WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
17 Apr 2014 | Commentary | News

Presentation on Land Restitution, Displacement, and WOLA’s Visit to the Choco

On March 27, 2014, WOLA Senior Associate Gimena Sanchez presented on the past and present displacement crisis on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. the event took place at the Javeriana University in Bogota, Colombia, and was co-sponsored by INDEPAZ.

Presentation by Gimena Sánchez, Senior Associate for the Andes, WOLA

March 27, 2014

Event co-hosted by INDEPAZ, Javeriana University, and WOLA

Javeriana University, Bogotá, Colombia

First of all, I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to INDEPAZ and to the Javeriana University for the opportunity to present at this conference today. I will divide my commentary into three parts. First, I will talk about the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision regarding Operation Genesis. Second, I will explain why this is a decision of great significance. Third, I will present the preliminary findings of WOLA’s recent visit to the Chocó department. Finally, I will conclude with recommendations directed at the international community and others on how to best address the current human rights and humanitarian situation facing afrodescendants and indigenous peoples in the Chocó.

IACHR’s Decision on Operation Genesis

At the end of December 2013, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights made public its decision on the Operation Genesis case. This case involves the violence that took place in February 1997 in the Cacarica River Basin in Chocó Department when the 17th Brigade of the Colombian Armed Forces was participating in a military operation called Operation Genesis under the command of former General Rito Alejo del Río. From February 24 – 27, paramilitary groups carried out military operations in the rural areas in the basins of the Salaquí, Truando and Cacarica Rivers. During one of these operations, Afro-Colombian peasant Marino López was assassinated. Paramilitary groups murdered Marino and then proceeded to chop off his head and play soccer with it in front of the community. This brutal act was done in order to instill fear and to encourage Afro-Colombians to flee their territories. This incident happened while the Colombian Air Force simultaneously bombarded these areas.

The human rights abuses committed by the paramilitary groups and members of the Colombian Armed Forces resulted in the forced displacement of hundreds of people, the majority of whom were afrodescendant peasants, including large numbers of women and children. Operation Genesis marked the beginning of the paramilitary groups’ takeover of Chocó Department. These abuses committed by the paramilitaries resulted in the forced abandonment of large tracts of territories by local rural inhabitants. The lands were later usurped by outside economic interests for illegal wood harvesting, cultivation of oil palm crops, coca crops, and drug trafficking. These activities have included the deforestation of vast areas of land to raise livestock and grow illegal crops.

The Court’s decision stipulates that the Colombian state violated several articles of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights and that it is, therefore, responsible for the 1997 violation of thousands of Afro-Colombians’ right to not be forcefully displaced, as well as the rights to life and integrity of Marino López Mena. The Court noted that the Colombian state did not fulfill its obligation to guarantee humanitarian assistance and safe return for Afro-Colombian displaced persons. The state is also responsible for violating Afro-Colombians’ rights to collective property, their legal guarantees, and protection. Interestingly, the Court declared that the Colombian state is not responsible for violations of the right of life linked to the bombardments carried out by the Armed Forces. In light of this decision, the Court ordered the Colombian state to take measures in order to correct the injustices experienced by Afro-Colombian victims. The State should publicly recognize its responsibility. Also, it must guarantee full restitution of these territories to the rightful owners and provide the victims with reparations. Colombia is granted one year to meet the nine requirements found in this Court ruling.

It is important to add that in 2009, retired General del Rio was detained. In August 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the crime involving Marino López. Verdad Abierta reported that in 2010 Freddy Rendón, alias the “German,” chief of the regional paramilitary bloc, declared within the framework of the Justice and Peace Process that the 17th Brigade of the Colombian Armed Forces cooperated with paramilitary commanders and that Operation Genesis formed part of a broader political and paramilitary effort whose objective was to displace Afro-Colombians from their territories in order to facilitate the entrance and expansion of oil palm plantations throughout the Chocó Department. It is of great concern that Mr. Rendon will complete his term under the process in just one year, and that he has been linked to more than 1,041 crimes.

