Fighting for the welfare of others: Life as a social leader

A story told by Carmen

I was born in Rio Blanco, Tolima. I arrived in Putumayo in 1986 with my family, looking for opportunities, like most people did back then. I moved around a lot during my childhood, following in my mother’s footsteps. First, we arrived in Valle del Cauca, where my grandmother lived. She was born in Antioquia, a Catholic, a member of the Liberal Party, and had settled in Valle del Cauca with her children some decades before. The family grew corn and beans, hunted in the surrounding forests, and raised chickens. They also felled trees for wood, which they transported by mule to be sold in Sevilla or Tuluá. My grandma was the soul of the family. During elections, she would tell us, again and again, the story of how she had to hide my uncles from Los Pájaros, armed groups allied with the Conservative Party who were killing liberal peasants. While my mother went out to make a living on the nearby farms, my grandmother taught my sisters and me how to read and carry out farm chores: taking care of the vegetable garden, tending the chickens and sweeping the patio.

After a few years, my mother got married, and we moved to Pradera, another village in Valle del Cauca, to a cattle farm belonging to my stepfather’s family. Those were tough years. My mum, my sisters and I were mistreated by my stepfather. He and his family were chauvinists. According to them, women are only useful for cooking and having children. They said horrible things to us, screamed at us, and made my mother cry. They would lock us up, often without any food. All this, just for being girls! I felt I had an obligation to defend my younger sisters and rebelled against my stepfather’s violence. This led me to leave home in my adolescence and to be separated from my sisters, one of who committed suicide soon after I left.

I ended up living with an aunt, in Palmira, a neighbouring city. I began to work as a babysitter during the day and to study primary school at night. Though it was hard, I managed to have a good living standard, and, most importantly, I grew confident in myself and was convinced that my stepfather was wrong and I could accomplish whatever I set out to do. This period, when I came of age, was crucial in my life. It forged my strong character and my rebellious personality in the face of those who mistreat others.

I finished primary school when I was 15 and was going to continue to high school, but I got my first boyfriend, and I got pregnant. The situation didn’t affect me emotionally that much; I embraced motherhood with full responsibility. The birth of my daughter coincided with the suicide of my sister. The feeling of being a mother, but also the feelings of guilt I had for leaving my sister alone and then losing her – those feelings led me to return to my stepfather’s, to be with my mother and my younger sisters. This helped my mother a little bit, to soothe the pain she felt after losing her daughter. I treated my stepfather with respect, but after everything that happened, we were never friends. He understood that he couldn’t control me.

Just after I went back to my mother’s place, confrontations began between the M-19 guerrillas and the government army.

We were caught in the middle of a battle. We couldn’t go anywhere for two days.

That was the first time I saw with my own eyes that there was an armed conflict between the state and some revolutionary or illegal groups in Colombia. Sadly, it wouldn’t be the last time. When the confrontation ended, we were forced to move to the village and had to stay there for several months. Although I could get a job in a restaurant there, neither my stepfather nor my mother had it easy. So, we got in touch with a relative who lived in Putumayo, who told us the situation was good there. He said there were opportunities to work, and it was a good place to live. My stepfather was the first one to travel to Putumayo to make sure the situation was OK. Two weeks later, he returned, and then my mother, my sisters, my daughter and I took the bus from Florida, Valle del Cauca, to Orito, Putumayo. We travelled through Cali, Popayán, and then on the road they call ‘the trampoline of death’ to Mocoa. It was more than 30 hours of travel.

Orito was growing at the pace of the oil and coca economies. Engineers and skilled workers, in general, worked for the oil industry. They all lived in an urbanisation, built especially for the oil company’s employees, made up of very well-made houses, with architectural design and everything. The peasants made a living from coca.

Harvesting coca crop Puerto Asis
Harvest work in a coca crop in Puerto Asis, Putumayo. Photo by Frances Thomson/SOAS & Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

The rest of the people, like me, made a living from commerce. The land behind the oil company’s urbanisation belonged to the mayor’s office and was assigned to displaced families like ours. There, we built our house with wood and other materials that people gave us. The town consisted only of the main street, the town hall, a market square, a church and the houses we were all rapidly building.

