Retracing a family murder in Colombia

Here's what I know for sure...

In today’s newsletter: unraveling a family murder, con men (and women), and the YOLO economy. This month, a portion of the profits from paid newsletter subscriptions will be donated to Womankind. Previous organizations we’ve supported include Girls Write NowWomen for WomenHeart of Dinner & Black Mamas Matter. If you’ve found your way here but are not yet subscribed, let me help you with that:

Here is what I know for sure: over 10 years ago, my great aunt, Adita, was kidnapped from her home one morning in Santa Marta, a beach town on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Hours after her disappearance, she was found dead on the side of a dusty road in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains.

The violent murder of Adita Perez is one shrouded in mystery. Her kidnappers were mysteriously killed before questioning and no one was ever charged with her death. Some say she was killed on the side of the road and then set aflame (a gruesome version of the story I had grown up with). Others say Adita was killed in her home, rolled up in a carpet, and dumped in the mountains. The theories surrounding why she was murdered are even more nuanced.

I hadn’t been to Bogotá — my birthplace — in over a decade but after years of wondering about Adita’s murder, I decided to fly to Colombia to trace my family’s past and learn more about the people I believed were guilty: the FARC.

The FARC — or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — was a narco-terrorist organization that was formed back in 1964 by Manuel Marulanda. The FARC started in earnest as a political movement founded on Marxist ideologies, but over time began using criminal means to finance their civil war. At its peak, the FARC controlled roughly 40 percent of Colombia. Using narco-trafficking, kidnapping, and illegal taxing of the local people, FARC was able to finance their operations and bring in an estimated $600 million USD annually. According to Colombia Reports, in its heyday, the FARC was considered the third richest terrorist organization after ISIS. Recruiting from small indigenous communities, more than 11,000 FARC fighters joined the guerrilla movement as minors, while more than a third of FARC fighters were reportedly women.

Throughout my life — whether warranted or not — I had considered the FARC the metaphorical big, bad wolf behind every misfortune my family had. As a kid, every time a relative of mine popped up in the United States, it seemed to be because the FARC had driven them out of Colombia. I blamed FARC for my uncle’s kidnapping when he one day left his work at the Colombian embassy in Bogotá, was taken to a field, stripped of his belongings, and then held at gunpoint, leaving the country shortly after. I blamed FARC for how my grandfather was once a top plastic surgeon in the country, but then fled after receiving kidnapping threats from the guerrillas. I blamed FARC for the death of my great aunt.

In late 2016, former Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, signed a historic peace agreement with the FARC that would transform this narco-terrorist group into a recognized political party with guaranteed seats in the Colombian Congress and Senate. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 FARC fighters would begin their transition from the jungle to the city by undergoing a government-funded reintegration program. The peace deal — which was originally voted against by the majority of Colombians — drew intense criticism for its leniency towards the FARC, creating a passionate debate of what is more paramount for Colombia: obtaining justice or having peace.

More than 200,000 people have been killed and nearly 7 million displaced by the violence that unfolded in Colombia. Whether a direct result of the FARC or other criminal organizations in the country — such as ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional or the National Liberation Army) — the scars of the country’s civil war runs deep.

I don’t remember Adita. Having met her long before the age of 10, details of her allude me — as do most of my memories from my time spent living in Bogotá. What I do recall is the summer of 2004, when my father decided to send me to Colombia to spend a few months with my great aunt. The trip was meant to be equal parts an attempt to have me reconnect with my culture, as it was a punishment for being a rebellious teenager. About a week before my expected arrival in Bogotá, my dad received a rather unusual email from my great aunt that simply read: Do not send Nicole down here. A few days later Adita was dead.

Arriving in Bogotá in early 2017, I sat down one weekday evening with Margarita Perez, one of Adita’s surviving daughters, to ask her about her mother and my great aunt. With her short blonde hair, loose white top, and friendly smile, Margarita began to paint a picture of her mother and what happened to her.

Adita was a dentist and a painter who lived on the beaches of Santa Marta on Colombia’s coast, where her husband’s family owned a massive plot of farmland, passed down from generation to generation. The land, which was used for crops, cotton, and cattle, was overtaken by the FARC’s guerillas. The guerillas invaded the property and began illegally selling it off, using the profits to finance their activities. The result is a convoluted, excessively complicated legal mess where landowners had purchased sections of Adita’s land from guerillas, who did not actually own the rights to sell it.

Adita’s husband — a lawyer in his own right — attempted to get his family’s land back through legal means, creating a battle between the Perez family (the rightful landowners) and the people who had illegally purchased the land from the insurgents. In short, things became complicated, and, in Colombia, that often means violence. Adita’s husband managed to sift through the sea of paperwork to legally re-obtain his family’s land but now faced the daunting task of physically delivering eviction notices to the people who currently occupied it. In response, Margarita’s father was threatened, shot, and didn’t return to the family’s farm again.

After Adita’s husband and Margarita’s father passed away, Adita decided to resume her husband’s work to retrieve the family’s land. According to Margarita, one of the buyers illegally occupying their property was a wealthy, albeit aggressive man who was extremely unhappy at the prospect of losing both the land and the money he had paid for it.

