Third Yanama

April 14-21,2007

Alta Guajira, Colombia

by Charlie Clifton
Ed. note: In January 2009, I updated this site with further information
on the chemical defoliant being used on the Colombian people and their crops.
I did this while reading Gary Leech's awe inspiring diary "Beyond Bogota", excerpts of which can be found here

Deborah Barros Fince, an attorney and a Wayuu, has been a tireless proponent for the rights of her people. She has travelled the US speaking to groups about their plight. She resides in Bogotá as well as la Guajira. Because of threats on her life, she is accompanied by armed bodyguards.

Amanda Martin photo of Deborah Barrios' house, 2006.

The women wailing in the house leant an eery air to the tranquil rancheria in the remote desert near Bahia Portete in Alta Guajira on the north east Colombian coast. On morning of April 18, 2004, paramilitaries rolled up to this and two other houses. They proceeded to massacre the men, women and children at the houses using bullets, burning and dismemberment.

Three years later, Wayuu members of the Uliana clan revisited the sites with national and international observers. The Wayuu pointed out the scenes of the atrocities and described the horrors that took place. Stories of what happened to wives, sons, daughters, uncles and husbands were recounted with all the grisly details. In the succeeding years, witnesses have been murdered and a trial of two suspected accessories has proceeded slowly.

Some kind of consequence to the arrested suspects would go a long way toward giving the Wayuu some slim hope that acts like these can not be carried out with impunity.

What are the reasons behind this massacre? The killings followed a Wayuu report to the authorities of drug trafficking in the area. El Cerrejon corporation operates the largest open pit mine in the western hemisphere right in the middle of Wayuu territory. It's pretty obvious that the Wayuu are in the way of the coal interests. Another la Guajira coal company, Drummond, is currently in court defending accusations of hiring paramilitaries to kill union leaders. The Colombian government is enmeshed in a scandal over collusion with paramilitaries. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence linking drug dealers, paramilitaries, and multinational and government interests. But it is hard prove these links in a country where witnesses are murdered, corruption runs rampant, and profits are enormous when marketing legal and illegal natural resources. And is "Plan Colombia", the US "aid" for Colombia, part of the solution or part of the problem?

These women prepared three great meals a day in this rustic kitchen. We had chicken, eggs, avena, fish and goat with rice, platanos, fruit and vegetables and chicha (corn drink) to wash it down. Fani is at rear, Carmen at right. Note the wall of cactus in rear. The cactus is planted along the windward side of the casitas to block the easterly breeze which blows constantly. - Iván Dario Zambrano photo.

A collection of indigenous, national, and international groups attended the Third Yanama. The purpose was to lend support to the Wayuu attempt to return to their village without fear of another massacre. Headquarters was located at a Wayuu cemetary at Media Luna near the Carribean Sea. During that week, participants began the day with a walk to the beach for a swim and then a rinse in the fresh water lagoon. Breakfast was the first of three substantial meals cooked and served each day by the Wayuu women over a campfire in a cactus casita. Throughout the day, discussion groups met where Wayuu told stories of their experiences and culture. Representatives of other indigenous groups related what was taking place in their communities. Support groups talked about strategies to help the struggle of these indigenous people to save a way of life that has existed for thousands of years. Wednesday was spent traveling around the estuary of Bahia Portete to the empty town and the massacre sites. Before dinner, there would be another trip to the beach and lagoon. After dinner, chairs were set up around the fogata (bonfire) and, on a lighter note, stories were told, songs were sung, poems were recited, chirinche and coffee were served, and dancing continued well into the night.

Following are pictures with captions of the memories they inspire in your author. Forgive this old alijuna if names are missing or wrong. I was never certain whether I was talking to Paula or Erika, both of whom I found extraordinary. I also regret not remembering more names of new Wayuu friends. You can send me any corrections or additions you might notice.

Above - We sat in a circle in the casita listening to stories of the participants.

I particularly remember this moment when a young Wayuu woman told about witnessing the murder of her mother in Bahia Portete.

It was one of the most emotional things I've ever seen. Note the expression on the face of Carolina Delgado, third from left.

Standing behind her is Jesus Abad Colorado, a Colombian photographer who has depicted the effects of the violence on the lives of Colombians throughout the country. He was the first journalist on the scene after the massacre at Juradó, Choco, that Paula and Erika (one of which is second from left) recounted later.

