A discussion of the armed conflict in Afro-descendant and indigenous territories along Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
The story of displacement and resistance of Afro-descendant, indigenous, and campesino communities along the Naya River, which forms the border between Valle del Cauca and Cauca departments.
A look at the work of, and severe threats faced by, social leaders in Cauca, the department of Colombia where more leaders have been killed than anywhere else.
As of early April 2020, Colombia has documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures.
This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted. We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings.”
In this edition of the WOLA Podcast, that memo’s author, Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.
Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.
Colombia, along with the rest of the world, is dealing with the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. Similar to governments across the globe, it is adapting the best it can to this unprecedented public health threat. As of April 9, 69 Colombians have died, and another 2,223 are infected with the virus that has spread across 23 departments. In this update, we include information received from our partners with their view on how the pandemic is affecting their communities, along with concerning reports of on-going killings, attacks, and threats against social leaders; armed conflict; insecurity; and other abuses. Sadly, despite the national quarantine in Colombia, killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted.
We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings. Additional measures must be put in place to protect the health of these already marginalized communities. For this to be effective, consultation, coordination, and implementation are required with ethnic leaders in both rural and urban settings. On March 30, the Ethnic Commission sent President Duque a letter with medium and long-term requests to best help ethnic communities. In sum, they ask the government to coordinate with them; guarantee food supplies, seeds, and inputs for planting their crops; and to strengthen their organizations so they can sustain their national and regional team that attends daily to the situation of the peoples in the territories. At present, the National Organization for Indigenous Peoples (ONIC) has developed a national system of territorial monitoring of the COVID-19 virus in indigenous territories. They have organized territorial controls with indigenous guards to limit contagion in indigenous areas. AFRODES has circulated guidelines for displaced Afro-Colombians in urban settings.
Over 100 ethnic and rural organizations are calling for a two-week ceasefire in Colombia’s most conflict-ridden areas. They are asking for a cessation of hostilities to be added to measures taken by the Colombian government to curb the spread of COVID-19.
With support from the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, the signatories sent separate letters to the national government, the ELN, the FARC dissident groups, and the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group. The communities are asking all to call an immediate halt to offensive actions until April 1, with a possible extension to May 30.
The signatories are overwhelmingly from the conflict-hit departments of Cauca, Chocó, Meta, Putumayo, and Valle del Cauca. Many communities have self-protection measures in place, like the Indigenous Guard, to peacefully work to defend their territories. Colombia must listen to vulnerable communities and meet their demands at this time.
Here is the English text of the letter that went to Colombian President Iván Duque. The letters to the illegal armed groups are closely similar.
Cessation of armed operations by COVID-19 to President Iván Duque Márquez
Our communities live in territories where violence persists in various forms.
We call upon you, combatants of all forces, to protect your own lives and the lives of we, the civilians, in our territories.
We call on you as the main commander of the Armed Forces and National Police to protect the lives of the official combatants and the lives of civilians in our territories with a cessation of hostilities. We make this call on all armed groups operating in our regions based on the WHO declaration of the pandemic called COVID–19, which is already causing irreparable loss of human life.
In particular, we propose:
- Inform all personnel of the COVID–19 pandemic and the consequences for their lives and those of those who are in contact with them.
- Train them in preventive mechanisms.
- Only act in case of attacks and non-compliance by opponents of this proposal, which is implicit in the Global Humanitarian Agreement by the Pandemic.
This request is also made explicitly to the Armed Forces and Police, security agencies, and eradicators. we have reports of the virus infection in armed forces personnel of the United States.
- Remove your personnel from our environments or communities and place them at distances that prevent the virus from spreading.
- Refrain from convening any kind of mandatory meeting.
Our communities in some regions are experiencing droughts, other regions are affected by heavy rains. Their lives and our lives are precious. The armed strategies, for reasons of humanity—of all humanity—must stop for at least two weeks, until 1 April, starting tomorrow with a possible extension until at least 30 May.
The pandemic has very severe social, environmental and economic effects that are calling us to take the path of a different society. Today no one is exempt from dying from this virus, not even the most powerful in weapons and wealth.
Let’s take advantage of COVID–19 to think about the life of each one of you, in the life of each of us, in the life of the country. Assume the reflection among your crews, fronts, brigades, battalions, commanders. Nothing remains of our arrogance, nor of our vain pride. It is the time of solidarity, and from it peace in a new democracy.
We invite you to listen to our request for a partial cessation of hostilities.
Life is teaching us. It is a time for everyone. The isolation experienced by the citizenry in the country must lead us, perhaps, to reflect on the confinement and lack of food for years that we have lived in the regions.
We need a social, environmental and legal state that consolidates a transversal and integral peace. With this crisis, the importance of an inclusive country without corruption, in cooperation with all of humanity, in which you can contribute, will be recognized.
Let’s start now!
- Assailants in Cali kill Arley Hernán Chalá, a bodyguard of prominent Chocó social leader Leyner Palacios, who is not with him at the time. Chalá is shot 18 times outside his home. “This must have been a message for me and for our process,” says Palacios, a survivor of the 2002 Bojayá massacre who was forced to leave Chocó in February after receiving threats. The threats continued even after Palacios met with President Duque and foreign ambassadors in January.
