Racial violence is not unique to the United States. In Colombia, black people are also discriminated against and murdered. The Afro-Colombian communities that, on the border with Panama, inhabit the Cacarica del Chocó river basin, one of the regions with the greatest biodiversity on the planet, know this well. The trip from the port of Turbo, in the neighboring region of Antioquia, takes about three hours by boat to get there. You have to first cross the Gulf of Urabá and, after a half-hour trip through the Caribbean Sea, enter the majestic Atrato River, then go up the Cacarica River and then continue through marine channels covered with a blanket of ferns and reeds that make navigation difficult . As in much of Chocó, the roads here are entirely fluvial. A large billboard that reads: “New Hope in God Humanitarian Zone, exclusive territory of the civilian population”, warns of the arrival.
In this secluded place, days are spent farming, fishing, playing cards and going out from time to time for beers and shaking hips. Everything apparently normal. However, the locals say that nothing is like before, when the Cacarica was an agricultural region that lived on banana, rice, fruit trees, fish and wood. Today there is neither the tranquility nor the confidence to move freely through the territory. “We think that with the For the signing of peace, calm would arrive, but the FARC surrendered their weapons and new groups arrived in the territory. Now there are paramilitaries, the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Public Force that do not fight them. The war is never going to end because it is a business and those who suffer are the peasants. Faced with so much murder of social leaders in Colombia, we have to take care when we go outside and if an armed group asks about our leaders, we tell them that we are all leaders here, ”says the young Edwin Orejuela from the Cacarica community.
The history of these lands is a history of violence and dispossession, but also of heroic defense of Afro-Colombian life, territory and identity. The situation of these communities radically changed in 1997, when a military action known as Operation Genesis was apparently intended to combat the FARC guerrillas. However, the Colombian State once again played dirty and, using the war, with the support of paramilitary groups to generate terror and powerful business interests, had no other purpose than to expel from their lands the twenty black communities that then lived in the banks of the Cacarica river basin. One more chapter of the war in Colombia, full of assassinations, massacres and forced displacements perpetrated by paramilitary groups with the action, omission or acquiescence of the Public Force.
Behind the forced displacement in this area of Chocó there was interest in natural wealth and in the use of the territories for agribusiness and the implementation of infrastructure projects. He said it and sentenced it in 2013 Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) that would condemn the Colombian State 20 years later as responsible for what happened. Sentence it urged the State to “restore the effective use, enjoyment and possession of the territories” and to provide protection to their communities. Along the same lines, a Bogotá court sentenced General Rito Alejo, who commanded the operation, to 25 years in prison. The stories of the paramilitary commanders that operated in the region also confessed how, based on territorial social control, the large-scale extraction of timber, the destruction of the native forest for the promotion of extensive cattle ranching and the business promotion of monocultures was ensured. oil palm and banana.
The Colombian State had no other purpose than to expel from their lands the twenty black communities that lived on the banks of the Cacarica River.
Operation Genesis resulted in 82 murders and generated massive displacement. Pascual Ávila remembers it as if it were yesterday. “The war has screwed us up. They ransacked our houses and gave us the order to leave. It is an absolute impotence. Everything that one has done in an instant is lost and the uncertainty is tremendous. But he has to make the decision to leave because it is his life, that of the woman, that of the children, mine. I had nine small children, the oldest was 15 years old. I couldn’t get anything out. He had a job, five mules, two chainsaws, wood to sell and 21 head of cattle, ”Pascual recalls.
During the journey, some crossed to Panama, but the vast majority, like Pascual, chose to go to Turbo. Here they spent three years living crammed into a sports hall. Life in the coliseum was not easy, especially for a family with nine children. “We were about 3,000 people, we slept in the stands, on the floor. We tried to organize ourselves into committees, but with people in shock there was no way to get it right. Then a month passes, two, three … And you see how the State was abandoning us, ”explains Pascual.
Jarlenson Angulo was 10 years old when he lived in the sports arena, but he can never forget that experience. “As a child, one spent it playing, but it was a great psychological disorder. We feel very discriminated against and stigmatized. Everything that happened was attributed to the displaced. If someone got sick, it was the disease of the displaced; if you were dirty, they said you were like a displaced person; We formed a soccer team and they called us the team of the displaced. Some schools did not even allow one to be there ”, recalls Jarlenson in his 30s today.
