Improvised tin bridges, a road with holes and signs alluding to the ELN and EPL guerrillas. On the journey there is not a single uniformed person in sight. A rope as a barrier on the road is the signal to stop. Later, another similar stop. They are two supposedly community tolls to fix the road, but in reality they operate at the service of armed groups. They control who enters and who leaves. Tibú is an abandoned town, with broken streets and given over to crime. If a murder occurs, there are no authorities to collect the body or the evidence. Many times, bodies are buried without an autopsy being performed. There is no one manning the morgue, no Prosecutor’s Office, no court. Mayor Nelson Leal López was forced to take refuge in Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander, after dozens of threats and the theft of two of the armored vans for his protection, since the State cannot guarantee the safety of him or anyone else. in the town.
Tibú occupies first place in coca cultivation in the world, with 22,000 hectares of land planted, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It is the largest municipality in the department of Norte de Santander, bordering Venezuela. It is part of Catatumbo, a region known as the red zone due to its historical problems of violence. Paramilitaries from the Catatumbo Block, who were under the orders of Salvatore Mancuso and Carlos Castaño, acknowledged in court that, between 1999 and 2004, they committed 12,427 homicides and 375 forced disappearances in Norte de Santander. Many of the victims were thrown into the Catatumbo River and others were buried in mass graves.
Only negative news is spread about Tibú: bombs, massacres, kidnappings, murders, extortions, recruitment of minors… However, walking through the urban area produces the impression of an inhabited town with apparent normality. Stalls, fresh meat hanging on the platforms, bars with loud music and a park with games for children. The inhabitants proclaim that you can walk in peace, although fear is perceived in the environment. The greatest risk appears to occur on rural roads. “They don’t steal here. You can walk around with the phone in your hand without a problem. The danger is that a bomb will explode or that they will kill you,” says someone cheekily. He explains that for whoever steals the punishment is death.
The Police station remains cordoned off with black shrouds, fences and barricades to entrench. Since the attack last May, in which two uniformed officers and a woman died after the detonation of an explosive charge, the police have lived in hiding and only go out on patrol in armored tanks. The inhabitants fear approaching them since most of the attacks have been directed against the public force. You can’t even take photos.
Since the prosecutor Esperanza Navas was murdered in 2021, Tibú was left without a Prosecutor’s Office and without justice. The murdered prosecutor was in charge of more than 400 cases for illicit crops and homicides, but not even in her case have those responsible been captured. The processes were transferred to Cúcuta and the possibility of justice being done is remote. Without institutions or local criminal investigators, and without criminal prosecution of criminals, impunity is perpetuated. Funeral homes collect the bodies for burial, but the evidence is lost.
A rifle during the funeral in honor of a police officer in Tibú, in 2023.Long Visual Press (Getty Images)
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There is also no court or government human rights office in the town. In 2019, a municipal court commission was attacked with grenades and rifle rounds when it was on its way to carry out a judicial proceeding. The secretary of the office and the judicial expert were murdered, and 11 were injured, including the judge, three soldiers and three police officers. They have since closed the courthouse.
The mayor has tried to return aboard Army helicopters, but as soon as he lands the Police discover a new murder plan and he is forced to return to Cúcuta, from where he dispatches by video call. Insecurity has increased with the upcoming local elections. “We have to begin to recover the territory, but for that we need State institutions, and articulate the work with the public force so that the communities trust their police again,” says the mayor.
Six other mayors in Colombia have had to leave the municipality they govern, the majority from the department of Chocó, and one who resigned: that of La Playa de Belén, also in Norte de Santander. The resignation of a mayor due to insecurity has not occurred for 20 years; That a mayor left the town had not been seen since 2006, the Federation of Municipalities informed EL PAÍS.
All types of armed groups operate outside the law in Tibú: the dissidents of the FARC, the ELN, the EPL (also called Los Pelusos, a dissident group of that guerrilla that did not demobilize in 1991) and criminal gangs, some of They are cross-border, such as the Sinaloa cartel and the Aragua Train. Before a ceasefire with the ELN was implemented, guerrillas armed with rifles went to a town in Tibú and took photos with the children. In several videos it has been recorded how members of the FARC dissidents patrol the municipality in broad daylight. Carrying long weapons and bracelets, they search the inhabitants and stand outside the Mayor’s Office. In the absence of justice and little action by the Police, the dissidents impose their law with punishments such as tying thieves or drug sellers to power poles with signs such as “I am vicious FARC EP”, forcing them to sweep the streets or work. in the countryside. The threat of murder or disappearance hangs in the air. “The guerrilla is the one that solves judicial problems, marital problems, money problems. This is what happens when you don’t have a family police station, a court, or a strengthened police inspection,” explains Mayor Leal. In the past, the guerrillas lived in the mountains, but now they are the lords and lords of the town.