Those were the times of fat cows! My family was doing well economically. My stepfather worked on a coca crop, my mother enrolled my sisters in school and took care of my daughter, and I worked selling lottery tickets in the town.

Little by little, we bought everything we lacked in the new house and settled down in our new life.

I spent that first year working, building the house and adapting to my new life. But before long, I was bitten by the political activity bug. Back in Valle del Cauca, I didn’t know anything about politics. I spent all my time struggling to solve my own personal problems. I only started to learn about politics – what it is and how it’s done – in Putumayo. I got in touch with the Liberal Party, and thanks to my relatives’ credentials as long-time liberals, I started working with them. That’s how I got the job at Orito’s lottery house. Later, I founded our neighbourhood Community Action Board. I was very young, I was only 21 years old, and nobody knew me well, but still, the neighbours voted to appoint me as secretary of the board. At that time, very few women participated in the boards. Most of the members were men. And that’s how my life in politics began.

The Community Action Board brought neighbours together to demand the paving of the roads, the construction of an aqueduct and access to other public services. One of my first tasks as secretary of the board was to conduct a census of the families participating in a government programme to build and improve homes. I remember going from house to house, talking with the neighbours. That’s how people got to know me. I was not very good at writing and made many spelling mistakes. Luckily, that was not a problem because I have never liked working alone and have always got help from more experienced people. In this case, I formed a good team with some social leaders who advised me. They taught me how to use a typewriter and write documents and even corrected my spelling. Apart from teaching me many technical skills and how to interact with government functionaries, one of them also became my ‘political father’.

As I said before, when I lived in Valle del Cauca, I didn’t even know what politics were. For example, in the restaurants where I worked, homeless people came to ask for food from time to time. Some people helped them, and others didn’t. I didn’t understand why there had to be people living in such miserable conditions.

Later, in Putumayo, I understood that poverty is a consequence of politics and economics.

I owe this understanding to someone I consider my first political guide: a member of the Communist Party who had arrived in the region years before me and who was assassinated by the paramilitaries in 2004. I owe him my taste for politics and the knowledge I have on the matter. I remember he lent me books and taught me about the political history of the country, ideologies in the world, and the differences between the traditional parties and the left-wing. I liked everything he taught me so much that I felt the need to go back to school and I began studying at night.

Later, I quit the Liberal Party because I didn’t have time to work, study and care for my family. But, mostly, my resignation was a decision of conscience. Discussions with my friend, the communist leader, made me reflect on the shortcomings of the traditional parties. As a member of the Liberal Party, I fought for people’s rights, but the party only helped those on its membership lists. Those who were not part of its networks were not even considered. When I realised the barriers traditional parties put up between people, I left the Liberal Party and began working in the Communist Party.

Rapidly, I went from being the secretary of our local Community Action Board to being the secretary of the association of all the Orito Boards. When they elected me, I was the only woman in a directive position. I was the only one because, unlike the rest of the women living in the rural area, I knew how to read and write, a requisite for the position. The role of the secretary is fundamental because she or he has the responsibility of keeping up with correspondence, files and public relations. It’s like a ministry. This new position suited my qualities very well because I’ve always been very organised, and in this kind of position you need to learn quickly and be eager to be taught.

I was the secretary of the Boards Association until 1996. In those years, I divided my time between my work as a community organiser and social leader, my job selling lottery tickets, and my family. I had no time for vacations or parties or anything like that. By then, I had a partner who, fortunately, was not a traditional male chauvinist who wanted his wife at home all the time. He always supported me. He was a radio host, and I fell in love with his social sensitivity and desire to help the needy. We had three children and built a house in the town. And it was then that the famous coca rallies began in the south of the country. Although I didn’t know it at the time, they would end up changing my life.

In the ‘90s, the state began to fumigate coca crops in Putumayo and other departments in southern Colombia.

The peasants’ response was to organise rallies to demand an end to the fumigations and a dialogue to seek alternatives to illicit crops involving social investment.

These protests first took place in 1992, but the coca growers’ mobilisations became stronger in the years that followed. Community Action Boards were key protagonists, calling for and organising the demonstrations.

