The following is a summary of information provided by the JEP in Spanish, which can be found_ here._
On 4 March 2019, communities from the Humanitarian Zone Nueva Esperanza in Cacarica (Bajo Atrato-Urabá-Chocoano) added their oral testimonies regarding the serious crimes committed against them in the context of Colombia’s internal armed conflict to the testimonies delivered on 10 December 2018.
The testimonies were presented by the:
- Comunidad de Vida y Trabajo (Community of Life and Work), La Balsita, Dabeiba;
- the Community Council of the Humanitarian Zones and Biodiversity Zones of Jiguamiandó, Curbaradó, La Larga Tumaradó and Pedeguita Mancilla;
- the Indigenous Resguardo (Reservation) Alto Guayabal;
- the Cooperativa Blanquicet; and
- the Association of Victims of Violence in Riosucio.
The objective of the hearing was to collect the testimonies of victims of violations committed by different armed actors in the Bajo Atrato region between 1995 and 1997, namely the paramilitaries, FARC guerrilla and the Security Forces.
The testimonies were presented to the “Chamber for the Recognition of Truth, Responsibility and Determination of the Facts and Conduct of the JEP” (La Sala de Reconocimiento de Verdad, de Responsabilidad y de Determinación de los Hechos y Conductas de la Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz -JEP) the oral phase of the mixed report on serious crimes committed, including the forced displacement and subsequent dispossession of the lands of the communities in the context of the armed conflict.
This hearing is symbolic as it is the first to be held in such an isolated rural region. Chocó is one of the top ten hotspots of biodiversity in the world. Unlike any other Colombian Department, 95 per cent of the population is indigenous and Afro-descendant. It has also experienced continuous abandonment by the Colombian State. Today this region continues to experience a humanitarian crisis.
The testimonies submitted by the communities’ form part of the evidence for case 04 opened by the JEP, which prioritises the situation of the municipalities of Turbo, Apartadó, Carepa, Chigorodó, Mutatá, Dabeiba (Antioquia) and El Carmen del Darién and Riosucio (Chocó).
"We voluntarily explain what happened, the disappearances and massacres of our comrades, the threats of the leaders, which is why we are now demanding our right to the truth."— victim from the Indigenous community of Alto Guayabal
Snapshot of the history of the conflict in the region
Operation Genesis (from ABColombia’s report “Fuelling Conflict in Chocó”, see more here.)
Chocó is a remote area of Colombia and, as such, had experienced limited conflict until 1997 when Operation Genesis, a military-paramilitary offensive, began in the north of the department causing terror and mass forced displacement. In that year alone, 27,433 people in Chocó were forcibly displaced as the paramilitaries moved southwards en masse The river communities from Riosucio to Quibdó felt the force of their violence, with the Observatory for the Presidential Programme on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law registering an intensity in the conflict ‘rarely seen’.
"The planes bombed during the day and the mosquitoes finished us off at night… I felt ill and asked God to help me reach shelter so that the child would not be born in the countryside. At five the pain started, and I gave birth at six. During the march through the rainforest, seven children died from exhaustion, hunger and drowning during river crossings." — Young woman forced to flee her home in Bajo Atrato
This violence coincided with the application for collective ownership of land by Afro-descendant communities in Chocó, a right incorporated into the 1991 Constitution and enacted through Law 70 of 1993. By the late 1990s, many of the communities had established the governing structures required by Law 70 and had started submitting applications to the State for their formal land titles. At the same time the right-wing paramilitary groups_ Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia_ (AUC), formed into a national structure with one of its prime objectives to take control of land occupied by Afro-descendants for which collective title deeds had not yet been issued or where the application had been submitted. The leaders of Community Councils (governing body of collectively owned land) applying for collective land rights were threatened, attacked and murdered.
The civilian population has suffered human rights violations and abuses by all armed actors. These violations include economic blockades, kidnapping, threats, persecution, massacres, torture, killings, dismembering of bodies, selective executions, forced disappearances, sexual violence, intimidation, anti-personnel mines, burning of villages and acts of ‘social cleansing’.[
The Colombian Security Forces in Chocó operated in collusion or in joint operations with the AUC, leaving the population completely exposed to the violations and abuses with no authorities to turn to for protection. By 2001, in Chocó the AUC numbered over 8,000 members.
In spite of the Peace Accord which was signed in November 2016, between the Government and the FARC, the internal conflict continues today. When the FARC left their traditional strongholds to demobilise the power vacuum left behind was not filled by the state. As a result, these power vacuums become areas which other illegal armed groups fought to control, namely, the ELN guerrilla (the second largest guerrilla group in Colombia; it was not included in Peace Talks with the FARC), neo-paramilitary groups (these go under various names), the ELP guerrilla and the FARC dissidents. Over the last months, communities in Urabá and Choco have been reporting an increased presence of the ELN and the AGC neo-paramilitary group in the Atrato region. The increased militarisation of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian collectively owned territories has led to infractions of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), combats with the communities in the middle, armed incursions, forced displacement and forced recruitment of children, as well as, the use of anti-personnel mines in their territory.
