These Colombian women built their own city to escape violence. But peace is still elusive.

Fellows 2017

By Sruthi Gottipati

October 04, 2017

Also published by PRI's The World

A decade ago, unknown arsonists burned down a community center in northern Colombia where children were schooled and recreational activities were held. The center was empty. The effort, it appeared, was to intimidate the women who had just moved into the neighborhood.

Within a year, the center bounced back, rebuilt by resilient women who would not be driven away from their new community. Today, the center hosts skills workshops that can range from weaving and dairy to beauty and handicrafts, or, as it did on a recent afternoon, lessons in management that could apply as much to raising an errant teenager as to growing a business.

But the danger in the neighborhood, as these women know well, is never very far away.

“Lately, we’ve had a lot of street gangs and robberies,” said Consuelo Ester Villegas Mendoza, 40, who had been dutifully taking notes at the workshop, murmuring the instructor’s directives to commit them to memory as her daughter toyed with her mother’s hair.

“There was a thief in front of my house 15 days ago,” she said. “My neighbors made him leave.”

Villegas and other women in the workshop are part of The League of Displaced Women — La Liga — who, sick of running to escape Colombia’s myriad and enduring conflicts, collectively acquired a plot of land in 2003 in Turbaco municipality and made a new home for themselves. There they employed their muscle, sweat and thirst for autonomy to lay down roots and build 98 houses that they christened the "City of Women." It would be a place where the homes belonged to women and children, not husbands. Where machismo could be left at the doorstep, muchas gracias.

The City was born of a utopian dream. A town built from scratch by and for women, all of whom were escaping violence that has plagued their country for more than half a century. The images of them in hard hats mixing cement was a promising one — holding out hope that the country could rebuild, and offer the many female victims of war a path forward.

Yet now, months after the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group shook hands on a deal to end one of the world’s longest running civil wars, these women still grapple with threats and intimidation, a singeing rebuttal to the narrative that peace has come at last in Colombia. If anything, these women say, drug violence and delinquency are on the rise. But they suspect it’s no longer perpetrated by paramilitaries but by their criminal vestiges known as BACRIM, short for bandas criminales.

“They massacre everyone. They displace people and they destroy the land. They tear into bodies with chainsaws,” Ana Luz Ortega, 52, said about these criminal gangs.

“I’m not sure that the peace process will bring peace here."

Even in the City of Women, masked men on motorcycles threaten residents at night a few times per year, said Eidanis Lamadrid, 44, a founding member of La Liga. One recent evening, a knot of men stopped the husband of a Liga member.

“He was asked who he was, what he was doing,” Lamadrid said. “They asked him if he knew people from a list of names that they read out” before he was let go.

In the last three years, more than a dozen flyers with explicit warnings — instructions to remain inside their homes after dark, for example — have been publicly posted or sent by WhatsApp to residents of the City of Women, Lamadrid said. Those who violate the edicts can end up on a list. One such list, posted on an electrical pole, included the name of a 12-year-old boy who had violated a gang order by wandering the streets at night.

She hopes that as a group, La Liga will be able to more easily claim reparations promised by the state as part of the peace process. But peace itself is a prospect she doesn’t dare hope for.

“I’m not sure that the peace process will bring peace here,” she said.

'The state keeps failing us'

Ortega grew up in the municipality of Puerto Libertador in the department of Córdoba. Her father died when she was 2 years old. Her mother, a farmer, grew corn and rice. Ortega left her farm at the turn of the century around the time the area became a “red zone.” She moved in 1999 to El Pozón, an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of the Caribbean city of Cartagena.

“I could see girls being raped,” she said about her new locality. She knew others who were killed.

There, she became a member of La Liga after meeting its charismatic founder Patricia Guerrero, an activist lawyer from Bogotá, and went for gatherings where she gained a deeper understanding of human rights.

“When I attended the first meeting, I realized I was a displaced person,” Ortega said.

It was in 2003, when Ortega returned home late after collecting the testimonies of displaced people, that three armed men confronted her and ordered her and her oldest son, Raúl de Jesús Julio, who was 15 at the time, to step outside their shanty.

“Please don’t do anything to my kids. If you’re going to do something to my kids, please do it to me instead,” she recalled imploring them.

One of the men aimed a gun at Ortega’s temple and then switched it back and forth between her and her son. “He kept asking, ‘What does your son do? And I said my son wants to [attend a soccer academy]’” The two other men searched her home. She’s still not sure what for. Was she was being targeted as a member of La Liga?

“They pushed us inside the house and said that if I turn on the light or go to the authorities, they would splatter our brain in the house,” she said.

The attackers left that night but after the visit, Ortega's son struggled in school and in his social life. “He thought the guy who put the gun to his head was still following him,” Ortega said. She sent her son back to Córdoba. When Ortega built her house in the City of Women and asked her son to return, he refused. Today, he works in a gold mine in Antioquia.

On a sunny day in June, Ortega’s family — her husband, younger son and two of her five daughters who still live with her — measured the yard to build a white picket fence around her home. It’s the stuff of suburban dreams, but Ortega, echoing the views of other women in the City, said she worries about encroaching violence and drug abuse, which she believes has been fueled by a lack of opportunity, education, health services and by persisting unemployment around the City.

“The state keeps failing us,” said Ortega.

Some of the brutality, residents say, stems from the police and armed forces themselves.

“They kick around the young kids. Imagine this, from the people who are supposed to protect you,” said Ortega.

