The municipality of El Bagre in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia department is a clear example of what could become Colombia’s post-conflict situation: disputes between armed groups over control of territory and illegal income, the aftermath of war in plain sight, and terrorized communities caught in a crossfire that does not respect social condition, age, or gender.
VerdadAbierta.com visited the turmoil-wracked region.
This article was translated, edited for clarity and published with the permission of VerdadAbierta.com. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.
Early on the morning of June 29, Wilson Mendoza Cabrera was killed just outside his home in the heart of El Bagre, two days after having participated in a march in the town. His fellow motorcycle taxi drivers say Mendoza received a call the day he was killed from a man saying he needed his services. As he left his house to take the job, he was confronted and shot several times by another man.
His name joins a long list of people who have been killed this year in the troubled Bajo Cauca town. Nobody knows for certain how high the death toll is, but the most conservative estimates are that 40 people have been killed this year. What is evident is that many people have died as a result of conflict between the Urabeños neo-paramilitary criminal band and guerrillas of both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN).
This time, the victim was one of the most active leaders of the moto-taxi union, representing a sector that has grown substantially over the last two years as the gold mining trade that is the economic heart of the municipality has faced increasing difficulties. Moto-taxis play an important role in the life of El Bagre, where 17,000 of the municipality’s approximately 35,000 inhabitants live in rural areas connected to town only by mud paths. Their role goes beyond the transportation of people and goods.
The moto-taxi riders have undoubtedly been hardest hit by the violence that has erupted between the Urabeños and the rebel groups. Locals say 17 of the drivers have been killed this year.
Speaking in whispers, people say Mendoza’s death could be linked to his activism and his participation in a recent demonstration dubbed “March for Peace, Life, and Staying on the Land.” The march took place in El Bagre town center on June 27, just three days after the government and the FARC announced their definitive cease-fire agreement in Havana, Cuba.
The march was called by the Association of Agro-ecological and Mining Brotherhoods of Guamocó (AHERAMIGUA), a civic organization that advocates for the human rights of small farmers in the south of the Bolivar department and in the Northeast and Bajo Cauca regions of Antioquia department. The activity was supported by the leftist social and political organization Marcha Patriótica.
The march’s objective was to repudiate recent violent actions of the armed groups and call for the cease-fire to be enforced in this small corner of Bajo Cauca. It drew hundreds of people from the town and surrounding countryside despite the tense atmosphere in El Bagre.
“That is why we say they killed him in retaliation for transporting the farmers who participated in the march. For having brought people from the hamlets,” said an AHERAMIGUA member who said he’d received several death threats. “That’s how things are around here.”
Officials of the municipal ombudsman’s office (Personería) and the regional public advocate office (Defensoría del Pueblo) said several rural advocates in the area received death threats following the march.
The event was followed on June 29 by the creation of a “humanitarian refuge camp” at Puerto López Education Center, located in the town of the same name within El Bagre municipality. Almost 200 farmers from the surrounding countryside gathered at the school, determined to rally support for the terrorized community.
“We declare Puerto López a humanitarian refugee camp,” leaders of the initiative said in a statement. “We will stay here until the state institutions come and speak to us, and deal with the serious, violent situation created by the paramilitary groups, as well as the abandonment in which we have always lived.”
A History of Abandonment
According to the Atlas of Protected Lands, published by the Antioquian government in 2010, 50 percent of El Bagre’s land -- including the Puerto López section -- and 70 percent of the neighboring municipality of Segovia are under the protection of the Magdalena River Forest Reserve.
Puerto López has experienced steady growth for several decades due to the exploitation of timber and gold mining. Treasure hunters have flocked to the area for years, and some of them stayed. Fernando, whose name has been changed for his protection, came to visit family in 1994, and decided to stay.
“There was so much to do,” Fernando said. “The mule trains put a lot of people to work; the amount of food that came out of the villages was impressive. And gold ran the station.” Fernando later became a human rights defender.
The bustling area attracted activity, but not government. Not then, not now. In Puerto López there has never been a government office, not even a police station. As part of an ecological reserve, the town has seen little municipal investment in basic services such as electricity, waterworks, sewage systems, roads, health centers or schools.
The illegal armed groups moved into the vacuum caused by the state’s absence. The first to arrive was the FARC. Next came the Central Bolivar Block (BCB) of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), under the command of Vinicio Virgues Mahecha, alias "Jota-Jota," the principal deputy of BCB commander Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias "Macaco."
