After our early October visit to Arauca, Colombia, WOLA colleagues and I spent several days in the middle section of Chocó. This department (province) borders both the Pacific and Atlantic, as well as Panama, in Colombia’s far northwest. It’s been a week and a half since we completed this last leg of our trip. It took a while for me to type up these notes, in part because the situation I’m describing is so grim.
Chocó is big and sparsely populated, with about a half-million people in an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It is beautiful and biodiverse. Most of its forests remain in pristine condition—for now—which helps make it one of the two or three rainiest places on the planet. It has thousands of miles of rivers.
It is also Colombia’s poorest department, with a very slight presence of the government. Over 90 percent of the population is Afro-Colombian or indigenous. Chocó is mostly roadless, and the only way to get around is via rivers, especially the Atrato, which runs from about 40 miles east of the Pacific into the Caribbean. Fuel is expensive, and so is riverboat travel.
Because Chocó is hard to get around, our visit was limited to the middle and upper Atrato River regions, a few hours north and south of Quibdó, the capital. The Atrato, which flows from south to north, is a major vector for trafficking cocaine and other contraband, and has long been violently contested by drug traffickers and armed groups.
The middle and upper Atrato is living a tense calm, sandwiched between more violent regions of Chocó to the north and south. The lower Atrato river, flowing into the Caribbean in northern Chocó, is a site of intense fighting between the ELN guerrillas and paramilitary groups, which have gained control of principal towns. To the south of where we went, in Chocó’s San Juan and Baudó river valleys, fighting between the ELN and paramilitaries (and more recently, FARC dissident groups) has displaced thousands of people, mostly indigenous communities.
In the communities we visited in the middle and upper Atrato regions—just as in Arauca—security conditions aren’t as dire, but the armed groups are on the move. People told us they had lived a period of peace from about 2016 to 2018. This coincided with the latter phases of the FARC-government peace negotiations and the FARC guerrillas’ subsequent withdrawal and demobilization in Chocó. “With the Santos government and the peace process, we breathed a new breath of tranquility,” a social leader told us. Populations’ mobility increased, and forced recruitment and laying of landmines abated.
As in Arauca, we heard that this began to get worse in late 2018 and early 2019. As in Arauca, we heard that the ELN and a growing number of FARC dissidents are observing a loose and fragile non-aggression pact (at least in the middle region; in southern Chocó, they are fighting). As in Arauca, we heard of large-scale recent recruitment by all armed groups, mostly of minors. A few times, social and religious leaders in the upper and middle Atrato used the term “time bomb” to describe conditions: a fear that violence may soon explode to levels not seen since the armed conflict’s worst years. We heard similar concerns in Arauca.
In Chocó, the ELN guerrillas quickly filled the vacuums left by the demobilizing FARC’s 34th and 57th fronts. Their territorial control was quickly contested by paramilitaries, nominally affiliated with the “Gulf Clan” organized crime network. More recently, some demobilized FARC have rearmed, though it appears that most of the dissidents’ membership are new recruits. Many communities now live in contested territory, which is far worse than living under the monopoly control of a single armed group.
The guerrillas, dissidents, and paramilitaries fight for control of trafficking routes. Paramilitaries are also violently appropriating land deeded to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. Quibdó, a frequent destination for displaced people, is hardly an oasis of calm. Urban violence, much of it gang or armed-group related, has left Quibdó with one of the highest homicide rates among Colombia’s mid-sized cities. Nearly all businesses in the capital must make extortion payments to someone.
Colombia’s security forces, to the extent they’re present, stand widely accused of collaborating with the paramilitaries, allowing them to pass through riverine checkpoints, sometimes in large numbers, and to bring their illicit products downriver or overland into Panama. We heard this denounced several times. “The paramilitaries pass by in boats easily,” a social leader told us. “There’s no trust with the security forces,” said another. “If you talk to them about something, the paramilitaries will get the information.… I see, and I stay quiet—that’s how the people have to be.”
