“One feels like in jail”: the towns of Colombia where the police do not dare to leave their station

People are not exaggerating when they say that “the police live like in a jail” in Tibú, a municipality on the Colombian border with Venezuela.

The officers here cannot go to a restaurant on their days off, some businesses have them closed to buy food and if their families visit them, they are also attacked, threatened and, in some cases, killed.

The police stations are protected with mesh and sandbags like a war bunker, their windows are sealed with cement or bricks, and their damp and peeling walls highlight the bullets from recent shootings.

Confined, the uniformed men spend their days guarding the base from small panoptic holes. They long to get out of an area to which, according to experts in police logic, could only have been assigned as a result of punishment.

“This is hell, we can’t get out,” says an officer. “This is a chronicle of a death foretold“Says another. And one more: “For me the priority here is to end the period assigned to me and, of course, get out of this alive.”

Tibú is the gateway to Catatumbo, a vast region of jungles, mountains and wetlands shared by Colombia and Venezuela where cocaine production is enjoying a new boom and armed groups have fragmented and proliferated.

A month ago, the murder of two young Venezuelans who were found stealing pants put the national focus on this municipality of 40,000 inhabitants.

The fear that was lived here at the worst moment of the war, the 90s, seems to resurface as drug trafficking reinvents itself and the peace signed by the State and the guerrillas in 2016 shows its cracks.

In his tour of the area, BBC Mundo spoke on condition of anonymity with several policemen, but an official conversation with the commander in charge could not be finalized despite several attempts.

The policemen do their daily work in war gear.

“Avoid the police”

In the streets surrounding the Tibú station there used to be shops, restaurants and a small tolerance zone where brothels and dancers enlivened the night.

But with the siege on the authorities, which has left nine officers dead in 2021, these streets were depopulated, the undergrowth of their sidewalks grew and the shops with merchandise inside were looted.

Everything that smells of tombo (police) is and should be avoided“Says a neighbor from the sector who left her home and her business, and migrated to another city.

Another neighbor, whose identity is reserved for security reasons, claims to have been threatened because of his family ties to the police. They gave him an ultimatum, he sold what he could and, with the help of the community, he left.

Now, from afar, he tries to rent the space in front of the station, but “that house is now worth nothing,” he laughs.

“They told us: ‘If you don’t vacate, let whoever falls fall because we are going to bomb the station,’” he adds.

Tibu, Colombia

The houses neighboring the station, evicted.

The police officers inside the station feel on the front line of a war, but with the protection and weapons of a secondary station: “Here there has to be a special district, a station that can govern and make a state, because that’s how it is very difficult ”, they claim.

“We have to renovate the facilities and equip ourselves with all the special forces of the State, but of course, that is very expensive.”

I ask the uniformed man how this is explained in a country that spends more on Defense than any other in Latin America, and he responds with an awkward silence, opens his hands as a sign of excuse and concludes: “I don’t know, the truth is, I have no explanation. For that”.

A small remodeling is underway in one part of the building, but the workers and construction materials had to be brought in from another region of the country because any local that gets involved with the police is at risk.

The same happens with food, which they must bring from the nearest capital city, Cúcuta, and cook it themselves.

Police in Tibu

This is what police stations look like: lined in mesh to prevent attacks.

The sporadic patrol trips are only made in the company of the army and under the protection of an armored tank. “It has not been 15 minutes since we left and we have to return because a possible attack alert arrives,” they explain.

And that’s why the police hardly come out here. It was this that generated national outrage in the case of young Venezuelans, who were initially retained by the community; then they called the police 12 times and nothing; instead, two men arrived on motorcycles, apparently guerrillas, who took them away and left them dead, lying on a road, with a sign over the body that said “by thieves.”

And they do not go out because, according to the officials, most of the complaints are decoys, ambushes to attack them.

“You can’t do your job here, you feel like a prisoner, between boredom and fear (…) My family lives with the Creed in their mouths,” says a uniformed man.

Tibu, Colombia

Josías Buitrago, a veteran teacher at La Gabarra, and Rubel Quintero, formerly his student and today a social leader in the area.

History of war and coca

Josías Buitrago, a veteran teacher at the school in La Gabarra, a town in Tibú, sings a song for his students to the rhythm of his cuatro: “The children are the most affected, they are taken kidnapped to carry a rifle,” he sings.

The teacher has just finished a course in ethics and values. He’s wearing a soccer jersey. His large tanned leather hands denote a life of working in the fields that he has combined with the classrooms.

“We have experienced the worst moment as of August 21, 1999,” he tells me, referring to the date the paramilitaries arrived to confront the guerrillas, and they killed 36 people in a single day.