“I was talking with [my mother] and she told me she was trying to talk with that man and that they were going to agree on something soon,” recalled Margarita. A few days later, Margarita received a call from the Santa Marta police that her mother was found dead, on the side of the road.

This is where the theories begin to swirl as to what exactly happened. My dad believes that the FARC may have had Adita killed for her attempts to both get the land back and evict the illegal landowners. Margarita thinks this wealthy landowner may have hired local thugs to “rough Adita up” in an effort to deter her from taking the land back from him, only for things to be taken too far.

“When she was in her apartment very early in the morning, the kidnappers opened the door and kidnapped her, using her own car,” described Margarita. “[The kidnappers] then took her to the mountains near Santa Marta — maybe to ask her to give them the papers to own the land — but when they were driving, [my mother] jumped out of the car and they followed her and killed her with a very big rock.”

Margarita vividly recalls having to identify the body, noting the trauma to her mother’s head, it seems there is no doubt as to how my great aunt was murdered. But, the questions of why and who still remains a mystery. The wealthy landowner was never questioned. Adita’s kidnappers turned up mysteriously dead. And, just like that, Adita’s death was swept under the rug like so many other unsolved cases in Colombia.

I asked Margarita whether she blamed the FARC for her mother’s death. While they may not have been directly responsible — as it seems perhaps this mysterious landowner is more at fault — the FARC was the catalyst. After all, had they never invaded her family’s land and sold it off piece by piece, would any of the resulting violence have occurred?

“Some people here in Colombia do whatever they want,” answered Margarita after some thought. “The laws are so soft and there is no punishment.”

On my last day in Bogotá, I found myself on the outskirts of the city in Barrio Sur — a rundown slum with dusty roads and crumbling buildings. Stray dogs wandered languidly across the street as my car pulled up in front of a nondescript white building with wrought iron gates over its windows. As the door swung open, I was promptly greeted by a stern-looking security guard who checked my bags before leading me upstairs to a dark conference room where a young woman, age 30, sat waiting.

Flora — who preferred a pseudonym be used — was an ex-FARC fighter who left the jungles of Colombia a mere seven months before our meeting. At that precarious and political time, Flora was undergoing a reintegration process that slowly aimed to prepare her for civilian life in the city. Sitting across from a member of the FARC, I did my best to leave my personal biases and emotions at the door. I tried not to think of my family and instead tried to understand what would compel someone to join a terrorist organization.

With red-purple highlights framing her face, Flora began to tell me how she had joined the FARC just shy of age 14, in an effort to save her parents the financial burden of supporting her. Flora made no mention of agreeing with the FARC’s Marxist ideologies or intent to overthrow the government, rather the group promised her food, security, and shelter at a time when her family couldn’t afford it.

“Many young people decided to enter into the FARC because they didn’t have other opportunities,” explained Flora quietly. “It was normal for my community to make this transition from their families to the guerrilla groups.”

Flora’s early life — like so many other child recruits who were targeted by the FARC — unfolded under the shaded canopies of Colombia’s jungles. While entangled in the FARC, Flora got her first period, fell in love, lost her virginity, and even had her first child in the jungle. A child that she had to promptly give up after birth due to the strict FARC rules against women having children.

As I sat across from Flora, I surprised myself by feeling pangs of sympathy for this young woman. I had come into this meeting expecting a villain. I had come to expect the flesh and blood representation of an organization that had caused my family so much grief, had driven my relatives out of the country, had led to the death of my great aunt. And yet, I was met with was a human and all the complexities that come with that.

At the time of our conversation, Flora was off to a rocky start in building a relationship with her then 14-year-old daughter. “If my own child thinks I’m a monster, it’s easy to understand why the rest of the society thinks the FARC is the worst, are terrorists, and murder people,” said Flora, sadly. “[Reintegration] is a process.”

By the time I left Bogotá, I was no clearer on my great aunt’s death or who was to blame for it. Theories unraveled at the seams, questions went unanswered, and everything remained in the grey area that seems to envelop my homeland.

There is a term that locals use to describe the chaos of Colombia: Locombia, which combines the words loco (or crazy) with Colombia. Whether it’s a child being inducted into a terrorist organization before the age of 14, a wealthy man upset over having lost money from an illegal land purchase, young men being paid to kidnap only to turn up dead, or a woman being murdered for trying to take back what was rightfully hers — there is no rhyme or reason to Locombia.

Con men (and women), Yolo, and a Mexico guesthouse

Watch this Oscar-winning short film called Two Distant Strangers. This half-hour watch on Netflix is like a heart-breaking version of Groundhog’s Day in which a Black man navigates police brutality. Read this article from The New York Times about the YOLO economy, which reports a trend of people quitting their jobs to enjoy post-pandemic life. I love the idea of putting our collective foot down against going back to windowless, fluorescent-lit offices and being made to endure (God, help me) water cooler talk.

Read my latest article for Fodor’s Travel (shameless plug, I know) about a woman-founded guest house and community in Mexico that opened right as the pandemic began. Finally, watch the new HBO docu-series, Generation Hustle, which chronicles the story of con men (and women) who tried to pull off ambitious schemes. One of the stories is about a Colombian street kid who convinced people he was a member of the Saudi royal family and then tried to buy a 30 percent stake in one of Miami’s most popular resorts. You can’t make this shit up!

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