SEMANA, August 22, 2020


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Selective murders, displacement, criminals fighting for territory. Five massacres plunge this week into mourning; three took place this Friday in Nariño, Cauca, and Arauca provinces. What’s going on? SEMANA’s analysis:

On the banks of the Atrato River and its tributaries there are houses that have been closed up for months because of threats from the armed groups that have been intimidating thousands of people. The same thing is happening in Alto Baudó, where the families are fleeing because of killings like that of the social leader Patrocinio Bonilla, murdered in the Santa Rita community after he was kidnapped with another 15 people in the first week of August. A few days before, on July 18, in Tibú, in Norte de Santander, eight people died, some with signs of torture, mutilations, and slashes by machetes. That displaced some 100 families. And now it’s Nariño, which experienced atrocities in recent days. Two children were murdered in Leiva when they were walking to school to turn in their homework. In Samaniego eight young people at a party were shot to death, one in the face, and others in the back while they were running away. In Ricaurte, they killed three indigenous people. And it’s only a few days since the ELN attacked an Army battalion in Catatumbo with explosives and assault weapons.

All of these bloody events recall the worst days of the war when paramilitaries and guerrillas would arrive at a settlement and massacre with impunity, ending in displacement of the inhabitants and the plundering of their land. However the dynamics of the violence are different today.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Office, there have been 33 massacres in this country so far in 2020—the Police assure us that there were 12—which contrasts with what happened in other years. In 2017 there were 11 collective killings, 29 in 2018, and 36 in 2019. These events result in forced displacement, and according to ACNUR, already this year 14,000 people in Colombia have had to flee their homes. The figure is worrisome when you keep in mind the confinement because of the coronavirus. In 2018 and 2019, the displacement figures reached 30,000 victims. But on top of that, the problems that had disappeared totally have reappeared, such as land mine accidents. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (CICR), there have been 181 land mine accidents this year, an ascent that has been increasing since 2017 when there were 57; in 2018 there were 221; and 2019 ended with 352.

Statistical history of deaths in events of political violence:  The Defense Ministry reported 114 victims of massacres in 2019, a statistic that had not reached 100 since 2013, when 104 people died in multiple events. Colombia had its most difficult times of that kind of violence in 2001, a time when the armed groups massacred 680 people, and that was repeated in the years of the negotiations with the AUC, when, in 2004, 263 people were massacred.

The most worrisome, among other things, is that this violence destabilizes social processes, because among all of the murders and massacres, the United Nations so far this year registered the killing of 97 leaders, a big increase from 2019, the year in which 108 were killed, according to the same source.

Juan Carlos Garzón, Director of conflict dynamics at the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), says that the growing violence the country is experiencing is different from the last cycle of violence, which was anchored in the paramilitary post-demobilization, between 2003 and 2006. “During and after the negotiations in Caguán, there was a powerful and violent onslaught for the recovery of territory that had been held by the AUC. Later on came the violence during the Ralito negotiations and demobilization. Now we have a very different confrontation, fragmented; the massacres in Nariño have a different narrative from what we had in Norte de Santander or in Cauca. Giving it a name as if it was just a single narrative would fail to recognize that we are confronting different challenges, different threats, different groups in the regions, something that the government doesn’t seem to understand.

The violence has resulted in a great and silent diaspora that isn’t reported in the communications media and doesn’t touch the conscience of the country. On January 19 of this year, more than 2,000 displaced people arrived in the urban part of Tumaco from the rural area because of combat among the United Guerrillas of the Pacific, dissidents of the FARC, and the drug trafficking group Los Contadores (The Accountants), financed by Mexican cartels. The confrontations in the town (vereda) of Cuarasanga left dozens of dead from both organizations; each group recovered its dead and buried them—an episode that was ignored in Bogotá. The campesinos fled in small boats on the river Chaguí until they reached the sea. It was not the first time that the area was in dispute. Between 2000 and 2002 the FARC and the paramilitaries caused the displacement of at least 15,000 people.

