The killing of an Indigenous leader in Bahia Solano, on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, adds to mounting violence that has fueled the displacement of hundreds as the Urabeños drug gang seeks to consolidate power in the region.
On December 3, Miguel Tapí Rito, the governor of the Ríos Valle y Boroboro Indigenous reserve, located in the municipality of Bahía Solano in the northern department of Chocó, was kidnapped and later murdered, allegedly by the Urabeños. When his body was discovered a few hours later, 900 members of the indigenous community left their homes for fear of further violence and headed to the municipality’s urban center, according to the newspaper El Tiempo.
Following the murder, the Indigenous Committee of Chocó, an organization that brings together representatives of ancestral communities from across the department, explained in a public letter that the government’s “actions in defense of our communities are not clear” and further condemned the lack of security guarantees and the deep-seated control of criminal groups in the area.
Since May 2020, the Ombudsman’s Office has highlighted the risk in the rural area of Bahía Solano, particularly the Ríos Valle reserve where Tapí was kidnapped as well as the settlements of the Valle, Huaca and Playita, as a result of the war between the Urabeños and the Cimarrón Resistance Front of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), across the northern part of Chocó.
In response to this latest incident, troops were deployed to the rural area of Bahía Solano, with the intention of avoiding further displacement.
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The murder of the indigenous governor appears to be a demonstration of power by the Urabeños, who have been gained territory across the northern Chocó with the goal of defeating the ELN and controlling key territory for moving drugs, migrants and weapons.
Bahía Solano is a strategic location along routes to move drugs to Panama or Central America via speed boats or clandestine roads. These areas are also used for arms trafficking and migrant smuggling. It was previously controlled by the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) but since the group left the region in 2016, it has been disputed by the ELN and the Urabeños.
The amount of drugs departing Bahía Solano is so high that recovering cocaine lost at sea, either to return it to its owners or to sell it to other drug traffickers, has become a business in itself, known locally as "pesca blanca" (white fishing).
The conflict between the ELN and the Urabeños usually takes place in rural areas, leading to mobility restrictions, threats and direct risks to the lives of residents. But the conflict also extends into the urban area of Bahía Solano with clash with the criminal group Chacales, which has been subcontracted by the ELN since the beginning of 2020 to hit the Urabeños in the neighborhoods of Bahía most developed urban area, making them a "military objective" for this group.
This war between the ELN and the Urabeños in Bahía Solano is part of a larger battle to control the northern part of the department of Chocó that started in 2016 with the departure of the FARC.
The frequency of drug shipments going through Chocó means that numerous municipalities have become prized criminal real estate.
The municipalities of greatest importance are Juradó and Rio Sucio, bordering Panama, as well as Carmen del Darién and Belén de Bajirá, which serve as gateways to Chocó for Urabeños coming from the department of Antioquía.
Finally, the municipality of Bojayá is of great importance, as it serves as a gateway both to Panama to the north and to the Pacific Ocean to the west.
While the ELN is a greater threat nationwide, the Urabeños have shown their ability to stand up to their rivals and drag out one of Colombia's bitterest criminal rivalries. And dozens of communities will continue to pay the cost.