The return home
Despite the harsh living conditions as displaced people, the people of Cacarica never gave up, they began to organize and they decided to return in 2000. They created the Cavida organization —Comunidades de Autodeterminación Vida y Dignidad— and, accompanied by international and national organizations, demanded conditions to be able to return. When they arrived, from the town they left they only found the remains of the church, the school and the clear signs of three years of neglect in their wooden houses. He had to start over, clear the land and sow again. They renamed the two places where they resettled as Nueva Esperanza en Dios and Nueva Vida. “We knew that we were returning in the middle of the war. The most beautiful thing was how we began to organize ourselves by groups of women, children, older adults, and young people. That gave us strength because we knew that together we can achieve many more things, ”says another young man from the community who is known as Frutiño.
After the return, they obtained the collective title to their lands and were constituted as a Humanitarian and Biodiversity Zone to protect life and land from attacks by economic interests and armed groups. It is a way of inhabiting the territory and defending the environment through a process of empowerment of the displaced population, protected by legislation and international law. “These 20 years have enabled the creativity of black communities to confront this subjugation and the usurpation of their territories. This creativity has generated initiatives as important as humanitarian zones and biodiversity zones, which have shown the absence of responses from the State that continues with the development of covert military strategies and the attempt to impose agro-industrial models that ignore the territorial rights of the communities ”, argues without breathing Danilo Rueda, a member of the organization Justicia y Paz, who accompanies the Cacarica process.
Operation Genesis, in 1997, resulted in 82 murders and generated a massive displacement of communities
Cacarica’s was one of the first return processes in Colombia. Twenty years later, Pascual Ávila has mixed feelings and disappointments. “Legally, everything that has been possible has been done. In some things it seemed that we were going to be favored as victims but, not only has nothing happened, but we have been further victimized. The worst thing is that the paramilitaries are still in the territory and we do not know what the Government’s proposal is in front of us to assure us that this is a territory for the peasants and black communities, even though we have a law that gave us the title and therefore, it would be inviolable, “he says.
The truth is that the Cacarica communities live in the area with the sole protection of human rights organizations and international accompaniment. The residents of this basin have continued to denounce the presence of paramilitary groups and harassment. Two decades after the return, the threats continue and the economic interests have not disappeared. Today, the land of Chocó continues to be besieged by voracious companies and is one of the alternatives for the construction of a new interoceanic canal. The Cacarica is within what has been called “the best corner of America”, an area on which large investments are coming due to its strategic geographical position that would allow the future connection of the south with the center and north of America, and also between the Pacific and the Atlantic.
After their return, in 2000, they obtained collective title to their lands and became a Humanitarian and Biodiversity Zone
As is the case in all of Colombia, the situation of social leaders in the area is of particular concern. “Fortunately, they have not murdered anyone there, but they are trying to kill their souls and that is also serious and much deeper because it becomes part of normality, where the leaders have to keep silent before the control of their lives daily, given the limitations on their free mobilization and free expression by those armed structures that operate in the midst of the presence of the military forces, ”laments Rueda. The covid-19 came to complicate everything even more. As in many other areas of the country, the pandemic has been used by armed groups to consolidate their power in the face of a defenseless population that should have been confined.
However, neither Edwin, nor Jarlenson nor Frutiño want to leave Cacarica again. Young people played a very important role in the emotional recovery of the communities and, through art and education, contributed to strengthening the process, preventing many of them from falling into the temptation of joining the ranks of an armed group. “We set out to approach education from the same community. Some young people volunteered to lead an ethno-educational project of their own education to seek development as a community, ”explains Edwin Orejuela.
They all know that where they live there is a lack of opportunities and have seen how other colleagues have not done badly on the outside, but they assure that they love their land from a commitment to defend life and territory. “Leaving everything after such a long time would upset me. My reality is this, I am a peasant and I will continue to be. It is a responsibility of the young because, if the youth leaves and the elders die, all is lost. Where there is wealth, there will always be violence, and that confronts us and forces us to continue making our process visible ”, emphasizes Jarlenson.