The arrival of the paramilitaries completely changed life in Puerto López. “It was in June of 2000,” Fernando remembered. “The ‘paras’ called everybody to a meeting in the park. Whoever did not go was killed. After about three days, a FARC sniper killed a ‘para,’” he said. “The hostilities continued until 2001 when the first major combat between the guerrillas and paramilitaries took place.”
From that point on, the small town was fiercely disputed. Jota-Jota’s men set up a base in the center of town from where they constantly fought off FARC incursions.
Violence that does not end
“Puerto López is a town that has been deeply affected by armed conflict,” Fernando said, adding that the demobilization of the AUC brought no respite. “The paramilitaries have just changed their name: first as the Rastrojos, then as the Aguilas Negras, later as the Urabeños, and currently they call themselves the Gaitanistas. But in the end,” he added, “it is the same paramilitary ideology that threatens the peasants.”
Between 2009 and 2012, El Bagre, particularly the towns of Puerto López and Puerto Clavel, witnessed a bloody vendetta waged by the heirs of the paramilitary movement throughout Bajo Cauca. Then came bloody battles involving the ELN's Ramiro de Jesus Castro Front, the FARC’s 36th Front and Mario Velez Mobile Column, and the Urabeño’s Felipe Rojas and Libertadores de Zaragoza fronts.
The spark that ignited that war was the disintegration in 2015 of agreements between the FARC and the Urabeños over the control of territories and the income that came with them.
The regional public advocate titled their Risk Report dated March 8, 2016, “El Bagre: under fire from the FARC and the "Gaitanistas."
“What are they fighting about?” Fernando asked rhetorically. “Well, control of territory. This zone is for the transit of coca. It is also very well located. From here you can easily get to the south of Bolivar.” The area continues to be plagued by targeted homicides, forced disappearances, threats against grassroots leaders, gradual displacements, forced recruitment of minors, extortion and other human rights violations.
Locals reported five firefights between the Urabeños and guerrillas between November 1, 2015, and May 20, 2016, resulting in casualties on both sides. Five people have been disappeared and at least 20 people have been killed, including AHERAMIGUA member William Castillo and William Hoyos, a former council member for the town of Puerto Claver.
Members of organizations that include AHERAMIGUA estimate that 60 community leaders have been threatened, including Fernando, who received death threats in November of last year. “I spoke to the National Protection Unit and they gave me a vest and a mobile phone. Not very useful around here,” the rural activist said.
The El Bagre ombudsman said many acts of violence occur deep in rural areas of the municipality and reports of them never make it to her office.
“We cannot ignore the public order situation … the violations of human rights that are being committed,” said Ingrid Veronica Chamorro. “But it is also true that there are very few complaints that arrive to my office. The people that end up displaced do it in silence, without telling anyone. It is the same with the victims of extortion. There is a lot that goes unreported.”
Locals in Puerto López said at least 300 families have abandoned the town due to violence without saying anything to anyone. Rows of abandoned houses in parts of town lend credence to their assertion.
“The Puerto López Rural Education Center had 1,500 students at the beginning of the year. Today, there are barely 1,000,” said one resident who asked not to be identified. “On the one hand, families have left, but on the other, there are many parents that are afraid to send their kids to school, fearing that they will be recruited by armed groups.”
Will the Peace Process Bring Peace?
“The idea of the "humanitarian refuge camp," well, okay. But I’d have to be crazy to go there,” said Jairo, who came to Puerto López seven years ago looking for a better life for himself and his family. Many people share his reluctance to get involved in any public activity, fearing they will be labelled as a partisan in the conflict.
“It is a very messed up situation,” Jairo said. “I am a moto-taxi driver and if, for example, a member of the guerrillas shows up and tells me: ‘Take this parcel to town,’ a paramilitary will be waiting to kill me when I get there for my so-called collaboration with the guerrillas.
“And it also happens the other way around. That is not fair. People are being killed for being suspected of supporting either the guerrillas or the paramilitaries.”
Citizens of Puerto López fear that the worst is yet to come. Jairo and others told VerdadAbierta.com they had heard rumor of an Urabeños black list containing the names of 70 people, some of whom have already been killed. Many in Puerto López and more generally in El Bagre express skepticism about the peace process. After watching the FARC fight over the area for almost two decades, very few said they believed the FARC would actually disarm and take up politics.
Others fear a reign of neo-paramilitary terror if the FARC do pull out and say that if the guerrillas do leave, they will leave too.
This article was translated, edited for clarity and published with the permission of VerdadAbierta.com. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here. Photos by Ricardo Cruz.