El Charco is an impoverished riverside municipality of 30,000 in Nariño, a department in south-west Colombia. Many residents live in precarious houses made out of wood, cardboard and bricks, raised on stilts to keep them from flooding, and each house has a wooden ladder leading up to its entrance. In December 1979, a tsunami almost destroyed El Charco completely, leaving thousands drowned or living in the streets. But that was not the first time disaster had struck: in 1906 a tsunami devastated the town, in a frightening episode that residents, the “charquenses,” still call “La Visita,” or “the visit.” One century later, the 2005 Colombian census found that about 80% of El Charco’s inhabitants lived in poverty. Suddenly, the name “One Hundred Years of Solitude” acquires a very real meaning.
El Charco also has a history of terrible violence, which, as often happens in Colombia, is linked to the cocaine industry. The Nariño department has, by far, more coca fields than any other place in the country, and El Charco is classified as one of Colombia’s top ten cocaine-producing municipalities. Its soil and its climate are perfect for growing coca, and its location, half an hour away from the Pacific Ocean, make El Charco ideal for shipping the drug overseas. The UN estimates that charquenses manufactured about 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds) of pure cocaine in 2008. Of course, there are a lot of thugs and kingpins trying to get hold of the fantastic profits that such a quantity of drugs can bring. In the streets of the United States, one kilogram of cocaine can be sold for an average of 120,000 dollars – you do the math. The result is that El Charco has become a very dangerous place, as several armed groups have tried to gain control of the region. The FARC’s 29th Front has a strong military presence there.
About two weeks ago, charquenses had an especially painful reminder that their town is engulfed in the most senseless of all drug wars. Heriberto Grueso was a 12-year-old boy who lived in El Charco, and who liked to help his mother with their meager expenses. After school (Heriberto was in third grade and he liked math very much), people from the town sent him on errands, which he performed in exchange for a little money. Being from a very poor family, Heriberto’s mother sometimes had no cash to pay for food, and I am sure that the young boy felt very proud that he could help her with the few pesos he got.
On March 25th, all that changed. That afternoon, someone with no heart, somebody who does not deserve to be called a human being, but a monster, sent Heriberto on an errand. The young boy was given a package that he was supposed to deliver, perhaps, somewhere close to the town’s police station. In exchange, he received COP1,000, or around $0.50. The package contained a bomb.
What occurred next is unclear. According to police officers at the station, Heriberto ran away when one of them wanted to see what was in the package he was holding. It is difficult to say what happened exactly, but the bomb exploded seconds later, killing Heriberto instantly. The explosion injured twelve other people, including three policemen. The bomb destroyed the boy’s body almost completely, and his mother was able to recognize his remains only because she recognized a childhood scar on what was left of his legs. The COP1,000 note was found inside Heriberto’s pocket, still intact. Ironically, Heriberto’s family had arrived to El Charco in order to escape from the violence in their more rural hometown. The government claims that FARC is to blame for the crime, but with so many insurgencies in the region, there is no real way of knowing.
I confess that I knew nothing about Heriberto’s story until tonight (Sunday). When I read the news in Semana, I started crying. The death of that young boy made no sense, it filled me with pain, and it was unacceptable. The worst part of the story is that such a horrible crime received very little attention inside Colombia. El Tiempo did not even print the story, and Yolanda Reyes was the only columnist in that newspaper to write an op-ed piece on the issue. As Ms. Reyes points out “in any other country [this story] would have caused commotion throughout society,” but not in Colombia. I take this as irrefutable proof that Colombian society is desensitized at the deepest level.
I had in mind very different topics for my column this week. The liberation of former FARC-held hostages Pablo Moncayo and Josue Calvo were on top of my list. Sergio Fajardo’s very likely alliance with Antanas Mockus also was column-material. But I think Heriberto deserves this one. Besides the love of his parents and his five siblings, Heriberto had very few things in life. He was terribly poor, and he had to live through much more violence than I could ever imagine. His short life came to a brutal end that no child deserves, and to know that his death will go unpunished makes this crime even more despicable. This is my tribute to him.
Sometimes we seem to forget about the children who become victims of Colombia’s drug war. Mutilated by landmines, recruited by armed insurgencies, used for cheap labor in cocaine producing laboratories, orphaned after their parents have been murdered – the list is too long to bear. Let us not forget about Heriberto’s senseless death. How many children like him will have to die before there is peace in Colombia? “Too many,” I am afraid, is the answer to that question.