Why you should care
Because a Spanish-era execution says something about Colombia’s current efforts to keep the peace.
A Spanish executioner swung his hatchet and cracked the bones of a man named Benkos Biohó. Then he tore the victim’s limbs from their sockets and scattered the body parts around the central plaza of Colombia’s colonial city of Cartagena.
Gov. García Girón called it justice, insisting that Benkos posed a threat to his mineral-rich, New World province. But to Benkos’ followers, the execution of their leader on March 3, 1621, remains to this day one of the greatest betrayals in Colombia’s history. Some years before Girón was appointed, his predecessor, Géronimo de Suazo, had signed a peace deal with Benkos that gave the African prince–turned–slave his freedom — at least until Girón ignored the agreement and executed his rival.
Episodes like the betrayal of Benkos Biohó are part of what’s shaped a history of distrust in Colombia’s government.
“The government put the personality of its leader above the ethical principles of the accord. … That’s why they didn’t respect it,” says Bernardino Perez, a local historian in San Basilio de Palenque, the town Benkos founded in the Maria Mountains south of Cartagena. “Our town suffers every day because they didn’t respect those accords.”
Benkos Biohó was born into a royal family that ruled islands off the coast of what is now Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. He was a prince destined to become king until Portuguese slave traders pillaged the archipelago, enslaved him and his people and shipped them to the Spanish province of Cartagena in South America. He was around 25 years old at the time of his capture. As a slave in Cartagena, the young prince inspired a rebellion among other Africans by communicating through songs as well as maps braided into women’s hair. The rebellion was a success: Benkos and about 100 others fled to the mountains, claimed territory and began an unflinching guerrilla campaign against the Spanish.
Benkos staved off Spanish attacks for years, absorbing more runaways and eventually founding San Basilio de Palenque. Its residents preserve their traditional African heritage and speak Palenquero, a Spanish-based Creole. They claim that their community was the first free town in Latin America. Finally, around 1603, de Suazo extended an olive branch, made a peace agreement and ended the fighting.
So what did Benkos in? In Antonio Prada Fortul’s historical novel Benkos Biohó, Cartagena’s new leadership under Girón set a trap, luring Benkos into the walled Spanish city where a guard told the rebel leader that they had arrested some of his men on charges that would result in their execution. Benkos offered to surrender himself and serve some jail time in exchange for his men’s freedom. Deal. But when Benkos went to turn himself in, he heard gunfire and learned that his men had been shot. Hours later, he was in custody and sentenced to death by dismemberment.
Latin America has a history of weak institutions and caudillos — strongmen — who rule above the law. According to Perez, episodes like the betrayal of Benkos Biohó are part of what’s shaped a history of distrust in Colombia’s government.
Some see echoes of the Benkos betrayal in recent events. In the mid-1980s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist-communist guerrilla movement, formed a political party under the banner Patriotic Union as an early step in a peace process with the Colombian government. But right-wing militias hired assassins to exterminate party leaders, as well as hundreds of rank-and-file members. FARC headed back into the jungle to continue an armed struggle that lasted another 30 years.
In June, FARC laid down its weapons and renounced armed rebellion against the state following a peace treaty known as the Havana Accords, signed in November 2016 with the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. Now, as FARC once again tries to transition into a peaceful, nonarmed political party, the question remains: Will the government continue to honor the treaty? Or will a change of power in next year’s 2018 presidential elections pave the way for a reversal of the deal? Presidential hopefuls like Senator Iván Duque already are talking about how they want to alter the terms of the Havana Accords.
“I see a lot of parallels with the present and what happened with the Spanish,” Perez tells OZY. “You see the government trying to preserve the [peace] accords so that no one gets betrayed, and that what happened with the FARC in the 1980s doesn’t happen again.”
These days, Colombia seems like a schizophrenic man trying to decide what it means to be fair to a group of weary old Marxists responsible for a fifth of the country’s massacres and the lion’s share of kidnappings and land mine killings. If FARC leaders — the Benkos Biohós of today — get their peace deal pulled out from beneath their political platform — to get their political limbs scattered about the square, so to speak — some Colombians would see a terrible and earth-shattering betrayal. Others would probably see justice as usual.