But BACRIM, residents suspect, is the source of the threats and warnings.

Lamadrid, a founding La Liga member, believes her community is targeted by these criminal bands because they resent women organizing and demanding their rights. Armed groups are also competing for control of illegal mining and drug trafficking. Lamadrid noted that a drug trafficking route is also only 20 minutes away, making the area a lucrative one to dominate. 

“This sector is controlled by politicians. That’s why these groups are targeting this area to show who’s in charge,” she said.

Lamadrid is especially worried about Guerrero, the City’s founder who’s representing La Liga’s cases in court. The government removed Guerrero’s protective detail and she’s now receiving death threats by phone at her office.

“We’re the most worried about her because she’s the head of the organization,” Lamadrid said. “We know that the heads of an organization are always the first to go.”

A ceasefire deal between FARC rebels and the government in November brought a relative calm. Homicides plunged in the Latin American nation. But violence did spike in one case: against community leaders and rights activists.

The scale of the crisis is hard to know, since it’s difficult to prove that these  community activists were targeted because of their work. Few would disagree, however, that more civic leaders are dying since the peace deal.

Catalina Díaz, the head of Colombia’s department of transitional justice, said she’s not sure who’s responsible for threats in the City but more needed to be done to stop them.

“The government needs to acknowledge that the targeting of human rights defenders, it’s real, it’s not an invention,” she said. “We need to improve our understanding of what’s going on, who the groups are and their connections to illicit activities.”

Lamadrid recognizes the tradeoff she’s struck. Even though banding together as La Liga has given the women a sense of security in numbers, it has also made them more visible as a target.

“The government needs to acknowledge that the targeting of human rights defenders, it’s real, it’s not an invention."

She recognizes that her own rising profile within the City makes her a mark.

“I fear that it might happen to me what I’ve seen happen with Patricia. I feel the same constant security threat,” she said. “Even though I would be safer if I wasn’t a leader, I have this in my blood so I have to fight for our rights. I have to speak up for our community.”

A history of violence

For women in the City who have suffered and escaped violence, the new threats are layered on old traumas.

City resident Yanidis Isabel Meza Ribero, 38, cradled a bright woven handbag as her eyes darted nervously under a baseball hat. She sat on the edge of a plastic chair, in blue sneakers and spoke at a rapid clip. She said she gets the feeling that someone is following her but she’s not sure if the threat is real or imagined. She glanced over her shoulder and declined to be photographed.

Meza was raised on a farm with seven siblings in El Carmen de Bolívar. Her parents grew tobacco, corn, chicken, plantains and pigs. When the left-wing guerrillas first came, they forced locals to give them shelter. Later, paramilitaries arrived and made residents pay for complying with that demand. “People started dying,” she said.

As a young adult, she moved to the coastal city of Barranquilla to escape the dangers, and she moved to several more cities in search of a job. Her husband, bitten by a snake, died. It was in Turbaco municipality, in 2004, a year before Meza moved to the City, that her brother was murdered. A farmer found his body tied to a tree. He’d been shot three times in the neck. His killers were never identified.

“My mother died struggling with the fact that her son’s killers were never brought to justice,” said Meza, who has a daughter, 19, and a son, 7.

It’s a common tale here in the City.

“Not only do we have issues with violence but the psychological problems of the women here are not being addressed,” Lamadrid said. “The combination of these two make it difficult for families to raise kids.”

For women in the City, finding security means more than physical safety. Meza, like other displaced Colombians, moved to flee attacks as well as to seek a living. It’s not always easy.

When the City was being built, Meza made bricks for the houses. When the electricity for the brick machines ran out, she shuffled around cement and water to earn her keep. When there was no material available, she cleaned up the construction site.

Today, Meza does odd jobs, sells fruits and vegetables to make ends meet but wonders if she should have ever left Carmen. She acknowledged that it had been wracked by violence but “there were still jobs there. You need a job to buy food and pay bills.”

A place to call home

After Matilde Isabel Pájaro de Ferias got married, she moved from Bolívar to her husband’s home in the municipality of Fundación in the department of Magdalena. But the town, where she raised her nine children, was swept up “in the heat of violence,” said Pájaro de Ferias, now 86.

Paramilitary fighters arrived in 2001 or 2002, she said. They were often no more than 20 years old and routinely killed residents. “I would see people crying on the streets, begging the paramilitaries not to shoot them,” she said. “But they would. Bang, bang, bang.”

Pájaro de Ferias was close to the family of the man who owned the school where she worked as a cleaning lady. When the owner was murdered, one of the militants who knew her came to her home to warn that his colleagues planned to kill her next if she didn’t leave town. “You need to go otherwise you’ll die,” she recalled him saying.

She turned up at the bus terminal at 4 a.m. under relentless rain with her husband and two grandchildren and decided to leave for Cartagena, where one of her daughters lived.

She never told her husband, a carpenter, about being threatened. “He was already worried. He was losing his friends.” But he never really recovered from being forced out of his home and died later, she believes, from grief. When she built a house in the City, she wished desperately that her husband would love it. “My wrist was shaking opening the door to prove that the house was well made,” she recalled.

When she pried the door open, she wept, overwhelmed with relief. “Finally we had a house.”

Villegas, who was attending the workshop at the community center, said she too had cried when she had a place to call home. It was the first time she had felt a sense of security.

After the pasts they’ve all faced, she said, the worst possible outcome would be a return to the kind of violence they had fled.

“Reliving it would be catastrophic.”