Considered since the 1980s to be a peaceful oasis compared to its neighbours Colombia and Peru – in part because of comprehensive land reform in the 1960s, in part because of a lack of coca production – Ecuador is now officially at war: ‘an internal armed conflict’, in the words of the president, Daniel Noboa. How did a South American republic of 18 million people (1.5 million live abroad), with deeply rooted democratic traditions, go from being one of the least to one of the most violent in the hemisphere, with a homicide rate of 46 per 100,000, up from 5.8 per 100,000, in six years?
Ahead of Javier Milei’s presidential address last month, announcing the most radical privatisation and deregulation plan in Argentinian history, protesters took to the streets of Buenos Aires, converging en masse on the Plaza de Mayo in the early evening, and staging a cacerolazo, or pot-banging session, outside Congress as Milei spoke. Synchronised cacerolazos took place nationwide.
After being elected president of Argentina, and before declaring that he would indeed abolish the central bank, the ‘paleo-capitalist libertarian’ Javier Milei announced a visit to Tel Aviv, thereby breaking ranks with Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and, most important, Brazil. While Montevideo – where the new right is also in power – may be a stop on his pre-inaugural victory lap (along with Washington, of course), Brasília will not.
Classes were cancelled at the Universidade Federal da Bahia for a couple of days a few weeks ago because two neighbouring favelas, Calabar and Alto das Pombas, were both at war, leaving at least ten people dead. Both areas were occupied by Military Police (PM). Dozens of families fled. One of my students apologised for missing our online class: he had been trapped at home listening to gunfire and helicopters for two full days; unable to read or concentrate, he had fled the city.
It couldn’t last. Having found a house removed from danger – for the time being, at least – thanks to childhood friends (and missionaries), Víctor Peña had, at the age of 41, begun university at the Colegio Mayor de Antioquia, to study planning, social development and community administration. Doctor Z’s orphaned daughter had begun high school near where she lives with Víctor in a rural area outside Medellín, with plans to go on to study medicine at the Universidad de Antioquia.
Under a vaulting blue sky, the Sunday morning before last, in Porto da Barra, beside the wooden deck where people practise yoga or capoeira in the morning, and in the evening watch the sunset over Itaparica and the Bahia de Todos os Santos, a young man’s body was found next to the rubbish bins, stuffed in a large Styrofoam cooler, of the sort the barraqueiros on the beach – the people who rent out beach chairs and umbrellas – use to keep beer, soft drinks and coconuts on ice.
Last Friday, I received news that Dr Z had died in hospital from kidney cancer. Two months ago his daughter was still in school, living at home with her family. Now she is orphaned and on the run from the narco-paramilitaries who targeted her family because her father protected the displaced Zenú cacique Víctor Peña after they warned him against it.
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).
Since I last wrote about the trials of Víctor Peña, his doctor’s son has died of the injuries inflicted on him by the narco-paramilitaries who followed through on their threats of what would happen to Dr Z’s family if he didn’t turn ‘el indígena Víctor’ over to them. This desperate situation was created by the nightmarish configuration of gangster rule in Colombia, in part a consequence of US counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics policies under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama.
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, Victor would be killed too.