The Colombian Paramilitary's Other Dirty War — Against LGBTQ+ People
In several parts of Colombia over the past decades, right-wing paramilitaries and their successor gangs have targeted all those tagged as sexual "deviants" for execution, supposedly in a bid to restore traditional values.
BARRANCABERMEJA — Sandra* spotted her name for the first time on a pamphlet left at her doorstep in 2008, in Barrancabermeja, her home town in northern Colombia. Local paramilitaries known as the Black Eagles (Águilas negras) dropped it there on Dec. 15 as a warning and, effectively, a deferred death sentence. It meant they knew where Sandra, a transgender woman, lived and that if she chose to stay, she could expect to die.
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The pamphlet, copies of which were left in bars or premises frequented by gays, lesbians and transsexuals, stated, "Barrancabermeja is becoming full of fags, AIDS-spreaders and sodomites, and this must stop." Colombians do not take gang threats lightly, and know that paramilitaries are death squads: in many parts of the country, they have killed with utter impunity.
Sandra was born in August 1989 in the San Rafael hospital in Barrancabermeja. Her mother was a housewife and her father worked for the country's big oil firm, Ecopetrol. The youngest of three children, she had dark skin and dark eyes, thick lips and long, curvy hair. She is not very tall, speaks slowly and tends to prolong words, and seldom laughs.
Aged 14, she fled her home a first time, sickened by bullying at school — from classmates and teachers — and beatings at home for being transgender.
Pimped out by foster "mother"
Left homeless, she was sent to the home of a woman to whom she refers as "mother." Some mother: while caring for Sandra and providing shelter, she would also give her "a smack" if need be, and pimp her out, even before she was an adult.
Sandra wasn't the only girl with "mom". Now, she says, "being with other trans-women made me feel a freedom I hadn't known, though [prostitution] also puts you in difficult situations I'd rather forget."
Sandra thus lived away from home from 2003 to 2008. In those years, the conservative government of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez was negotiating the disarmament of some 30,000 armed men of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas unidas de Colombia, AUC).
The country's Truth Commission (Comisión de la Verdad), a body with fact-finding and reparative functions, has observed that this was a "relief for most territories" in Colombia, though it adds the groups swiftly rearmed and "recycled" into plain, armed gangs.
Black Eagles impunity
In Barrancabermeja, it took a single night for the Bolívar Central Block, part of the AUC, to become the new paramilitaries. In February 2008, the new "paras" or Black Eagles, entered the Ciudadela Pipatón neighborhood, threatening 20 locals known for their sexual and gender diversity. Five fled immediately, being declared military objectives, while Sandra's turn came 10 months later.
The authorities say Black Eagles is a pseudonym used by common criminals to give themselves impunity, as nobody will dare report paramilitaries. Bodies such as Human Rights Watch have a list of complaints of violent crimes filed with authorities and attributed to gangs such as the Black Eagles.
In the course of 2008, Sandra renewed contact with her family. She wanted to tell them what she had suffered as a child, including the pain of being abused by a neighbor when left alone at home one day. She thought Christmas might be a good time to do this, but "it was the hardest, bitching conversation of my life," she recalls, saying she ended up crying with her mother. Early in 2009, she returned to live with her mother, in spite of talk of trans women being gunned down in the district. For Sandra, just being at home seemed to have put things right.
In its report "War Inscribed on the Body" (La guerra inscrita en el cuerpo), the state-backed National Center for Historical Memory observes that the paramilitaries "were keen to cleanse" their territories of all bodies deemed to be "pollution, deviation, immorality and illness". HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, came to be linked to promiscuity and sin, which justified forceful measures, especially against the various gay communities.
Diego Ruiz Thorrens, a philosopher and head of ConPazes, a sexual health and rights consultancy, says that in the Middle Magdalena Basin, a region including Barrancabermeja, armed groups came to target, as they still do, people suspected of being HIV positive. His views differ from those of healthcare authorities, who attribute a rise in HIV-positive diagnoses precisely to increased testing nationwide thanks to fewer prejudices. The country's National Health Institute duly noted a 51% rise in HIV-positive cases between 2020 and late 2022.
July 4, 2021: Demonstrators wave flags that refer to the LGBT community while holding a sign that says ''I do not determine men who look at me badly" in Bogota, Colombia.
Living without fear
Ruiz and another activist, Oviedo Nieto, insist that anti-gay prejudices persist in the Santander department. Nieto says that many Colombians have yet to clearly distinguish between HIV and full-blown AIDS, and this clearly is not a distinction paramilitaries care to make.
The Black Eagles returned to Sandra's home months after the pamphlet. Her mother told them she wasn't there and begged them to leave her alone. They agreed — if she left town in the next 24 hours. That night, she fled to her sister's home in Bucaramanga, the capital of Santander. She had no time to bid farewell to a friend who was later killed. "The family always blamed me," she recalls, "as they saw us kissing. They killed him for a kiss."
At some point before leaving, Sandra and several transgender women were able to meet with paramilitary commanders to ask why they had been blacklisted. The militia told them "it had received complaints" — the women were "addicts, thieves and were harassing the children and menfolk" in town. And yet, she recalls, in spite of their supposed vileness, the paramilitaries were not beyond hiring their sex services, though "in order not to look bad with their group, they would (then) kill them."
Younger members of the gay and trans communities will not live this way.
In Bucaramanga she could not find work as a transgender woman with a resumé in prostitution, and says she had to keep "going back to hairdressing or prostitution." In 2015, she began to feel poorly and soon tested positive for HIV. About that time, her mother was found to have a stomach tumor, which prompted her to decide to return, against all advice.
Up to the pandemic of 2020, complaints persisted in Barrancabermeja of gunmen threatening anyone suspected of being HIV positive. ConPazes records the case of a man who died of an AIDS-related illness, with his widow telling everyone he had died of cancer. When her own infection became evident, says Ruiz, she and her sons were themselves "almost" shot dead several times. This is the home district to which Sandra returned to be near her mother, and where she now lives "invisibly," as she says. Her mother died in 2016.
Younger members of the gay and trans communities in Barrancabermeja will not live this way, and while death threats persist, they have tended to target their most prominent members. The head of the municipality's sexual and gender rights office, Karina López, says these younger members of the gay communities are unfamiliar with the terror of the 1990s to 2010 period, when violence peaked.
Today, she adds, the 1,200 or so who attend the district's Pride march are of a generation "that demands to live without fear."
* Name changed to protect her identity.
This article was compiled with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross as part of its 2022 online course, Conflict, Violence and Human Rights in Colombia: Tools for Journalists (Conflicto, violencia and DIH en Colombia: herramientas para periodistas). The views expressed are not those of the Red Cross and its editorial board.