This Court decision is important because:

  1. It is a major step toward guaranteeing justice for Afro-Colombian communities. It is one of the few examples where justice has been achieved for Afro-Colombian victims.
  2. It lends credibility to a group of victims that has been stigmatized as “liars” and guerrilla affiliates, and who have suffered multiple death threats, attacks and different forms of intimidation due to their efforts to remain neutral in the midst of conflict and for reclaiming their land rights.
  3. It serves as a tool of international protection for the security of the members of these communities and for the victims that are still at risk of being displaced or attacked.
  4. It sends a clear message regarding the state’s responsibility when it comes to members of the Armed Forces colluding with illegal groups. This decision serves as a starting point for dismantling the military-paramilitary-political organized crime networks that developed in the Chocó. These networks aim to control the collective territories of Afro-Colombians with the purpose of implementing economic projects—in particular resource extraction projects that benefiting non-Chocoans.
  5. It establishes an international precedent on the right to not be displaced and displacements’ negative consequences for ethnic and tribal groups. The latter two issues are reiterated in the UN Guiding Principles for Internal Displacement.
  6. The decision emphasizes the rights of children and the rights of ethnic communities with regard to collective territories.

WOLA considers this to be an important decision. It is also a major human rights victory for the victims and for their accompanying legal team, the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (CIJP).

In spite of this, we remain concerned for the security of the members of the communities of Cacarica, those involved in the related case of the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó communities, and CIJP staff. On January 5, Marco Velázquez, the Afro-Colombian leader of the Cacarica communities, received new death threats. On December 30 of 2013, Raul Palacios, another Afro-Colombian leader of the communities of Curvaradó, was also subjected to death threats. CIJP staff has experienced multiple security incidents and has received constant death threats during the past year. The security situation of Danilo Rueda, the organization’s director, has
significantly deteriorated. He has been the subject of constant surveillance, has been followed, and has received verbal death threats during the last year. Just last week he directly received death threats, and others directed at him were sent to his colleagues. There are indications that both his and the organization’s phone number and emails are intercepted.

WOLA Trip to Chocó

Last week, a WOLA delegation visited various communities in the Atrato, San Juan, and Condoto River Basins. We also interviewed social and religious organizations, the police, municipal, and displaced persons organizations in Quibdó and Istmina.


  1. Deterioration in the humanitarian and security situation faced by civilians in rural communities. Armed confrontations between the guerrillas and the Armed Forces continue. There is significant pressure on civilians in these communities who are facing serious security threats and are at a high risk of displacement.

On December 30 in Tagachí, a village of around 200 families in the Medio Atrato, the 34th front of FARC detonated an explosive in a boat located in the pier of the community. The explosive killed two members of the security forces and caused structural damages to nearby houses and community centers. Fortunately, members of the community were gathered in another part of the village due to a town activity and there were no civilian casualties. What is even more concerning is that on January 30, the guerrilla group returned to the village and forcibly gathered members of the community into a meeting. At this meeting, they informed community members that the bombing on December 30th was just a rehearsal and that if members of the community allowed the armed forces to enter the village again that they were going to detonate a bomb capable of destroying the entire village. They told people not to pay attention to what is happening in Havana (referring to the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC) because they are the people in charge in Chocó. They also threatened them with an order to dispose of all the mobile phones in the community. The community lives in anguish that soldiers will arrive and that their arrival might will result in reprisals from the guerrillas. This situation appears to be taking place in several villages located throughout the Atrato River.

Land mines are another problem that several communities are facing and that is challenging the local Afro-Colombian citizens’ ability to engage in agricultural activities.

  1. Militarization has begun in the Chocó. At the recommendation of the U.S. government, Colombia is implementing the Sword of Honor program. This is a joint military-police operation that seeks to confront and weaken the strongest fronts of the FARC in various parts of the Colombia. The effort started its implementation in the Chocó in January when the joint Titan force began operations that will include a force of 2,500 men.

