Tag Archives: Civil War in Colombia

Bojayá: Forgotten by Urbanity, Remembered by the community.

The final part of the three part series on the 11th anniversary of the massacre/Genocide of Bojayá published at Colombia Politics. 

Other interesting links worth checking out is this documentary on the experience of people displaced from Bellavista by the violence, this photo-report on the bellavisteños who were displaced and are trying to make a new life in Quibdó. I’d also like to again emphasize that much of my research for this post came from the Commission of Historical Memory of Colombia and their report on Bojayá, “The Massacre of Bojayá: The War Without Limits“. I would also encourage bilingual readers to check out these series of radio interviews with survivors of the genocide who are memorializing in their own words.

Bojayá, Chocó: The forgotten Colombia

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The communities of Bojayá, in Chocó, and Afro-descendent and indigenous peoples more generally, still face serious challenges and oppressions by the Colombian state, armed actors, and multinational corporations.

Chocó continues to be a FARC, ELN, and (neo-)paramilitary stronghold where groups fight over gold, land for agribusiness, drug trafficking routes, and the obedience of the population living on the rich land.

It is still a central point for the conflict, and produces a disproportionate amount of displacements; most displaced chocoanos end up in Quibdó, or in Medellín where they experience the additional issue of systematic racism and discrimination against people who are rural, chocoano, or displaced.

Chocó is ironically one of the richest areas of Colombia in terms of resources and since the 80s has been the apple of the eye of forestry, agribusiness, but especially mining companies.  Conflict between the communities and multinationals like AngloGold Ashanti has encouraged President Santos to rethink the mining codes.

Chocó also has some of Colombia´s worst indicators in terms of development. Literacy rates a relatively poor, and poverty is over 60%. In the Atrato region, 95% of the population has basic unsatisfied needs, according to government figures.

All these challenges are taken on by the organizations which promote the rights of the indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and displaced populations of Chocó.

These groups include  the “Association of the Displaced People of the 2nd of May (ADOM)”, the “Diocesis of Quibdó” which works through the Comission for Life, Justice, and Peace, “The Regional Organization for the Emberá-Wounaan or OREWA, the “Association of the Indigenous Chiefs of Emberá, Wounaan, Katió, Chamí and Tule” or ASOREWA, and the “Major Community Council of the Integral Peasant Association of the Atrato” or COCOMACIA who have their roots in the struggles for protecting the land against large forestry companies in the 1980s.

These groups do their work despite threats by armed groups.

What does Bojayá mean for Colombia?

We talk of Bojayá as if it were our crisis and the FARC were our terrorists who we must defeat.

And although the story of Bojayá is similar to that of much of Colombia in which local communities and their ways of life are disturbed and uprooted by national dynamics – who are not interested in them but only in what their suffering can get them-  we must understand that although we are all Colombian or even human, there are significant racial, class, rural/urban, and cultural divisions which means that we cannot appropriate the voice or the suffering of the people of Bojayá.

The people of Bojayá have been mistreated and exploited through a process of objectification and silencing since colonization – first they were under the thumb of the colonizers, then the national government who only wishes to extract their riches or speak for their community as part of its counterinsurgency or reparations plans, and now it is menaced by armed groups and multinationals.

The question is whether, when we commemorate the massacre (as we did last week), we allow the community space in which it can be heard on its own terms – or whether the urban, modern Colombia is forced to remember the other, rural (and largely ignored) Colombia only on important anniversaries, when a show can be made?

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The Bojayá massacre, Uribe, and Plan Colombia

The second instalment of three about the massacre of Bojayá and the lack of attention its’ anniversary has received this year, which was graciously published over at Colombia Politics.

For more context on the massacre of Bojayá, check out the first post.

Bojayá massacre, Uribe and Plan Colombia

IMAGEN-11677964-1 Photo: El Tiempo

The massacre of Bojayá represented a low point in war in terms of mistreatment of the civilian population in Colombia, but its horror marks an important moment in the nation´s recent political history ocurring at a turning point in the battle against the FARC guerrillas.

Plan Colombia and elections

The genocide occurred in May 2002, while in February the then President, Andrés Pastrana Arango had called off the four year long peace talks with the FARC, citing a lack of political will on behalf of the guerrillas,

The tragic events in Bojayá occurred during an election campaign in which a fringe-candidate with a “mano dura”/hardline law-and-order agenda, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, emerged on the national stage. The massacre served as political fodder for the then candidate to further paint the FARC as genocidal narcoterrorists needing to be militarily defeated.