The big rallies started when I was pregnant with my third daughter. I didn’t take on tasks that would be a risk to my health but rather dedicated myself to gathering support for those participating in the protest. The peasants left their hamlets and villages for the nearby towns.

A rural farmhouse in Putumayo
A rural farmhouse in Putumayo. Photo by Frances Thomson/SOAS & Universidad Nacional

They set up tents in parks and on the streets to interrupt the traffic as a form of protest. The Community Action Boards and peasant organisations had already decided that it was essential to work on political, logistical, health and security matters and create a commission for each topic. The Political Commission had to negotiate with the government. The Health Commission was in charge of verifying everyone was in good health and of speaking with the hospital to take care of the sick. The Safety Commission was in charge of blocking the roads. And so on with each commission. I led a group for the Logistics Commission in town. We were in charge of going to the shops, the marketplace, and the neighbourhoods to collect food and other things people staying in the tents needed. We distributed everything with the help of friends in the transportation business. At that moment, I didn’t realise the importance of the rallies. I just felt I was doing my bit.

When the government said that the guerrillas were behind the rally, my heart and soul were in pain. It had been a challenging process, with a lot of effort, and it was legitimate.

Maybe some protesters were members of the FARC. It wouldn’t be unusual in Putumayo, where there have been guerrillas for years, and considering that it’s a political and military organisation, but claiming that the guerrillas organised the mobilisations was outrageous. Peasants were completely aware of their struggles; they were not being manipulated. And the worst part was that stigmatisation came together with murder.

A month passed, and protesters hadn’t been able to come to an agreement with the government when, one night, at around nine o’clock, we heard explosions. Usually, during the rally, there were cultural events at night. People played string music and told jokes and bedtime stories. That night, when people were leaving for their tents, some guys threw explosives into the crowd! Three people died, and more than 80 were wounded. The same happened in several towns in Putumayo. Back then, we thought it was a coordinated attack organised by the government army to spread fear and bring the protest to an end. It’s still not clear what happened. We just don’t know. Anyway, violence against coca growers and their leaders would get even worse in the years to come.

Protesters returned to their homes after agreeing on a work plan with the government to discuss social investment, access to services and infrastructure, and economic alternatives to coca. Mainly, the Community Action Boards participated in this negotiation process. Several social leaders realised that we also needed a regional peasant organisation to voice the needs of people in Putumayo. So we had the idea of creating a peasant union. Due to my experience in the Boards Association, and perhaps to the inexperience of our rural comrades in organising files, correspondence and the like, I was elected secretary of the Putumayo Peasant Union. It was my leap from local social organisation to broader peasant organisation platforms.

That was a time of intense social activism. While we were negotiating with the government, we were building the union municipality by municipality. It was a very enriching experience because I got in touch with peasant leaders from different parts of the country. We realised that the problems we had in Putumayo were very similar to the issues elsewhere. Therefore, joining a broader platform to fight for land and peasants’ social and political rights made sense. In April 1997, we created a local branch of the union in Orito, and we were doing the same in the rest of the towns when the paramilitaries came to Putumayo.

The violent operations of the paramilitaries had a clear objective: not to let the peasants’ organisation advance. And, in that selective hunt, the first ones to fall were those who led the coca rallies.

First, they killed a leader in the neighbouring town of San Miguel. Then, they attacked a leader from Puerto Caicedo, who was miraculously saved. Some colleagues travelled to Bogotá to file complaints, while others – myself included – stayed to participate in a forum with the Minister of the Interior to talk about human rights violations. We took a break to have lunch during that forum, and when we returned, we found threatening pamphlets on the chairs. It was a terrible period. Later, they killed the mayor of Puerto Asís, who had been elected with the support of the peasant organisation, and a leader from Orito, whose tongue was cut off. Those who weren’t displaced had to stop all political activity, forced by the circumstances. Others joined the guerrillas to save their lives.

I resisted a couple of years, but in 2000 we were displaced. We had to find a place to live elsewhere because I could no longer bear the permanent surveillance of the paramilitaries. By then, I had already left my partner, so, forced by necessity, I sold my house in the town for a low price and travelled with my four children to the rural area of Puerto Asís, on the border with Ecuador. There, another stage of my life began.

