Why do they kill leaders before Christmas?

Dagoberto has travelled two days to get to Urabá from his home on the San Juan River. This is the first time that he has visited these lands. He is wearing a black Adidas t-shirt and as he smiles he reveals huge, uneven teeth, as he says with good humour “wait until you see how far we have left to travel”. It is a sunny morning and the group of visitors, who like Dagoberto have been travelling from different corners of Colombia, is breakfasting on posta (the name for meat stew in this region) and scrambled eggs before continuing on their journey by boat to the Jiguamiandó river basin.

Afro-Colombians and Sikuani, Jiw, Nasa, Wounan Nonam indigenous people show their solidarity with the communities of Urabá.

We are here to remember Operation Black September (Operación Septiembre Negro), which was perpetrated by paramilitaries and the army in the region of Urabá twenty years ago, and during which 143 people were killed[1].  We are also here to celebrate twenty years of resistance, because the communities that were displaced due to the armed confrontation and the terror caused by the war, returned years later and created Humanitarian Zones to resist in their territories.

Workers lift the heavy pieces of wood for export. Logging is an important trade in the region and has had a serious impact on deforestation and the environment.

The murder of Hernán

We could not have imagined that this celebration was soon to become a tragic event. Before we begin the first act of the commemoration we receive news that nobody wants to believe. They have killed Hernán Bedoya, a land leader recognised and loved by everyone in the region. Only ten days had passed since neo-paramilitaries from the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) killed Mario Castaño, very close to here. Both leaders had many enemies, as they had been claiming their land rights for years. Mario was a spokesman for the community that requested the cancellation of an AngloGold Ashanti mining title[2], Hernán opposed the implementation of agro-industrial megaprojects[3].


The news of Hernán’s violent death flies through Pueblo Nuevo and devastates the mood of its inhabitants. The joy that we had just felt is now history, the event has been converted into a wake. “We have to do something before they take more leaders”, says Enrique Cabezas, another threatened leader. They begin days of catharsis, analysing the situation, understanding that their resistance strategy must be changed, but also recognising that the only thing they can do is to continue claiming the land and insisting on the restitution process.

In August Jesús Alberto Sánchez Correa was killed. He was the son of a land claimant from the community of La Larga Tumaradó. In October neo-paramilitary groups killed José Merlín Murillo, from Cacarica.

The people will never give up! a young Afro-Colombian man suddenly exclaims, cutting through the feeling of widespread impotence that had taken over all those gathered here. He repeats it over and over again; soon others join in the liberating cry until everyone is shouting it out to rounds of applause. “Yes, it is better to die doing something”, and in this way the evening comes to an end and everyone says good night and goes to bed.


The next day we bathe in the emerald river that passes through the town, we say goodbye to the villagers and we continue our trip. Sitting uncomfortably on thin, misshapen wooden boards, we appreciate the silence and the sight of the lush vegetation we can see from the boat. In the Nueva Esperanza Humanitarian Zone people welcome us with affection. While they meet, several children kill the chickens for lunch. “You don’t know how to kill chickens”, says a small child to a bigger one, then takes the knife and with a deft hand slits the throat of one of the birds. From the kiosk, we listen to the sound of people signing “Óyeme Chocó, oye por favor, tú no tienes por qué estar sufriendo así” (Listen to me Chocó, listen to me please, you should not be suffering like this). It is what they sang over and over again when they returned to their lands after the forced displacement caused by Operation Black September. In a saucepan they are cooking twenty kilos of rice. The water has evaporated and a woman has covered the pot with bijao leaves and two wooden boards. Others remove the feathers of the fifteen chickens for lunch.