Uribe later won the 2002 elections in the first round/without needing a run-off, an historic first in Colombian politics. As President, Uribe (and Pastrana as well beforehand) used the genocide as part of a campaign to get the FARC on “terrorist” lists in the European Union, the United States, Canada and other countries so as to legitimate a military rather than a political solution to end the armed conflict.

Meanwhile, in 1999 Andrés Pastrana had negotiated with Bill Clinton a multi-billion dollar aid package which, although partially focusing on economic development, was mostly military aid. The deal, which was at first framed around fighting narcotrafficking and the War on Drugs was known as “Plan Colombia” and made Colombia the no. 2 recipient of US military aid in the world, behind Turkey.

Following the attacks of September 11th 2001, and after the genocide and the election of Uribe in 2002, the Plan Colombia money was used also to fight the FARC and was seen as a strange convergence between the interests of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

Plan Colombia funcs were used to professionalize the army, leading to an historic high in military spending, known domestically as “Plan Patriota”/the Patriot Plan. This plan expanded the presence of the Army into the most marginal and peripheral areas of Colombia in order to fight the guerrillas. The knock on effect of this expansion was to  increase – rather than reduce – violence in the Chocó region in subsequent years.

As Plan Colombia was rolled out, concern grew within the State Department and the US Congress about links between the Colombian Army and the Paramilitary AUC who fought against the FARC.

Survivors´ voices ignored, or forgotten?

Uribe had been warned of the US distaste, and in response, as part of a “reparations” package, constructed ‘The New Bellavista’ (a new church and housing development). All this was done to a more modern and western style, totally foreign to the Afro-Colombian tradition of the local population. And strangely when inaugurating the “New Bellavista”, President Uribe gave his speech exclusively in English.

Many community members (whose language is of course Spanish), felt that the government was using Bellavista – as a community and a project to “show off” as part of its reparations agenda. An affront then, that it seemed as though the government was directing its initiatives to improving its international image and not the people who had actually been affected by the massacre.

Worse still, many of the economic aid projects established by the government and the NGOs were seen as unsustainable; creating dependency rather than development. All of the initiatives in ‘New Bellavista’ were considered by the displaced population in Quibdó to ignore their needs.

Last year, as the 10th anniversary of the massacre was marked, much attention was given to how the community still lacks a medical centre and other basic needs. This, despite the Constitutional Court having declared the community entitled to such investment as part of the reparation package. So, 11 years on and the community stills appears forgotten, the victims of the war not properly attended to, or represented.

There is, too, very little comfort to be taken from the way in which justice has been dealt. 36 members of the FARC-EP, including members of the Secretariat, have been involved in judicial processes concerning the massacre, but only 8 have been convicted. No charges have been brought before the AUC paramilitaries, and least of all now given the legal benefits afforded to them as part of their 2003-2006 demobilization.

Part three of this report will look at the challenges the community still faces, and offer a view for the future.

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The Genocide of Bojayá: 11 years of impunity

This was a guest-post I did for Colombia Politics on the 11th anniversary of the massacre of Bojayá. The first in a three part series. The majority of my research for it came from the amazing work on Historical Memory dune by the Grupo de Memoria Histórica and their report, “La Massacre de Bojayá: La Guerra Sin Límites”/”The Massacre of Bojayá: The War Without Limits”. The initiatives by the BMH this year attempted to create a space where the community is heard in their own words, and I strongly encourage you to check it out if you understand Spanish.

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Photo: Mauricio Moreno, El Tiempo

Thursday marked the 11th anniversary of the massacre of Bojayá in Chocó, Colombia. Anywhere from 79 people, the majority of whom were minors, were killed when the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), the Marxist guerrillas, launched an explosive into a church in the community of Bellavista where 300 people were seeking protection from a battle between the revolutionaries and the paramilitaries.

Every year, chocoano communities commemorate the massacre, and use it as a space to advocate for their rights facing current challenges of poverty and marginalization. For the tenth anniversary of the massacre, it was all over the media, yet this year, there is scant word from any of the nation’s major newspapers including El Tiempo, El Espectador, Semana, etc.

This massacre had huge implications in national politics, Colombia’s image abroad, its relationship with the United States, and most importantly, it evidences the huge gap between ‘The Two Colombias’, and how one promises reparation, and the other is still waiting for it 11 years after one of the country’s worst tragedies.

