“How the Colombian paramilitaries motivated me to make positive social change”

Colombian paramilitaries motivated Maria to make positive social change

Maria Carolina*, 25, grew up in Minca, Magdalena in northern Colombia. Now a psychology student, Maria describes how her family were decimated by the paramilitaries when she was 14 years old, and how it made her determined to change the future of her community.

Due to the violence that has continued for more than 52 years in Colombia, Maria* was displaced to Santa Marta where she still now lives. In addition to studying, she also works as a socio-political poet, writing about her community’s experience of the conflict.


My early childhood in Minca was relatively peaceful. The area was primarily controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia, or FARC guerrilla. But my mother tells me that we were well looked after, as long as we knew which lines not to cross.

In 1996 everything changed. Minca, and the surrounding region of Magdalena became the site of a major paramilitary campaign against the guerrilla.

My mother didn’t let me go out alone, and especially not at night. It wasn’t safe for the children to be out after dark, especially girls.

The paramilitaries targeted civilians as part of their strategies to eradicate the FARC. Large numbers were displaced to rural and urban areas, including Santa Marta, the capital of Magdalena. This campaign of violence continued until well after 2004, when the campaign supposedly ended.

A paramilitary solider looks out of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Magdalena
A paramilitary solider looks out of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Magdalena

When I was 14 years old, my life changed forever. My 19 year-old cousin, Pedro*, had been drinking with some friends in a neighbourhood bar. He caught the eye of a beautiful young woman sitting with her friend a few tables away. They began talking and flirting with each other.

This was a bar often frequented by paramilitary soldiers. Unfortunately, this woman happened to be the girlfriend of a fairly senior paramilitary. The soldier challenged Pedro* to a fight. It quickly escalated to the point where both men were hospitalised.

Pedro’s* mum, Juanita*, is a nurse, and she happened to be working in the local clinic when her son was brought in, unconscious and covered in blood. Once Pedro* was stabilised, they transferred him to a hospital in Santa Marta for his safety. They (rightly) suspected that the paramilitaries would want revenge.

The paramilitaries visited my aunt and uncle at home trying to discover where Pedro* was. They tortured my uncle, Luis*, beating him all over with a garden hose and a plank of wood until he collapsed.

Then they turned on my aunt. An informer had told them that she was a nurse, so they tortured her even more, beating her until she was semi-conscious and repeatedly raping her in front of my uncle. The soldiers said they had to pay for what Pedro* had done.

When Juanita* still wouldn’t tell them where her son was, they took her down to the end of the street, placed a tire around her and set her on fire.

Our house was only a street away. We liked to live close together, as a family. I can still hear the screams to this day. The smell of burnt flesh, I will never forget. Pedro* later died in hospital – supposedly of his injuries.

The whole community was horrified at what had happened. We fled that night to Santa Marta, fearing for our lives. My uncle still barely speaks to this day, he has become a shadow of a man. He says he cannot forgive himself for not protecting his wife and only son.

Being displaced from Minca had a powerful impact on my entire family. People did not trust us if we said that we were from Minca. They were scared to talk to us. There was so much fear when I was growing up. It seeped into our very pores, making me always feel short of breath.

I didn’t feel safe anywhere, always found myself looking over my shoulder to see if I was being followed. I still catch myself doing it to this day, 11 years later.

My father and brother would not let me go anywhere by myself, not even to a friend’s house around the corner. They insisted that someone accompany me.

The sound of gunshots and stories of the paramilitaries on the news, still remind us of the war outside our home. And what we have lost. The hole in our family is a constant reminder that the conflict is never too far away. True, the FARC have now signed a peace agreement with the government. Supposedly, the Sierra Nevada region around Minca and Santa Marta has been demobilised. But the conflict inflicted by the ELN guerrilla and the paramilitaries continues.

Following the FARC’s request, there are government military troops stationed at various points over the mountains. But everyone knows that the paramilitaries are still active. So, we still live in fear that one day they’ll come back for us.

I’m now studying to become a psychologist in Magdalena University. I want to help people overcome the trauma of the past. During my university career, I have had the opportunity to participate in, and work with, vulnerable neighbourhoods, like the communities of Taganga and Pando. In Taganga, I worked with families and adolescents, and in Pando, I ran workshops with children aged between 6 and 14.

Last year, I worked as a human rights promoter in a project run by the Colombian governments Institute of Family Welfare. In a rural town, I worked with 108 children aged between 6 and 17 years old. The town is quite cut off, it’s easy to understand how communities can become so isolated. The state forgets about them. The purpose of my work was to help empower them and to teach them about their rights.

It was difficult for me to see so much suffering, but it just made me even more determined to persevere. This project allowed me to recognise the power of community work and improve my empathy with others, especially children.

I began writing poetry soon after my aunt was killed. It became a therapeutic outlet for me, a way to release my feelings and emotions in a healthy way. Now I consciously let my experiences fuel my creativity. I hope that my poems can touch people’s lives in a positive, powerful way. Once I’ve qualified as psychologist, I hope I can blend my poetry and creativity into my practice as a way of helping other survivors of the conflict.

The Magdalena region, northern Colombia, has experienced one of the highest rates of internal displacement in the country. Following the paramilitary demobilisation program in 2006, Santa Marta became the centre of violent power struggles between politicians, demobilised paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Organised crime and gang-related violence increased, leading to new waves of intra-urban displacement, as well as additional insecurity for the urban and poor internally displaced persons (IDPs).


* names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents


About the author

Emma Saville (MSc Violence, Conflict and Development, SOAS University of London 2014) is the Senior Researcher at PositiveNegatives. Emma has spent several years in Latin America travelling and doing social research, principally in Cuba, Costa Rica, Brazil and Colombia. Emma’s book, Human Trafficking as a Weapon of War: Sudan a Case Study, was published in 2016, and Women and Machismo in Santiago de Cuba: A Failed Gender Revolution? was published in 2017. Her latest book, The InterAmerican Court of Human Rights – The Battle Against Impunity?, is due to be published later this year. Emma tweets from @Emma_M_Saville.

You can also read the blog that Emma wrote for SOAS Development Studies, When Human Trafficking Becomes a Weapon of War, based on her publication.

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