By Alfredo Molano Jimeno, EL ESPECTADOR, June 8, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Cane, coca, and gold are the three faces of the territorial and cultural plunder of the community councils in northern Cauca Province.

Northern Cauca is burning. Week after week the country records an advance of the horror in that territory. And it’s that the Peace Agreement produced a realignment of the armed conflict in Cauca, at the price of murders, massacres, and displacements. The vacuum left by the FARC was occupied by organizations linked to the coca business, first in the form of local gangs and, later on, by organizations that control the routes—including the big Mexican cartels–. At the same time, the ELN tried to capture the deserted spaces and advanced its lines from Nariño Province, and the Clan del Golfo responded with identical pretensions.

Then the dissidents led by Gentil Duarte followed suit. He ordered the creation of the Coordinator of the Western Command, which is nothing but the consolidation of a guerrilla bloc in the style of the prior guerrillas. Or, shall we say, the seven plagues of Egypt all together at the same time. To some extent, Cauca has turned into the first battlefield in the new war known as “postconflict”.

Caloto rests on the northern frontier of the province. It’s a municipality that hinges between the collective territories of Black communities and the great indigenous nations of northern Cauca, dominated by the Nasas and Paeces. It’s the meeting point among the Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, and the campesino settlers. It’s located 43 kilometers from Cali and 81 from Popayán. Because of that, it receives, on the one hand, the industrial expansion of Valle del Cauca, and on the other, the exercise of territorial sovereignty by the powerful Popayán class with their cattle ranches.

Some historians baptized Caloto as the “phoenix city”, for the number of times it was destroyed and re-established in colonial times. Like many of its neighbors, Caloto’s economy depends on gold mining, which has attracted siting of ranches that have a double function: control the land, particularly the mines, and feed the enslaved workers. That meant introducing cattle and sugar cane.

Another highlight marking the history of this municipality is the earthquake on June 6, 1994, which caused an avalanche into the Páez River. The result was more than 1,100 deaths and 500 people disappeared. The municipalities of Inzá and Páez were completely buried in mud, so that the survivors had to abandon their homes.

In response, the Ernesto Samper government promoted the so-called Páeza Law, which was intended for economic activation in the region through tax incentives for those companies that would come in, something like a duty-free zone. The law covered the municipalities of Caldono, Inzá, Jambaló, Toribío, Caloto, Totoró, Silvia, Páez, Santander de Quilichao, Popayán, Miranda, Morales, Padilla, Puracé, Tambo, Timbío, and Suárez. Hundreds of business owners answered the call and brought their places of employment there. That produced a major movement of the populations of northern Cauca, and they started to receive hundreds of migrants from neighboring municipalities and even nearby provinces.

Gladys is an Afro-Colombian woman around sixty years old. She is the matron of the group of women leaders that have reunited in La Cumbre, Valle Province, to process the anguish and the traumas that the violent situation they experience in the territories has produced for them: the threats and persecutions they receive every day. Before we started the interview she stayed silent for a long time, she listened to each one of her companions and with a gesture of modesty and timidity, she said that she was going to try to explain what has happened in Caloto and in her lifetime. 

“In northern Cauca we have been the victims of more than one kind of looting: one is territorial, and the other is of cultural identity. Those two plunders threaten our permanence in the countryside,” she said as an epilogue to her talk.

“The old people say that in the violence of ’48, the conservative rich and powerful murdered Black people for being Black and being liberal. They tell how at night the houses of our people stayed empty because it was dangerous to sleep there. So the people would go to sleep in the woods or build some attics where they could get out through the roof. Because of that violence, the situation was such that, in the country towns where Afro-Colombians live, people with white surnames would arrive and take over the houses and farms in our territory. Haughty families from Cali or Popayán who, after displacing our people, who could not sleep peacefully in their own houses, they ended up keeping the people’s land,” Gladys explained while one of her sons hovered around her.

“After the violence of the ‘40’s, which lasted all the way to 1970, came the resurgence of the guerrillas. Here in particular it was the M-19, and the new violence began, which is still not over. Along with the violence came the sugar cane, and then things really got crazy. The sugar cane started the displacements; the settlers that were fleeing came here seeking refuge, land, and work, and after them came “the natives”—that’s what we call everyone that comes here looking to start a business–. Onto that scene came the famous impressment, which is nothing more than a feudal model: you work on the sugar cane plantation, I let you settle on my land and I give you permission to plant a garden, but with that, you pay me with food,” finished this robust Caucana in her soft voice.

