Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Who Is Simon Trinidad? (And Why Does He Matter?)

Ricardo Palmera,
aka Simon Trinidad.

 The FARC guerrillas have designated a guerrilla leader named Ricardo Palmera, aka Simon Trinidad, to be a member of their negotiating team in peace talks with the government.

However, there's a difficulty: Palmera is serving a 60-year sentence in a Supermax prison in Colorado in the United States.

It doesn't look likely that U.S. authorities will release Palmera, altho he could possibly participate by closed circuit television.

Palmera's participation could be significant because he is perhaps unique amongst the FARC's leadership: the highly-educated son of a wealthy, politically-powerful family, Palmera studied economics, including two years at Harvard in the U.S., taught university courses and then became a bank manager - before dropping everything, stealing from the bank 30 million pesos and lists of clients (who were later extorted), and fleeing into the mountains, where he joined the guerrillas.

Palmera commanded FARC troops around the city of Valledupar, where he directed a campaign of kidnapping for ransom, according to Wikipedia, some of whose victims the FARC murdered. Later, he commanded the FARC forces in the Santa Marta Mountains. Palmera would later dismiss human rights concerns by calling international human rights rules "bourgeois" concerns. During the ill-fated Caguán peace negotiations (1998-2002) Palmera was the FARC's spokesman.

In 2004, Palmera was arrested in Quito, Ecuador, where he'd gone for medical treatment. He was deported to Colombia and then to the U.S., where he was convicted for involvement in the kidnapping and holding of three U.S. contractors captured by the FARC after their plane crashed while searching for coca leaf plantations in 2003. Palmera was convicted despite not having had any direct participation in the kidnappings. The prosecution failed to get convictions on terrorism and drug trafficking charges.

Palmera in the grasp of 'the empire.' 
Palmera's defenders in the U.S. call him a political prisoner. I think it's more appropriate to ask why he wasn't first tried and imprisoned in Colombia, where his crimes were committed.

Palmera's story is notable because most FARC leaders - in contrast to the ELN and M-19 guerrillas - have come from peasant backgrounds. Does that suggest that if he participates in the negotiations, he'll insist on a dogmatic, hard-line position? After all, unlike other guerrilla leaders, who make be able to leave the mountains and participate in Colombian politics following a peace treaty, Palmera is likely to face only more years in a U.S. prison.

Palmera's story also contains elements, many of them tragic ones, in common with other FARC guerrillas.

Like many guerrilla leaders, Palmera had a guerrilla girlfriend who was much younger than him, and also from a humble background.

In this interview, Palmera's girlfriend Lucero, describes how as a high school student from an impoverished family on Colombia's Atlantic Coast she resented the wealthy who owned nearly all of the land and controlled her region. She also said that many friends and relatives, including an older brother and two uncles, were murdered by right-wing paramilitary groups. Lucero's resentment against the government and the wealthy was certainly understandable, even if her response was disastrous for herself and her country.

A high school basketball star, Lucero also belonged to a Communist Youth group, who were provided training by FARC guerrillas. The guerrilla's leader was a handsome man who impressed the pretty teenager with his "political and ideological clarity," and whose girlfriend in the guerrilla had recently been killed.

In about 1990, when she was 15, she says, she, together with schoolmates, joined the FARC. One report says that her family objected, but that Palmera "took her away." In any case, the story of young girls from poor families running off with guerrilla leaders is a common one. The group thus became a few more of the many children recruited by Colombia's armed groups, many of whom can expect to survive only a few more years.

The teenaged girl's first battle was terrifying, she said, "but combat is a very good experience for someone."

Soon, Lucero and the guerrilla known as Simon Trinidad were a couple. She was 15; he was 40.

Lucero soon became pregnant. Pregnant guerrillas are generally forced to abort, but Lucero was permitted to have her baby, probably because of her lover's leadership position. But soon after giving birth to a daughter she had to send the baby to be raised by her mother.

On the left, Ricardo Palmera,
on the right Lucero and baby girl. 
Lucero's guerrilla career wasn't fated to be long, either. After her lover's 2004 arrest, she continued in the FARC, working as a radio operator. Her daughter, Alix Farela, visited her occasionally. It was during one of those visits in 2010 that the guerrilla camp was bombed by the military, killing some 30 guerrillas, including both mother and daughter. (I wonder whether Palmera felt guilt and responsibility when he learned of the deaths in his Colorado prison cell.)

Ironically, Lucero's father was reportedly a landowner who had been murdered by guerrillas in 1983 for refusing to pay the 'vacuna,' or extortion payments, common in parts of Colombia's countryside.

Ricardo Palmera's history of romantic rebellion is not typical of Colombia's conflict.But Lucero's story of multiple generations of pointless tragedy is.

We can only hope that the planned negotiations succeed, with or without Ricardo Palmera, and that Colombia's long tragedy finally ends.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

1 comment:

mauricio forero l said...

GREAT post Miguel, really great.

M. F.