I planned to leave behind my social work to protect our lives. I wanted to go where I could be safe, and my children could study. It was painful for them because they had their friends in Orito, and the oldest one had a boyfriend. Still, fortunately, we were able to establish in an area where the guerrillas were strong, so I was protected from the paramilitaries who were chasing me. There was a good school, and there were good conditions for commerce. With the money from the sale of our house and savings from my work, I bought a new home and set up a restaurant.

Our new home was in a hamlet by a large river and with stunning landscapes. There were many coca crops around, but also chontaduro, pineapple, sugarcane and subsistence crops. I estimate that 40{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of farm production was coca, and the rest was other products. There were also many indigenous people with solid organisations. People in this area were organised in Community Action Boards, producer associations, and, in the case of the indigenous people, in Cabildos. As a result of their collective efforts and the agreements of the coca grower strikes of the ‘90s, they had managed to get the government to build a rural school, the only one in the surrounding area. My children went to primary and secondary school there. Even though my decision to move to the area was forced, I believe it was the best decision I made in my life. The territory welcomed me in a tough time, and my children grew up and happily came of age there.

Putumayo river
A journey on the Putumayo river. Photo by Frances Thomson

However, not everything was a rose garden. I couldn’t go to the town. I had to stay in the rural area because the paramilitaries controlled the urban area. To get to the town, you had to cross a river, and the paramilitaries would go to where peasants disembarked from the ferry, list in hand. Those on the list were killed right away and thrown in the river. Therefore, I had to buy groceries in Ecuador or send my oldest daughter to the town to get supplies for my restaurant.

In 2002, when I was working at my restaurant and focused on supporting my children, the paramilitaries, with the support of the government army, assassinated the Putumayo Peasant Union’s president. Because I kept the organisation’s archives, his relatives and the International Red Cross contacted me to help in the search for the body. We found him buried in a cemetery as an NN (‘no-name’) eight days later. I had distanced myself from everything related to social work until that moment, but I felt I had to return to it under the circumstances. When you are a leader and fight to achieve better conditions for people, you feel like a leaf flying in the wind, heading nowhere, if you are not doing something. It’s impossible to sit still. I tried it for my children’s safety, but after the murder of our colleague, I began thinking about their future and what could happen to them. These reflections, which I shared with fellow peasant leaders, led us to reactivate our social work.

At that time, we believed that we couldn’t stand still in the face of violence because, if we did, the death of all our colleagues would have been in vain.

The first thing we did was reactivate the organisations in every municipality. The plan consisted of holding assemblies with Community Action Boards and Indigenous Councils to inquire about the communities’ opinions. Although many were afraid, many others welcomed the idea of organising again. We created a new peasant organisation, and I was elected vice president. We discussed a Life Plan for the area, defining the population’s needs and priorities. A company had started to exploit the oil wells in the area, and so, our idea was to get them and the local and national authorities to support our Life Plan. The plan included, among other things, legal recognition of peasants’ land rights and the protection of water sources, both of which were threatened by the oil company, and the maintenance of the roads we had built ourselves and which the oil company deteriorated without compensating us.

We spent a couple of years organising our Life Plan and then approached the oil company and the governor of Putumayo to help us implement it. However, the violence did not stop. In 2004, we met with the mayor, the governor and the company. We told them that they couldn’t continue exploiting oil in the area if the national government didn’t participate in the meetings and help us with the plan. The oil company wasn’t interested in agreements and refused to invite the national government to have a dialogue. Instead, they complained about all the problems the guerrillas caused to their operations. Anyway, we left the meeting feeling happy because, although we couldn’t come to an agreement, we showed them our political strength and presented our proposals. But, five days later, the president of the newly created organisation was brutally assassinated with several shots in the back.

As I was the organisation’s vice president, I was supposed to take over his post. However, the paramilitaries were still in town, so I couldn’t go there to do everything that the leader of an organisation has to do. We had to temporarily suspend our Life Plan project and dedicate ourselves to denouncing human rights violations My financial situation was not good because I had left my restaurant unattended to devote myself to social work. Besides, one of my sons became seriously ill. Fortunately, by then, I already had the support of my current partner. He was the president of a Community Action Board and had come to Putumayo to work on coca farms until, with his savings, he was able to buy a piece of land. Being with him is a blessing because he’s a hardworking man, humble, and patient. It’s not easy to find a man who accepts his wife leaving home all the time, participating in meetings, and not being there for cooking or washing. He was always understanding of my leadership and took on those duties in the house. So, to solve our economic situation, I worked with him on the farm. I never worked in the coca crop itself, but I cooked for the workers, supervised them, and created and looked after coca seedbeds. The farm gave us enough to support my children.

