Colombia: Country of Bullets

Juanita León
27 September 2006

In 2003 the German literary magazine Lettre International launched a new literary prize, the "Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage", to recognise and honour a valuable but underrated form. In its first year, the prize was won by the Russian writer Anna Politovskaya for Chechnya: Russia's dishonour. In 2004, the Chinese writers Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao carried the prize for their seminal work, A Survey of Chinese Peasants, and last year it was British journalist Alexandra Fuller's book Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier.

Over the coming weeks, openDemocracy will publish excerpts from the finalists for the 2006 award. The winner will be announced in Berlin on 30 September.

The short list:

  • Juanita León (Colombia): Country of Bullets: War Diaries (Aguilar, 2005)

To read extracts from last year's list, click here.


Extract from Country of Bullets: War Diaries (Aguilar, 2005)

Translated from Spanish by Daniel Campi

The Urabá Boys' banana rap

The battle for Urabá

A long time before I saw the first streets, I knew I had arrived at Turbo. The town's powerful odour - a mixture of the stench of rotting fish from the port with the smell of the gutters, which due to the lack of a proper sewage system distributed filth around the village - alerts visitors that they are arriving at Urabá's second city. Turbo is a hot, bustling town of mud and cement buildings and growing commerce. The street sellers of the Necoclí and Chigorodó collectives occupy half of the main avenue; the other half has been invaded by stalls selling underwear, sandals, trainers, jeans, toys and 'designer' jackets. Turbo, the main access point for the entrance of contraband in Colombia is a paradise for fakes.

In the central square, Yóver Córdoba was doing some tricks on his bikes and joking with the shoe shiners who sat on their wooden boxes, waiting for the mayor's functionaries to leave their offices. He wore a brightly coloured Nike baseball cap, shiny new trainers and Levis jeans. He was one of the six Urabá Boys.

A few months earlier I had listened to the latest record by these rap kids from Turbo, and their powerful catchy lyrics had stuck in my head. Their music spoke about the massacre of their people: they were the troubadours of the infamous 'pacification' of Urabá.

Urabá's gotta change, it's time to come together
á's gotta change, Listen up Colombia
We want peace
They go into our houses late at night
Kill their victims without a fight
Lots of parents are leaving town
They prefer starving, to letting their children down
By exposing them to the massacres of the criminal class
á's gotta change
Urabá's gotta change, it's time to come together
á's gotta change, Listen up Colombia
We want peace

Urabá had been the most violent area of Colombia over the last few years. Situated in the northeastern corner of South America, on the border with Panama in a bay of the same name, the region of Urabá extends from the Abibe mountains, in Córdoba, to the Atrato valley south until Dabeiba, in Antioquia. Its fertile lands, proximity to the sea and thick forests have made Urabá a favourite stomping ground for illegal groups, right back to the days of the Conquistadores: in the 17th century this was pirate country; in the 18th, the exit port for raw gold smuggling, and in the 19th, the arms corridor that fuelled the civil wars. Urabá was the place where the contraband from Central America arrived: arms for the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, the chemical substances used for the manufacture of cocaine, which later left by the same route. That's why the guerrillas and the paramilitaries were brutally disputing dominion of this territory.

The Urabá Boys were founded in 1993 with the support of Patricia Ariza and Carlos Satizábal, of the Colombian Theatre Corporation, who organised plays performed by prostitutes, homeless people and underage delinquents, the poorest and most dispossessed people that they could find. Following their philosophy of making the invisible 'visible', they decided to take their theatre group to the country's war zones, and they immediately thought of Urabá, which had become a synonym for war in the nineties. They got in touch with the mayor and some teachers in Turbo, who broadcast an appeal over the radio for young people who may be interested in singing and dancing.

More on Colombian politics in openDemocracy:

Isabel Hilton, "Colombia: in evil hour"
(March 2004)

Ari Paul, "Colombia's agony, Coca-Cola's responsibility, Americans' solidarity" (August 2005)

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (November 2005)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's elections: the regional exception" (March 2006)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's testing times" (March 2006)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (May 2006)

Yóver had already spent two years - of the ten that he had lived so far by then - singing on street corners in return for change. His parents were Chocoano Indians, having arrived in Urabá like the majority of its population looking for work in the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company. La Frutera de Sevilla, as it was called in Spanish, attracted people from all over the country, especially those who had been forced to flee the violence between liberals and conservatives in Córdoba, Chocó, Antioquia and the Atlantic coast.

When Yóver was a baby, his father found a job as a logger in a timber field in Atrato. But one day FARC guerrillas turned up and threatened him for working for an AUC "toad." The AUC had arrived in Urabá at the end of the eighties looking for a port from which to export the cocaine that was coming from Magdalena Medio and north eastern Antioquia. "They tied him to a tree and left him to starve for three days and nights," the boy told me while we walked in the poor neighbourhood, looking for his friends. "Later they let him go, saying that he was a good man. But he was too scared to go back to work. He lost his job and ended up selling lottery on the streets," Yóver told me, explaining why he had had to leave school early. His mother worked cleaning houses, but her wages weren't enough to support the whole family. "I'm not worried about myself, because I can sing. But I'm worried about my brothers and sisters: there are six of us," he added with a frown. Yóver earned thirty thousand pesos in a good weekend, shining shoes. In his free time, he composed songs for his group.

The working-class district, with four thousand inhabitants, was one of the most populous in Turbo. The streets were unpaved and a cloud of dust rose with the passing of every bike. Very few cars were on the road, which was lucky because the streets were full of hundreds of children, their bellies swollen by malnutrition and infection. The day I visited in August 2000, various children were pushing around a toy car that they had made out of plastic and an aloe plant. It was their favourite game. In fact, it was the only game they had. The young men played cards or dominoes in the streets, next to a large basin, and a dozen girls played with a skipping rope in a ramshackle barn. Music reverberated around the streets.

