At a Pride parade, with all the fabulous costumes and music, it’s easy to forget the life and death struggles that continue for people whose sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t fit notions of “normal” held by people with more power. We still have to overcome high rates of suicide, HIV and AIDS, violence, and defend human rights everywhere.
It’s hard to take in 50 years of war all at once, much less comprehend the individual stories of eight million direct victims. (I think just about everyone I know in Colombia has lost a sibling or a child or a parent, or had a relative kidnapped.)
From among all those stories—now being told—some are about crimes against LGBTI people. Here, I will tell you of just one case. (Tomorrow, I will tell you about some efforts by church people toward inclusion and respect.)
On May 10 and 11, 2003, 16 young gay men and trans women were forced to participate in a boxing tournament for the entertainment of members of the AUC paramilitary death squad.
The incident is one of scores of stories summarized in ¡Basta Ya!—the 2013 general report of Colombia’s National Centre of Historical Memory (pp.322-23). The title of this post is drawn from the LGBTI section heading in ¡Basta Ya! A longer version of the same story is included in an earlier report on gender issues, Women and War: Victims and Resistance in the Caribbean Region of Colombia (pp.67-69).
The area of Colombia’s Caribbean coast known as Montes de María includes parts of the departments of Sucre and Bolívar. At the northern tip of Sucre is the municipality of San Onofre. I came to know the area over the past decade through the United Church of Canada’s partnership with the Colombian Methodist Church. I have written about the struggle by residents to recover land that had been taken from them by the paramilitaries.
But the boxing tournament organized by one of the local AUC commanders, Marco Tulio Pérez Guzmán, known as El Oso (the Bear), on San Onofre’s Alto de Julio beach in May 2003 gave new meaning to this tradition.
Residents of the municipality were made aware of the event when paramilitaries hand-delivered a flyer to their homes, obliging them to purchase a ticket worth 20,000 pesos (about $10) that would, according to the armed men, finance a boxing event to be carried out in Alto de Julio.
Days later, a gay resident of San Onofre (who others said had links to the commanders of the AUC’s Heroes of Montes de María Bloc) was told to convene young gay men, transvestites and trans women from the municipality who would participate in the tournament.
Some of them, fearing for their lives, left San Onofre before they could be taken to the fight. Nevertheless, about 16 young people were driven to Alto de Julio in the paramilitaries’ armoured vehicles.
According to witness statements taken in November 2010, the event had been conceived with the objective of paying homage to the regional commander of the paramilitary bloc, Rodrigo Antonio Mercado Peludo, known as Cadena (Chain)—although Cadena never appeared.
The event lasted two days. All of the contenders were dressed in boxing shorts, robes and boxing gloves. In a specially-installed boxing ring, approximately 14 fights took place.
One of the witnesses (identified as an adult male) of Alto de Julio remembered the boxing tournament this way:
“The event lasted two days, Saturday and Sunday. There were various activities: party, boxing match and rooster fight. The maricas had to fight…. They had gloves, shorts and everything. The winners got nothing. All anyone got were hits to the face…. The homosexuals were brought as a joke, to make fun of them. They didn’t bring professional fighters, but rather maricas…. People really laughed to see them fight.”
A woman who had been “invited” to the event tells the following:
“They made a huge party. They set up a ring, but all of the boxers were gay…. You know that by putting people in there to box who are gay, that generates a lot of laughter for everyone. They dressed them in gowns, with gloves, and made a show of it, as if they were women who were slapping each other…. So that made people laugh.”
Of the gay men who were forced to participate in the boxing tournament, one was murdered by the paramilitaries in the urban part of San Onofre a few months after the event. Others left San Onofre after the event, joining more than five million Colombians displaced by violence. But some are said to be still living in the zone.
Sadly, gay men and trans women are still victims of violence in San Onofre. On June 14, 2013, Yeison Pérez Mercado (known as Natali) was stabbed to death. But that incident at least resulted in a community meeting about security issues. (But I know from other sources that the region is still dominated by former, now supposedly demobilized, paramilitaries, so for me it is hard to imagine real change any time soon.)
Many good people in Colombia are working to document what happened so as to ensure such crimes never happen again. Leaders like human rights lawyer Germán Rincón Perfetti and organizations like Colombia Diversa make sure that life for LGBTI people really do get better.
My next blogpost will be about efforts among some of Colombia’s churches to be more welcoming of sexual diversity.
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