The massacre bears not only memorializing, but also understanding as it is a microcosm for state abandonment, and the interests and dynamics of how paramilitarism and the guerrillas work within peripheral, marginalized, underdeveloped, and overexploited regions of Colombia like Chocó.

bojaya2The FARC shot the cylinder-bomb which exploded in the church, allegedly, because the counter-revolutionary paramilitaries were using the church as a human shield during the combat. Many of the civilians fled into the church given that it was the only concrete structure in the town where people could be protected during the armed confrontations between different armed groups. Apparently, the order to shoot the cylinder-bomb came from as high as members of the Secretariat (who some analysts now say they would like to see in Congress instead of continuing in the armed struggle), and the decision to use this illegal and non-conventional weapon was made despite the fact that the weapon is made for static objects, and the paramilitaries were moving.

In other words, it was quite clear to many powerful leaders within the FARC the tremendous danger that using this weapon posed for the civilians caught in the crossfire.

Despite many early warnings by the UN, and a variety of NGOs, it seems that the Colombian Army was complicit in allowing the incursion of paramilitaries in the territory that set off a several day long armed confrontation in the Middle Atrato region of Chocó which eventually culminated in the massacre.

The Colombian government refused to acknowledge its responsibility. The FARC-EP say that it was an “unfortunate accident” and it blamed the paras for using the civilian population as a human shield. The government and the paras said that this proves the ‘barbarity’ of the ‘narcoterrorists’.

The use of the improvised explosive, or pipeta in Spanish, constitutes the use of irregular weapons by the FARC and is therefore a war crime and potentially a crime against humanity. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international NGOs as well as Colombian ones have condemned the FARC’s use of the weapon as such.

The massacre, and combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries which had begun in late April of that year, are part of a much larger trend in which Chocó has become a focal point for the armed conflict since 1997.

The war over the Middle Atrato can be considered as a continuation of the war for Urabá. After the federation of paramilitary groups into the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC) in 1997, paramilitary groups tried to take the Atrato region of Chocó as it was a key corridor for moving drugs, arms, and people from the Urabá region and the Caribbean coast (which by the 90s had become a paramilitary stronghold) into the Pacific region of the country.

Previous expansions of the counterinsurgency in the territory such as the Cacarica and Genesis Operations in 1997 have been linked to the expansion of agribusinesses such as the mono-cultivation of African Palm Oil.

At the same time, the strategic corridor and lack of state presence in Chocó also makes it a very coveted territory by the guerrillas.

The massacre can be seen as part of a much larger pattern of the insurgents taking over the territory, then the counterinsurgents, then the insurgents…

This left, and continues to leave, the people of chocoano communities in a state of vulnerability as the presence of one armed group or the army provokes reprisals and suspicions from the other side.

However, the communities in Chocó were anything but passive objects in the crossfire; since 1999, communities such as Bellavista, have declared themselves ‘Peace Communities’ (Comunidades de Paz) and they have rejected the presence of all armed groups, including even at times the Colombian Army itself.

The massacre led to mass displacements of 5,700 people, and consequently a cultural alienation for the predominantly Afro-Colombian communities affected, who had to leave their traditional territory.

Many of the survivors had to flee the town of Bellavista immediately after the bomb exploded. Many have yet to return to the community, some only returned 8-10 years later. Many of the community’s practices of saying farewell to the dead were unable to occur, leaving a lack of spiritual closure.

Survivors of the massacre however, are not victims. 11 years on and that the community continues to wait for the reparations it is entitled to, and justice in terms of recognizing the complicity of ALL armed actors. The community has, though, organized in several civil-society groups and continues to demand this justice, reparation, and memory.

Many members in the community see the massacre as genocide and a continuation of their historical  displacement from Africa; many consider the battles over their territories as ongoing colonialism.

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War is Development by Other Means: What the latest displacement numbers aren’t telling you

“If the war is a continuation of economics by other means…[then] in Colombia, arms, independent of who wields them, serve the promotion of a social logic of development…” –  Carlos Rosero

This week Colombia was back in the headlines, as a fact that was known nationally for a while now finally made it into the Anglophone mainstream. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre gave the South American nation the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s largest population of internally displaced people, at 5.5 million in its annual report in displacement. Another notable is clearly Syria, who has the fastest growing population of uprooted people, 3 million of the nations 22 million people, and the conflict in the eastern Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo which also displaced 2.4 million after an increase in violence last year that continues today.

