The streets of Arara, an indigenous hamlet south of the Amazon Trapezium, are narrow and dusty. They merge with the dense jungle that surrounds the city, sometimes giving the impression that whoever walks through them is entering a wolf’s den. Jhornay Iván Angarita, 18 years old, left his house one Saturday evening. At dawn, when a neighbor went to get his fishing net, he found him hanging by his neck from a rope. “I looked out in my underwear and when I arrived, his body was on the floor,” recalls Iván, his father. “They had already cut the rope.” It was June 6th, Ivan’s birthday.
On another morning in August, Pompilio Angarita found his 16-year-old daughter Sandia hanging from a branch of a mango tree. The day before, the teenager argued with her mother about a forbidden love with a boy from her own clan.
That same weekend, 45-year-old Alfredo Ramos drank cachaça tirelessly until he returned home on Sunday afternoon. He argued with Gladys Beltrán, his wife. “He started looking at the ceiling and talking to himself,” she says. “Then he went to the toilet – a toilet in front of the house – and stayed there for a long time.” Flor, his only daughter, looked out of a small hole and saw him with his mouth open, purple, suspended by his belt.
Arara is a town of just over a thousand inhabitants and 200 families living on the banks of the Amazon River. They live in rustic wooden houses on hills covered in reeds, surrounded by endless greenery. In the heart of the hamlet there is a concrete micro-football pitch and a church where Protestant masses are celebrated in the afternoons.
There had never been such a series of tragic deaths by hanging. Therefore, shamans from Arara and Nazareth, a neighboring community, met to find a solution to the tragedy. More than a dozen wise men, under the guidance of their spiritual guardians, drove the demons out of the city in one night in November 2022. Over the past 30 years, authorities in this city have counted at least 30 suicides.
In Colombia, the departments of Amazonas, Vaupés and Guainía have the highest suicide rates in the country. They are also the ones with the largest indigenous population. While the national rate is 5 per hundred thousand inhabitants, Amazonas increased this number almost fivefold in 2020, with a rate of 23.6, according to data from Así Vamos en Salud, a project that analyzes official public health data.
The numbers could be even more alarming. Gerardo Antonio Ordóñez, general coordinator of EPS Indígena Mallamas, a public health company based in Leticia, says the underreporting of indigenous suicides in the Amazonas department could be as high as 80%. It seems impossible to determine the real number, but statements from the communities themselves confirm that it is a painful and neglected epidemic.
Experts attribute this to, among other things, the destruction of communities’ natural habitat, including sacred sites; to the use of alcohol and new drugs; and what some call uprooting and acculturation: a kind of degradation of the traditions and identity of the indigenous being.
“Indigenous people are killing themselves because they don’t live a decent life,” says Olga Milena Bolaños, indigenous advisor for traditional medicine and Western health at the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC). Historically, the state’s provision of basic services, including health care, has been precarious in these areas, Bolaños says. Added to this is the lack of a care model that recognizes traditional medical knowledge.
“They kill themselves for lack of food or education, because there are no resources. In other cases, the cause lies in the violence of armed groups that recruit young people. Or because there are abandoned women,” says Bolaños. “That’s why they prefer not to exist in the world anymore.”
After Jhornay’s suicide, the Angarita Bernal family decided to move to another house in the same neighborhood. Ivan, his father, heard someone coming in, went into the kitchen and put the dishes away. “I still feel his presence,” he said. The same thing happened to Flor with her father Alfredo, whom she had seen lifting his baby out of the hammock.
Arara was formerly called Charatü, in the indigenous language “gorge of the blue parrots”. With gradual growth, it became known as Arara, which means “aras” and is also the name of one of its clans. The other is the Tiger Clan. One with feathers, one without.
Today, after its founding in 1966, residents prefer to call themselves themselves magúta because Tikuna is a name Cori, a white man, for the “black painted people”. They received it because in some rituals they use the juice of the Huito fruit, which leaves the skin black when dried, as protection. Surrounded by a vast and humid tropical forest, Arara is very far from almost everything: there is no cell phone reception and is a two-hour boat ride from Leticia when the current is good.