with skillful calligraphy, I am conscious that I’m walking among the tombs of fellow Colombians with whom I will never be able to speak. Inhabitants of a terribly unjust country that only recognizes its most humble people when they’re in their graves.

***

A routine Sunday in El Salado: Nubia Urueta boils the coffee on a clay hotplate. Vitaliano Cárdenas throws some corn to the hens. Eneida Narváez kneads the breakfast arepas. Miguel Torres chops the firewood with an axe. Juan Arias prepares to sacrifice a heifer. Juan Antonio Ramírez hangs his donkey’s pack saddle on a forked stand. Hugo Montes travels toward his plot of land with a sack full of tobacco seeds. Édita Garrido peels yucca with a blunt-tipped knife. Eusebia Castro mashes raw sugar with a hammer. Jámilton Cárdenas buys oil at retail price from David Montes’s store. And Oswaldo Torres, who accompanies me on this morning jaunt, smokes his third cigarette of the day. The rest of the residents are surely inside their homes doing their domestic chores, or on their land ploughing deep furrows into the earth. At eight in the morning, the sun burns over the roofs of the houses. Any unsuspecting visitor would think they had stumbled upon a village where people lived their daily lives in the normal way. And, to an extent, that’s true. Nonetheless—Oswaldo Torres informs me—he and his fellow townsfolk know that after the massacre, nothing has gone back to how it was in the past. Before, there were more than six thousand inhabitants. Now there are fewer than nine hundred. Those who refused to come back, out of sadness or out of fear, left an empty space that still hurts.

I tell Oswaldo Torres that the survivor of a massacre carries his tragedy on his back like a camel carries its hump, he takes it with him anywhere and everywhere he goes. What buckles under the heavy burden, in this case, is not the back but the soul, you know that better than I do. Torres exhales a long, slow mouthful of smoke. Then he admits that, indeed, some traumas last. Some of them attack the victim through the senses: a smell that evokes the tragedy, an image that renews the humiliation. For a long time, the residents of El Salado avoided music as if they were avoiding a physical blow. Since they watched their neighbors suffer between lashes of cumbiamba improvised by the executioners, they felt, perhaps, that hearing music was equivalent to firing the murderous rifles once again. And so, they avoided any activity that could result in celebration: no social get-togethers on their patios, no horse races. But on one occasion when a social psychologist heard their testimonies in a group therapy session, he advised them to exorcise the demon. It was unfair that the drums and bagpipes of their ancestors, symbols of emancipation and delight, should remain chained to terror. So, that very night, they danced an extraordinary fandango on the killing field. It was like being reborn under the same firmament, adorned with lit candles that presaged a radiant new sun.

At this moment, paradoxically, the sun has gone into hiding. The cloudy sky threatens to burst into a rainstorm. Torres remembers that when the massacre took place, in February of 2000, all the residents left El Salado. Not even the dogs stayed behind, he says. And later he, Torres, was one of the one hundred twenty people—one hundred men and twenty women—who led the return to their lands in 2002. When they arrived, he tells me, El Salado was lost under a dense thicket, two meters high. One of the townsfolk climbed up in the elevated tank on the water tower to point out the locations of everyone’s houses. After that, they set about reclaiming the town from the claws of chaos. One day, three days, a week immersed in a primitive battle against the aggressive environment, like in caveman days: cutting a liana here, burning a nest of furious wasps there, killing a rattlesnake somewhere else. The proliferation of pests was exasperating.

“If you yawned,” Torres says, “you swallowed a mouthful of mosquitos.”

To defend themselves from the waves of insects, everyone, even non-smokers, kept a lit cigarette between their lips. What’s more, they fumigated the ground with kerosene and lit bonfires at sunset.

They slept squeezed into five contiguous houses in the Barrio Arriba, since they feared that the barbarians might return. Together—they said—they would be less vulnerable. Their motto was that anyone who wanted to kill them would have to kill them all. Their fear was so great in the first few days after their return that some slept with their shoes on, ready to run in the middle of the night if necessary. At first they subsisted thanks to the charity of neighboring towns—Canutal, Canutalito, El Carmen de Bolívar, and Guaimaral—whose residents gave them supplies, blankets, and pesticides. When they had finished cutting down the thicket, when they had burned the last pile of dry branches, they set about putting in their place, once again, the lost elements of their universe: the straw roof of the patio, the stable, the silly songs, the bad language, the tobacco leaf storeroom, the rooster’s crow, the love affairs on dark side streets, the stained coffee pot, the visit from a friend. Then the horror returned: the guerrillas of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) accused them of collaborating secretly with the paramilitaries. Could there be any greater irony? They massacred them precisely because they considered them accomplices of the guerrillas!

While he puffs on his eternal cigarette, Oswaldo Torres tells me that the problems of public order in El Salado are due to the simple fact that the town belongs geographically to the Montes de María, an agricultural and herding region disputed for years by guerrillas and paramilitaries. In the most critical periods of the confrontation, the inhabitants lived trapped in the crossfire, whatever they might do to avoid it. And they always seemed suspicious, even if they didn’t lift a finger. Certainly, some townsfolk—under intimidation or willingly—cooperated with one side or the other. Such circumstances were inevitable in a corrupt conflict in which the combatants used the civilian population as a human shield. Hugo Montes, a farmworker who never even finished primary school, explained the issue to me last night, with a stroke of common sense he inherited from his indigenous ancestors.