This year the country has suffered an increase in massacres, murders of leaders, confinement of whole communities—much of those in the Pacific area—displacements, recruitment of children, and land mine accidents—87 victims in 2020—in a resurgence of violence since the FARC laid down their arms. According to the former Public Defender Carlos Negret, the country is experiencing a new phase of the armed conflict and other forms of violence that has raged against the dispersed rural territories, against the ethnic communities, the campesinos, and the defenders of human rights. “In these territories where there is hope for peace, we have immense gulfs where human, social, economic and cultural rights are not guaranteed, and superimposed on all of that are the strategic corridors used by the illegal economies. This resurgence in recent weeks is because the scenario in dispute is widening; now all of the organizations have both internal and external disputes.”

Meanwhile the authorities usually explain the massacres as payback or territory disputes between gangs. And even though now the war that Colombia is experiencing is clearly cemented in drug trafficking and is not a struggle for political power, the basis for the conflict continues to be the same: the failure of the government to be present, lack of opportunity, inequality, and the inability to guarantee rights in the rural areas. Negret says: “These crimes take place in the context of extremely high unrest and social and territorial vulnerability. You can’t deny that the illegal economies penetrate the dynamic and the interests of the armed groups, but we know that the causes arise from the absence of the government.”

The new violence re-victimizes territories that have taken decisive steps toward reconciliation and that appeared to be safely out of the war. Last week 37 families from the town (vereda) Caño Negro, between the municipalities of Zambrano and El Carmen in Bolívar Province, were displaced by the intimidating actions of the new violent actors, right in the region that suffered the crossfire of the conflict that is Montes de María. The detonator was the murder of Enrique Medina, a 60-year-old campesino who was working on his farm in Loma Alta when unknown men shot him several times in the head. Between 2016 and 2019, 227 violent deaths were registered in the Montes de María, more than in the period 2012 to 2015. What’s striking is that 74 % of those crimes are concentrated in San Onofre (142), El Carmen de Bolívar (91), and Maríalabaja(65).

For the Observatory of Culture, Politics, Peace, Harmony, and Development in Montes de María at Cartagena University, it’s undeniable that the tendency is showing an increase in the last three years and it coincides with the repositioning of groups like the Clan del Golfo. In fact, the increase in 2019 is 39.7 % in relation to the previous year. Violent deaths are again being converted into smaller headlines in the 15 municipalities of the Montes de María. Ovidio Baena, a labor leader, was beaten to death on June 28 at his farm in the District (corregimiento) of Macayepo while he was resting in a hammock. The day before, men who identified themselves as members of the “self-defense forces” machine-gunned 20-year-old Cristian David Anaya Herazo, and 34-year-old Carlos Farith Ortiz without saying a word, in the Caño Negro sector, the same one that produced the recent displacement. Three people most connected to land restitution procedures were murdered in the last two months.

Camilo González Posso, Director of the Institute of Peace and Development Studies (Indepaz), states that this violent diaspora comes from mafia-like organizations that have a narco-paramilitary approach, with multiple criminalities they use to position themselves in the regions. “That is not equivalent to crime or rebellion with political pretensions like the FARC, who had an organization with the capacity to confront the government. These groups are not constituted to confront the government, but rather to capture the authority of the government and reproduce its benefits. And there is a general military strategy and not a strategy to combat the new methods of criminality.”

The experts were right to warn that the national government is not equipped for the new dynamics of the conflicts in Colombia. They say that they are trying to attack numberless groups of paramilitaries as if it was some kind of big organization like the FARC, which had defined chains of command and the majority of their fronts fulfilled a common purpose dictated by the Secretariat, or like the chieftains of the AUC. Today Colombia is living through a violence like the one in Mexico: more fragmented and more narcotized, and perhaps more cruel.