The 5.5 million number comes from one of Colombia’s most respected national NGOs, The Consultory for Human Rights and Displacement known by its Spanish acronym CODHES. For decades, the government has claimed that the displaced population in Colombia figures between 3.5-4.9 million, and CODHES has claimed that this number is a gross underestimate, often citing the IDP population at 5.4 million since 2011. Nevertheless, the UNHCR and the Colombian government have slowly started to recognize the value of CODHES methodology, and in so doing their estimates of the IDP population have consequently increased.

These numbers speak volumes to the fact that forced displacement in Colombia, as one of the main forms of violence used by armed actors (and, to a certain extent, one of the few survival strategies of communities) is central to the Colombian conflict and cannot be seen as a consequence/collateral damage of a political issue (the war) but a political, social, and humanitarian issue in and of itself. The numbers also evidence the centrality of controlling territory to the strategies of armed actors (more on that below).

In their annual report, which has been picked up by some media, ‘Columbia’ receives a scant 6 pages despite having the largest population. However, IDMC does recognize challenges with the Victim’s Law (which is trying to provide land restitution to IDPs), and that 230,000 people were displaced last year/although far  from its peak of millions a decade ago, displacement continues to be a very real and present issue.

There is quite a lot that the numbers and supposedly expert analysis from the IDMC and the Norwegian Refugee Council aren’t telling you though.

Firstly, the numbers are somewhat meaningless in an international sense. There is no point in having a sensational “Displacement Olympics” in which Colombia is the gold medal winner and Syria is a rising contender. Although the country’s international image which in terms of security is largely constructed around drug trafficking and kidnapping makes displacement an invisible crisis, comparisons are a bit dangerous. For many years, Colombia was cited as having “the world’s 3rd largest” IDP population after Sudan and Iraq, and then the second only after Sudan, and now Colombia is the undisputed champion. In the early 2000s, when violence was at its height, being the nth country on the list in comparison to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Sudan would have been cold comfort to the millions of people who were violently being uprooted every year from their homes.

Any displacement is too much displacement and we have to think about the way we talk about nations in the Global South. If ‘just’ 50,000 were displaced by war next year in Canada, that would give a lot of people pause. Why are millions of displaced in countries/regions associated with war seen as somehow natural or different?

Secondly, the oft-cited 3.5, 3.9, 4.5, 5.4, and now 5.5 million figures when it comes to displacement in Colombia actually only begin counting from 1985 to the present day. This manifestation of war began in 1964. Therefore, there are literally 20 years of war whose effects on displacement we really don’t know about.

Thirdly, Colombia’s large (and sensationally constructed) displaced population often obscures the fact that between 500,00-1 million Colombians left the country as refugees mostly to Venezuela, Ecuador, Spain, the US, and Canada. If you count these, the number of people who have left their homes due to violence in Colombia is closer to 6.5 million.

Fourth, there is a much larger point about how we conceptualize and consequently prioritize certain kinds of violence. Countless not only Colombians, but Latin Americans, Africans, and many others are currently being displaced by the development of large extractive/mining projects and mega-infrastructure projects. Furthermore, the large amount of violence currently occurring in Mexico and Central America which has displaced thousands is considered criminal, and not political/not related to war. The neo-paramilitary groups, known by the Colombian government as “BACRIM”/criminal bands, are (in my view incorrectly) being framed as criminal actors, and not stakeholders in the political and social armed conflict, and therefore their victims are not entitled to the same reparations which people dispalced by the FARC-EP, ELN, or the Army are.  For example, all actors in Colombia’s conflict are involved, in different ways and proportions, to drug trafficking and mining.

So we have to ask ourselves, why are we being so narrow as to focus on “displacement caused by war”, as if we can define when political violence ends, and criminal and economic violence begins, and as if one is more pressing than another. Therefore, the numbers presented by IDMC represent only a very particular type, and fraction, of the general problem of powerful actors creating insecurity and fear leading to forced migration. Although they nod to the displacement created by these neo-paramilitary groups with an ambiguous political status, the media has framed these as displacements due to traditional understandings of what constitutes war or political violence.