The ICRC expresses grave concern about displacement and confinement of indigenous and Afro-descendant populations in Chocó.
An in-depth look at the security and human rights situation in Chocó, where Afro-descendant and indigenous communities are caught amid fighting between the ELN and the Gulf Clan.
- Visiting Bojayá, Chocó, President Duque promises to increase military presence and social investment in the battered municipality.
- That day, Bojayá social leader Leyner Palacios, who had met with President Duque three days before, receives a truculent letter from the commander of the Titan Joint Task Force, a Chocó-based military unit. Palacios had denounced episodes of collusion between members of the security forces and Gulf Clan paramilitaries. In what he calls a “freedom of information request,” Commander Darío Fernando Cardona Castrillón asks Palacios to provide “names or surnames of the security-force members, and the place and date during which such illegal acts were committed, so that respective investigations may be initiated.”
- Amid reports of 23 homicides of social leaders in December, a large-scale “Gulf Clan” paramilitary incursion in Bojayá, Chocó, and the murder of human rights defender Gloria Ocampo in Putumayo, the Presidency convenes a rare meeting of the National Security Guarantees Commission that was established by the peace accord.
- Bojayá social leader Leyner Palacios, who denounced serious recent threats on his life, is invited to join the Commission’s meeting. Palacios is known nationally as a survivor of the 2002 FARC indiscriminate bombing that destroyed the village’s church, killing 79 people—including 5 of Palacios’s relatives—seeking refuge inside.
- High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos voices doubt that 300 Gulf Clan members could be deployed all at once in Bojayá, as local groups have denounced.
“Boys, girls, and adolescents in indigenous reserves and Afro-Colombian community councils are those most pursued” by the ELN and the Gulf Clan paramilitaries in Chocó.
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.
Erlendy Cuero Bravo was honored by Johns Hopkins University on February 18 in a ceremony in Baltimore for her tireless defense of Afro-Colombian human rights despite repeated threats to her life.
While global attention has concentrated on the grave humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, Cuero Bravo focused her Washington D.C. on sounding the alarm about neighboring Colombia’s protracted civil conflict and the fragility of the 2016 peace deal that faces daily threats from the Colombian government.
Cuero Bravo is the vice president of AFRODES, an organization fighting for the rights of Afro-Colombians displaced by armed conflict. AFRODES was founded in 1999 and represents a coalition of 96 organizations with over 90,000 members. Cuero Bravo accepted the Anne Smedinghoff Award and presented her work before Johns Hopkins students and faculty.
“I am originally from a small village in Buenaventura,” she said. “But I fled to Cali after my father was murdered.”
Beginning with the loss of her father, Cuero Bravo has endured a succession of threats and tragedies from her activism. One of AFRODES’s most visible leaders, she represents a default target for armed groups. Though finally granted state protection after a series of bureaucratic delays, she now lives in hiding in a situation she compares to a drug trafficker evading the law.
Armed groups have gone so far as to threaten Cuero-Bravo’s children. “I thought that if I am going to die defending the work I do, that’s one thing, but I will not stand to allow anything to happen to my child,” she said.
Cuero Bravo dismissed many state protection measures as completely ineffective. She described one protection protocol as simply a daily visit from police to see if the social leader is still alive. In another, a social leader is taken to a hotel for five days before moving back to the threatened area.
“The only weapon we have is our words,” she said.
In a separate meeting with WOLA and other human rights organizations, Cuero Bravo detailed disproportionate impact of both poverty and violence on Afro-Colombian women. Threats of physical violence come from criminal gangs, paramilitaries, small-scale drug traffickers, and false accusations from the police that target human rights defenders.
The circumstances of deprivation that displaced Afro-Colombians and others are enduring have recently become obscured by the Venezuelan refugee crisis.
“We want to help our Venezuelan sisters and brothers,” Cuero Bravo said during the event with WOLA. “But it’s hard to see President Duque promising immediate aid to them while we [the displaced population in Colombia] still don’t have access to education, housing, or schools for our children.”
Cuero Bravo expressed her concern that the influx of Venezuelan refugees will present Colombia’s internally displaced population with a competition for resources and exacerbate the unemployment that feeds the country’s cycle of violence.
The high unemployment and economic stress afflicting displaced communities and ethnic minorities creates an environment that enhances the vulnerability for young people to be recruited into illegal trafficking or gang-related groups. Many armed groups focus on recruiting children due to the reduced legal penalties for children under the age of 18.
What worries Cuero Bravo most is the lack of hope she sees in her community’s youth. “The young people see the toll it takes to fight for our rights, and now they don’t want to be social leaders anymore.”
Still, Cuero Bravo pointed to several positive signs of progress in the Afro-Colombian community. Youth programs, like one in Cali that supports 1300 young people with access to education and job training, have the potential to significantly decrease the violence in the region.
“There are so many resources in Colombia,” Cuero Bravo said. “There’s no reason why Colombia shouldn’t be a rich country.”
Written by Julia Friedmann, Colombia Program Intern