A decade ago, unknown arsonists burned down a community center in northern Colombia where children were schooled and recreational activities were held. The center was empty. The effort, it appeared, was to intimidate the women who had just moved into the neighborhood.
Within a year, the center bounced back, rebuilt by resilient women who would not be driven away from their new community. Today, the center hosts skills workshops that can range from weaving and dairy to beauty and handicrafts, or, as it did on a recent afternoon, lessons in management that could apply as much to raising an errant teenager as to growing a business.
But the danger in the neighborhood, as these women know well, is never very far away.
"Lately, we've had a lot of street gangs and robberies," said Consuelo Ester Villegas Mendoza, 40, who had been dutifully taking notes at the workshop, murmuring the instructor's directives to commit them to memory as her daughter toyed with her mother's hair.
"There was a thief in front of my house 15 days ago," she said. "My neighbors made him leave."
Residents of the City of Women attend a workshop at the community center | (Sruthi Gottipati/Courtesy PRI's The World)
Villegas and other women in the workshop are part of The League of Displaced Women — La Liga — who, sick of running to escape Colombia's myriad and enduring conflicts, collectively acquired a plot of land in 2003 in Turbaco municipality and made a new home for themselves. There they employed their muscle, sweat, and thirst for autonomy to lay down roots and build 98 houses that they christened the "City of Women." It would be a place where the homes belonged to women and children, not husbands. Where machismo could be left at the doorstep, muchas gracias.
The City was born of a utopian dream. A town built from scratch by and for women, all of whom were escaping violence that has plagued their country for more than half a century. The images of them in hard hats mixing cement was a promising one — holding out hope that the country could rebuild, and offer the many female victims of war a path forward.
Yet now, months after the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group shook hands on a deal to end one of the world's longest running civil wars, these women still grapple with threats and intimidation, a singeing rebuttal to the narrative that peace has come at last in Colombia. If anything, these women say, drug violence and delinquency are on the rise. But they suspect it's no longer perpetrated by paramilitaries but by their criminal vestiges known as BACRIM, short for bandas criminales.
"They massacre everyone. They displace people and they destroy the land. They tear into bodies with chainsaws," Ana Luz Ortega, 52, said about these criminal gangs.
Even in the City of Women, masked men on motorcycles threaten residents at night a few times per year, said Eidanis Lamadrid, 44, a founding member of La Liga. One recent evening, a knot of men stopped the husband of a Liga member. "He was asked who he was, what he was doing," Lamadrid said. "They asked him if he knew people from a list of names that they read out" before he was let go.
In the last three years, more than a dozen flyers with explicit warnings — instructions to remain inside their homes after dark, for example — have been publicly posted or sent by WhatsApp to residents of the City of Women, Lamadrid said. Those who violate the edicts can end up on a list. One such list, posted on an electrical pole, included the name of a 12-year-old boy who had violated a gang order by wandering the streets at night.
She hopes that as a group, La Liga will be able to more easily claim reparations promised by the state as part of the peace process. But peace itself is a prospect she doesn't dare hope for.
"I'm not sure that the peace process will bring peace here," she said.
"The state keeps failing us"
Ortega grew up in the municipality of Puerto Libertador in the department of Córdoba. Her father died when she was 2 years old. Her mother, a farmer, grew corn and rice. Ortega left her farm at the turn of the century around the time the area became a "red zone." She moved in 1999 to El Pozón, an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of the Caribbean city of Cartagena.
"I could see girls being raped," she said about her new locality. She knew others who were killed. There, she became a member of La Liga after meeting its charismatic founder Patricia Guerrero, an activist lawyer from Bogotá, and went for gatherings where she gained a deeper understanding of human rights.
"When I attended the first meeting, I realized I was a displaced person," Ortega said.
Ana Luz Ortega stands in the doorway of her home in the City of Women | (Sruthi Gottipati/Courtesy PRI's The World)
It was in 2003, when Ortega returned home late after collecting the testimonies of displaced people, that three armed men confronted her and ordered her and her oldest son, Raúl de Jesús Julio, who was 15 at the time, to step outside their shanty.
"Please don't do anything to my kids. If you're going to do something to my kids, please do it to me instead," she recalled imploring them.
One of the men aimed a gun at Ortega's temple and then switched it back and forth between her and her son. "He kept asking, ‘What does your son do? And I said my son wants to [attend a soccer academy]'" The two other men searched her home. She's still not sure what for. Was she was being targeted as a member of La Liga?
"They pushed us inside the house and said that if I turn on the light or go to the authorities, they would splatter our brain in the house," she said.
The attackers left that night but after the visit, Ortega's son struggled in school and in his social life. "He thought the guy who put the gun to his head was still following him," Ortega said. She sent her son back to Córdoba. When Ortega built her house in the City of Women and asked her son to return, he refused. Today, he works in a gold mine in Antioquia.
On a sunny day in June, Ortega's family — her husband, younger son, and two of her five daughters who still live with her — measured the yard to build a white picket fence around her home. It's the stuff of suburban dreams, but Ortega, echoing the views of other women in the City, said she worries about encroaching violence and drug abuse, which she believes has been fueled by a lack of opportunity, education, health services, and by persisting unemployment around the City.
"The state keeps failing us," said Ortega.
Ana Luz Ortega's husband prepares a meal at their home in the City of Women | (Sruthi Gottipati/Courtesy PRI's The World)
Some of the brutality, residents say, stems from the police and armed forces themselves.
"They kick around the young kids. Imagine this, from the people who are supposed to protect you," said Ortega.
But BACRIM, residents suspect, is the source of the threats and warnings. Lamadrid, a founding La Liga member, believes her community is targeted by these criminal bands because they resent women organizing and demanding their rights. Armed groups are also competing for control of illegal mining and drug trafficking. Lamadrid noted that a drug trafficking route is also only 20 minutes away, making the area a lucrative one to dominate.
"This sector is controlled by politicians. That's why these groups are targeting this area to show who's in charge," she said.
Lamadrid is especially worried about Guerrero, the City's founder who's representing La Liga's cases in court. The government removed Guerrero's protective detail and she's now receiving death threats by phone at her office.
"We're the most worried about her because she's the head of the organization," Lamadrid said. "We know that the heads of an organization are always the first to go."
A ceasefire deal between FARC rebels and the government in November brought a relative calm. Homicides plunged in the Latin American nation. But violence did spike in one case: against community leaders and rights activists.
The scale of the crisis is hard to know, since it's difficult to prove that these community activists were targeted because of their work. Few would disagree, however, that more civic leaders are dying since the peace deal.