To get to the houses, constructed on wooden stilts, it was necessary to cross makeshift bridges made of logs or to walk over sacks stuck in the mud, made of cement mixed with rubbish. Erlin Enrique Romaña, another founding member of the Urabá Boys, emerged from one of these houses. Erlin was a tall, gangly black kid of eighteen, with skinny legs like stilts and a huge smile. He was the third of eight children, all of whom lived with their mother who was also a domestic worker. His father - a navvy - had suffered a heart attack while working on a canal at the port. Erlin was eleven years old and his death had caused him to abandon forever the idea of staying in school. "I hated school anyway," he told me shortly after we had met.

Erlin had worked for tips in the streets since the age of ten, carrying bags and taking people's rubbish to the dump before a collection service existed in Turbo. He had always dreamed of becoming a musician. "I was happy on the streets watching ragamuffin groups like the Chucho-Man and the Ghostbusters. I wanted to be like them, but thought that could never happen," Erlin told me while Yóver was off searching for the rest of the band. "That's why I went for it when I met Carlos and Patricia. If it wasn't for them, we'd all be dead by now," Erlin continued, turning round his Nike baseball cap and shaking the dust off his Puma trainers. "I used to be a bit of a bad boy, too."

He didn't explain what he meant and I didn't ask him to elucidate. But he did tell me what his friends got up to: they smoked weed and sniffed glue and didn't expect to grow old. The day before, he explained, one of his friends had been cheated while playing cards. His friend had brought out his knife and threatened the cheat before walking off in indignation.These types of incidents were common among the young people in the poor district, but didn't usually get serious. This time another friend who has seen what had happened provoked the cheat "He pulls a blade on you and you do nothing?" The young man whose pride had been hurt ran off after the boy who had threatened him - who was also his best friend. He ran up to him and, without saying a word, grabbed his knife and plunged it in his heart. "He only wanted to take the knife off him, but then he went crazy. My friend said to him: 'You killed me,' and he fell down dead." Erlin told me the story without any sign of sadness: he had seen a few of his friends die already.

Half an hour later the paramilitaries went to look for him at his house. The kid knew that if they caught him they would kill him - using this rough justice, the paramilitaries had gained the respect of the people - and he decided to give himself up to the police. He was eighteen and he wouldn't be leaving prison before the age of thirty.

Erlin wanted to give me another example of the power of the paramilitaries: the day earlier they had gone to his neighbourhood to look for a thief. "They shot him dead with thirteen bullets," he said. Over the last couple of years his number of friends was being steadily reduced. "They've been disappearing, accused of being thieves or druggies. They torture them, throw acid in their faces and throw them in the cemetery in a plastic bag. Then they tell their families to go and collect their bodies over the radio." Sometimes he went to take a look at the bodies because it would give him ideas for new songs. "Once there was a bag at the entrance to the cemetery. The chickens were already getting inside it. I went up to it and saw a head and a hand inside, lying on top of each other like this," he said, demonstrating with his hand on his head. That macabre image had inspired his song "Bum bum bum racatacata." He sang it to me while Yóver returned with Diego Escobar, a new member of the group.

He was born in a small village, lives in a
ranch with no roof
He hates being poor and wants to be rich but
The only way to do it is by killing, listen up.
He picks up his pistol and walks out the door,
He's killing already
But that's not enough, he wants something stronger
he buys a machine gun and now he's happy
Bum bum bum racatacata, his favourite food is
bullets with dynamite
His school is the war zone, where he learns
to shoot in the face
He licks off the blood and begins to laugh, because money
is what he came for
Now the gangsta has got a hit
shoots a kid in the back
Bum bum bum racatacata, his favourite food is
bullets with dynamite.
Now the brother wants revenge and these words he says
loud and clear:
I'm going to pull out your nails, one by one
and make you eat them
I'm going to burn your body, like a turkey
I'll roast it on a spit
All your bones I will crush into a juice
which I'm gonna drink
Bum bum bum racatacata ...

Diego was sixteen and he had been in the group for a year and a half. He had studied until ninth grade and also worked as a shoe-shiner. His mother packed bananas in a factory and was trying to persuade him to go and work on the plantations. "But he's scared that the guerrillas will come and enlist him. Sometime they turn up at the plantations," Erlin told me when he introduced us.

Like the rest of the Urabá Boys, Erlin was scared of what could happen to him at the plantations. They thought that when the workers were owed their wages, some plantation owners preferred to kill them to save the money. Despite the fact that the banana companies boasted that they had cleared the roads of guerrillas between Apartadó and Turbo to the valleys of Augura, calling it an "oasis of peace in Urabá," the massacres that had been carried out over the last twenty years were still very much present in their minds, even if they had been kids when the killings had occurred.

Violence leads to terror
They've tried to lock us all up
Wherever you go, whatever you say
You'll find the violence coming your way
Violence, violence is what we live through
It's the destiny of many
Everyone says: sooner or later
Everyone will fall, but don't think it's better
To die old. Every day they are falling
Innocent people in the mortuary
They're the criminals, they're the killers
They're the ones that can take away your future
It's the violence that will get you in the end
It's something that affects us all
Just turn on the radio or the TV
And the first thing on the news you'll see:
There's been a massacre, a fight
Caused by the hands of the violent men
God I'm asking you, God protect me
Help me to change this world
Let the violent men realise
That their turn has come

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