Coca crops are one of the reasons why armed groups dispute this area. A large part of the population lives off it, although in recent months there has been a slowdown in purchasing, which some experts have attributed to oversupply. In rural areas it is common for people to carry out transactions with cocaine. Despite the poverty, living in Tibú is expensive because armed groups ask everyone for quotas, even from street coffee vendors. In contrast, Shakira’s foundation has launched the construction of a school in the town.
An anti-narcotics police officer burns a cocaine laboratory in Tibú, in 2000. Anonymous (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
In the last 25 years, thousands of people have been displaced by violence. Zenayda Pérez is one of them. Because of the threats, she does not have a permanent place to live. The armed groups have detained her for up to two hours when she walks through the sidewalks. She has no peace of mind. Her husband, a former combatant of the extinct FARC, has suffered attacks. “My security is that after five in the afternoon I have nothing to do in the town. I restrict myself from expressing many things,” she says.
Tibú is one of the municipalities where it is most difficult to defend human rights. Since the signing of the peace agreement between the Government and the FARC, in 2016, 20 social leaders and 8 former combatants have been murdered, according to the NGO Indepaz. In this municipality there remains one of the 24 territorial reintegration spaces that were created after the peace agreement. This year, armed groups have stolen two UN cars in Catatumbo, where this organization maintains two Verification Mission headquarters.
On October 8, the first dialogue table between the Government’s peace delegation and the so-called Central General Staff, the largest group of dissidents of the extinct FARC, led by Iván Mordisco, will be set up in Tibú. That same day, the ceasefire will begin, which will last for ten months, the longest so far achieved by the government of Gustavo Petro with an armed group within the framework of its total peace policy. The dissidents declared a unilateral cessation of offensive actions against state forces since September 22.
In Tibú there are more registered victims than inhabitants: there are 88,566 victims, while the town has 59,536 inhabitants. Anyone you talk to tells their story of threats, victimization and silence.
Leader Francy Elena Durán holds a banner alluding to peace. It is six in the morning in Tibú and students from schools and social and victims’ organizations have gone out to march for peace, a walk that has a 40-year tradition. Durán recognizes that she is afraid because of the work she does. “Sometimes there are shootings. There are our children and grandchildren, and a cross bullet can occur at any time. We ask God to cease the fire,” she says.
The parish priest Jairo Gelves Tarazona is part of the peace and reconciliation council of the municipality and has gone out to march as a representative of the Catholic church. “You leave (in Tibú), but you don’t know if you can return,” he says. “Here people are suspicious of everyone, even us priests too, because it is a difficult situation,” he adds.
Olguín Mayorga, president of the Association of Victims of the Armed Conflict in Norte de Santander, has recently been threatened with messages signed by the “ELN” asking him to decline his candidacy for the departmental Assembly. Leaders do not have the security guarantees to publicize human rights violations. “In the region and in Tibú it has not been felt that there is really a ceasefire with the ELN; “It is easier for them to go out and patrol the streets, which puts the civilian population at risk,” he says.
Coca farmers in Tibu, in 2001.SCOTT DALTON (Associated Press)
The leader Carmen García, president of the Association of Mothers of Catatumbo for Peace, says that she felt a little calm with the signing of the 2016 peace agreement, but that since 2018 the war has worsened. “Catatumbo has been left alone. Everything happens here and nobody says anything. They kill here every day,” she concludes. So far this year, the association that she presides over has removed 25 women threatened by illegal groups from the municipality. She herself is threatened and, although she has been assigned a protection scheme, she cannot enter the municipality with it; She has to take the risks if she wants to go. Not even the armed escorts are safe. “I didn’t want to be a leader, the war led me to be a leader. The Army killed my husband and passed him off as a false positive,” she says.
In the Barí language, Catatumbo means “house of thunder”; The region is known for its nighttime lightning. Juan Titira, Barí leader, considers that his community now suffers more violence than before the peace agreement. Armed groups make illegal checkpoints, have mined their territories and their government house has been harassed with shootings for being close to the Police station. “Our indigenous authorities have been threatened, armed groups have stigmatized us and led to confinement. We have no peace or harmony in our huts,” he explains.
Perhaps, in self-defense, people tend to talk about violence in general, without singling out any group. They are afraid of putting a tombstone on top of it. Accustomed to war, some prefer not to speak, but everyone, including the priest, is afraid. Tibú is a town adrift and without justice.
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