Saving Víctor Peña

Forrest Hylton

I have written before about Víctor Peña, a displaced cacique of the Zenú people whose entire family has died since the Covid-19 pandemic began, some of them murdered by narco-paramilitaries. We did relief work together in Medellín – getting alcohol gel, masks and food to Zenú mothers – during the pandemic in 2020.

If he ever returned to his home town, Tuchín, Víctor would be killed too. The paramilitiaries have a stranglehold on the healthcare system, and Victor put himself in harm’s way when he challenged them over his brother’s exorbitant medical bills when he was hospitalised with Covid.

Since his lungs gave out in 2021 and he started having heart attacks, Víctor has himself been in and out of hospital, most recently in Rionegro, an upscale suburb near Medellín airport. His compañera from Tuchín, Cindy, slept on hospital benches for more than two months, and often had to beg for food or to buy medicine for Víctor. She was beaten up, scalded with burning oil, threatened with rape and forced prostitution, and subjected to racist and misogynist insults and threats.

Cindy’s family came to take her home to Tuchín. She was shot twice in the back of the head as soon as she arrived. She had two children. The morgue refused to release her body, for days, until her family paid up. They had done the same when her mother died. Her willingness to confront the narco-paramilitiaries had put her on their hit list, along with her association with Víctor.

He is currently in hiding with the surgeon who operated on his heart, Doctor Z. I don’t know where they are. I urged them to talk to the human rights contacts I have in the area but their fear and mistrust of the state is too great. They are short of both food and medicine.

The hospital administrators fired Doctor Z because Víctor’s bills weren’t paid. He managed to get Victor out of hospital and to what he thought was a safe place. But once the death threats started against his wife and children – strange men appeared outside his house on motorcycles; others showed up inquiring into his whereabouts – he decided it wasn’t safe enough.

He went to fetch Víctor’s few belongings from his last place of residence in La Sierra, high up in central-eastern Medellín, where he discovered that Víctor had been sleeping on an earth floor, which flooded when it rained because the only thing holding the water out was plastic garbage bags and cardboard. No wonder he couldn’t recover from the chronic respiratory disease he developed post-Covid. The narco-paramilitaries in La Sierra told Doctor Z not to come back.

He spoke to a policeman he knew in Rionegro and the following day got a message on WhatsApp telling him not to go talking to the police. The narco-paramilitaries in Rionegro probably have nothing to do with the gangs that run Tuchín, even if they are both nominally part of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia.

As Víctor and Doctor Z made their way out of Medellín, they were stopped by highway police and Doctor Z was threatened with arrest on kidnapping charges: although he had Víctor’s release papers from the hospital, he didn’t have official permission from the hospital authorities to transport him. Víctor’s verbal or written consent was immaterial. A bribe of nearly $100 finally took care of the situation.

Doctor Z was now out of funds, and still owed $100 to the truck driver who had ferried them to their hideout. His wife pawned their wedding rings and their daughter’s quinceañera ring, but was robbed on her way to wire the cash. The paramilitaries gave Doctor Z’s son a severe beating. He is now in the hospital where his father used to work.

I did what I could to help, as did some of my former union colleagues at the Universidad Nacional, and my co-author, Aaron Tauss. But none of us had much to spare. Most people I know in Medellín are overwhelmed, both economically and in general, and have been since the Covid pandemic began. My fee from this piece will go to Víctor and Doctor Z. Anyone who wishes to help should email

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


  • 14 May 2023 at 11:42am
    Camus says:
    I guess you have tried an appeal for crowd funding. Aren't you also in danger? A Video reached me a few days ago showing the happy crowds on a Saturday night in Medellin, and it is very difficult to create any connection between your piece and the video parade