Da la casualidad de que los asesinos —me doy cuenta de repente al pasar junto al árbol donde colgaron a una de las setenta y seis víctimas— nos revelan, a punta de espada, el país que no conocemos ni en los libros de texto ni en los folletos turísticos. . Porque, como seguro estarán de acuerdo, y perdónenme por ser tan crudo, si no fuera por esta masacre, cuántos bogotanos o pasteños sabrían siquiera que en el departamento de Bolívar, en la costa caribeña de Colombia, hay un pueblito llamado El Salado? Los habitantes de estos lugares pobres y aislados solo son visibles cuando sufren una tragedia. Mueren, luego existen.
José Manuel Montes, mi guía, un campesino regordete y reservado que ha pasado toda su vida cultivando tabaco, asiente con la cabeza. Cae la tarde del sábado, las cigarras comienzan su sonata. El sol ya se esconde pero su calor asfixiante permanece concentrado en el aire. Entonces mi compañero me cuenta que en este mismo lugar donde estamos parados, más o menos en medio de la cancha de fútbol, los paramilitares torturaron a Eduardo Novoa Alvis, la primera de sus víctimas. Le arrancaron las orejas con un cuchillo de carnicero y luego le metieron la cabeza en un saco. Lo apuñalaron en el estómago, le dispararon un rifle en la nuca. Al final, para celebrar su muerte, hicieron sonar los tambores y gaitas que habían sustraído de la Casa de la Cultura. En las afueras desoladas de este mini campo de fútbol hay poco más que un par de burros apáticos, rascándose unos a otros para sacudirse las pulgas de sus lomos huesudos. Sin embargo, es posible imaginar cómo lucían estos espacios aquella mañana del viernes 18 de febrero de 2000, cuando los indefensos habitantes de El Salado se encontraron allí reunidos por orden de los verdugos.
“Casi todos estaban sentados de ese lado”, dice Montes mientras señala un montículo de arena marrón, en ángulo recto con la iglesia, a unos veinte metros de distancia.
Esa misma mañana, al despuntar el alba, Édita Garrido me había mostrado ese mismo montículo de tierra. Una aldeana flacucha con piel aceitunada, ella también sobrevivió para contar la historia. Los paramilitares, dijo, llegaron al pueblo poco antes de las nueve, disparando ráfagas de balas y lanzando insultos. En el piso debajo de su cama, donde se escondía, Édita escuchó el alboroto de los bárbaros:
“¡Montón de bastardos, levántense, somos los paracos y vamos a borrar a este maldito pueblo del mapa!”
“¡Esto es lo que pasa cuando delatas a la guerrilla!”
En meros momentos, sacaron a rastras a los residentes de sus casas y los llevaron como corderos sacrificados al campo. Allí, aquí, los obligaron a sentarse en el suelo. En el centro del rectángulo, donde suele reposar la pelota cuando el partido está por comenzar, se sentaron tres de los delincuentes. Uno de ellos blandía un papel en el que estaban anotados los nombres de los lugareños acusados de colaborar con la guerrilla. En la lista, tras Novoa Alvis siguió Nayibis Osorio. La arrastraron de los cabellos desde su casa hasta la iglesia, la acusaron de ser la amante de un comandante guerrillero. La humillaron públicamente, le dispararon. Y después de eso, en el apogeo de su crueldad, clavaron una de las afiladas estacas que usan los trabajadores del campo para ensartar hojas de tabaco antes de secarlas al sol en su vagina.
“¿Quién es el siguiente?” preguntó uno de los asesinos en tono burlón, mirando a los aterrorizados espectadores.
El soldado que tenía la lista le dio la información solicitada: Rosmira Torres Gamarra. Separaron a la señora del grupo, le ataron una cuerda al cuello y comenzaron a tirarla de un lado a otro imitando los gritos típicos de los pastores de ganado locales. La estrangularon en medio de un nuevo estruendo de tambores y gaitas. Luego fusilaron, sucesivamente, a Pedro Torres Montes, Marcos Caro Torres, José Urueta Guzmán ya un burro extraviado que tuvo la mala suerte de meter el hocico en aquel inesperado rincón del infierno.
Uno de los paramilitares amenazó a la multitud: el que llora es descuartizado a balazos. Otro levantó su arma al aire como una bandera y juró que no se iría de El Solado sin volarle los sesos a alguien.
“Dime cuál es el mío, dime cuál es el mío”, repetía mientras caminaba entre la multitud con aires de galán de la pantalla grande.
Hubo más muertes, más humillaciones, más redobles de tambores. Hacia el mediodía, varios tramos del campo estaban alfombrados con montones de cadáveres y órganos derramados dejados por la carnicería. Entonces, como parecía que no quedaban nombres en la lista, los paramilitares idearon un perverso juego de azar para prolongar la pesadilla: pusieron a los vecinos en fila y los hicieron contar en voz alta. El que consiga el número treinta —advirtió uno de los verdugos— está pateando el balde. Y así mataron a Hermides Cohen Redondo y Enrique Medina Rico. Luego llevaron su crueldad, por entonces transformada en diversión, al extremo más desquiciado: sacaron un loro de una casa y un gallo de pelea de otra y los enfrentaron en medio de un círculo frenético.
Ahora, José Manuel Montes me explica que el número de muertos en el campo fue solo una pequeña parte del desastre. Nuestro país ha conocido, a posteriori, gracias a los familiares de las víctimas, las confesiones de los verdugos y los copiosos archivos de la prensa, las minucias de la masacre. Fue realizada por trescientos hombres armados que portaban brazaletes de las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Los paramilitares comenzaron a converger en la zona el miércoles 16 de febrero de 2000. Mientras se acercaban a El Salado, asesinaron a los trabajadores agrícolas que transitaban desarmados por los caminos rurales cercanos. No los mataron a balazos sino a martillazos en la cabeza, para evitar ruidos que pudieran alertar a los desprevenidos habitantes que aún se encontraban en el pueblo.
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.
Traducido por Arthur Dixon