~ This story was originally published by El País on October 2, 2016 ~
Between a cheap pizzeria and a café along a main street in Bogotá, a plaque marks the exact spot where Liberal Party politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitán was assassinated in 1948. Although the FARC (Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces) did not appear until 16 years later, historians find the origins of the guerrilla struggle in the murder of the charismatic politician and the popular uprising that occurred after his death, an uprising that reduced the capital to ashes.
Every Colombian knows the name of the first to die, but very few will remember the last. Jaime Perdomo, a deeply tanned 30-year-old father of three, who was killed five months ago by a FARC sniper. He was the last of the 267,162 deaths left by a half-century of conflict between the Colombian state and the guerrilla movement, according to the Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflictos (CERAC).
Perdomo and his colleagues in the sixth army division were patrolling a remote FARC-controlled region of Caquetá, an area covered with coca plantations, when a sniper shot him as he sat on a rock. He was relaxed, chatting with a companion, when the barrel of an AR-15 emerged from the brush and fired a shot that entered through his arm and destroyed his heart.
The Army blamed this last death in the continent’s longest conflict on El Trueno (The Thunder), a cold blooded guerrilla fighter who in just 20 days had killed two other soldiers in a similar fashion. After Perdomo’s death, the Army distributed hundreds of flyers with El Trueno’s face and offered 100 million pesos—almost 35,000 dollars—in reward for any clues that led to his capture.
But Jaime Perdomo Valencia’s death would never become a part of history. After almost four years of negotiation in Havana, Perdomo’s death on May 7 came at a moment of stalemate at the negotiating table. Amid increasing popular disillusionment, President Juan Manuel Santos made every effort to highlight the progress of the discussions and remain silent on the problems. And Perdomos’ death was a problem.
“The President did not even mention him. They treated him like an animal,” laments his mother, Eugenia María Valencia, a housewife who lives by sewing clothes for others and selling cosmetics from a catalog.
“My vote today is No. A peace deal won’t bring my son back,” she says with a stubborn ferocity. “All these people are shameless and some are cowards,” she explains, referring to the guerrilla leaders who have spent recent days appearing in white civilian clothing on the covers of magazines and on television. “What hurts the most is that they say he died in combat, and that is not true, they murdered him in cold blood, shot him in the back like cowards,” she adds.
The FARC responded to the killing with only a few words, insisting that they were willing to uphold the ceasefire announced in July of 2015, but also reaffirming their need to defend themselves. Ultimately, that was one of the conditions imposed by Santos during the four years of negotiation: “Nothing that occurs on the battlefield will affect the negotiation.”
Perdomo’s widow, Noreisi Velasco, similarly does not want to hear anything in the news about peace, nor the requests for forgiveness that have multiplied in recent days. Nevertheless, five months after the death of her husband, she is hurt more by the attacks that come from the Army—the institution that her husband devoted eleven years of his life to—than those that come from the guerrillas. “When they are alive, the military is the best, but when they are dead, the military abandons us and treats us like dogs,” she asserts.
The deal reached in Cuba includes a payment to each guerrilla fighter who demobilizes of some two million pesos (685 dollars), as well as a monthly salary for two years of another 620,000 pesos (220 dollars). That sum infuriates Perdomo’s widow. “In contrast, for me, for the death of my husband, I receive a pension of 600,000 pesos (205 dollars) and that is not even enough to feed my three young children.”
Of the 267,162 dead left by 52 years of conflict, 81% are civilians and only 19% are soldiers or guerrillas, according to the Unidad para las Victimas.
Since Santos and Timochenko signed the peace agreement on Monday, September 26, there have been constant public apologies. On Thursday, the FARC leaders apologized in Bojayá for a massacre in 2001 in which more than 100 people died following a guerrilla attack on a church where the population was taking refuge. On Friday, the apology was in La Chinita for the death of 35 people in 1994. In the same way, Santos repeated his apology on Friday in Soacha, on the outskirts of Bogotá, for the state’s role in the harm done to the eight million victims left by the armed conflict. Nevertheless, the most resounding apology was heard Monday in Cartagena when the FARC’s leader, Timoleón Jiménez—Timochenko—asked for forgiveness from “all the victims of the conflict.”
What would she say to Timochenko? “I don’t think that those people spend their time coming to your house,” Perdomo’s widow says. “But I would tell him that I don’t want his apology. That I just want to see him in jail, and that his words won’t give me back my husband,” she adds, sobbing. “They don’t know how great the damage they have done is.”
This Sunday, part of Colombia will vote that she be the war’s last widow, and another part will vote that El Trueno never leave a prison cell.Jacobo García reports for El País in Bogotá. This story was originally published under the title “El último muerto de la guerra en Colombia” and is available at: http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2016/10/02/colombia/1475404047_606688.html
Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute