Growing up in Pablo Escobar’s Colombia was far from the glorified ultra- violence so popular these days in mainstream media. My family, as millions of families in Colombia had to endure the hardships of narcotraffic and war ever since I remember.
Bombings, hitmen, kidnappings, cocaine trafficking and death filled up my childhood memories. It is so surreal to think about my reality back then now that I live in Leiden.
At 8 years old, I vividly remember the tears of my grandmother, as she tried to keep her composure for us children, while burying two of her sons. Both my uncles, one a police captain and the other a journalist, where savagely tortured and murdered with only two months apart for opposing injustice and corruption.
As the years passed by, I learned to fear, to distrust, and to analyze everyone as a potential threat, particularly, the armed forces, that brutally enforced the agenda of the Narco-paramilitary state we were living in.
The time of the drug lords came to an end, but the legacy of Escobar´s blood kingdom had already infected Colombia’s voracious oligarchy, growing and reaching every corner of our republic. Taking Colombian people as a hostage, selling them false dreams of “democratic security” and peace while becoming one of the world’s main exporters of cocaine and a full blown Narco-paramilitary dictatorship. Led by Álvaro Úribe Velez, the Medellin´s cartel golden child.
Úribe, was in 1991 ranked as Nr. 81 amongst important Colombian Narco-traffickers by an intelligence report from U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) officials in Colombia. Now, he is a vice president and ex-senator that represents the current ruling class. A ruling class that owns all big media and having enough support and economic influence in the cities to win elections. Leaving bloody trails of paramilitarism and genocide. Úribe is supported by rich Colombians that express direct contempt for the poor and profit from the murder and misplacement of their own people.
It is so weird to look back and see how easy it was for everyone to accept that murder was the solution: murder the thief, murder the guerrilla, murder anyone, and then we all became enemies and targets for one reason or another. I guess that when the only reality you know is shaped under such violent circumstances, violence becomes a part of your identity as well.
I was lucky though, I had the chance to go to a public university, a hot meal every day, and the soft hands of my grandmother holding me tight across this intricate road. Out of sheer luck I wasn’t born close to where millions of children like me, where ripped from their families, raped and forced to join a war that did not belong to them.
No one dared to point a finger in our society, where any type of dissident idea was shot down (literally), and the only option to be yourself and to develop relied on getting out of your own country, leaving everything known, loved, and treasured behind.
Today, after many displacements, struggles and academic victories, I wake up every morning in the most amazing country in the world, the one that strives for autonomy and freedom for all its inhabitants. The morning bike ride with my six-year-old allows me to soak in the magnificence of the landscape and Dutchies smiling at every corner of this city.
I get paid to do a job I adore, and to be surrounded by a nurturing, supportive and incredibly talented academic community, that loves me as strongly as I love them. Not even in my wildest dreams and ambitions did I ever expect to have so much, yet, here I am, a PhD candidate at the University of Leiden.
Empty and hollow
However, every victory, every accomplishment, every one of the privileges that I enjoy now and that I worked so hard for feels empty and hollow. Right now, nothing makes sense anymore. I sit in front of this keyboard not knowing what is going to happen with my family, with my friends, my country and everything I know as my home.
After decades under this dictatorship, living in poverty and an economic crisis amplified by the pandemic, Colombians could not take it anymore. Could not look the other way like I did as a child, and openly rejected this nightmare we have been put trough for so long, by going to the streets with sighs and posters, raising their voices together against injustice; A pacific protest armed with hopes and dreams of education, healthcare access, warm food on their tables and peace.
Drowned by bullets
These dreams that are an absolute threat to the Narco-paramilitary status quo, that profits from having people under their boot without any possibility of thriving.
For a month now, the voices of my people have been drowned by bullets, unofficial kidnappings and brutal violence. Protesters are declared by the Narco-media as “terrorists” and “vandals”. The government refuses to listen or negotiate with them, while we all see the hundreds of videos of my brothers and sisters being murdered in cold blood by army forces and dumped in pieces inside of plastics bags in streets and rivers.
Recently, my best friend got caught in the middle of a crossfire from the police against protestants in one of the biggest universities in Cali, the Univalle. She was taking her ill mother to the doctor, only to find herself covering her fragile body with her own while begging cops to stop shooting and not to kill her, while the unarmed bodies of 13 young protesters fell lifeless next to her. Later that night Uribe’s puppet, President Duque used this massacre as an excuse to fully militarize 21 regions of Colombia.
Who can I save?
How can this be a reality for anyone nowadays? How am I supposed to reconcile that human rights are only respected based on your skin color, nationality or geographic location? How can I carry on living my life knowing my family and friend have nothing to eat and no access to their basic needs?
Luckily, I’ve found not only empathy but support from my community, my beloved academic brothers and sisters. Supervisors, colleagues and even students have shown their sympathy and willingness to be informed and share what is happening to Colombian people.
Nonetheless, the constant cognitive dissonance resonates in all aspects of my life, every day is a struggle. I go to bed at night asking myself how and who can I save? My parents? The children? Occasionally I get to talk to my loved ones, but in every minute of my day I carry the weight of knowing that the worst keeps happening with total impunity to millions of Colombian families while the world watches.
Angie Alarcon is PhD candidate/Marie Curie Fellow at the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research