For the military, collaboration with paramilitaries is not a counterinsurgency strategy, as it was in the 1980s-2000s. It’s mainly corruption: local personnel are getting something in return. And to some extent, it’s fear: what would actually happen to an army, police, or marine commander who challenged the paramilitaries or seized large amounts of their cocaine? Would forces based in faraway Bogotá, Medellín, or even Quibdó be able to protect that officer from retribution? It’s doubtful.
The resurgent ELN is treating the population brutally, controlling their movements, recruiting youth, and laying landmines. Residents of riverside communities say they are crueler than the FARC. Rapes of women, in particular, are happening “every day.” ELN leaders are ignoring communities’ attempts at dialogue. “With the FARC we knew who to talk to, now, we don’t. You get a phone number, nobody answers,” a leader told us.
Paramilitaries are similarly terrorizing the population. Combat and tight controls on people’s movement have confined indigenous communities up the Atrato River’s tributaries. Guerrilla landmines are doing the same. Confined communities are suffering malnutrition and lack of medical care. Selective killings are increasing. Paramilitaries are arriving in communities demanding that they turn over social leaders.
We visited the town of Bojayá, on the Atrato about 3 1/2 hours’ boat ride downriver from Quibdó. In May 2002, Bojayá was the site of one of the worst massacres in the history of Colombia’s conflict. During an episode of combat between the FARC and paramilitaries, much of the town’s population was taking refuge in its church. The FARC indiscriminately launched a gas-cylinder and shrapnel bomb into the church, killing 79 people, most of them children, and wounding many more. Even before the FARC peace talks concluded, local guerrilla leader Pastor Alape visited Bojayá and asked for forgiveness.
Bojayá’s victims have received some reparations from the government, including the building of a new town about a kilometer upriver (a town that lacks electricity much of the time), and money that many used to buy their own riverine passenger boats. Still, Bojayá’s residents feel unsafe as the ELN activates and paramilitaries move in from the north. Bojayá and the town across the river, Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, sit on a junction of rivers that is strategic for trafficking and control of tributaries. Opogadó, about an hour downriver in Bojayá municipality, has seen a jump in selective killings this year. “Bojaya is remembered for a massacre. We don’t want there to be another,” said a local leader.
Chocó also has a lot of illegal gold-mining, causing severe environmental damage on rivers. Criminal groups, usually with acquiescence or collaboration from local political leaders, send dredges and backhoes up the Atrato’s tributaries, digging up river banks and dumping mercury into the streams. Some rivers have been “killed” by the churning of their banks, leaving them wide, shallow, and impassable. There is less mining now than before, thanks to a police crackdown, but some tributaries continue to suffer from it. And once gold is mined, it mixes in with “legal” gold and can’t be interdicted easily. The mining thrives with corruption, which allows it to operate in the open in some river tributaries.
Political corruption is epic in Chocó. The two dominant political clans, the Sánchez Montes de Oca and Torres networks, face numerous accusations (and some convictions) of collaboration with paramilitary groups. With a well-oiled political machinery, their preferred candidates are likely to do well in the October 27 local elections.
Chocó also has coca, mainly in the San Juan and Baudó river regions south of where we were. But it is not a major producer: the UNODC measured 2,100 hectares in 2018, putting Chocó in 11th place among Colombia’s 32 departments, a reduction from 2,600 in 2017. Chocó is unlikely to be a major target of U.S.-backed forced eradication (or renewed aerial herbicide fumigation) campaigns.
I wish I could end these notes with something positive about what we saw. Chocó does have a very strong network of civil society groups, especially Afro-Colombian community councils, indigenous reserves, victims’ associations, the Catholic Church’s Quibdó Diocese, and—perhaps most vibrantly—women’s groups.
Many have been promoting a humanitarian accord, committing the ELN to respecting the civilian population, the government to protecting citizens and breaking up paramilitary groups, and both parties to restarting negotiations. But for now, with ELN peace talks over since January, the “Acuerdo Humanitario Ya” movement is having trouble getting traction. Meanwhile, the social leaders promoting peaceful solutions are keeping a lower profile amid worsening threats and attacks.
These civil society groups need all the solidarity and international accompaniment that they can get. Especially now, as the “time bomb” keeps ticking in Chocó.