This situation raises several concerns: 1) It was reported that approximately 60 percent of the funds for this program will be allocated to development and that the remaining 40 percent will go to military efforts. As such, this means that the Armed Forces will likely have a presence in civilian areas. This exposes civilians and makes them more vulnerable to suffering the consequences of the violence exerted by the guerrillas. 2) The proximity of police posts  (as observed by WOLA) next to civilian centers including churches, schools and other centers where members of the community frequently gather such as health posts places civilians at risk of harm. In essence, civilians are caught in a Catch-22. They are trapped between guerrillas who wants them to stop the armed forces from entering or having a presence in their communities—which is an impossible thing to ask of them—and an army who sees any civilian who asks that they remain stationed only on the perimeters of their villages under suspicion to be a potential guerrilla member. 3) Concerns about members of the armed forces’ behavior towards community members were reported to us by multiple sources. The members of the public security forces are perceived to be aggressive and disrespectful towards the local authorities. Some members of the communities expressed fear that the public forces will override their local authorities. 4) The increase in armed men has led to an increasing number of relationships between the soldiers and the local women and girls. It is common for females to be abandoned by the soldiers once they get pregnant.

  1. A third cross cutting theme we heard a lot about from people we met with were the negative consequences of the aerial fumigation efforts. Policies to control coca crops in the south of Colombia have contributed to the dispersion of coca crops to the Pacific region, including the northern area near Panama. Chocó is currently the second most fumigated department in the country. Damages to food safety, the environment, and health conditions for the communities resulting from this are considered troublesome. Additionally, fumigations induce the dispersal of coca crops as well as the migration of armed groups that produce social and security incidents in the communities.
  1. According to estimates, there are approximately 80 mines and 153 extractive machines in the area that are mostly illegal and have links with paramilitary groups.

This is concerning in many ways:

  1. The environmental destruction produced by dredges and backhoes is tremendous. There are is no action on the part of the environmental authorities, thus the mining is continuing without any regulation, leading to very high mercury and cyanide rates in the rivers. River flows have changed and are now more difficult to navigate.
  1. The ecology is being damaged, and fish—a primary form of subsistence for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities—are being eliminated.
  1. Sedimentation has changed the water’s composition and has caused agricultural problems.
  1. Beaches that were once used by people to clean their clothes, bathe, and play no longer exist.
  1. Mining has caused divisions between communities because some agree with mining concessions whereas others do not.
  1. People who resist mining have been threatened, harassed and have been victims of spurious judicial charges.
  1. Because there is no regulation of mining activities, many people are mining in high-risk situations, and there have been deaths from resulting accidents.
  1. Artisanal mining is only possible when the owners of the illegal machines let them mine, through a process called barraqueo.
  1. Women in mines are forced to have sexual relations and there has been an increase in prostitution.
  1. Both the culture and food security of Afro-Colombian communities have changed because people prefer to dig for gold than to produce agricultural goods. People only produce what they are going to eat and food has begun to be imported. After minerals are withdrawn from an area, the communities are left with nothing.

The government has been formalizing mining concessions but has not assured that mining is practiced in a sustainable way. The Minister for the Environment and CODECHOCO have not been establishing limits to mining in order to decrease the impacts on the environment and on human life. The state has intervened by burning the machines of medium- and small-scale miners that are in the process of formalizing their status, which represent a loss for the communities. The government still has not confronted the mining of illegal armed groups or the corruption of authorities. Several times, governmental actions harm small or artisan miners instead of the people who are causing problematic situations.

  1. Indigenous communities are living in a particularly serious situation of malnourishment and lack of health care.
  1. With regard to internal displacement, two phenomena can be observed. The first is the continued displacement of people in the region and the second is the abandonment of the displaced populations that have lived from 10 to almost 17 years without meeting their basic necessities such as employment and adequate housing. Between 1997 and 2013, more than 40 percent of the population of Chocó has been displaced (more than 170,000 persons); more than 2,586 death threats have been made and there have been more than 777 disappearances. In 2013 there were 10 mass displacements, among which 82 percent were Afro-Colombians and a 13 percent indigenous. These groups are displaced at disproportionate rates and their social structures are shattered. There have been 32 incidents of armed combat this year. The return of the rightful owners to their lands has been carried out without ideal security conditions and without integral assistance mechanisms to make those returns permanent. Leaders continue to be threatened by illegal groups.