“Organized crime also carries out massacres; they don’t need an armed group like the paramilitaries, who are occupying a significant part of the territory, to do this kind of violence. The best example is what is going on in Mexico. Now it seems as though everybody is living under the laws of the illegal economies, but we should recognize that the objective of those groups is social control. To achieve that, they use various methods: fear, terror and threats. On the other hand, there are groups that realize that those methods have a high political cost. Ultimately, whoever regulates and controls the territory will generate a context of impunity, illegal economies, and territorial stability,” says Garzón of the FIP.

Today one of the biggest problems for the communities is that they don’t have a way of interaction with the armed groups to negotiate their survival. During the armed conflict, social leaders and communities were able to reach patterns of coexistence with the FARC commanders, ELN, and AUC, wherever they exercised control over the territory. Now that doesn’t exist, or it’s more and more fragile, which puts the population at even greater risk. Garzón says, “When a group is established in an area, the communities establish ways to protect themselves and de-escalate the violence. The communities say that they don’t know who they can talk to, so the defense system that they used to have is very much weakened by the killing of the leaders, and by the changeover of commanders in the armed confrontation and by the new groups that are coming into the territory.”

An example of that is going on in Cauca, where more than five armed groups are operating: the Jaime Martínez dissidents; the Dagoberto Ramos dissidents; the Segunda Marquetalía, commanded by Iván Marquez and Jesús Santrich; the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces; the Carlos Patiño dissident front, the ELN; and small independent gangs that make their way with blood and fire. These groups don’t establish any community dialog procedures, but rather they use terror and intimidation to subject the people. In Cauca, since 2016, 269 indigenous leaders have been killed, 242 of them after the signing of the Peace Agreement, and 167 of them during the government of Iván Duque.

With their dialectics of fear, the new illegal groups are trying to erase any community process and are giving free rein to their criminal dynamics: illegality and violence as the only valid business, like the only way of life. That’s what’s happening in the region of southern Córdoba Province, surrounded by the Paramillo National Natural Park. Another region like many others is the Caribbean where the inhabitants have been victims of violence in recent months because of territorial disputes among the illegal armed groups. This interferes with the people’s land restitution processes, with their production of subsistence crops, and with political organization.

In the early hours of Monday, July 27, armed men arrived in the town (vereda) of Las Cabañas, in the District (corregimiento) of Versalles, and after they got into several different houses and stole things, like cell phones, they killed Elizabeth López, her husband Vitaliano Feria Morales, and their son Edison Feria López. During the invasion they yelled at the other inhabitants of the town that if they were not gone by 1:00 p.m., they were coming back to “lop off their heads”. The events resulted in the displacement of more than 50 families, all headed to the urban center, located 147 kilometers south of Montería. The murders were attributed to men from Los Caparros.

Now, in 50 of the 197 municipalities in the region there is verified presence of these organizations, according to a report by the UNCaribe think tank at Northern University in Barranquilla. Factors such as former paramilitaries (under Statute 975) returning to the territories, the reorganization of guerrilla blocs, and other groups entering the drug trafficking business have all created a new military map in the Caribbean, and at the same time, created a wave of confrontations and killings.

Crimes such as that of the Feria López family arise from disputes between the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the Conquistadores Self-Defense Forces of the Sierra Nevada (formerly Los Pachencas), ELN, EPL, Los Costeños, the New Front 18 (Román Ruiz Cacique Coyaran, FARC dissidents) and the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Front, known as Los Caparros.

In the midst of so many new groups—the same thing is happening in Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo, Norte de Santander—the civilian population is more and more unprotected. The war has mutated and there doesn’t seem to be a sound strategy to confront these new criminal organizations, like there was years ago. The aggravating factor of the pandemic makes it still more difficult for the government and the Armed Forces to be in the territories. The Army and the Police play a decisive role in this new phase of the violence. The government ought to be combating them, with intelligence and with the hand of justice. But while there is no government presence or opportunity for a future in legal activities, many of the regions are condemned, sadly and inexorably, to live under the yoke of violence.

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