BOGOTÁ — Suicide used to be rare among the native communities of Vaupés, a region in eastern Colombia with the largest proportion of indigenous residents. That's not the case anymore. Decades of hostility between the region's native inhabitants and outsiders has had devastating results.
El Espectador sent me to investigate this increase in suicides, now a sensitive local issue, although I am not the first one to do so.
There's Óscar Naranjo, who made the documentary "La selva inflada" — the Inflated Jungle. Or the physician Camila Rodríguez, who tended to patients at a local hospital for two years, and studied suicides in that time with help from the health NGO Sinergías.
After my arrival in the Vaupés capital of Mitú, Salvador Fernández, my host from the Cubeo ethnic group, asks why someone would travel to a "city of 30 streets" from the Colombian capital of Bogotá. Was I writing something about the award-winning film made here, expand=1]El abrazo de la serpiente, which shows the destruction white men wrought in the Amazon?
Salvador comes to greet me dressed in khaki trousers and black shoes and wears a baseball cap gifted by the right-wing Democratic Center party. It was one of the many freebies candidates handed out to voters in local elections. He was about to take a boat home to Macaquiño, a community of 52 families of which he says he's "captain". He needs the approval of the traditional community doctor to discuss the issue of suicides with a reporter. He would need two days there and back.
While I waited, I had time to listen to some local suicide stories. "I have an amazing one," a student in Mitú tells me. "There was this girl who hanged herself on a second floor and stayed like that for so long that one day, bang, her head blew up." Two friends sitting nearby laugh but grow quiet when the student confesses that he, too, had tried to hang himself.
There have been 123 suicides in Vaupés among 16 of the 27 ethnic groups in the region since 2008, when data on the subject began to be recorded. Psychiatrist Rocío Gómez says there could well have been more. Among them, 77 of the victims were aged 14 to 26, she says. While the suicide rate in Bogotá is 4.9 per 100,000 inhabitants, here it is 38. The phenomenon has been dubbed the "rope epidemic."
Locals believe the slate of suicides started in 1992, when a powerful Brazilian chieftain cursed all the communities of Vaupés after a Colombian native broke his daughter's heart. Reports of suicides have proliferated since, some in absurd circumstances: A 19-year-old girl who hanged herself for not having enough money to correct a typo in identification papers that noted her as male. A schoolboy who killed himself for not having money to buy black shoes for school.
Indigenous people protest in Bogota on Nov. 25, 2015 — Photo : Cesar Maria Garcia/Pacific Press/ZUMA
Salvador returns, as promised, and says the community doctor, his brother Rafael, will allow me to visit Macaquiño to report about this sensitive issue. Not least because two boys who recently committed suicide were Salvador's own sons: César, 16, and Arquímedes, 23. Salvador has four other children. "The first one was drunk," he says. "He disappeared from a party and later we found him hanging in his room. We arrived late. The other was just too sad for his brother and one day poisoned his own soup. The thing with suicide around here is, it's contagious."
There used to be no suicides before, Rafael tells me in private in Macaquiño after he's had a couple of cups of chicha, a local drink. "It's a young people's thing," he says, later adding about Salvador's sons: "That's how it was with them, a curse."
Everything in Salvador's house had become contagious, Rafael says. Even Salvador tried to kill himself. "He had nightmares, slept badly. It was so serious I had to go down to Mitú for a solution. That is when I found a rezador a person who appeals to God who told me to "bring down the mesh. It's a barrier, if you don't destroy it, your family will soon be finished.""
"He showed me how," Rafael says. He returned home and fumigated the entire house, including drapes, nets and hammocks. "We prayed and prayed, because the remedy to that curse was to pray." But Salvador still knocked down the house and built another one on a different plot. He was convinced of the curse's contagion, which he said had spread to other huts in the town, and even to Mitú.
The 10 religious communities present in Mitú, ranging from Catholicism to a motley group of Protestant denominations, are not indifferent to the phenomenon. The Church arrived in Vaupés in 1914 with the pope's blessing to pursue missionary work. The most senior priest in Mitú, Father Edwin Valareso, says, "we distanced the natives from their culture and language, and forced them to see the world through Western eyes. We all helped pull the ground from under their feet." The Church was proposing the "word of Jesus" as an antidote to despair, he says.
But Martha Medrano, a female pastor of the Pentecostal Worldwide Missionary Movement, blames demons. "They are the ones inciting suicides. I know it sounds weird but that's how it is. Which is why they need a spiritual transformation, which for us, starts with a ban on vices like alcohol. This has had results in those communities which we've visited."
Irrespective of the merits of their arguments, they illustrate how the community has been straddling two cultures.
One source of conflict in the community is the boarding school system the government created to educate indigenous children, who are removed from their homes and families for months or even years.
The schooling system "taught us that progress is studying more. It convinced us, as it still does, that the best thing is to go out into the world and leave Vaupés," says Orlando Rodríguez, a former boarding school student from the Cubeo ethnic group who now works as an anthropologist at the National University.
Increasingly, Rafael tells me, youngsters care little for their own culture and, one day, he fears, there would be no communal doctor at Macaquiño. "I don't teach my work to anyone who doesn't come and ask me to. Young people have lost interest. They are only interested in white people's things," he says.
Instead of learning medicine or cultivating crops, they prefer to work as commercial bike riders in Mitú. Living in two worlds, Orlando tells me, "provokes a highly complex conflict in their community, with their parents and with themselves, which explodes when alcohol appears. Then you have the suicides."
Camila, the psychiatrist, says, "it is a problem that combines many factors but the most serious one is that Colombia doesn't know how to address them as there is no research. It's no use taking mental health questionnaires at odds with their culture." The solution lies in listening to the natives, she says.
José Fernando Valderrama, the head of non-communicable diseases at the health ministry, says research is underway on suicides in Vaupés. As one person told me in Macaquiño — it's a start.