On the 9th anniversary of the killing of Yesenia, an Afro-Colombian woman and commander of the National Liberation Army, Commander Pablo Beltrán shared his reflections about her struggle and her story, one that is shared by many Colombians who are victims of state and paramilitary violence.
December 20 marked the ninth anniversary of the physical disappearance of Commander Yesenia, an unforgettable revolutionary fighter from the Serranía de San Lucas, where the Central Cordillera ends, stopped by the union of the great Magdalena and Cauca Rivers.
“You don’t know how difficult it is to move forward in life, having to drag along three shackles: that of being a woman, poor and black,” Yesenia told us in confidence, during Christmas 2002, when she had just turned 30 and was attending the National Liberation Army’s Cadre School, which took place in the village of Las Nutrias de San Francisco, Antioquia.
I had met her in 1992, when she was in charge of a guerrilla commission responsible for political and organizational work around Cerro Mujeres in Remedios, a task she was carrying out despite being in an advanced state of pregnancy. From then on, I was struck by the fact that she had been a member of the Maria Cano Front (FMC) of the ELN for three years, after the Fourth Front of the FARC had unjustly taken the life of her young husband.
Caliche, the ELN leader who had incorporated her, had to talk to her at length to get her out of her resistance towards the guerrilla struggle, which had begun after the murder of her partner.
In the first talks I had with her, it was clear to me that she was harshly critical of her comrade’s murder, although I never sensed resentment or hatred towards the FARC. Indeed, she managed to develop good levels of friendship with the Fariano commanders in that region, including Pastor Alape.
A few very turbulent years followed the dissolution of the “Socialist Camp” in 1991, the demobilization of part of the Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordination (CGSB), and the failed Peace Dialogues between the Gaviria Government (1990-1994) and the CGSB that took place in Caracas and in Mexico between 1991 and 1992.
In the area of the María Cano Front, covering the whole of northeast Antioquia and southern Bolívar, the Colombian army’s punitive operations lasted for the better part of 1994, as part of the “Comprehensive War” strategy decreed by then-president Carlos Gaviria. In these counter-insurgency operations, Yesenia had to face the newly created First Mobile Brigade, the regime’s elite counter-guerrilla unit.
The worst would come soon, as the strategic planners of the war added covert or paramilitary operations to the over-used open military operations. By the end of Ernesto Samper’s mandate (1994-1998), Colombia suffered a strategic leap in the war, through the proliferation of massacres and selective assassinations executed against left-wing leaders and communities.
In Yesenia’s homeland, the strip of land located between the Ité River and the road that comes from Puerto Berrío and ends in Yondó, Antioquia, Yesenia saw how paramilitary gangs occupied the villages that had a greater level of social organization to indiscriminately massacre their people and terrorize them, as they did in 1997 in the massacres of San Luis and San Francisco. The killers, after martyring and assassinating the main social leaders, proceeded to, in public, fry and eat their viscera; demonic imagery they wanted to burn into the collective memory of the population.
Escaping from the narco-paramilitary terror, hundreds of families took refuge in the last corners of the jungles of this region, among them the parents and little daughters of Yesenia. They were fleeing from being massacred and also from being kidnapped by the Castaño Gil clan gangs (powerful paramilitary leaders), experts in kidnapping and killing the relatives of the revolutionary leaders.
This would only be a second exile because their roots were still in Chocó, the land where Yesenia wanted to go as a guerrilla, a dream that was dashed.
In 1984 the brothers René and Julián, had arrived at the José Antonio Galán Guerrilla Front (FJAG) from Itagüí, south of Medellín, fleeing from Pablo Escobar’s cocaine cartel. They had dared to confront the fearsome Galeano gangs, in which the infamous paramilitary commander, Don Berna, imprisoned in the United States since 2008, was wounded and crippled.
Although René and Julián were part of a small Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group called La Estrella, due to their confrontation with Escobar’s henchmen, they decided to leave Itagüí and ask to join the ranks of the ELN. After the First Congress in 1986, René left the FJAG to join the leadership of the newly created Maria Cano Guerrilla Front (FMC).
It was on October 18, 1998, the day of the tragic accident in Machuca, a township in Segovia, Antioquia, where dozens of humble people died, most of them Afrodescendants, due to the explosion that unleashed a blast on the Central Oil Pipeline. The ELN recognized its responsibility in this tragic error, apologized for it and called on the brother Julián to be accountable. At the time, he was the first leader of the FJAG, whose guerrilla units that had carried out the sabotage attack.
It was only after a guerrilla assembly in mid-2000 that the National Leadership was able to conclude the disciplinary procedure that established responsibility for the tragedy caused in Machuca. The decisions taken were not accepted by the Estrella brothers, who opted to leave the ELN and later joined the FARC.
Since 1997, Yesenia had served as the First Commander of the FMC Directorate and from that moment on was promoted to the position of First Commander of the FJAG, a position she held until December 2001, when she became a member of the Directorate of the Darío Ramírez Castro War Front (FGDRC), a strategic structure that groups together all the ELN fronts in the Northeast, North and Lower Cauca of Antioquia, together with those in Southern Bolivar.
Between 1998 and 2004, in this region the combat against narco-paramilitary groups commanded by Macaco and Julián Bolívar, was conducted jointly by the FARC and the ELN. This combat inflicted a strategic defeat on them that cost them 3,000 members. This battle left more than half a thousand guerrillas dead in the ELN alone.
During this period Yesenia passed the toughest tests as a guerrilla commander, as the prevailing machismo always imposed an additional effort on her to be recognized as a commander, what hurt her most was not receiving the determined support of the other guerrilla fighters.
To participate in the guerrilla struggle means to make sacrifices, but for women these sacrifices are doubly difficult, since it means delegating the upbringing and education of their children to other families different from their own.
The work of cementing consciousness and revolutionary commitment to be unwavering in the cause of the impoverished and excluded, allows guerrillas like Yesenia to be mothers, to delegate the care of their children and to continue contributing to the guerrilla ranks.
Another challenge that the guerrillas face when they take on leadership roles, is that when establishing stable relationships with their partners, they have to be attentive to their partner’s location and tasks. Challenges that Yesenia faced and knew how to overcome, since for her it was always a priority to fulfill her leadership duties, rather than attend to her personal affairs; a dedication not always well appreciated by those close to her.
The eagerness to excel that characterized Yesenia led her to rise above the few years of primary school she attended, to a very strong intellectual and spiritual height, which founded her natural critical thinking, with which she won the respect of the commanders and fighters with whom she shared the revolutionary struggle.
As it always happens, Yesenia trusted more than she should have in the ones closest to her heart. This was what killed her when she had just turned 39 years old. One of her assistants brought her a portable power plant that had a locator chip embedded in it, which guided the US-made bombs to her camp on the banks of La Honda ravine in Morales, Sur de Bolivar, on December 20, 2011.
Few women have had to face so many challenges as Yesenia did. Yesenia’s life and struggle was an uphill battle wherein she had to overcome countless obstacles one by one. She knew how to be a woman and not let herself be oppressed by it. She lived her Black identity with joy. She did not let herself be reduced to the corner of poverty. She overcame her condition of victim, and overcoming innumerable resistances. She exercised the functions of leadership and command that the revolutionary cause entrusted to her.