We visited Villa España where people who have been displaced since 1996 and have yet to have their rights respected. Despite the Auto 005 Constitutional Court ruling regarding internal displacement and other lawsuits filed to protect fundamental rights, people continue living without possibilities of employment and without sustainable projects. People feel victimized and poorly treated by authorities when they ask for assistance. Support by the NPU, if given, is ineffective. The situation in rural areas is so complicated that inhabitants cannot gather enough food from the rivers and suffer from hunger.

We also visited Curvarabí, a place where 200 Afro-Colombian and indigenous displaced families invaded some lands. Here, we could see houses and small tents constructed by the displaced. At the beginning of 2013, a person who insisted on being the lawful owner of the territory asked the municipal government to evict the displaced persons. In April, Colombian riot police, or ESMAD, entered and evicted the people with the use of chainsaws. Currently, two people who claim to be the rightful owners of the land are in the midst of a battle for the territory. One of them wants to let the displaced persons stay if the municipality pays for the land, whereas the other one wants to evict them. People live under the constant threat of being evicted. This is a situation that could be solved with greater political will from the mayor’s office.

  1. There is state abandonment in the rural areas of Chocó, and Quibdó suffers from a lack of capacity to provide basic public services. This is particularly evident in the health sector. There is no health service in rural areas, except for first aid, and when there are nurses, they lack the tools and medicines to treat people. There is a great institutional weakness in the area. Political uncertainty is part of the problem; there have been eight governors and three health ministers in the past four years. Political continuity is disrupted and programs are started but not continued. Other problems include corruption and high debts that are passed from one administration to another.
  1. Additionally, there is a security problem in Quibdó because of the paramilitary groups that have formed an alliance with AGC. They commit homicides and recruit minors for micro-trafficking. Impunity for these cases is very high. Police allege that in many cases people are afraid or distrustful and therefore do not denounce facts that can lead to investigations. This obstructs the process of investigating and prosecuting those responsible.
  1. Despite all difficulties, the leaders of the community councils and other religious leaders and grassroots groups have made an effort to find solutions to the wide variety of problems. Red Departamental de Mujeres Chocoanas have created a school to teach responsible politics and economic projects with women that generate income. FISCH, which is a grouping of 67 community councils, indigenous cabildosand grassroots groups, has been developing proposals for mining and peace. The Diocesis de Quibdó and Istimina-Tado have been actively supporting organization processes, the mining discussion table and the construction of peace.

Based on what we have outlined, we have the following recommendations

For Operation Genesis

While being in the midst of a conflict is not ideal for implementing the Court’s decision—reparations are taking place within the framework of the law of victims which has shown minimal results, paramilitary presence and control continues in Truando, Turbo and Riosucio, the army makes a low altitude flyovers, and there is a new binational military base built with Panama in the Cacarica collective territory without prior consultation with the community—we still think that this ruling has the potential to serve as an emblematic case of reparations. For this to become a reality, monitoring is required and civil society advocacy at the regional, national and international will be necessary. The community has recommended, as the Court orders, that there be monthly visits by the state and that the Joint Commission that was created when the community returned to Cacarica be reactivated. This commission would include representatives of embassies, aid agencies, UN organizations and national organizations.

Regarding the situation in the Choco

The parties negotiating in Havana should promote a ceasefire to limit IHL and human rights violations happening in the Pacific region, particularly in Chocó, Nariño and Cauca. The international community should call for and support the ceasefire.

Operation Titan and the public security force should be accompanied by efforts to ensure respect for civilians under the IHL framework. Both police and army posts should be located away from community centers, schools and health posts. Oversight over the police is also necessary in certain communities so that the police are more professional and disciplined.