Right and below - No caption necessary. -Amanda Martin photos

Speaking to the group is Esperanza Molina (center, green dress), a Yaqui video journalist from Sonora, Mexico. Like the Wayuu, hers is also a matriarchal society. Yaqui land is on both sides of the US-Mexico border. On her right are Elkin Rubiano and Marivel Domico, from the Embera Katio tribe in Cordoba, Colombia. Behind them in red shirt is Javier, a Wayuu displaced to Maracaibo, one of the gentlest souls you'll ever meet. Behind him is Amanda Martin (green shirt, blond hair) who took many of these photos. Amanda has been working for human rights in Latin America for many years. Of all the things various people brought along and shared, I appreciated the most Amanda's hot sauce. Directly behind Esperanza is Adiela Bohórguez with Siemprevivas, an organization that works for indigenous people throughout Colombia. In the back right with black hat and beard is Jimmy Schmidt with Bridges Across Borders, an organization headed by Carol Mosley that facilitates aid to displaced people around the world. Jimmy's original songs were a nightly request at the fogata. In the white hat is Diego who works for a government bureau promoting peace and reconcilition. - Amanda Martin photo

Now just into their 20s, Paula and Erika Florez were in their early teens when guerillas came through their town of Juradó, Choco, rounded up the inhabitants and shot and killed whom they chose. Then the army came through and did the same. They watched their uncle get shot and when their father tried to go to his aid, he was told, "Move and you die, too." The uncle died. The townspeople fled to Jaque, Panama for refuge.

Carol Mosely of Bridges Across Borders describes Juradó as the most beautiful place she has ever seen on earth, a fishing village with forest, waterfalls, beaches, bays and rivers. BAB assisted the girls to relocate to Medellin where Paula graduated high school and wants to be a psychiatrist. Erika is about to graduate.

At a tender age, these girls witnessed the most horrific acts imaginable and now their family is separated. Despite all this, their personalities exude hope for the future and a love of life. They were favorites of Alijuna and Wayuu alike. They were the life of the fogata and bring joy to everyone they meet. - Amanda Martin photo

Marivel Domico and Elkin Rubiano are members of the Embera Katio tribe in the department of Cordoba. Marivel and Elkin made their way across Colombia via various forms of land transportation to attend the event. Marivel has recently been elected leader of her village, the first woman to hold such a position.

The Embera Katio live in northern Panama and are subsistence farmers. In the last month, their crops of corn, mango, rice, yucca, everything with a green leaf that they depend on for food was destroyed by aerial fumigation.

What kind of US "Plan Colombia" has plenty of money to destroy the food supply of the inhabitants but none to protect them from assassins?

The defoliant used in these operations is a suped up version of Monsanto's Roundup Ultra with "Cosmo Flux 411F" added. Studies show people exposed to this concoction suffer 8 times the amount of chromosone damage than a control group as well as intestinal problems, vomiting, diahrrea, skin and eye infections, and respiratory problems among other afflictions. More info on aerial fumigation.

Marivel and Elkin have shy, quiet personalities but as the week went on they began to open up. Besides sharing the stories of their lives, they applied jagua fruit tatoos with traditional designs on the faces and arms of the others at Media Luna. When Marivel was finally persuaded to accept an invitation to dance at the fogata, a loud cheer was unleashed.

-Iván Dario Zambrano photo

Trip to the evacuated town of Bahia Portete

The trip around the bay of Bahia Portete to the village of BP goes through a vast expanse of varied landscape. There are empty stretches of flat sand, vegetated hills and arroyos, almost impassable rocky trails, mangrove clumps around the bay and a beautiful little harbor at the village.

The photo at right shows the scope of the landscape northwest of the bay.

Below are the mangroves at the west side of the bay.

-Iván Dario Zambrano photos

We travelled in a variety of vehicles including a Ford stakebed truck, an air conditioned SUV, and what improbably was described to me as a 1950 Nissan Toyota. I've had a lot of experience with old trucks but have never before seen the likes of Vicente's truck with 20" wheels.

Vicente drove up from Maracaibo with a deck load of Polarcitas and a compressorless old freezer full of ice.

Those cold Polares were a godsend to the only alijuna who had a taste for beer. I've also had a lot of experience opening beers and thought I had opened them with just about everything imaginable until Vicente popped the top for me with the butt of his pistol.

On the trip we visited three different residences where massacres took place.

The first house we visited was at the rancheria of Deborah Barrios pictured at the beginning of this page.

Amidst the shock of seeing where these atrocities took place, I thought of the difference between a young man like William, shown placing a white peace flag on the house at left, and the young men who wrote "que viva la cocaina" as well as other obscene grafitti while they committed such acts.

William is a sincere fellow who respects and is proud of his cultural heritage.

He married in the Wayuu tradition and, although his life is not easy, he is happy, fun to be around and is an asset to his community. He was a joy to know.

Why did the "viva la cocaina" boy go so wrong?

What was this woman thinking? Was she remembering the people who are no longer alive and the times they had together in this house?

I found myself imagining the houses and countryside alive with families. Children running around and the goats and chickens.

These people had developed over centuries a sustainable lifestyle which provided all their needs.

