WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

ACSN Urges the Santos Administration to Investigate Paramilitary Activity and Protect the Afro-Colombian Communities in Cacarica, Chocó

ACSN Statement

The Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network (ACSN)* is concerned for the safety of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in the Cacarica river basin. The Community for Self-Determination, Life and Dignity of Cacarica (CAVIDA) warns that paramilitaries are mobilizing in nearby towns including Carmen del Darién, Turbo, Apartadó and Chigorodó in order to secure territorial, economic and social control over the civilian population.  The presence of illegal armed groups, including the guerrillas and paramilitary groups that did not disarm or give up territorial control of the strategic Darien/Lower Atrato area put the lives of communities at risk.  Information provided to CAVIDA indicates that the villages of Vijao and El Limón, and the Humanitarian Zone of Nueva Vida may be targeted.

Members of the Army’s 17th Brigade are reportedly aware of this impending paramilitary operation. The threat is given credence by the presence of paramilitaries in strategic points of the Atrato River, where they exercise control over the river traffic despite a significant presence by Colombian Armed Forces.  Repeated public denouncements by the local population of this illegal activity have fallen on deaf ears.

The Afro-Colombian communities of Cacarica have tried to live in peace since they returned to their ancestral lands in 2000 after having experienced the mass displacement of 3,800 farmers and their families in 1997 by members of the 17th Brigade and paramilitaries in the joint operation known as Operation Genesis. During this operation, Cacarica and neighboring Salaquí were aerially bombarded by the Colombian Air Force and civilians were massacred by paramilitaries.  When the displaced families returned, some set up Humanitarian Zones, a civilian self-protection mechanism based upon international humanitarian law and the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, in order to shelter the communities from the internal armed conflict and human rights abuses.

Operation Genesis took place under the command of Retired Army General Rito Alejo del Rio, who is facing prosecution in Colombia, but faltering progress led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to send the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in July 2011.  The Commission found that the events of Operation Genesis are a crime against humanity since they are part of a pattern of massive, systematic, and widespread violence and were carried out in the context of the armed conflict. Until there is justice in this case the risk of human rights violations repeating themselves in this part of Chocó remains high.

The Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities of Cacarica are demanding respect for their constitutional right to free, prior and informed consent with respect to the controversial extension of the Pan-American Highway and an electrical connection project. The Pan-American Highway project would build the last 62 km of road in Colombia to meet the border with Panama. The project will have a significant cultural and environmental impact because it would trace through the waterways and the Los Katios National Park in what is one the most environmentally diverse areas of the world. The communities are facing decades of conflict and marginalization. The presence of the State here is principally limited to the presence of the Army. Basic needs, such as drinking water, are not being met.  Security in the area depends on the transparency and fairness in large scale projects because in this region paramilitary groups have notorious links to commercial interests, such as Chiquita Brands International. The lack of investigation into the role of Del Monte S.A. in Cacarica after the 1997 displacement is concerning, because credible reports have emerged that the paramilitaries used their facilities in the area known as La Balsa in Cacarica for years, and continue to use the zone as a strategic foothold.

In such circumstances, lives and livelihoods – essential if the communities are to remain on their land – depend of the right to free, prior and informed consent and previous consultation. This obligation is protected by Colombia’s Law 70 of 1993 of the Black Communities, International Labor Organization Convention 169 and by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

As a network that has monitored the rights in Afro-Colombians residing in northwestern Chocó for years we strongly urge the Colombian authorities to ensure that:

•          The Vice President’s office, Minister of Interior and the Office of Afro-descendant Affairs act diligently to ensure the protection of the communities and the persons under threat.

•          The Inspector General and Prosecutor General’s office investigate allegations of collusion between members of the 17th Brigade and paramilitaries and successor armed groups.

•          The Inspector General and Prosecutor General should also investigate public officials and individuals alleged to have violated the civil rights of Afro-Colombians in the Cacarica river basin.

•          Strengthen and implement the territorial rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, most notably the right to previous consultation, prior to advancing with the Pan-American Highway large scale infrastructure project.

For further information please contact Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli of WOLA at (202) 797-2171 or gsanchez@wola.org

*The Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network (ACSN) includes the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), TransAfrica Forum (TAF), Global Rights, Chicago Religious Leadership Network (CRLN), U.S. Office on Colombia (USOC), International Working Group of PCN, and activists and scholars Joseph Jordan, Roland Roebuck, Eunice Escobar and Arturo Escobar. Peace Brigades International (PBI) serves as an international observer.

Photo courtesy of Catherine Gégout