Civil Society Faces Deadly Threats in Colombia’s Chocó Region

When nearly 7,000 combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) disarmed and abandoned their strongholds in remote areas of Colombia, the Colombian government saw the opportunity to secure and establish themselves in communities that had not seen the rule of law in over half a century. The people of Chocó—Colombia’s most under-resourced region, with 45.1 percent of its population living under multidimensional poverty—were expectant. 

For the past four years, Chocóan civil society had undergone a transformation. Negotiations with the FARC in 2012 reduced combat operations and violence in the region, enabling leaders to organize and develop their activities with less fear of harm. This is important because during the 1990s-2000s, the civic space for these groups was decimated by violence and pressure exerted by illegal armed groups. 

During the peace accord negotiations, ethnic leaders were forced to mobilize at the national level and advocate internationally so that the rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous people were integrated into the accord. In a historic effort, Afro-Colombian and indigenous grassroots organizations united to form the Ethnic Commission for Peace. On August 2015, they negotiated the historic inclusion of the Ethnic Chapter in the peace accords. This chapter recognizes that Colombia’s ethnic minorities were disproportionately victimized by the internal armed conflict, and remedies this by guaranteeing that peace is implemented in a differentiated manner that respects their rights. Concurrently, a united front of women and LGBTQ+ organizations mobilized and established the Gender Sub-commission at the Havana negotiating table in 2014, leading to an integration of women and gender rights into the accord. 

As envisioned in the first point of the peace accord, the 16 most war-stricken regions around the country would build Development Plans with Territorial Focus (Planes de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDETs), which would define the communities’ needs over the next 10 years of peace implementation. The ultimate goal of these development plans is to breach the socio-economic inequalities that have plagued these regions with violence. In the case of Chocó, more than 300 leaders worked to weave the Ethnic Chapter’s differential approach into their own Ethnic Territorial Development Plan.

As a longtime partner of these strengthened organizations, WOLA was part of a humanitarian observation mission to Chocó from July 2-5, 2019. Explored in more detail in an upcoming report, what we saw was bleak: about 11,300 people unable to move freely in the territory, 7,000 of which are indigenous people, more than 2,000 displaced, mostly indigenous, and a strategic dismantling of local civil society and closure of civic space by armed actors.

“After the signing of the peace accords in 2016, we had eight months of peace and quiet,” said a representative of the Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum of Chocó. “Then the paramilitaries came back, then the ELN.

Although the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerillas and the paramilitary Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) were always present in Chocó, the FARC controlled the majority of the territory with little contestation. After their disarmament, the Colombian government  saw these territories claimed by a fast advancing ELN who clashed with the AGC amongst the population. The ELN grew from 90 fighters limited to a few municipalities in the south of the region, to over 400 men in 75 percent of Chocó, all in less than two years. Within an eight-month period, communities saw themselves confined to their houses, unable to organize, fish, farm, or even escape as their territory had been littered with anti-personnel mines and sporadic firefights. 

Nevertheless, 87 civil society organizations of all stripes met to draft theChoco Now! Humanitarian Agreement proposed on September 2018 to the ELN and Colombian government negotiating in Havana. One of the organizations that led this grassroots proposal was the Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum of Chocó (Foro Interétnico Solidaridad Chocó). A perfect example of how Chocóan civil society remains dynamic and integrative, it is conformed by 78 organizations and community councils, both Afro-Colombian and indigenous, from all of Chocó. 

The Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum establishes a united front, representing extremely diverse and marginalized communities. Institutional and civic spaces of their own creation gave way to communication networks amongst isolated communities that now quickly alert local and international civil society the moment any violation occurs, instead of having to endure victimization in silence. Social media and linkage with international organizations means Chocó’s ethnic communities can report and mobilize like never before. 

Unfortunately, a July 17, 2019 ELN terrorist attack on a police academy that left 21 casualties and 70 injured prompted President Ivan Duque to end negotiations with the ELN and order the immediate capture of the guerilla high command, who were negotiating in Cuba at the time. Since then, the unrestrained fighting between the government and illegal armed groups over territorial control and illicit economies has drastically deepened the humanitarian crisis in Chocó.

Chocó’s natural resource richness, inaccessibility, and connection to both oceans make it prime real estate of strategic geographical value for armed groups. The second largest producer of gold in the country, it is estimated 60 percent of Chocó’s gold leaves the Colombia illegally. By some estimates, this makes illegal gold exploitation more profitable than cocaine in Colombia’s Pacific region. An increase of coca crops, alongside the usage of  Chocó’s coasts as shipping points, have armed actors fighting viciously over control of the department. 

Armed groups have subjugated communities in places of strategic value for decades, placing them under complete social control. Nevertheless, a period of FARC hegemony over the region allowed some traditional authorities to retain their positions of leadership. Indeed, some leaders were able to negotiate effectively with the guerilla high command if FARC fighters overstepped boundaries with the community. 

Now that the FARC has left Chocó, and the State has failed to establish control, armed actors seek to subjugate these populations once again.

The difference is that the multiplicity of armed actors, the long periods of active fighting, and the lack of clear territorial boundaries makes the approach of these armed groups more vicious and in no way conciliatory, leaving little space for these newfound, highly vulnerable civil society organizations to exercise their leadership..

Since local government is corrupted, infiltrated by illegal armed groups, and incapable of controlling the territory, Chocó’s civil society is the population’s first and only line of defense against renewed victimization. Likewise, Chocó’s civil society is the only thing standing in the way of control of these widely profitable and vulnerable areas by illegal armed groups. 

However, armed groups are pursuing a strategy of confining and eroding civil society, by restricting the freedom of movement that would allow groups to meet, issuing threats and attacks against social leaders (in many cases forcing them to leave the region), and even infiltrating these same organizations and compromising their legitimacy. All of these serves to disempower the capacity of Chocó’s civil society to lobby and organize among themselves. 

There are other abhorrent effects of the ongoing conflict in Chocó. Both confined and displaced communities cannot engage in cultural practices—a fundamental basis for their resilience— that are deeply rooted in their ties to the land they have inhabited for hundreds of years. Children cannot attend school, increasing their likelihood of recruitment by armed groups and potentially foregoing the passage of ancestral knowledge to a new generation. 

During WOLA’s field trip to the region, multiple sources reported the cohabitation and collaboration of the Colombian army and the paramilitaries, positioned in the Atrato River just a few miles ahead of each other.

One particularly sinister practice of the ELN is the recruiting of indigenous teenagers to spy and report on Afro-Colombian communities, and vice versa, to sow mistrust between them. Many asserted that the army would handpick those thought to be ELN sympathizers for the paramilitaries to kill. Usually, individuals are forced to collaborate or be killed, and afterwards they are immediately branded as enemy sympathizers by the competing armed group—helplessly forced between a rock and a hard place.

Colombian ethnic civil society has increasingly become more vibrant and active, as seen when various groups came together to negotiate the historic inclusion of an Ethnic Chapter in the 2016 peace accords, or when ethnic communities organized to formulate transformative development plans for their regions, or when they helped craft a humanitarian accord based on international humanitarian law standards— these are achievements showcasing the momentum and capacity developed by Colombia’s ethnic civil society. Chocó—Colombia’s department with the highest concentration of ethnic populations— serves as an example for the rest of the country in terms of how an active, engaged civil society can bring about positive change. However, old patterns of violence seek to drag Chocóan communities back into a history of subjugation. The Ethnic Chapter, along with the totality of the peace accord, must be fully implemented now more than ever in order to prevent this.

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Human Rights Defenders, Indigenous Communities

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