Carolina remarked to me one day that they had what most in our modern world strive for but never attain.

Peace, happiness, freedom from want. And they did it in a locale which to many "civilized" eyes would appear to be uninhabitable.

The second rancheria was located on top of a hill with dry creek beds running down the slopes. There was quite a bit of vegetation.

In addition to the residence, there were several outbuildings as well as a large cistern for storing water.

A cab of an old truck was sitting near the road. The paramilitaries had burned a woman and her grand daughter in a car at that spot. But the car has been mysteriously removed.

Deborah's mother, Carmen, is carrying the mochila with orange and green patterns. I bought a mochila for my wife during the visit but was bothered by a nagging doubt about my selection. Just before I left, Carmen presented me with her mochila which was exactly the style I had been looking for.

Before visiting the third massacre site, we stopped at the village and harbor of Bahia Portete.

A dugout canoe with a huge billowing sprit sail was gliding across the clear green water.

We had a swim at the wharf and a lunch of goat cheese, bread, and chicha.

It is a perfect spot for a fishing village.

What once was a thriving community of ranchers, farmers and fishermen now contained almost no human inhabitants.

The third massacre site was a house near town in which the man in the straw hat lived with his wife.

He stood in the front yard and told us how his wife and other family members were murdered right there.

Later, at the fogata, he sang a song in Wayuunaiki, the original language.

He sang about being thankful for all the alijuna (non-Wayuu people) who came from long distances to lend support to the Wayuu.

I was sitting next to him as he sang, his eyes brimming with tears.

The Fogata

The fogata was an integral part of the Yanama.

Discussions during the day were focused on learning about what was happening to people as a community.

At the fogata, the people got to know each other on a more personal level.

Children and elders alike showed up although the 20-30 year olds were the last ones left when the fogata ended late into the night.

A ritual part of every fogata was the serving method.

From time to time, one person walked around the circle of chairs carrying a 1.5 liter plastic 7-Up bottle containing chirinche. He or she poured miniscule shots into a tiny cup and handed it to each person in turn, working his way around the fogata.

After every third or fourth round, a Wayuu woman went around the circle with a thermos of coffee and poured a small cup for each person.

At right, Adiela, el Cacique, Marivel, Anderson, Maria Soledad Rueda. el Cacique took the Wayuu custom of making up songs on the spot to new heights. He not only made up his own songs ad lib, but introduced new words into old songs and sang in English, Spanish and Wayuunaiki. That spawned a Third Yanama original new language, Spanglishuu.

At the first fogata, a Wayuu woman performed a protective cleansing ceremony to ward off bad spirits. Part of this procedure involved spraying each person with a little chirinche. This was similar to a rite done to a friend of mine at a santeria ceremony in Cuba after which the heart pains he had been experiencing for three years disappeared. Evidently it worked because the worst misfortune that befell anyone at the Yanama was stepping on a cactus spine.

Adiela, Diego, and Majito distinquished themsleves as chirinche servers. Adiela poured the perfect amount every time. Majito poured them a little bigger. After Majito's first round, he became known as Mojito. With Diego, you never knew how much was coming.

Someone said that it was very rare for the Wayuu women to drink chirinche. That some of the women were having a shot or two meant that they felt the third Yanama was a very special event.

At right, Steve Striffler, associate professor at the University of Arkansas, and a Wayuu woman (someone please send me her name) enjoy Jimmy Schmidt's rendition of "The Best Car is The Gondola". Steve has travelled to la Guajira many times dealing with issues involving the Wayuu and el Cerrejon, the coal mine conglomerate in the midst of Wayuu territory.

I never saw a Wayuu woman smoke except at the fogata. There, a few accepted an offered cigarette.

One night Damar directed my attention to Juliana who was smoking a cigarette in a way I'd never before seen. The entire cigarette was inside her mouth with just the unlit end outside her lips.

When I laughed, she spoke the only words I heard from her all week, "¿me burlabas, chali?". I felt badly for a moment but when she smiled I knew she hadn't taken too much offense.

Jhon, from the Bee Hive Collective, explained an intricate print they produce that depicts events from the initial 15th century colonization to Plan Colombia. One group of ants is fixated on a television set, listening to commercial radio, each with a personal drink in their hand, ignoring their elder sitting alone to the side. The other group of ants is dancing around the campfire, singing their own songs, sharing a bottle of rum, with the elder an integral part of the group.

Our fogata was the second group of ants.

The Children

The displacement is especially hard on the children.

They have been uprooted from the surroundings they knew and forced into an unfamiliar routine.

They had a school and a nice health clinic at Bahaia Portete.

The life on the rancherias was stable and predictable.

Now they have been separated from their friends. Some live in Maracaibo, some in Riohacha, others scattered around the region.

