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.

Death squads

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.

However, many simply regrouped into criminal bands known as “Bacrim”, and continue to terrorise the population under names such as Rastrojos, Águilas Negras and Urabeños.

The result of this wider conflict is staggering with an estimated 5.3 million internal refugees, the highest such number in the world.

In October 2011 US president Barack Obama signed the US-Colombia free trade agreement (FTA) that saw 80 per cent of US consumer and industrial exports become duty free overnight. A supposedly protective labour action plan was implemented in April 2011 but since it has been in place, a reported 38 trade union workers have been murdered.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos says the deal will bring in some 100,000 jobs a year but some experts feel the huge influx of capital can only bring more carnage.

“Large-scale development projects are tied to the root causes of violence or directly tied to violence. Our biggest concern with the FTA is that the paramilitary structures have not been dealt with and that the violence will increase,” says Gimena Sánchez, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.

In Buenaventura the pressure is already mounting, with the expedited expansion of the port and a mooted tourism project on the water’s edge threatening to bulldoze neighbourhoods such as La Inmaculada and La Playita and displace more than 17,000 families.

Protection of drug routes

For its part, Farc began the peace talks by demanding social reforms but many now allege that Farc is working with paramilitaries to ensure the protection of drug routes. This is a much different war than it once was; it’s a battle for riches, not one of ideology.

“At some point, the Farc got involved in narco-trafficking and acted the same as the paramilitaries,” says one community leader. “They don’t represent us.”

About 160km (100 miles) inland, in the mountainous Cauca region, the same fear is everywhere. Here, the fight for Colombia’s natural resources is in full view; coal and precious metals are in abundance, and an intense global scramble for mining titles is under way.

A traditional Farc stronghold, northern Cauca’s towns are now mostly controlled by the military, but it is clear the guerrillas retain a good deal of support. Farc is nowhere, yet everywhere.

In places such as Caloto, Corinto and Suarez, life seems almost pedestrian, but since a paramilitary upsurge around 1998, this region has seen incredible terror. In the years which followed, the Cauca river became known as “the cemetery”.

People were often dismembered alive with chainsaws and thrown into the waterways, or beheaded in town squares to spread panic. The land vacated when people fled this type of horror then became fair game.

High above Suarez, at La Toma, community council leaders Francia Márquez and Lisifrey Ararat are fighting tooth and nail to save their historic village, home to an Afro-Colombian gold mining community since 1636. Here, locals use the same methods practised by their ancestors to mine the hills by hand. Now, they are caught in the middle of a three-way war between the guerrillas, the army and the paramilitaries.

A decade ago, when the government began granting mining concessions in the municipality to outside investors, Colombian and multinational corporations took notice. In the years that followed, 35 new concessions were granted locally, ignoring a prior community consultation process guaranteed under Colombian law. Then the eviction notices came.

‘Social cleansing’

When La Toma protested, the paramilitaries moved in. Death threats and promises of “social cleansing” from the Águilas Negras followed; on April 7th, 2010, armed men at nearby Alto Ovejas massacred eight miners.

Attempts to evict 1,300 families at La Toma were most recently thwarted in April of last year, after locals took a case to the Colombian constitutional court. The new licences were suspended as they had not adhered to prior consultation, but locals fear the breathing space is temporary.

Though it is widely accepted that under Santos genuine efforts have been made to address past human rights abuses, people here are still wary of an army which worked brazenly with the paramilitaries for so long. In Caloto, Col John Mesa’s 14th mobile brigade has seen heavy fighting with the guerrillas. Although he cannot ignore the past, he says the military respects human rights.

“Maybe some cases are real,” he says of the accusations.

“I cannot be sure because I have never participated. This is an army that has received the most rigorous human rights training in the world.”

Márquez and Ararat scoff at the notion of a benevolent military and, like the terrorised locals in Buenaventura, they do not feel peace talks will improve their situation.

“The government wants to open the door for multinationals and create more misery and displacement and death in our communities,” says Márquez.

“We don’t have much hope for this process here. There is no hope at all.”

In the 1980s, the construction of the giant Salvajina Dam in the valley below displaced a large number of families. Many moved to higher ground at La Toma, with others destined for a life of misery in urban slums.

They have learned a hard lesson, they say. Peace or no peace, there will be no more moving. “These lands are our life, mining is our life,” La Toma’s leaders are agreed. “We have said as a community that we’ll leave these territories, but only when we are dead.”

With millions across Colombia living on some of the most sought-after land in the world, the view is widespread that communities in the crosshairs are little more than an afterthought at the talks.

“Neither side is telling the truth,” they say at the PCN office in Buenaventura.

“Our struggle is about fairness. We live off our own work and the things that we produce in our territories. They just want to exploit the resources. They represent their own economic interests.”