By Camilo Pardo Quintero, EL ESPECTADOR, June 11, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN volunteer translator)

Nearly 177 families in this municipality in southern Cauca have been forcibly displaced so far this month, because of the combat between the Colombian Army and the FARC dissidents.

“The Army and the guerrillas took over the entrances of our houses like their battlefield. The bullets didn’t stop ringing on June 2, between 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. There was nothing we could do but flop down on the floor and pray that they wouldn’t kill us. The next day we left with no fixed destination, but we’re alive. We had to leave behind everything we lived on.” That was an account collected by Colombia+20 from one of the people living in the town (vereda) of El Pinche, in the rural part of Argelia, a place where 177 had to be displaced so far this month, because of the armed combat.

During the years of the armed conflict, the now-defunct Jacobo Arenas Mobile Column of the FARC learned how to move around and control  territories in northern Cauca. In strategic municipalities like Caldono, Toribío, Morales, or Inzá, they laid down their own laws, at the cost of the integrity and the dignity of the people that lived there, most of them indigenous people. Slowly, according to reports of the United Nations and human rights organizations, they figured out how to move to the southern part of the department, so they could fight with other guerrilla groups over the income from the illegal economies, and establish their front in a cruel and incessant war on the institutions of Cauca.

Now, the Carlos Patiño dissidents, holdouts and heirs of the criminal activities of the Jacobo Arenas groups, are what make the people remember the most ferocious years of the armed conflict. To be exact, they were the ones—along with the ELN—that provoked that massive displacement and a series of forced events almost identical in Argelia. That took place between September 5 and September 7 in 2021. During those days, 70 families had to leave their homes in the towns of Las Vegas and El Pinche, heading for the district (corregimiento) of El Plateado—in the same municipality—settling in the local sports center, in iffy sanitary and humanitarian conditions, with no attention from the national government, until the 16th of the month.

The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Matters (OCHA) was the international agency that monitored Argelia’s humanitarian crisis most closely last year. Their analysis of the September 2021 displacement was that the threats against public officials, intentions to form what they call a ‘paragovernment’, and the restrictions by the Carlos Patiño on entrance by humanitarian assistance in the municipality (using illegal checkpoints) made the situation difficult to contain, to investigate thoroughly, and to report to national authorities speedily.

In fact, a message issued by the Humanitarian Response subsection of OCHA, warned that the displacements of September 2021 created conditions leading to a conclusion that the armed groups were more and more interested in operating near the municipal center of Argelia or even right in the city limits.

“Those and other reports were early alerts so that the national government would protect Argelia. As they paid no attention, a bomb was detonated in front of my office in the night of May 2, 2022. They kept making the merchants pay extortions; one way or another we can offer them some security, contrary to what’s happening out in the towns and districts, because we lost control there a long time ago, right under the noses of everybody and with no help from anybody,” lamented Jonathan Patiño, Mayor of Argelia to a local journalist who negotiated a place for this paper in the area.

“This is worse than it was before the Peace Agreement was signed.”

The displacements of last week, between El Pinche and El Plateado, are a photocopy of those in September of 2021. The people have the same feeling inside: fear and impotence, knowing that even with their complaints, it’s hard to see that the situation will get better very soon. The anonymous testimonies are the few sources of information that can be found here, because one false word or accusation of those responsible for this humanitarian crisis, can cost the victims their lives.

Arturo* is the person who gave the testimony in the opening paragraph of this article. He told this newspaper that if he were to give his name, it wouldn’t be that risky and he would give it, no problem, because he is sickened by so much violence that, according to him, has wiped out what had been left of his family.

“I have lived in El Pinche since 1993 and the armed groups have always been here. They have made us suffer, and here I also include the Colombian Army. Sometimes they were more cruel than the very people they were chasing, and an example of that was the massive displacement we have had now. More than defending us, they want to finish off their enemy one way or another. They used our property for their entrenchment, and they don’t care one bit that we had children and elderly people in our homes. If we hadn’t got out when we did, any one of their bullets could have hit us and then who would have come to help us?” complained the day laborer.

The Victims’ Unit indicates that in the next few days they might reach the school in Las Vegas and the humanitarian encampments in El Plateado with a load of assistance kits with food and personal care items for the, up to now, 236 people affected by the forced displacements in El  Pinche. However, the lack of a fixed date for those helpful items, and the context of violence being experienced in the district where they would have to go in order to survive, are other doubts among the many doubts they continue to have about the displaced people in Argelia.

“Doctor Harry Sánchez of the Victims’ Unit, arrived along with his team with the best intentions of helping us. However, we need more than words and the promise that they’re going to protect us. Right now we are more than 200 families, but at this rate the whole municipality could be displaced at any moment if the fighters feel like making that happen. I am praying, because it’s worse here now than before the Peace Agreement was signed,” insisted Doña Maritza*, who farms in El Pinche. She is a head of household with three children.

Since last June 3, they have been holding security councils, headed by the Mayor’s Office. There the priorities have been focused on protecting the people in the encampments, keeping more families from meeting the same fate, and guaranteeing a phased return to El Pinche, depending on whether the men from the Carlos Patiño dissidents are retreating from the territory. But all of this is an elusive panorama for the 236 displaced people.

Retaliation for the killing of “Yeison”? 

There’s a rumor going around Argelia that connects their systematic acts of violence in Argelia with the intentions of the new changes in command inside the Carlos Patiño gang. In the early morning last June 3, when the displacements from El Pinche took place, the Colombian Army’s Third Division killed ‘Yeison’ in combat. He was a mid-level commander of the dissidents, accused of things like murder, extortion, and forced displacements in Argelia, Balboa, and El Tambo.

“ ‘Yeison’ was one of the bad ones, without a doubt, but there’s a leader they call ‘Cabezas’ that, even when ‘Yeison’ was alive was the one that gave the orders to attack in the city limits and here in the district. If you come through El Sinai (another district) you will notice that everything was about him.We got messages from ‘Yeison’s’ mensaying that now they were going to attack more, in his memory. You can see that the gentlemen of the Carlos Patiño gang are at odds and with internal battles that only they understand. At the end of the day, we are the ones that have to pay,” commented Ángel*, one of the displaced people, to Colombia+20.

The hundreds of families from El Pinche will continue to wait for more and better living conditions. The collective goal is that this would be the last displacement they have to suffer. Nobody knows the conditions of their homes when they go back once more, and in the midst of that pain, they maintain an unquenchable hope that in the future, the only strangers that approach their doors will be people interested in buying fruit or cattle feed.

*These names were changed for the sake of security.

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