*“My son Jorge, everyone called him ‘Jorgito’, was kidnapped and killed in 2002.” says Luz Elena, moments after we have entered her warm embrace and sunny home.
“Who? What group?” I ask immediately
“ Listen. It’s complicated. Between 1998 till 2003 there were various groups in this area. When we went to get his body, though, the people from that area said he was taken in a route usually used by paramilitaries. So we’re pretty sure they’re the ones who did it.”
“But why?” always one of my first questions,
“Porque? Es mi pregunta million…” (Why? That’s my million-dollar question!) and I always find the answers unsatisfactory.
We back up a little.
I met Luz Elena last night on the International Day of Peace (the anniversary of her son’s death, as it should so happen) as she was handing out pop as bubbly as she was. I found out she was part of the victims and displaced persons’ group I’m working with in the Ceja and immediately made a date to come visit her home.
Luz Elena is a wrinkly, spunky lady with a smile and spirit that reminds me of my great-aunts in France. She mentions that Jorge was actually her second son to be kidnapped—her eldest Albaro was the first.
“He was taken by the front of the FARC led by Alias Carina” she tells me. Carina is an infamous female leader of the FARC, a master extortionist and kidnapper who has recently shifted her rhetoric.
“The night he was kidnapped he didn’t come back from his studies. I got several calls to torture me asking ‘Has Albaro gotten home yet? Is he home?’ ‘Not yet’ I would say. ‘He’s been kidnapped’ they said ‘No he hasn’t!!’ I didn’t want to believe it. I asked to talk to Albaro. ‘They have me, we’re going to the mountains’ he told me.” Luz Elena explains that Jorge had just gotten back from military service and so, despite the kidnappers’ threats that going to the authorities would lead to the death of Albaro, Jorge immediately ran to get help from the police. It turned out the FARC had captured three people—Albaro, a older man in his 60’s, and young female university student.
“The police told us that where they’d taken them, the only way to get them back alive was just to pay.” The FARC asked for more than 300 thousand dollars. They didn’t have it. What wealth they had was sunk into their farm, chickens, cattle, fruit trees. So they sold it. From April to July they worked to liquefy all assets and negotiated with the kidnappers so that the final price ended up being 50 thousand dollars.
“Do you know who the informant was?” Luz Elena asks, and I can only shake my head, thinking of Judas, Brutas, and what leads people to betray others. “This man and woman who showed up one day at our farm, nothing but the clothes on their backs. We gave them work, we helped them set up a little home, got them their kitchen supplies, even got them a motorcycle to get around. We gave them a percentage of all the produce from the farm. And they were the ones. It’s incredible.”
“One day during those months Albaro called me and said: ‘ I need you to do something for me. You need to go down 18th street to the café with the brown door—you know, the store that never closes—find the man who’s always drinking coffee and smoking there and pay him the money I owe him. If you don’t have it, sell the cows to Juan’s Coral and give him that. Do you understand?’ I had no idea what he was talking about—Juan doesn’t have a coral and I didn’t know what café he was talking about, but of course I said ‘I understand’.” Luz Elena is grinning, “Thinking about it more I realized down 18th street was the police department, with a brown door, and Juan’s Coral was code for another military outpost called Coral. He thought we hadn’t gone to the police!” Luz Elena’s eyes sparkle as she tells us of how clever her son’s code was. “The first thing the police officer waiting at the house asked when we finally got him home was if we had figured out the code right!” She chuckles, and I can only imagine their family, deeply relieved at the return of a son who easily could have died, laughing over this ingenious code.
We ask her what conditions were like for Albaro. “I had six sons and a husband and a farm so I taught the oldest boys right away how to take care of things, cook, etc. So when he got to the mountains he quickly took the position of cooking for the three kidnapped people. I raised him with morals too, so when the other kidnapped man suggested the opportunity was right for taking advantage of their young, attractive co-kidnappee Albaro clearly said no. In fact, he made a deal with her given how unsure and insecure their situation was: he would sleep during the day and keep watch over her at night, and vice versa.” It’s easy to see Luz Elena’s pride, and easy to understand it. “ It was good he had that sense of purpose. Because it was terrible.”
“Get me out of here” Albaro once pleaded with her over the phone.
“I’m trying!” Luz Elena assured him, trying to explain the complexities of liquefying all of one’s assets.
The conversation turns notably tenser as she speaks of the days leading up to getting Albaro back. “They told us to go to a certain place with the money. So I went with my husband, the money we’d gathered over the last few months, and when we got there it was almost empty- no one around. So we just sat down and waited to see what was going on. Eventually a man came up to us and told us to get out of here. ‘No way!’ I said, ‘they told us to come here. I’ll leave with my son or not at all!’ When he started accusing us of how unjust we were for being so rich I got really mad and told him ‘ Who’s ending up with all this money? All of our assets are gone and here you are with everything!’ and then my husband pinched me really hard,” she laughs, a little “ anyway he told us to give him the money and he’d go get my son.”
“ Weren’t you scared they would take the money and not release your son!?” I ask, somehow made stupid by the drama of the story.
“ Scared? You have cold sweat, hot sweat, your throat is dry…it’s a whole other kind of scared. But what could I do?”
“This is a kidnapping story…” Pastor Faustino chimes in.
“This is a kidnapping story” Luz Elena repeats, nodding, as if I’m the only one not in on how common-place this kind of life-or-death snafu is.
“I gave him the money. We waited. It was a beautiful day, like today, but by this time it was around 5:30 and the sun was sinking below the mountain. I saw his silhouette descending a mountain path, and then he got to the bottom and disappeared.” Worry-lines creep onto her forehead and her hands clasp each other anxiously, “You know it looks so close, you think they should be here right away, but it’s actually quite far. I was thinking ‘They killed him on the path, they killed him on the path, my God they killed him on the way’ and then all of a sudden he was right beside me. I hugged him SO hard!” She mimics the hug, and I feel like hugging someone too.
The next year is when Jorge was kidnapped and, four days later, killed by the paramilitaries. “In some ways”, Luz Elena says, “we were lucky to have found the body.” Better to know and bury him, then spend the next ten years wondering. Albaro spent the two years after his kidnapping constantly paranoid, thinking they would come and get him. After getting married, he decided it would be better to move, get a fresh start.
“One day” says Luz Elena “I woke up and said ‘Today I will not cry’. That day I didn’t cry until after noon.” she laughs, but for the first time during out talk, her eyes glisten with wetness.
Luz Elena makes tea, finishes off telling us of her miraculous story of exchanging a car for a new farm after having lost everything to the kidnapping. We laugh some more, talk a little about how to get the displaced persons’ association more united, and then it’s time for us to go.
I step into the beautiful Ceja streets. Pastor Faustino asks me how I think it went. This is always a kind of baffling question for me. Good? I think about how this fits into the puzzles of the other stories I’ve heard this month; how Luz Elena, as with several others was a victim not of one armed group but all three (the Army part of the story omitted for brevity’s (relative) sake). I think about how strong all of these women (and always women) I’ve met are, about the School of Americas, military funding andcorruption; aout how USA’s demand for drugs and Canada’s mining companies are the predominant motor for the continued conflict; about how beautiful the day is anyway. I wonder what God wants from me here.
Pastor Faustino and I walk on. We will visit again another day.
*NB: Names and facts of this story are offered here with explicit permission from Luz Elena. All quotes should be considered paraphrasing; they are written as is for narrative-flow.