Gangster Rule, Continued

Forrest Hylton

Last month, I swore I had written for the last time about the displaced Zenú cacique Víctor Peña, and his physician, Dr Z. But then at the end of May, in despair after her son’s death, Dr Z’s wife killed herself. Last Saturday morning I received a WhatsApp message from Dr Z’s phone. It was from his daughter. Having buried his wife next to his son, he was refusing to eat or drink. He collapsed and was taken to hospital, where he has been diagnosed with kidney (and possibly prostate) cancer. They have to run tests and send samples to a lab in Bogotá, which will cost 860,000 pesos (over $200).

His daughter, who should be in high school, is sleeping on a bench outside his ward, trying to figure out how to pay his medical bills, after taking him to hospital. He owes nearly a million pesos (so far). She is penniless and, so far, no family or friends have offered to help her or her father (except for one schoolfriend, who was robbed on her way to lend money to her). I promised to do what I could.

Víctor wanted to come out of hiding to be by Dr Z’s side, but Dr Z’s daughter convinced him it wasn’t safe. As long as Dr Z is in hospital, Víctor refuses to eat more than sugarloaf and water, much less buy medicine: any money coming in must go to pay for Dr Z’s treatment. But Víctor will need to eat at some point, and no one will advance rice or eggs on credit. He can survive on 20,000 pesos a day ($5). Dr Z’s daughter needs a bit more, 50,000 pesos a day.

She returned home briefly yesterday for the first time since her father collapsed, only to be told by a neighbour that two men had been seen peering through the front windows. She told the police, which is unlikely to help, since the narco-paramilitaries of the AGC operate with impunity, and could even hurt, since the AGC have police informers. Dr Z would probably have advised against it.

At some point all three will need to come in from the cold and seek official protection from human rights personnel at the governor’s or mayor’s office, or ask for help from a human rights NGO. But both Dr Z and Víctor are suspicious to the point of paranoia, which has admittedly kept Víctor one step ahead of his would-be murderers for several years now.

The plan had been for Dr Z and his daughter to leave Rionegro as soon as possible, rendezvous with Víctor, and then move to an area where Víctor has an Indigenous contact involved in human rights activism. But Dr Z’s cancer diagnosis complicates that. The question becomes whether Dr Z’s daughter seeks protection in Rionegro at the risk of drawing attention to her and her father’s presence. As a minor, when she goes out to buy food or medicine, she is in even greater danger from narco-paramilitaries than her father.

Once again, they are out of funds in a country in which nearly every public service, including healthcare, has been privatised and, in many cases, is run by local mafias.

After a honeymoon period of perhaps six months, President Gustavo Petro’s government – the first ever to make protection of social movement leaders a priority, at least rhetorically – has gone from struggling to embattled. In 2022, Colombia tied with Syria for the highest number of internally displaced people in the world (6.8 million), notably in the departments with the highest Indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations; forced displacement reached a ten-year high. Murders of social movement leaders, many of them Indigenous or Afro-Colombian, continue unabated. For now, peace with either the narco-paramilitary AGC or the nominally Marxist-Leninist ELN lies beyond the horizon (the ELN and the government have signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement that may or may not hold).

Though Petro and his progressive international allies have cried wolf about a soft coup, Colombia is not Peru nor Brazil: it had one coup in the 20th century and has had none in the 21st. The political system and oligarchic concentration of wealth and property through state and para-state violence work otherwise. It looks as if Petro’s reform programme will be left to die on the vine of institutional gridlock, deepening contradictions in what remains of the government coalition, and the impact of serious corruption scandals (which are not merely media-opposition fabrications). Petro may use the spectre of a coup to try to drum up support, but will struggle to govern effectively.

Last week, Petro and the vice-president, Francia Márquez, presided over mass mobilisations by trade unions and social movements in the major cities to support their proposed reforms, but it may be too little, too late. Proposals for healthcare reform, which split the governing coalition in April, are not wildly popular, and unlikely to make it through Congress; if they do, the Constitutional Court may rule against them. Mayoral and gubernatorial elections are coming in October, and right-wing opposition parties that have left the ruling coalition enjoy solid backing from key business interests and lobbies. For Víctor, Dr Z and his daughter, the odds of survival are long. They soldier on nonetheless. As before, anyone who wishes to help should email

Read Forrest Hylton’s next post about Víctor Peña here. The first one is here.