“Wherever there are so many people, someone always messes up.”

Then he shrugs his shoulders, looks me in the eyes and challenges me with a question:

“And what could the rest of us do, compa, what could we do?”

“The only thing we could do,” Torres answers now, “was pay the consequences.”

His breathing is heavy because we are ascending a steep slope. Suddenly, he looks up at the sky as if begging for clemency, but in reality—as he tells me, panting—he’s uneasy due to a storm cloud that looks like it’s about to burst over our heads. Torres returns to the idea we proposed at the start of our walk: at this moment, any unsuspecting visitor would think the people of El Salado lived their daily lives, fortunately, just as before. And to some extent it’s true—he repeats—because they have returned to the land they love. For better or for worse, today they have the option of peacefully enjoying the fondest acts of everyday life, as we can see in this street we’re walking down: a little girl stares into the horizon with her toy eyeglass, a little boy frolics on the ground with his glass marbles, a young woman combs the hair of a relaxed old man. Nevertheless, nothing will ever be as good as it was in their grandparents’ times, when no man lifted a finger against his neighbor and human beings died simply of old age, lying in their beds. Violence brought many irreparable damages. It scared away, with its bomb blasts and extortions, the two big businesses that bought up the region’s tobacco harvests. It put down roots of panic, death, and destruction. It provoked a dreadful exodus that left the village empty, ripe to be dismantled by all manner of vermin. When the residents returned, almost two years after the massacre, they discovered with surprise that the majority of the land where they once sowed their crops now had other owners. There were no more teachers or rural doctors, not even a priest willing to open the church on Sundays.

The stormcloud finally releases a cataract of rain that bounces furiously off the sandy ground.

***

The only two education centers that remain in the town operate from a house on a street corner with discolored walls. One is the Escuela Mixta de El Salado, which dominates the space, and the other is the Colegio de Bachillerato Alfredo Vega. There are many happy little kids running around on the building’s patio this Monday morning. In the first room you come to after the front gate, the children are hard at work putting together a wall chart of bacteria and another of algae. There are no more than a hundred students, but that’s not the biggest problem: the school isn’t even approved to hand out diplomas above the ninth grade. Students interested in enrolling in higher grades must move to El Carmen de Bolívar, which requires costs that are never commensurate with the poverty of almost all the inhabitants. As a consequence, many young people decide against finishing their education and choose instead to become day laborers like their parents.

Such is the case of María Magdalena Padilla, twenty years old, who is now boiling milk in a flaking pot. In 2002, when the residents returned after the massacre, María Magdalena was front page news in the national papers. On one occasion, a woman who had to flee from El Salado left her five-year-old daughter in María Magdalena’s care. To kill time, the two youngsters made believe they were in school: María Magdalena was the teacher and the little girl was the student. A neighbor who saw the scene also sent her little boy, and then another lady followed in her footsteps, and so the chain grew longer until she had thirty-eight students. Since there were no real schools, their game was taken ever more seriously. Around that time, a journalist showed up and was amazed by the story: a journalist who, in folkloric style, stamped the protagonist with the nickname “Seño Mayito,” apparently because “María Magdalena” sounded too formal. The epic tale warmed hearts across Colombia. María Magdalena had her photo taken next to the president, they sang her praises on the radio and television, they paraded her down the beaches of Cartagena and through the hills of Bogotá. The awarded her—well, well—the Premio Portafolio Empresarial, a trophy that is now a piece of junk tucked away in a corner of her pauper’s bedroom. The big companies sent her telegrams, the governors exalted her example. But, at this moment, María Magdalena is sad because, in the end, she hasn’t been able to study to become an educator, as she has dreamed since her childhood. “We have no money,” she says with resignation. Far from the lights and cameras, she is not attractive to the false patrons who saturated her with promises in the past. I think—but I don’t dare to tell the young lady—that in her example we see our whole country: we are distracted by the symbol just to dodge the real problem, which is the lack of opportunities for the poor. We place laurels on illustrious characters like “la Seño Mayito,” only to strip them away from human beings of flesh and blood like María Magdalena. In the end, we create these ephemeral heroes simply because we need to put on a parody of solidarity to ease our own conscience.

It’s undeniable: the problems persist, and they grow. María Magdalena’s neighbor is named Mayolis Mena Palencia and she’s twenty-three years old. She is sitting, in pain, on a leather stool. Yesterday, after the tremendous rainstorm that fell over El Salado, she slipped on the muddy patio of her house and fell flat on a pointed rock. She lost the baby that had grown for three months in her womb. And now she says she still bleeds, but in the village, since the time of the massacre, there is neither a medical outpost nor a permanent doctor. I watch her in silence, I close my notebook, I bid her farewell, and I depart, trying to step with caution so as not to slip down the steep slope outside. I see the muddy streets, I see a mangy dog, I see a run-down shack with bullet holes in the walls. And I think to myself that the paramilitaries and guerrillas, even if they’re both packs of murderers, are not the only ones who have crushed these poor people underfoot.

Translated by Arthur Dixon

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LALT No. 6
Number 6

LALT No. 6 goes from the gripping true stories of literary journalism to the strange worlds of fantastic short stories and graphic literature. We highlight chronicles by Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos, speculative fiction in a dossier curated by Mexican writer Alberto Chimal, and Yucatec Maya poetry and prose in our ongoing Indigenous Literature series. 

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