The high level of risk faced by leaders of CAVIDA, Curvaradó / Jiguamiando, COCOMOPOCA, ADOM, AFRODES and CIJP requires attention and more concrete action by the Colombian state to prevent irreparable harm. The response by the UNP should be better, more effective and adapted to the particular conditions of the afrodescendant and indigenous communities and other people living in rural areas. One proposal is to develop river transport mechanisms to respond to security emergencies.

The prosecutor must investigate the attacks, killings and harassment against Afro-Colombian leaders to ensure non-recurrence of such events.

Following the peace process, there is much concern about whether the guerrillas will morph into a new body. It is feared that they will end up in the lands of indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups and will begin imposing their political and economic vision in these areas. Consultation and coordination is required with affected communities to identify how a transition would be in those areas where demobilization has occurred, and to develop measures to protect local communities.

In Chocó, the state must work hard to dismantle the paramilitary structures that continue to operate in the region and investigate and punish members of the army, police, political and economic interests who work with them.

The government should take immediate steps to analyze and find real solutions to mining and act to mitigate the serious environmental consequences and human hardships it can cause. The government must also strengthen efforts to combat money laundering through minerals. This would require local authorities to boost efforts with community councils and to teach them how to protect small-scale miners from the occupational hazards of mining to prevent more deaths and illnesses. Additionally, the formalization of mining must come with the application of the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan in this region, and in particular promote union organizing efforts among mineworkers.

Local authorities should respect the autonomy of afrodescendant and indigenous peoples and consult and coordinate with community and indigenous councils.

The government should develop a special plan to solve the problems of extreme poverty, and particularly the vulnerable situation of indigenous peoples and the basic needs of the population in the Chocó. Efforts are needed to combat corruption and strengthen transparency in governance and elections.

Donors / International Community

Donors such as the U.S. , European Union and others should develop a plan of support that seeks to strengthen organizational processes, seeks durable solutions for the displaced, develops economic alternatives to coca cultivation and criminal mining, strengthens public health in rural areas, and promotes economic projects that are consulted and agreed to with community councils and displaced groups.

Support is needed for education and technical training efforts that focus on medical and nursing jobs, as well as training experts to grow new economic sectors in the region.

In short, donors should support projects that generate employment and livelihood projects for displaced and rural communities. But projects have to be accompanied by strong guarantees and oversight committees that assure that these projects reach their intended recipients.

Positive efforts such as ACDIVOCA’s Afro-Colombian and indigenous program should receive more funding and be expanded in the Chocó, the Pacifica area, and specifically in Buenaventura. The development of these projects should be consulted and agreed with the recipients of these funds.

The U.S. and Colombia should stop the aerial spraying program in Colombia and develop an alternative for coca eradication in ethnic territories which is consulted on and agreed to by leaders of the affected communities.

The U.S., Canada and other countries where FTAs are incentivizing large-scale economic investment projects must formulate plans to mitigate the negative impacts of these agreements in Afro-descendant and indigenous communities. In the case of Chocó, the Colombian government must be transparent about who they have issued mining and logging concessions to in afrodescendant and indigenous collective lands. Community councils, the local diocese, and the Inter-Ethnic Solidarity Forum of the Chocó (FISCH) must be not only informed, but also integrated into the economic decision-making following the consultation made by governments at municipal, regional and national levels on economic projects that impact these territories. A plan should be developed so that the human, environmental and collective rights are protected,  and the afrodescendant and indigenous peoples, as owners of these territories, can benefit from these new economies in a manner that is in line with their own lifestyles and economic priorities.

The international community and national and international activists should influence the UNP to respond effectively and meet protection needs. They must advance with the collective protection mechanism and apply it in the case of AFRODES and other Afro-Colombian communities.

The international community should financially and politically strengthen the organizational processes of communities so they can prepare their communities to address the obstacles they face.

Finally, the Chocó region will be a major challenge if an agreement between the Government and the FARC is reached in Havana because of the likely existence of major obstacles in terms of demobilization of combatants, as well as the persistent challenge of drug trafficking and illicit economies which must be dismantled to secure a lasting peace. At the same time, attention in this region can serve as a flagship example of how to build peace and democracy in the country.