IDMC’s analysis also features the gendered, racialized, classist, and anti-peasant dimensions of forced displacement. Displacement in Colombia disproportionately affects Afro-Colombians and  indigenous peoples (who live in rural areas, typically rich in resources and coveted by armed groups), people who are lower-class (94% of IDPs are poor, although many are impoverished due to displacement), people who are peasants or live in rural areas (although intra-urban displacement is becoming a growing phenomenon). Displaced people are disproportionately single women with children.

However, the report does not mention how many indigenous people are displaced to other indigenous communities, or in areas so remote, that their experiences are often not captured by official records. Moreover, the report, although recognizing that forced migration effects indigenous and Afro-Colombians in particularly, it does not mention the unique relationships of these groups’ respective identity to the territory in the rural context and how displacement from the rural land to the city is often also a process of cultural and social alienation, exacerbating the sense of loss in terms of identity, territory, autonomy, and culture. Furthermore, many Afro-Colombian intellectuals and activists have considered displacement not as a part of war, but as another manifestation of the violence of colonialism which displaced them from Africa, enslaved them in the Americas, and is now again displacing them for their territory in Colombia.

The number also isn’t telling you about how individuals who we have dehumanized under the decontextualizing, technical, and sanitized label of “internally displaced person” or “IDP” (desplazado in Colombia) are subjects with agencies and individual stories. Many Colombians have never been displaced. Many more have been displaced multiple times in their lives. For many, the word “IDP” or “displaced” leads to a stigma of being not only a victim, but associated with the war. In Colombia there is the very ugly prejudice that if someone was displaced, “it must have not been for no reason”. Many communities and people who are displaced, like all of us, have strong ties to their neighbours, friends, territory and social world in which they inhabited, all which are violently unmade by  displacement. Forced migration has to be understood as a very human process of displacement in which one’s social relationship  to geographic space and others is traumatically broken.

But the label is also dehumanizing in that it only sees the displaced person as an object to be effected by armed groups, an obstacle in the crossfire. Nevertheless, people in Colombia (and elsewhere) are subjects and many of them after being displaced actively advocate for their rights and demand justice. However, the demand for restitution of land by survivor’s groups coupled with the Colombian state’s denial of the continuation of paramilitarism has resulted in leaders and representatives of displaced communities being among the primary targets for selected assassination and threats by armed groups. Again, displacement is therefore an issue central, and not collateral, to violence. The IDMC report does mention that in 2004, the Constitutional Court considered the murder of these advocates to be ‘crimes against humanity’.

The final, and in my view, most important thing that forced displacement is about how the Colombian conflict is intimately tied to, some would even say caused, by a need to control land and the political and economic opportunity which it represents.

The report cites “internal armed conflict” and “criminal violence” as causing displacement, as if these do not intertwine and as if these exist in a vacuum isolated from the social world of politics, economic development, the interests of the plutocracy, social movements, and other factors.

Although forced displacement due to armed conflict becomes hypervisible to us in the West and Global North given its humanitarian (and sensational) nature, the root causes of much of this violence becomes invisible because it enables our economic development. The Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) invests in mining companies who are allied with neo-paramilitary groups who displace. Therefore, displacement is not a side-effect of a war which we seldom understand and only see glimpses of through our television screen in Canada, but it is actually necessary for our way of life.

As Colombian-American Anthropologist Arturo Escobar says, displacement is constitutive of capitalist economic development. More land is perpetually needed to fuel growth, and the people living on that land are an obstacle to that development if they are not aligned with it. It bears mentioning here that one of the “economic engines” of President Juan Manuel Santos’ development plan is mining, which has been very much tied to paramilitary displacement. Multinational corporations in the form of mining and agribusiness, drug traffickers, and cattle ranchers, all have a vested stake in having the Colombian land without the people on it.

Many rural displacements, which occur in ‘The Other Colombia’ where a lack of state presence led to the incursion of the insurgency, and then the counterinsurgency, are in areas where the state has only recently appeared, and now sees the riches which the land offer for ‘development’. Livelihoods and ways of being which are counter to the nation-building economic project, which perhaps benefits more Urban Colombia than Rural Colombia, such as fishing, subsistence agriculture, artisanal mining, are displaced to make way for large-scale mega-projects that fit within the logic and supposed rationality of extractive capitalism. Displacement needs to occur to let the nation-state develop since Colombia for a long time was an unconsolidated state; displacement is the violent resolution of the tension created by the different social philosophies of Urban Colombia and Rural Colombia.

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