By Sebastián Forero Rueda, EL ESPECTADOR, May 21, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Even though the community council, located in Riosucio (Chocó Province), owns a collective title to 107,064 hectares, in practice, the productive land is in the hands of businessmen who bought it through the paramilitary onslaught. The council’s struggle continues to be for restitution. Recently they were accredited as victims by the JEP. Today, on National Afro-Colombian Day, we recognize their battle.

They’re actually being called invaders of their own property. Besides having been driven out by the violence of the paramilitaries, they then had to endure having people call themselves the owners of their land; the people who had arrived after the paramilitary takeover and had settled down on their land to execute agro-industrial projects. The black community that lives in the valleys of the La Larga and Tumaradó Rivers, in Riosucio (Chocó Province) were coming back to the land from which they had been displaced, but not very much of what had been there had been preserved.

The first Afro-Colombians that arrived on these lands came in the middle of the 19th century. They came from the San Juan region, from Alto Baudó, and from Medio Atrato, looking for land to farm. Later on, in the 20th century, the population grew, including with Maderas del Atrato, which opened canals for removing timber, and families started moving into the territory. They worked at fishing, growing rice, and living off the land. They went on to grow and found new communities.

But beginning with the decade of the ‘70’s, the war reached the territory, as the Center for Investigation and Popular Education (Cinep) has documented. Cinep has accompanied the collective process of this community council. The guerrillas came first: FARC, carrying weapons, later the ELN and finally in the ‘80’s, the EPL. Next came the paramilitaries and the violence got worse. On December 20, 1996, 150 paramilitaries from the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) seized the leader of Riosucio, forcibly disappeared three people, and took control. It was the beginning of what would be the paramilitary entry into Bajo Atrato as ordered from the House of Castaño, by means of the Árlex Hurtado front, the Bananero bloc, and the Élmer Cárdenas bloc, of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

But the great exodus of the population from these valleys was in 1997. In February of that year, the paramilitaries carried out Operation Cacarica in that collective territory, which bordered these black communities. They worked together with Operation Genesis, carried out by the Army’s 17th Brigade, and the land was left deserted. According to the Unique Register of Victims, in 1997 more than 70,000 people were driven out of Riosucio.

Even in the midst of the violent onslaught, and having more than 80% of the population displaced, the communities that later made up the community councils of the La Larga and Tumaradó Rivers (Cocolatu) organized to defend their territory. “The experience taught us that the conflict had not come to dislodge the guerrillas, but rather to get hold of the land. So then what we did was to get busy and protect the land, legally, even though by then there weren’t very many people remaining,” explains Pablo Antonio López, the legal representative of Cocolatu. They achieved that protection in November 2000 when Incora (Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform) granted legal title to 107,064 hectares to the community council as black community property.

With this collective title, they were able to slow down in part the massive purchases of land that had happened in previous years. But when the people were displaced the agents sought families in Turbo, Apartadó, Chigorodó, Carepa, Bajirá, and other municipalities, to get them to sell their land. “They got so they would tell them ‘that’s never going to get better, things are really bad, I’ll buy it from you’. So the people would say ‘if I’m going to lose it, or they’ll steal it from me, better I should sell it’, ‘so I don’t starve, I’ll sell the land’. People were forced by necessity to make the deal, because they were living in terrible conditions. So then beautiful farms, well kept, were sold for 200,000 pesos (about USD 53) the hectare, when they were worth much more,” lamented López.

The businessmen who made those massive land purchases, the majority from the Urabá region of Antioquia and the banana sector, mostly established ranches with cattle and buffalo. To do that, they destroyed most of the forests in the area. They also started monocultures of platano, oil palm, and teak. According to Cinep research, there were around ten businesses that did that with 94% of the productive land in the collective area, some 55,000 hectares, because around 40% of the territory is flooded and, because of that, unproductive. That leaves the community council with only about 3% of the productive land, because the other 3% was individually titled before Incora issued the collective title.

One of the businessmen who acquired the most land in Cocolatu is José Vicente Cantero, who, according to Cinep’s estimate, may have some 25,000 hectares of land in cattle ranches. Cantero was sentenced by a court in Antioquia to ten years in prison for forced displacement, and besides that, as a result of land restitution decisions, he has had to return the land that he seized. Another massive buyer is Ángel Adriano Palacios Pino, who has been identified by Raúl Hasbún, former commander of the Bananero bloc, as a businessman who financed that paramilitary organization. Now Palacios faces trial for the crimes of aggravated criminal conspiracy, aggravated forced displacement, and carrying a weapon illegally, while he’s still in the midst of a case for which he was imprisoned between 2014 and 2015. In the Cocolatu land restitution cases, which came later, Juan Guillermo González, Óscar Mosquera, Jaime Uribe Castrillón, Francisco Castaño Hurtado, Dorance Romero and others appear in opposition.

When the displaced communities returned—on their own and without any guarantees—starting in 2008 and more and more in 2010, they found that the scene had changed. “There isn’t any forest now, everything has been destroyed. The rivers, that were our source of water, have dried up, and the ones that remain are contaminated by the cattle. There is no land to plant food, because the businessmen have all of it,” says the legal representative of Cocolatu. But, in addition, when the families settled in the land that had belonged to them and that is protected by the collective title, several of those businessmen sought to have the Army evict them. They are also using other strategies to damage the crops being raised by the families that have returned.

In December of 2014, the Land Restitution Court of Quibdó, in Order No. 00181, ordered a preliminary injunction to protect the families that have returned to Cocolatu, and the suspension of any eviction action against them until the restitution process is carried out. This is a path that has cost lives and that has been nerve-wracking, because it’s now almost six years since the Land Restitution Unit started the process, and it still has not issued a decision.

In September 2014, the Unit commenced the administrative phase of the case. This included the characterization of the impacts on the community council, such as the work of resolving inter-ethnic controversies within the council. That’s because before the issuance of the collective title, individual titles had been issued within the area, so that now there are 442 individual titles within the jurisdiction of the 107,064 hectares that are titled collectively to the community council. But the community insisted that the Land Restitution Unit had delayed the filing of the suit for land restitution, and the Land Restitution Court in Quibdó also stressed that. It twice ordered the Unit to file the suit, once in 2016 and once in 2017. Meanwhile, the communities had to experience the tensions with the businessmen and with the armed groups that came after the demobilization of the AUC. In 2017, three leaders of the council were murdered.: Mario Castaño, Porfirio Jaramillo, and Jesús Alberto Sánchez. In December of that year, the suit for restitution was finally filed.

According to Juan Pablo Guerrero, the Cinep investigator who has accompanied the Cocolatu process, the legal case is being held up because the opponents of the restitution have still not been notified. In this case, it’s the 442 owners who hold individual titles inside the council’s property. In the case, Guerrero explains, they have to determine which ones are the titles that were issued legally, and which are void and nonexistent, because they were acquired during the period of paramilitary violence in the area. On last May 8, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) announced that the Branch for Recognition of the Truth, Responsibility and Determination of Events and Actions  has accredited the community council of La Larga Tumaradó, made up of 48 communities and 5,803 individuals as a collective victim in the framework of case 04, which prioritizes the Urabá region. The JEP made explicit reference to the period experienced by this community between 1996 and 1998, with the entrance of the AUC in coordination with the Army. Together with the council, the community councils of the Curbaradó River, Los Manatíes, and Puerto Girón were also accredited as collective victims. This makes a total of 220,000 Afro-Colombian victims accredited in these decisions in Case

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