Three teenagers dead and dozens more exiled, sent far from home by terrified parents. Panic has taken over southwestern Colombia, after emerging guerrillas took to social-networking websites to impose their will on the populace. Criminal gangs, which local journalists claim are affiliated with drug cartels, are holding entire towns hostage. And they are doing it by issuing death threats through Facebook.
Over the past several days, almost 90 teenagers in the town of Puerto Asis have been named on hit lists distributed online by criminal gangs seeking to sow fear and anguish in the community. The lists have been sent to those whose names are in them, as well as to their friends and relatives. They contain the names of children as young as 16 who, according to the perpetrators, will be murdered if they don't leave town within three days. The first list was distributed through Facebook and MSN Messenger on August 15. At least two more lists have been issued since, and already, 16-year-old Diego Ferney Jaramillo, 19-year-old Norbey Alexander Vargas, and 17-year-old Eibart Alejandro Ruiz Munoz have been shot dead. Juan Pablo Zambrano Anacona, 16, was wounded during the attack on Vargas.
“I would love to help you,” said one young man contacted through Facebook, “but I do not want to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. What if it ends up getting me killed as well?”
It is not entirely clear why teenagers are being targeted in Puerto Asis. According to schoolteachers interviewed by local media, the teens on the list are all good students, regular high school-aged kids who generally stay out of trouble. Perhaps fearing new threats, most of the young people in Puerto Asis no longer allow people who are not their friends to send them messages through Facebook. The Daily Beast reached out to those who are still able to receive messages, but requests for interviews were either ignored or rejected out of fear. "I would love to help you," said one young man contacted through the social networking site, "but I do not want to stick my nose where it doesn't belong. What if it ends up getting me killed as well?"
Puerto Asís is a young town, founded in 1912 by Franciscan missionaries. It was part of a government program to populate the southwest and prevent Peruvian incursions into their territory. It has a young and Internet-savvy population with a very active presence on Facebook. There are at least a dozen Facebook groups based in this small town on the banks of an Amazon tributary—including some that defy its Catholic origins, like " Sex in Puerto Asis," which purports to be an open forum on "things you're curious about, positions, tricks, and advice." The thugs, it seems, know the population they're targeting. They knew that in Puerto Asis, Facebook is the way to get kids' attention.
The cyberthreats, however, are only the latest in a string of terror tactics employed by the narco thugs. And the situation is all too familiar to the residents of this region. Southwestern Colombia was once the stomping ground of the infamous United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (also known by the Spanish acronym AUC)—paramilitary forces, backed by the government in the war against Marxist guerrillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Using military force and intimidation, the AUC took back areas across the country that were controlled by the rebels. Now, criminal gangs are copying their tactics in a quest to make drug-trafficking easier.
This déjà vu to the dark days of the civil war allegedly started several months ago, when clandestine organizations started distributing fliers in towns across the region. In these fliers, the gangs issued decrees, akin to city ordinances, informing the population of the new rules it must live by, under penalty of death. In the department of Antioquia, for instance, a gang called "The Black Eagles" has prohibited people from taking motorcycle taxis between towns. They claim that the taxi drivers are aligned with a rival gang known as "Los Paisas."
And in the town of Caucasia, the criminals have taken on the guise of moralists. They have outlawed parties and imposed a curfew. They claim to be after prostitutes and "people with vices," but have extended a warning to ordinary parents as well: "Do not let your children out in the street after 10:00 PM; it won't be our fault if innocents fall."
According to an investigator cited by El Tiempo, "This is the same pattern followed by the AUC in the '90s in order to consolidate their presence in a region: They carry out a social cleansing in order to justify their presence in urban areas, and take over the local economy."
The hit lists are the most concrete example of these social-cleansing efforts, detailing exactly which people must either skip town or be killed. They seem to have first appeared in the town of Yarumal, where fliers containing people's names and jobs were distributed. These earliest lists treated people with a chilling familiarity that left the entire town feeling as if it were being watched by a group within its own ranks—the lists gave, for instance, "Adriana, the nurse" and "Chucho, of the mechanics shop," 24 hours to leave, or else.
In Puerto Asis, parents are not taking any chances. Colombian newspapers report that an exodus is taking place in the southwestern part of the country. Kids are being sent away, whether their names are on the lists or not. And with this has come outrage. Commenters on various news sites have noted how swiftly the authorities acted last year, when a group emerged on Facebook threatening former President Alvaro Uribe's son. The creator of that group, Nicolas Castro, was promptly arrested, and now faces up to 15 years in jail.
The Colombian government has vowed to restore order in Puerto Asis and claims to have already made four arrests. They have also offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone involved with the threats. But for now, the locals are bunkered down, glued to their computer screens while they await the next hit list—or news of the next senseless murder of one of their teenage sons or daughters.
Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.