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The Hemisphere: Ordeal of a Village

4 minute read

TIME Correspondent Philip Payne, after journeying by mule into the war-torn territory east of Bogota, last week cabled an account of the ordeal of a village.

LIBERAL guerrillas were in the neighborhood, and the 600 stoutly Conservative residents of San Pedro de Jagua knew well that their homes might be struck next. Children chattered fearfully about Tulio Bautista and other leaders of la chuzma (or “bandits,” as the Liberal raiders are known). Early this year San Pedro’s citizens organized a raid-warning system among the outlying plantations and ranches. Any farmer who spotted bandits coming was to sound the alarm by setting off a dynamite bomb.

At 4:30 a.m. one day recently, there was a dull boom in the east; the warning did not save San Pedro. Minutes later, a uniformed column approached the village. “Don’t shoot!” cried one marcher. “We’re the army.” By the time San Pedro’s police garrison of 18 realized that the column was made up of some 50 bandits in stolen army uniforms, it was too late. “Surrender or die!” the bandits roared, and with one brief heavy volley, they dispersed the defenders. Two hundred more bandits, not uniformed, but in close formation, poured into the town, shouting, “Long live the Liberal Party!”

Boys of 14. The rising sun showed villagers who their attackers were: mostly country boys, some as young as 14, every one with a good Mauser rifle (a few had automatic rifles), a revolver, a machete, a knife. Commanding the bandits from San Pedro’s central plaza was a lightly built man of about 25, clad in a new ruana (wool poncho). This was the storied bandit chief, Tulio Bautista.

Guns cracked all over town. A boy stepped out of a doorway holding up a five-peso note; a bullet dropped him and a grinning bandit pocketed the money. Lighting home-made grenades with cigarettes, the bandits routed out hidden villagers. Once the town was subdued, Comandante Tulio, whose well-formed features and steady voice carried his authority, proceeded with executions of leading Conservatives. Three young boys were included among the victims. “They are Godos [Conservatives] and will grow up,” a bandit growled in explanation.

A Girl of 20. When the sack of San Pedro moved into the next operation, looting, it became plain that Tulio had an extraordinary co-commander: a dark, slim girl of about 20. The bandits called her Doña Edelmira; she wore men’s clothes, carried two revolvers and a knife, seemed to be Tulio’s girl. Edelmira directed the pillage. The bandits stacked the loot in the plaza, loaded it on stolen mules. Bandolero, Edelmira enforced a stern rule upon the men; she permitted no raping or kidnaping of the village women.

The bandits found a single Liberal in the local jail, held on suspicion of aiding the bandits. Freed, this man showed Tulio’s boys two drums of fuel intended for a local power plant. “If only they hadn’t found that fuel!” mourned a San Pedro survivor later. Tulio ordered the town’s homes burned, to flush out any possible police ambush, but forbade his men to fire the church or the school.

To the Buzzards. With smoke still pluming into a clear sky, bandits not busy looting or loading lined up in the plaza to drink aguardiente from the local cantina. They hauled the little harmonium out of the church, tried to play it, failed, and smashed it with rifle butts. Then they found a phonograph. It provided music for a wild dance in the plaza’s basketball court. Edelmira did not dance, and under her eye the bandits dared not seek village women for partners. So the men danced together, one cavorting wildly in a cassock he found in the priest’s house.

By midafternoon the bandits were ready to leave. At the cemetery they buried their single casualty with full military honors. Then they marched away in good order, leaving smoldering ruins and 24 bodies. The surviving people of San Pedro stayed long enough to bury their own dead, to disinter the bandit’s body and throw it to the buzzards. Then, the civil war’s newest refugees,they straggled westward to seek shelter in neighboring towns.

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