The sugar cane arrived with “the natives”, who also brought the marijuana smuggling bonanza—that happened between 1976 and 1985–. They are the ones that bring the abominable laboratories to the flat areas of northern Cauca. And in no time after they arrived, the disappearances began. The killing of Ramiro was in ’82 or ’83, right at the peak of the marijuana. I won’t forget that killing because I had never seen anyone killed so viciously. They burned him with acid and embalmed him with plastic bags and barbed wire.”

That’s how Gladys talked about the beginning of the violence, and how she described the land and cultural plundering. With the arrival of the cane came the laboratories and with them the violence associated with control of the territory and of its people. The answer was displacement, first just a few and later massive.

“Here’s where the cultural theft got its start. The Black women in northern Cauca move to Cali to work as domestic workers in the homes of the white people. From there they come back with the famous “delicious stew”—little pieces of flavoring from a packet—and the loss of our ancestral tradition, the use of our own plants in the kitchen, starts there. At that time, our people were being slaughtered and many women were left alone; they displaced, and the pattern of caring for our grandparents was broken. So they were coming back from a city with a “Maggi for stew” in their pockets, wearing name brand shoes, being brought up in displacement and the dazzle of consumerism in the cities, and with that came the approach of the whites, and that was the devastation of our traditions. The pattern of children’s upbringing was broken by the war. Many fathers were murdered; others had to flee to Cali with their mothers, displaced. Many grandmothers came off badly because of those realities,” she adds.

Gladys recalls that it was in the ‘80’s and the ‘90’s when the sugar cane came and, with that, the laboratories. “In the community councils, coca was not planted. What happened was that the people doing the marijuana smuggling bonanza started planting giant sugar cane plantations, and in the middle of the plantation was where they hid the laboratories. They were “natives” and people from the coast that brought the coca and processed it here. Here the sugar cane turned into a façade for their business. That meant that they started moving money, and the money is called bullets and in the war, the first thing killed is the concept of family,” she remembers. The history of northern Cauca is marked by periods in Gladys’s memory, with the arrival of the armed groups in the region. She recalls that after peace was signed with the M-19, in 1991, came the 6th Front of the FARC.

For her, the “industrialization”, as she refers to the process of unleashing the Páez Law, was a factor in the land theft, as she called it at the beginning of her talk. “The government promoted that the business sector in Valle should take over the land that belonged to the Afro-Colombians. In Valle the business owners don’t own land anymore, because it’s was all in the hands of the sugar refineries, so they thought that what they ought to do was to extend toward northern Cauca, where the land was cheaper or the people were easier to remove. So they got rid of that Law that was supposed to generate employment and for reparations to the people that were damaged by the avalanche. And one way or another, the government forgave the taxes on the companies that were brought here. With that kind of industrialization, the north started to be overpopulated; the displaced people from Páez were mixed with the people displaced by the war, and that “stew” ended up being called Caloto,” she adds.

Caloto was the epicenter of the industrialization, but the impact was also felt in Santander de Quilichao and Puerto Tejada. In those municipalities they built “duty-free zones” and more than a hundred companies moved here. But the benefits didn’t last long; after ten years they ended the perks, and the companies got up and left. “The onslaught of the paramilitaries happened between 1998 and 2006, and it was very bloody. All of Cauca was drenched in massacres. From those years, a lot of children were born that were products of sexual assaults of our women. Illegal mining also fueled the war. Northern Cauca turned into a cemetery. The war also brought many people from the center of the country and from the coast, and it’s curious that the ones that carried the rifles before are now the owners of the new businesses. Since 2013 we have registered 220 deaths in mine cave-ins, landslides, or murders related to mining,” she notes.

Gladys concludes by making an assessment of the Peace Agreement signed in 2016: “With the peace process, the militarization of the area was accelerated, illegal plantings and illegal mining increased; at the same time they strengthened industrial agriculture with the planting of sugar cane, pine, and eucalyptus. In northern Cauca there is enough fuel to keep the war alive for another fifty years. Here is where three phenomena that are feeding the crossfire are joined, industry, mining, and drug trafficking. Three phenomena that, in combination, have turned into a great threat for the permanence of the Black people on their land.”

The story that Gladys tells is nothing less than the roots of the war that is raging in Cauca. This war has changed armbands, participants, and names, but never in method or objective. It’s the same war that started in the ‘50’s of the last century.

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