At times they displayed the happy exuberance of youth.

But at other times the fear and uncertainty of what was happening in their lives was readily apparent on their faces.

Carol Mosely brought a set of colored pencils and paper for the kids to draw.

They dove into that opportunity with plenty of enthusiasm.

I was particularly taken with the drawing created by the girl below left. In addition to the birds, the sun and the heart which are visible, the best part is under her hand. There she drew a little house with a cactus in the yard. On the cactus was the delicious flower fruit which tastes like a strawberry but is the size of a peach. Oscar gave me one on a walk to the beach one morning. Behind the house she drew a lagoon with fish swimming.

The boy below right placed several items in his drawing which are central to the Wayuu culture.

The wood of the cactus provides fuel and building material. It is often planted in rows to create windbreaks for camp fires or casitas and also for fences.

The coffee cups were handed out when the coffee was served. The server waited patiently for the cup to be drank before immediately collecting it to be washed and reused thereafter. Often when serving coffee, one girl would carry the thermos and a bag of cups. Another girl would follow with basins of water to wash them right away. The coffee cup is as central to Wayuu culture as the cactus and the clouds.

The sun, chicken and goat are omnipresent in la Guajira.

I'm guessing the spotted cat may be a leopard (leaving his sign?) and the circular thing is a necklace.

How would a move to the city of Maracaibo change his place in this world?

Kaila and Mengual (in boat two rows down) are displaced Wayuu attending University in Maracaibo. They are no longer children but have the perspective of those who were children not long ago.

They described how many displaced young people become accustomed to the city and lose interest in the traditional life style of the Wayuu.

They end up with jobs and spouses outside the Wayuu community. With no homeland to return to they become assimilated into the alijuna culture.

William's cousin came to the Yanama for the last two days. She looked about 15 years old. Although a Wayuu, she dressed in the alijuna style. Obviously, she was being strongly tempted by the lure of another culture.

The longer the displacements continue, the more effect they have on the future of the Wayuu culture.

What will the lives of Juliana and Francisco (left and right) be like in 15 years?

Will they be living on the land where their ancestors have lived for centuries or will they be working for wages in Maracaibo?

Note the skin rashes on Francisco's legs and torso. These rashes are associated with constant exposure to coal dust. Along with respiratory problems, this type of ailment is endemic around the operation of the largest open pit coal mine in the world.

(From left) Kaila and Mengual provided insights into the effects of displacement on Wayuu youth and what it means for the future of their culture.

*(Center, from top down) Mario came from the University with Kaila and Mengual. Mario contributed many good ideas during the discussion of strategies the international people can use to support the Wayuu. Paula wants to enroll in the National University and become a psychiatrist. Jonathan was born in Colombia and raised in the US. He works with several groups promoting human rights throughout Latin America.

*(From right to left) William lives in Riohacha. He respects the Wayuu traditions but is not unaware of the modernist lure. Soledad is a social worker in Bogotá, human rights activist, and excellent translator. Oscar is Wayuu living in Riohacha. He plans a trip to the US in November to speak about the Wayuu and their struggle to hold onto their land and continue their way of life.

*These young people and others like them embody hope for the future of the Wayuu and all of Colombia.


Friendships that blossomed at the Third Yanama were a highlight of the event.

Young and old came together from different cultures and countries in support of a common goal.

Ivan Zambrano, student from Bucaramanga, sports a design created by Marivel Domico, village leader from the Embera Katio tribe.

Iriel and Anderson, below, provided protection 24/7.

Adriana snatched this nice barracuda out of the water with her bare hands.

(Above) Erika displays a spirit that just won't quit. Most ate more at the Yanama than they do at home.

(above) Esperanza Molina with her ever present video camera. Jimmy, Ivan, Amanda, Adriana, and Alison.

William, Charlie, Oscar, and Paula.

Regrettably, I have no picture of Damar who was a ton of fun and one of my absolute favorite new friends.

Finally, there was one last swim at the beach.......

.... and then it was time to go........


If you are interested in learning more about the Yanama, the Wayuu, and what you can do to help, check the following links:

I highly recommend Garry Leech's "Beyond Bogota" 2009.
Travelling to the most remote regions of the country, Garry reports from areas in which few reporters dare to tred. He has been detained by both paramilitaries and guerillas.
Wayuu blog (2008)
Aug. 8 2007, Bob Parry report on Colombia
Jhon's blog about the Yanama
Bridges Across Borders
Witness for Peace
Article on "Blood Coal"
North Shore Colombia Solidarity
Updates on Plan Colombia & US Policy
School of the Americas Watch
Eye witness account of the events at Bahia Portete

Photos by Jhon, Maria Soledad Rueda, Amanda Martin, Ivan Zambrano, and Adriana