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Victor Peña’s Odyssey Continued

Forrest Hylton

For Victor Peña, a cacique of the Zenú people, Colombia’s second most numerous indigenous group, 2021 is shaping up to be a continuation of 2020, which is to say dreadful beyond measure. The year started with Victor running out of gas for cooking rice and eggs in his kitchen: the only staples he can afford to eat since the pandemic hit, and all his sources of income dried up (he used to sell the hand-woven hats for which the Zenú are internationally known, along with beaded jewellery).

Then he had to borrow money for the other kind of gas so he could ride his motorcycle from Medellín to his hometown of Tuchín, Córdoba, for his cousin’s funeral. They had grown up together as brothers. Victor’s cousin was murdered by local paramilitaries, possibly because they mistook him for someone else – perhaps Victor himself, as the resemblance is striking – or for some other reason that will remain a mystery, since no one will investigate the killing.

Victor left Tuchín immediately after the funeral to avoid being murdered himself, and spent the night in a neighbouring town controlled by a different, unrelated paramilitary faction. He has been persona non grata in his hometown since last October, when he lodged a formal complaint with the Procuraduría concerning the complicity of local doctors with the paramilitaries. I wrote then about his flight from Tuchín, a three-day journey on foot through swamp, jungle and mountain.

On reaching Medellín with a badly injured leg, he spent two days in hospital. He had to fight to avoid being overcharged: even though indigenous rights to low-cost healthcare are theoretically enshrined in the 1991 Constitution, in practice they are mostly ignored in favour of the profit motive that rules Colombia’s privatised healthcare system. Victor, who had 50,000 pesos (less than $15), negotiated the price down from 850,000 pesos. A week later, he was readmitted to hospital for three days because his wound was still infected. He negotiated the price down to 1.1. million pesos from 2.5 million pesos. He tried to sell land at home in Tuchín, but could only get half the asking price.

The day after he was discharged from hospital, his brother’s house in Tuchín was torched by arsonists. His brother, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews were left homeless and hungry. It is unlikely this was connected to Victor’s stay in the hospital, unless local paramilitaries were exacting revenge on his brother for Victor’s defiance. Since the Indigenous Guard, which has police powers according to the 1991 Constitution, lacks homicide detectives, as well as the firepower needed to protect them from paramilitary retaliation, the crime will go uninvestigated and unpunished.

Less than two weeks after his second stay in hospital, Victor got Covid-19, but was too frightened and broke to seek medical care. He stayed at home, unable to sleep, with difficulty breathing, treating himself with a eucalyptus and cannabis steam inhalation. Some indigenous compañeros sold him a herbal concoction to help him sleep. A friend of his ended up in hospital on a respirator. His landlord was demanding he keep up his rent payments. The gang that runs his old neighbourhood in Medellín, Villatina, offered a loan at 20 per cent interest. He was tempted, but refused. Then he fell and opened up his wound, but refused to go to hospital again. In Tuchín, arsonists set fire to his brother’s cornfields.

In mid-December, local gangsters demanded he pay 100,000 pesos in protection money. He borrowed it to pay them. Then they said he owed an additional 350,000 pesos ($100). Rather than pay up – they came knocking on his door in the middle of the night, and patrolled his corner day and night – he fled to another peripheral hillside neighbourhood. This was the day before he graduated high school online. He had to borrow money to attend the ceremony and get his diploma, wearing the traditional Zenú hat (sombrero vueltiao). He hopes to study law at the University of Antioquia, a flagship public university and a cauldron of radical democratic initiative and mobilisation virtually unmatched in Latin America.

Fleeing Tuchín after his cousin’s funeral last month, Victor got stopped at a paramilitary roadblock (a different faction from the one that rules Tuchín) for four nights and days. Living on mangos, he kept in touch with me by WhatsApp. One night the paramilitaries marched a group of motorists off the road and along a path. Victor feared they would all be murdered. He also feared they might discover he was an indigenous movement leader, and torture or murder him. In the event, all they wanted was 350,000 pesos, which he didn’t have, but borrowed from me. Then he ran out of gas an hour and a half outside Medellín. Again, he had to borrow money, and arrived home penniless and hungry, just as the city was set for curfew and lockdown over the weekend. Citizens are allowed out only to buy essentials, and only on specified days of the week.

There have been ten thousand deaths from Covid in the Antioquian region, a fifth of the national total. The local government response has made it almost impossible for Victor and other Zenú people in Medellín, and indeed the working people of the city’s hillside neighbourhoods in general, to earn a living and subsist. But it has not protected them from catching the disease. There is no prospect of let-up from the relentless misery and desperation. No one on the team that the Colombian government sent to negotiate with Pfizer speaks English.

Victor’s new landlord, meanwhile, is threatening to have him removed from the neighbourhood if he does not pay his rent immediately. It’s not clear where he might go.