The partial demobilisation of the paramilitaries in 2006 gave a second wind to the social movement in Putumayo. That was the moment to reactivate our Life Plan project, protest against the environmental and social damage caused by the oil companies, denounce human rights violations and oppose aerial spraying.

At that point, the demands were very similar to those of coca growers in the ‘90s; for example, to stop the fumigations, but the social movement was stronger and better trained. By then, we had solid proposals to negotiate with the government, and there were new peasant organisations that we didn’t have before.

Despite the demobilisation, paramilitary violence didn’t stop, and in 2007 I suffered the misfortune of losing one of my children. He was 19 and worked as an assistant in the chivas [a particular type of bus that transports merchandise and passengers in rural areas]. One morning, he was on his way from the hamlet to Puerto Asís, and the paramilitaries took him off the bus, carried him away in a truck, and killed him. My son didn’t mess with anybody. He wasn’t involved in political activity either. His only ‘crime’ was to wear a black t-shirt and trousers and rubber boots [wellies]. That was enough for the paramilitaries to kill him. According to them, anyone dressing like that was a member of the guerrillas. That was the most brutal blow I’ve ever received. But instead of falling apart, which was what people might have expected of me, I decided to continue with my political activity.

Navigating between personal tragedies and the threat of violence, little by little, I approached peasant organisations at the national level. I left local leadership behind and became part of movements with broader – countrywide – aims. It was a beautiful experience that taught me other lessons in life.

Before then, I never had the opportunity to meet leaders from different parts of the country. I was always focused on Putumayo. I remember that a peasant leader I knew always told me that I should leave the region to work at the national and international levels because local problems result from policies formed at these levels. The first time I participated in a meeting with peasants from different parts of the country, I realised his message was true. Despite the differences between the regions, the problems were very similar.

Time passed, and not only did they invite me to the meetings, but they appointed me as the Women’s Secretary of the peasant organisation where I was working. I was in charge of all the participation and education policies for women within the organisation. An essential experience I had in that position was traveling to the south of Colombia to organise local leadership workshops with peasant women, later replicated at the national level. The idea was to place women in high positions to ensure they started taking on roles traditionally given to men. The process led me to participate in the Vía Campesina World Assembly in Africa. It was a very long journey, more than 24 hours! I met people with different cultures and languages for the first time, and I learned about the continent’s history. I discovered that, despite being a region with a lot of inequality, its people have strong dignity because they have fought for their rights all their lives.

Later I became treasurer and general secretary of the organisation, among other posts. These responsibilities forced me to leave Putumayo and go to Bogotá, the organisation’s headquarters. It was tough because it involved moving away from my family, leaving behind my work in the region, and coming to a big city. Although it was hard at first, and I even got sick, I managed to do the job entrusted to me.

I was fortunate to participate closely in some of the most important political events in recent years in Colombia. First, I helped with the 2013 National Agrarian Strike, which mobilised thousands of peasants throughout the country to demand better living conditions, access to services and rights, and a change in economic policies. This strike positioned agrarian problems back at the centre of the national debate. Additionally, I participated with my organisation in the peace process with the FARC guerrillas. We wanted to contribute to building peace in our country. As several points on the agrarian problem were included in the conversations with the guerrillas, we were committed to promoting compliance with the Peace Agreement.

Today, I feel very uncertain about what may happen with peace and the social movement in Colombia. We believed that peace would bring the changes we had fought for, for years, but that has not happened yet.

If I look back at my life, I can say that I am proud of who I’ve been and what I’ve done, despite all the difficulties and suffering due to having lost my loved ones. I made the decision to follow the path of those who fight for the welfare of others. That took me away from the ordinary life of a family woman. It has been a good life!

Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

Life stories raise questions, provocations and pointers for researchers and policymakers.