It is time to leave to continue our trip. But once again we receive disturbing news. “They have killed the AGC men who killed Hernán Bedoya, right near here”, a man announces. “You should be careful”, he adds, and ends with “but don’t tell anyone that I told you”. They say it was the elenos as they call the members of the ELN guerrilla group, which this year have expanded their actions in Urabá and are fighting the AGC for control of the land. Others say that one of the men was able to escape, news that is later confirmed. Fear seizes us again. It has rained and the only way to get to the next town is to walk along a mud trail. It is midday, the sun is blazing and we begin our march in silence towards Camelias. We all feel restless, and we have thousands of questions. Who killed who? Might we run into an armed actor? Are we safe in this place? Why did they kill Hernán and why now? The backpacks weigh us down, our boots sink into the mud again and again. I twisted my foot earlier in a deep puddle and now it is swollen, but we can’t stop because the group is walking in a hurry, dragged along by fear. Enrique Cabezas walks by my side. He is carrying a lot more than everyone else because he is helping others who are having trouble going on. “We can not complain because this is the path we have chosen”, he says stoically. I realise that he is referring more to their path in life and not to the actual path we are walking on. Enrique knows that at any moment they could kill him too. Like Mario and Hernán he is an important spokesman, one who should take much more care, file less reports, leave here for a few weeks, as several people have advised him.

Morna Dick calls the PBI house by satellite phone to report that we have arrived at the agreed place. There are hardly any places with a mobile phone signal. The calls are an important mechanism to report on the arrival and departure of the PBI observers, and to report on any events and changes of plan.

Many leaders change tactics during the Christmas season, keeping a low profile, walking carefully through their territory, not placing trust in others, talking little and only with friends and family. They say that during this season there are people who sell their soul to the devil and kill in exchange for a payment to buy Christmas gifts. They scarcely go out and when they do, to work in the field for example, they take relatives with them so they can feel safer. They are always looking over their shoulders, one hand close to their machete, in case they have to defend themselves. This does not guarantee their safety either, however; they all remember the tragic murder of land claimant Manuel Ruíz and his 15-year-old son Samir, who was accompanying his father on an errand in 2012[4]. And Hernán Bedoya was shot 14 times with a firearm, while riding home on his horse[5]. Urabá is still a no man’s land where the law of the strongest rules, the law of the man who has weapons.

The delegation and the population remember leaders who have been killed.


Women with their hair tied back and with eyes red and swollen from crying, have spent all night keeping vigil next to Hernán’s coffin. In the early morning other mourners arrive and they sit in silence under plastic sheets outside an improvised house. Some children play with small planes made from cardboard to pass the time. Opposite are parked several 4×4 armoured cars belonging to members of Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – CIJP). They have been accompanying Hernán for years and have come to pay their respects. Few of Hernán’s friends have attended because they are afraid to leave their villages, confirms his teenage daughter. When Father Alberto begins the Mass everyone gathers around the coffin. Hernán’s children fall onto the concrete floor and weep inconsolably. For what seems like an eternity we hear their desperate crying until night falls and the gathering dissolves.


The next day we wake up at dawn and travel again for three hours from Apartadó to Belén de Bajirá to attend Hernán’s funeral. The bus passes through long stretches of banana plantations and fields of cattle, a reflection of the unequal distribution of land in Colombia: 80% of which is in the hands of 1% of the population, the large-scale landowners.

The funeral procession crosses the uncovered, acrid streets of Belén de Bajirá on foot, by motorcycle and in armoured cars where human rights defenders travel because of the threats against them. The passers-by try to jump over the puddles so as not to get dirty. The leaders and members of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission make it clear that Hernán’s enemies are also here, apparently seeking to torment and demoralise his family even after his death, monitoring those who dare to report, claim or defend. In the cemetery, the mourners notice three men from the AGC, who have followed the congregation to the site[6].

Hernán Bedoya’s struggle for land ends in a small grave behind a concrete wall. Now it is his children’s turn; they will return to the farm to continue what their dad started.

Text and photos: Bianca Bauer


[1] Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP): Una expresión de la guerra psicológica, 10 September 2014
[2] El Espectador: Por fin se radicó la demanda de restitución de la Larga Tumaradó, 6 December 2017
[3] Contagio Radio: Asesinado líder reclamante de tierras Hernán Bedoya en Chocó, 8 December 2017
[4] Semana: ¿Quién mató a Manuel?, 4 February 2012
[5] CIJP: Asesinado líder Hernán Bedoya, 8 December 2017
[6] CIJP: Hostigamiento a defensores de JyP, 14 December 2017

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