Watergirl and the Colombian Paramilitaries
Taganga, Colombia- We departed Cucuta in a van overflowing with Venezuelans. Personal space was naught but a distant and much longed for abstraction. The passing detail that we were the only passengers who paid the fare should have been the first clue that it wouldn’t be a typical journey.
But the bus station was a vortex of chaos, with hundreds of Venezuelans waiting for buses, selling cheap goods and petitioning “donations.” It was a cacophony of honking buses, barkers and mendicants. I was focused on not losing my cameras- they would be hard to replace in the Colombian frontier towns in which we would be spending the next few weeks.
And I was distracted by the box of live chickens someone had brought.
We left the blistering heat of Cucuta, and slowly crawled north along badly-maintained and windy roads. Our destination was Aguachica, or “Watergirl” translated into English- a name I found absolutely charming.
I had no idea that we would be spending the evening in the city that serves as the frontier base for the Colombian Paramilitary forces, known here as “Paracos”.
It was the first stop on a three day journey towards the town of Maraicao, on the border with Venezuela. I am travelling with David Parra, a Venezuelan journalist who recently fled his country. We are reporting on border conditions along the Venezuelan border in Colombia.
A supposedly six hour journey stretched into nine as we hit traffic jams, construction and made various stops along the way. It was claustrophobic and stifling.
At least the chickens were quiet.
An Unofficial Stop in the Road
Around hour six, the driver pulled into the parking lot of a two-story house alongside the road. Standing guard in front of the house was a young kid wearing body armor with a shotgun strapped to his back. He sported a baseball hat that read “Private Security”.
The driver dismounted, chatted briefly with the guard and entered the house. Nobody seemed very surprised or bothered by this. I kept my mouth shut. In Colombia, informal bribes are sometimes simply a part of life. I assumed that was what was occurring.
Other than noticing that the “security guard” was a lot more heavily armed than the guys you usually see in front of nice houses here, I thought little of it.
That was the second clue I missed that suggested things were not what they seemed.
Arriving on the outskirts of Aguachica
After eight long hours we stopped at a small roadside restaurant on the outskirts of Aguachica. I desperately needed to stretch my legs and escape the stale air of the van. Everyone piled out except for David, who looked a bit concerned.
I lit a cigarette as the driver talked with ten young men who were waiting on motorcycles in front of the small kitchen.
I was only mildly surprised when all the passengers started removing their baggage from the roof of the van. There was a cheap hotel nearby. As I wondered whether we should just call it a night and stay there one of the youths on motorcycles asked me “Are you coming with us?”
I thought they were moto-taxis, a common occurrence here in Colombia. I walked back to the van and asked David if he wanted to stay in the nearby Hotel or accept a ride from the youth offering.
“No.” he told me looking concerned. “We are going to the terminal. For sure.”
I found his reaction puzzling until I started to listen to the conversations the Venezuelans were having with the youths. They were discussing large sums of money, some of them haggling. The sums were far too high to be for a moto-taxi passage.
That’s when I realized we were in the middle of an organized human trafficking operation.
I threw out my cigarette and immediately got back into the van.
David was nervously laughing. “You’re fucking loco man.” he told. “What were you thinking, Mr Danger?!” he asked me ironically.
“I wanted a cigarette.” I said.
“With the Paracos!?” he asked, using the regional term for the Colombian Paramilitary forces that control, and profit from, large sections of the Venezuelan border.
I said nothing. I didn’t know they were Paracos. But if I already felt uneasy, his comment pushed me more towards a state of controlled panic.
We were the only passengers left in the van. The driver, and the young girl he traveled with climbed back aboard. We resumed our journey towards the bus station in Aguachica. The suddenly spacious van was silent.
So was the city. Streets were deserted, houses empty, and the few stores we saw were all shuttered.
“It’s a ghost town.” said David quietly. “This shit is gothic man. It’s macabre.”
I was thinking about all the horror stories I had heard on the border in Cucuta. To understand a bit better why we were both so nervous, one needs to understand a few facts about border life in Colombia.
The Paracos are one of three forces battling to control the illegal paths across the Venezuelan border. Right now those paths are a gold mine for the force that controls them. Thousands of Venezuelans smuggle food, medicine, consumer goods and contraband daily out of Colombia, and pay a “toll” for doing so.
They smuggle cocaine into Venezuela, alongside the narcos, with whom they have a long history.
People routinely go missing on the border, and violence is so commonplace that it rarely even makes the local news.
The irregular Paramilitary forces in Colombia evolved during the nearly 60 year civil war in Colombia. They are extreme-right, religious forces that battled FARC. They also committed a very long list of atrocities and massacres during that period.
Now they battle Venezuelan Colectivos, ex-FARC dissidents and the ELN guerrillas here in Colombia both over ideology and over the incredibly lucrative smuggling businesses.
They have also been known to murder journalists who ask too many questions.
And we had just stumbled upon a tiny piece of their organized trafficking of people out of Venezuela.
All of this information raced through my mind as we pulled into the deserted bus station.
Welcome to Aguachica
When we arrived I hurriedly removed our bags from the roof of the van as David asked the driver about hotels nearby. I hid my cameras in my backpack. Obviously, being identified as journalists writing about the border would be incredibly dangerous. Only one photo exists of our time in Aguachica, a snapshot David took on the sly using his phone.
The driver introduced us to a man waiting in the terminal. He asked us what we were doing in Aguachica.
“We’re going to Santa Marta” we told him, hoping he would assume we were just clueless tourists that accidentally ended up in a situation we didn’t understand.
“All right. Let me check and see if there is room in any of the hotels nearby.”
“If there’s room?!” I thought to myself. There were definitely no tourists in town. In fact, there was no one in town. The idea that the hotel might be full was…ridiculous.
David and I looked at each other but said nothing.
The man walked away to make a phone call while we organized our luggage.
He returned and advised us that there was a hotel nearby that might have space.
We packed our luggage into the taxi and set off. He drove us about 200 feet, to a hotel nearby. Which was deserted.
“6000 pesos.” he told us. We could have walked the distance in 5 minutes, but I wasn’t about to argue. We were certain that it wasn’t a hotel he had called from the bus station. Much more likely he was asking someone what he should do with us.
We were clearly the only guests in the hotel. The clerk seemed surprised that anyone would be there at all. Famished from a full day on the road, we asked if there was food nearby.
She directed us to a “restaurant” two blocks away.
The restaurant, like the rest of Aguachica was deserted. The waitress told us they had chicharon.
“Is there anything else?” we asked.
There was not. We ate our chicharon (sausage) with toothpicks and tried to make jokes. There was also no silverware. Or anything else.
“The chicharon is probably Venezuelan.” I said
“Those poor Venezuelans.” David replied.
We laughed. But it was nervous laughter.
Grateful that no one bothered us further we went to sleep uneasily in the enormous and empty hotel, determined to rise at dawn and catch the first bus out of town.
“Macabre, man.” said David. “Gothic.”
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter covering the Venezuelan immigration from the border in Cucuta, Colombia. He is also the editor of Muros Invisibles.