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In Colombia, suspicious deaths

The case of 11 young men allegedly killed by the army to boost body counts has again hit the headlines.

There hadn’t been money for Victor’s course to rise through the military ranks and after leaving, he spent the last few years of his life bouncing among odd jobs.

"He would say to me, 'Madre Selva' " — Carmenza stops to explain the nickname from a soap opera character — " 'I’m going to work wisely and I'll buy you a house.' "

She recalls the conversation in her bedroom, where she sits beneath a blown-up photograph of Victor taped to the concrete wall, which is adorned with posters and a hanging shirt here and a jacket there.

Although rent is low in Soacha, it’s still hard to pay from Carmenza’s minimum-wage job cleaning offices. But Carmenza, 53, is used to struggle.

Violence forced her family to flee to the south-central city of Villavicencio when she was 14. There, she worked in restaurants, and at age 16, she became a mother. By the time she moved to Bogota as a 28-year-old single mother, she had five children. Three more would come. “I’ve been fighting until the present for my kids,” Carmenza says.

And for Carmenza, Victor's death was quickly followed by more tragedy.

Carmenza's other son, John Nilson Gomez, then 28, was frustrated by the sluggish pace of justice after his brother's death. He took it upon himself to find out what happened.

To this day, all Carmenza knows about the afternoon of Feb. 4 was that two men on a red motorcycle shot John; their pistol had a silencer. It was only later that Carmenza learned, through a friend of John, that his snooping had landed him threatening phone calls. Within six months, Carmenza buried a second son.

Carmenza now helps support the four children, aged 5 months to 10 years, her sons left behind.

The pain isn’t subsiding — nor are the phone threats Carmenza and her daughter have received. “I told them, please, no more, I don’t want more deaths in my family.” Regardless, Carmenza said, "I'm not afraid to tell the world that when things happen. Don't be afraid, denounce them."

That’s what Carmenza did two weeks ago at the Senate debate, in which the army's top commander and deputy minister of defense participated. Chatter hovered over the hearing, but when Carmenza spoke at the podium, the room went quiet.

“I want the heads of this operation to be held responsible!” she bellowed. “Because my son is worth a lot.”

(Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the timing of a Senate debate, which occurred three weeks ago rather than two, and to reflect the fact that more arrests have been made since the story was written.) 

For more dispatches on the dangers of life in Colombia:

Recruiting rebels

Life as a FARC hostage

Colombian ex-captives consider politics