By The National Forum for Colombia*, EL ESPECTADOR, August 2, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Beyond the moments experienced in the national Strike—a social explosion without precedent in our country—the analysis of the social and political context has to include the complexities and aspects of a conflict that has differing expressions in different parts of the country.

The harsh images transmitted on the social networks, and the seismic interest by the international community in the systematic violations of human rights during the protests (after April 28), reveal the negative side of an imperfect democracy. It revealed a supposed institutional fortress, which ultimately showed itself incapable of guaranteeing the right to participation in the streets.

The focus of attention and the preoccupation of public opinion centered on the rough confrontations between the demonstrators and the Armed Forces in the principal cities of the country, like Cali, Medellín, and Bogotá. But as the days passed, that mutated toward epicenters with fierce conflict like Popayán and Tunja. The Strike succeeded, not only in sensitizing the citizens to the people’s dissatisfaction, but also in connecting many levels of the population with the nation’s problems. But, What happened in the rural areas where the conflict has a different cost?

The dynamics seem to be the same, and the internal armed conflict tends to concentrate on new issues or make the areas that already contain a lot of risk still more complicated. The regional humanitarian crisis is continuing its severe deterioration—never mind the pandemic—with a terrible cost in victims.

On the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where there are old, new, and recycled illegal actors, the focal points of the conflict are clear. According to researcher Luis Trejos, right now there are five focal points of conflict in the Caribbean. They are: the northern slope of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Montes de María, the southern part of César Province, the southern part of Bolívar Province, and the southern part of Córdoba Province.

Finally, in the Mojana region in Sucre Province there is a territory where the conflict will possibly be re-activated, due to the increase in the presence of members of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC in Spanish). A report prepared by the think tank UNCaribe in 2020 shows how different illegal armed groups are present in these focal points of the conflict. In southern Córdoba: the Gaitanista Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), the 18th Front of the FARC-EP, and Los Caparros.[1] In southern Bolívar and in southern César, the National Liberation Army (ELN). In southern César the Gaitanista Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC). In Montes de María, the AGC, former FARC-EP combatants–that never joined the peace process—as well as the Black Eagles and Los Rastrojos[2].

Finally, in the Sierra Nevada are the Self-Defense Conquerors of the Sierra Nevada and the AGC. These groups are disputing the control of the territory, associated above all with the strategic routes and corridors used for drug trafficking, the places of production and supplying the drugs; as well as the outlets for the marketing of the drugs.

Of all of those regions, only southern César is not a PDET (Development Programs with Territorial Focus) territory. This is a matter that ought to worry not only government agencies, but also civil society, because is will show a territory that is not prioritized in the peace process but that is at grave risk. We can’t forget that this process is not only between the Colombian government and the former FARC-EP, but it also involves the society in general.

In the midst of this difficult situation that is getting worse all the time, it’s been civil society that is being threatened. It’s a situation that is expressed in serious violations of human rights, in particular, with a high cost in loss of life. According to DEUTSCHE WELLE[3] (2021), since 2016 more than 900 social leaders have been murdered in Colombia. This situation is apparent in the Caribbean region, which in the last report from the think thank UNCaribe for the period of January to June of 2021, six social leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered.

All of this is happening systematically with the limited response of government agents. The murdered leaders belong to ethnic communities and work in illegal crop substitution, land restitution, and environmental protection. The data confirm that.  Karina Cuesta, killed on March 25, 2021, was a social leader in Córdoba, a member of ASODECAS (Campesino Association for Development) and a beneficiary of PNIS (Integrated National Program for the Substitution of Illegally Used Crops). Just like the aforementioned leader, Fredman Herazo, an activist in Córdoba, a defender of the rights of the Afro-Colombian community, was killed on July 15, 2021. Jaime Enrique Basileo, the First Marshall of the Freedom for the Zenú Ethnic Indigenous Council of San Onofre, Montes de María, was murdered on March 1 of this year. On April 17 of this year, Francisco Guiacometto, had been a member of the JUCO (Communist Youth) and was a surviving founder of the UP (Patriotic Union Party). The environmental leader in Rincón Hondo and former Council member in Chiriguaná, Yobani Carranza Castillo, was murdered on January 27, 2021. This sinister list is completed, up to now, with Aura Esther García, a traditional Wayuu authority, killed on March 31, 2021.

The Public Defender’s Office has also issued early alerts. Of the 13 early alerts issued this year, two have been related to the Caribbean coast. The first one was in May, Early Alert 009-21 regarding the Municipality of Ovejas (Sucre Province—a territory that is part of the Montes de María—warning of the building of a risky scenario because of the repositioning of the AGC—whose economic activity in this area is smuggling–. The Public Defender’s Office warned that this illegal group is taking control of the rural area of Ovejas by means of the following activities: confinements, threats, regulation of mobility, imposition of schedules and regulation of conduct, selective killings, circulation of armed actors that are not part of the government, attacks, and stigmatization.

The second early alert, Structural Alert 012-21, issued in June 2021, regards the municipalities of El Banco, Guamal, and San Sebastián de Buenavista—in southern Magdalena Province—and the municipalities of Astrea, Chimichagua and Tamalameque—in the south of César Province–. The armed groups in that area are mainly sustained by drug trafficking, illegal mining, and smuggling. In addition, the Public Defender’s Office has identified the following methods of operation by the armed actors: human trafficking, combat, recruitment of children and adolescents, sexual violence, demarcation of boundaries, plunder, extortion, circulation of armed actors that are not part of the government, land mines, torture, kidnapping, and imposition of schedules. The early alert also warned about the use of the following methods of operation: forced displacement, gender violence, threats, regulating mobility, imposition of regulations of conduct, selective killings, forced disappearance, confinement, massacre, migrant trafficking, and confrontations with the civilian population.

With the social protests this year, the focus turned to the problems of the urban population, but at the same time, the dynamics of conflict and violence continued, but did not receive the same level of attention. On the Caribbean coast, five points of conflict continue to be active—together with one focus that will probably re-activate. The presence of illegal armed actors in these areas of the northern coast of Colombia, with illegal economic activities linked to a criminal modus operandi, have an impact on the civilian society that is unprotected. When will these problems play a leading role on the national agenda?

* The National Forum for Colombia is a civilian nonprofit organization, created in 1982, whose objectives are to contribute to the strengthening of democracy in Colombia. The Forum develops activities of investigation, social intervention, dissemination of information and public deliberation, assistance and advocacy in fields such as strengthening of organizations, networks, and social movements, citizen and political participation, decentralization and public management, human rights, the conflict, the peace, and gender relations, with the perspective of an inclusive and effective democracy. Forum is a decentralized entity with headquarters in Bogotá and with three regional chapters in Bogotá (Central Region Forum), Barranquilla (Atlantic Coast Forum), and Cali (Southwest Forum).

[1] A “caparro” is a large monkey native to parts of South America.

[2] Both the Black Eagles and Los Rastrojos are neoparamilitary groups and drug traffickers.

[3] DEUTSCHE WELLE is a German international broadcaster.

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