But when the paramilitaries left, after a peace agreement in 2006, the guerrillas returned. And now that the FARC have signed their peace, other “paramilitaries” and other “guerrillas” are fighting for control of the area.

Nobody knows who has the power in the Catatumbo: if the dissidents of the FARC or the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) or the paramilitaries of the Rastrojos. No one – not the officials or the mayors who spoke to BBC Mundo – dares to say that the police or the army have control outside their bases.

Since the FARC demobilized five years ago, these territories have been orphaned.

La Gabarra, Colombia

The ELN flags are all over the area seeking to give a message of territorial control.

An absence that for Jhon Jairo Jácome, one of the researchers who knows Catatumbo best, is the perfect recipe for violence: “When there is a hegemonic group, the conflict stabilizes, because schedules, permits, codes of conduct are imposed, but when a group begins to dispute the territory, the sense of order is lost and everyone begins to seek the same thing: to impose themselves ”.

Buitrago, about to start a new ethics course, puts his four aside and adds: “All our problems, school dropouts, forced recruitment, are the product of coca, and I don’t know if you saw on the way to here, but coca… That’s what there is ”.

The United Nations estimates that one third of the coca in the country is produced in Catatumbo. It may well be the largest cocaine production center in the world. The crops that were previously hidden are now seen at the foot of the road, next to the guerrilla flags and the stores of products for the production of narcotics.

Since the demobilization of the FARC, the coca industry has experienced a boom in investments (most of them coming from Mexico), the workforce has become more technical and dozens of armed groups have emerged trying to control a previously monopolized market.

“Literally the day the FARC left, Los Rastrojos were already entering,” says Rubel Quintero, a social leader in La Gabarra who used to be a student from Buitrago. “And so now we are returning to the terror of the 90s.”

Coca crops in Tibu, Colombia

You no longer have to travel remote roads to see the coca crops in Catatumbo.

“In situation”

The police station of La Gabarra, a town 50 kilometers from Tibú, is next to the church, in front of the town’s court and in the middle of the central park. But it looks like an abandoned building: the walls are stained by humidity and almost the entire façade is lined with a black mesh that, when warm, seeks to create the feeling of a trench and bounce the grenades.

Inside, the walls have graffiti celebrating police symbols; there is a small soccer field with handmade arches, a makeshift kitchen, and a gym where the weights are paint buckets filled with dry cement.

Some 20 policemen sleep here in rooms measuring one square meter where leaks abound and sunlight is scarce. They dedicate the time to guard their skin from small huts, in shifts during which they must be “In situation”: with the finger inside the trigger and the rifle in firing position in case an altercation arises.

The conditions in the other stations of Catatumbo are almost the same: in the north, for example, the great threat is the snipers located at the top of the mountain; and in the municipality of Las Mercedes, the Constitutional Court demanded that the State move the police station to a less vulnerable place, but the ruling has not been fulfilled, among other things, because no one wants to sell the land to them.

La Gabarra Police Station, Colombia

The La Gabarra police station looks like a jail, according to the same officers.

“This cruelty against the public force has to do with the blows that the State has caused to the criminal structure,” says one of the uniformed officers, referring to the seizures, the eradication of crops and the dismissal of several guerrilla leaders .

“It is a response to good work and a sign that the agreement with the FARC did not bring peace, but a very adverse situation for us that no one is reflecting,” he adds.

But Rubel Quintero, social leader of La Gabarra, disagrees: “This violence is because the peace agreement was not fulfilled: education, roads, decent housing, freedom over the land did not arrive, and then the people had to return to coca ”.

To the equation is added, according to him, the emergence of an armed group, the so-called FARC dissidents, which with the symbolism of the old guerrilla have recruited hundreds of Venezuelan children and migrants.

In this context, says Quintero, “the police are one more problem, because people see them as an enemy, especially after they put an end to everything (in the protests of the National Strike, in May).”

Police Station in La Gabarra

A station that also looks like a war bunker.

There are other victims of the police siege: at least 11 women have been killed in Tibú this year by their relationships with members of the public force.

And the prosecutor investigating femicides was also murdered.

Edited videos have circulated on social networks in which the couples of the uniformed men are indicated with their names, surnames and photos to the sound of famous songs that describe the death and torture that occurred during the paramilitary hegemony.

But there are other consequences.

“We don’t have authorities,” says a woman in the area. So if my husband assaults me, I cannot report it because it would be to come into contact with the supposed enemy ”.

The people of Catatumbo live between an authority seen as an enemy and armed groups whose authority they must abide by. A limbo between the legal and the illegal that is resolved by holding on. “There is no other”, they say.

La Gabarra, Colombia

And the people, in the middle of the battle between the police and the guerrillas.

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