Colombians living in fear as battle for control rages around them
At the headquarters of the Colombian Process of Black Communities (PCN) in Buenaventura, Afro-Colombian community representatives describe a terrorised city. Huddled in a hot, airless office, one leader from a nearby barrio is unsparing in her criticism of the peace talks launched in October in Oslo, Norway, and which resumed yesterday in Havana, aimed at ending 50 years of internal conflict.
She wonders how there can be a meaningful peace while paramilitary death squads roam her town, killing with impunity. She rejects the notion that the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) can hammer out a truce while the victims, the people, are not consulted.
The woman has an air of fearlessness, but when asked how she has suffered personally, her response reveals why, in paramilitary-controlled Buenaventura and much of rural Colombia, people are very afraid. She drops her head and unleashes guttural sobs, illustrating a brand of horror that millions of voiceless Colombians are forecasting to continue regardless of the peace talks.
“Eight men raped me as I defended my children,” she manages. “The paramilitaries wanted to recruit my children. They would come every night harassing them, but they didn’t want to go, so I had to defend them.
“For the last 10 years I have also been looking for my father and my three brothers who have been forcibly disappeared. I still haven’t found them.”
This type of abuse and intimidation is an everyday occurrence in Buenaventura – the largest port on Colombia’s Pacific coast – which handles about 60 per cent of the country’s international trade and 40 per cent of cocaine exports.
First arriving in large numbers around 1998, the paramilitaries were ostensibly set up to combat Farc rebels, but grew into mafia-like drug cartels that also defended major landowners and big business, often facilitated by a cozy relationship with the army.
They employed such brutality to ensure an immediate stranglehold on the country’s main Pacific transport route. With Farc pushed out, the reign of the death squads in Buenaventura had begun. At first, confused locals tried to fight back.
The terror only increased after the signing of Plan Colombia in 2000, which would eventually see the US send $9 billion (€6.95 billion) of mostly military aid to fight Farc and the drug trade. Farc fractured into smaller groups and retreated to isolated areas.
Emboldened by Farc’s lessened ability to attack, and boosted by military and police collusion, the paramilitaries were thriving throughout Colombia. Entire regions were brutalised and allegations linking major corporations to the violence began to surface.
In 2007, Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International pleaded guilty to paying $1.7 million to paramilitary umbrella group United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) between 1997 and 2004.
According to court documents produced in a civil suit taken against Chiquita, the banana giant also transported 3,000 AK-47 rifles and five million rounds of ammunition intended for the AUC.
The paramilitaries officially demobilised in 2006 after agreeing to a plea deal with the Álvaro Uribe government.