When junk mail inspires fear

BOGOTA — These days, finding junk mail under your door can be a frightening experience in Colombia. So it was for Anderson Cardenas, 27, when he received a pamphlet with a silhouette of a machine gun and a man hovering over a sinister warning: “The hour of social cleansing has arrived. Don’t be one of those who fall in this social cleansing.”

This wasn't the first such message. Cardenas, a high school teacher and human rights worker in Bogota’s southwest, had also received an e-mail (along with scores of other community organizers) containing identical text.

In towns and cities across Colombia, threatening pamphlets delivered to people’s homes, posted in stores and handed out in front of schools warn recipients they could be swept up by a "social cleansing" operation.

“The situation is one of absolute fear,” said Fernando Escobar, a human rights representative for the municipality of Soacha, a poor, sprawling municipality south of Bogota that has been particularly hard hit by the leafleting.

The only thing that's certain about the pamphlet phenomenon is the anxiety they have caused. There are a host of unanswered questions over who is behind the terrifying messages and whether they are related to deaths in neighborhoods across the country.

Though distributed indiscriminately, with a warning not to be outside after 10 p.m., the pamphlets’ text is specifically targeted at youth, drug users, prostitutes, thieves and the homeless. To teens, they warn against hanging out on street corners taking drugs. To call girls and prostitutes, accused by the pamphlet writers of spreading AIDS, the message is “your hours are limited.” And to “all low lifes found in bars after 10 p.m.," the writers have this to say: "We will not be held responsible if innocents fall."

Groups ranging from the right-wing paramilitary to leftist guerillas are suspected as the pamphlet masterminds. Many leaflets bear no signature. According to Ascanio Tapias, representative for the Bogota public defender’s office, most carry the insignia of the Black Eagles, an illegal armed group that emerged following the recent official demobilization of paramilitary groups. Colombia’s national police director has said he believes disparate criminal groups are behind the pamphlets.

“We can’t establish who is sending them,” Tapias said. To help the effort, President Alvaro Uribe has offered the equivalent of $4,000 for information on the menacing leaflets.

For the residents of tin-roofed homes clinging to the hillsides of Cazuca, a neighborhood south of Bogota, pamphlets and threats are nothing new. This shantytown, along with neighboring Ciudad Bolivar and Soacha, have traditionally been targeted because of their poor and vulnerable populations, Escobar said.

But now, the number of pamphlets has reached new heights, residents say. That, along with the breadth of circulation and types of threats, distinguishes this round. “We are seeing these pamphlets appear in neighborhoods and parts of the country where they never have before,” Tapias said.

For example, Raul Montana, a university student, found a pamphlet delivered to his home in El Carmen, a neighborhood in southwest Bogota. “It surprised me a lot because there’s never been anything like this here,” he said.

Tapias’ office estimates that more than 100,000 leaflets have circulated in and around Bogota. Elsewhere in the country, they've been distributed in at least 16 departments (similar to states).

“There is a new level of national coordination of these threats now,” said Fanny Morales, a coordinator at a non-governmental organization in Cazuca.

Morales also points to the more targeted nature of some of the threats, citing a letter addressed to leaders of a community group, prohibiting their meetings. “Your life depends on this,” said the message, which was signed by two paramilitary groups.

Walk up the muddy street in Cazuca to a local bakery and you can find a list of names under threat. Morales said two youths on one such list were killed after their names appeared.

It’s difficult to link recent deaths directly to the pamphlets. “I don’t think the pamphlets are having a fatal effect,” said Escobar, whose office is investigating four deaths in relation to the leaflets. Murders occur regularly in Soacha, he added. According to Tapias, the public defender's office has records of 20 deaths in Ciudad Bolivar in a two-week period this spring.

Whether or not there is a link, many residents don’t want to take chances. “People are returning to their homes earlier and not going out on the streets as much,” Escobar said about Soacha.

And after Blanca Nubia’s 17-year-old son returned to their Soacha home with a pamphlet, “I’m not letting him be out after 7 p.m.,” Nubia said.

She's learned from experience. Last year, Nubia’s 19-year-old son disappeared. He returned in a body bag, one of at least 19 civilians from Soacha the military is accused of murdering.

In many poor neighborhoods, there's a mistrust of authority. In fact, some residents believe the police could be involved in distributing pamphlets because they have been agents of "social cleansing" operations in the past.

Police actions have intimidated Cardenas. He says officers pulled him out of the class he was teaching three times to question him over why he filed a formal complaint regarding the pamphlet he received, and told him he must retract it.

For her part, Nubia is filled with worry. "I can’t lose another one of my children," she said.

Read more GlobalPost dispatches about violence in the Americas:

Obama grapples with Mexico’s “lightning war”

Guatemala: the next to fall?

Meet the drug lords