Case of “Operation Genesis” was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Victims describe what happened in “Operation Genesis” in a report to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR Report N 86/06). Operation Genesis was designed by the XVII Brigade of the National Army to combat the FARC-EP presence in the region; however, victims say that it was carried out with the direct involvement of paramilitaries wearing AUC and ACCU (Campesino Self-Defenders of Córdoba and Urabá) insignia. They also alleged that the armed men who participated in the military operation murdered the social leader Mr Marino López.
Here is an extract from the victims/petitioners presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – IACHR (the full version can be read here, paragraphs 11 to 20):
“The petitioners claim that between February 24 and 27, 1997, the Afro-descendants dwelling along the River Cacarica were affected by a series of aerial and land-based bombardments, raids, attacks on their property, and threatening behaviour that led to the forced displacement of their communities. They claim that this operation, called “Operation Genesis,” was designed by the XVII Brigade of the National Army to combat the FARC-EP presence in the region but that it was carried out with the direct involvement of paramilitaries wearing AUC and ACCU insignia. They also alleged that the armed men who participated in the military operation murdered Mr. Marino López.
Specifically, they claim that on February 24, 1997, airplanes and helicopters flew over the Cacarica basin region, and troops from the Army’s XVII Brigade began moving overland toward the area. During the morning, they claim, representatives from the Afro-descendant communities tried to meet with the officer in charge of the operation in Bocachica, identified as Maj. Salomón, to which end they approached a group of soldiers stationed on the ground. The say they had to cross several security cordons manned by members of the AUC and the ACCU and that they only managed to speak with an armed and camouflaged civilian by the name of Cornelio Maquilon, who told them he was authorized to speak for Maj. Salomón and told them to head for the municipality of Turbo in Antioquia.
The petitioners report that during the afternoon, the first forced displacement of tens of families took place: some headed for higher land, and others walked for more than ten hours until they reached the River Atrato and sought refuge in the municipality of Turbo. By 7:45 p.m. the bombardments of the Salaquí and Cacarica river basins had begun, and they continued for three hours.
They claim that the second “wave” of collective displacements took place that same evening, when military operations began in the community of Puente América on the banks of the Atrato. They report that armed men ordered the Afro-descendant residents of the area to leave in 24 hours were up and left signs reading “Long live the paramilitaries of Chocó and Córdoba” and “A/C: Death to Guerrillas and Informers.”
The petitioners claim that on February 26, 1997, at around 1:10 p.m., some 150 civilians wearing armbands of the Voltigeros Battalion of the Army’s XVII Brigade and the Marines arrived at the settlement of Bijao along the River Cacarica, firing their weapons. Upon hearing the explosions, some community members stampeded toward the mountainous part of the land, where they met with units involved in the military operation that were surrounding the settlement. For 20 minutes the armed men fired their weapons and threw grenades at the roofs of their homes, while others ransacked houses, shops, and barns. They also sprayed the community’s outboard motors with machinegun fire and set fire to an electricity plant.
The petitioners claim that at around 1:30 p.m., the armed men forced the members of the community to gather in the schoolhouse, where they were told that they had three days to abandon their lands. When asked about the reason for the eviction, they replied that those were the orders they had and that “if they were not out in three days, [they] would not be responsible for the consequences.”
The petitioners claim that the next day, February 27, 1997, the armed men tortured and decapitated Marino López Mean. The petitioners state that members of the military and paramilitaries then kicked it on repeated occasions, as if it were a football match, following which they invited the members of the community of Bijao who saw the incident to join in the game.
The petitioners claim that during the morning hours of February 27, 1997, armed men wearing the insignia of the Voltigeros Battalion of Brigade XVII and of the ACCU entered the community of Bocas del Limón, on the banks of the River Peranchito; they ordered the Afro-descendants to abandon their homes for 15 days and said that the National Police was waiting for them in Turbo. The petitioners report that as the meeting was taking place, the armed men burned down two homes and a small store belonging to the community’s Women’s Committee. They also ransacked community property and left slogans on the walls of the houses, with pictures of skulls and the legend “Death to the Guerrillas. Sincerely, ACCU. The Ox.” Before leaving, the armed men made a threat: “In four days’ time, if we find anyone here, we’ll cut their heads off.”
The petitioners claim that the first three displacements in the communities of Bocachica, Teguerré, Villa Hermosa, Bijao-Cacarica, El Limón, Quebrada Bonita, and Barranquilla were followed by others in the remaining villages. By February 28, 1997, almost 2,500 people had been displaced from the Cacarica area to Turbo, Bocas del Atrato, and Panama. Very few residents decided to remain in the Cacarica basin.
The displaced persons who decided to take refuge in Turbo were first taken there by police units in trucks and animal carts. A large percentage gathered together at the sports stadium, where they remained for several months in conditions of subhuman overcrowding. In turn, the people of Bijao, Puente América, La Honda, and El Limón who were unable to reach Turbo took refuge in Bocas del Atrato, where they were initially given shelter in a schoolroom. Those who tried to return to the Cacarica area met with a military checkpoint at La Loma. Another group of 250 residents – mostly women and children – reached the border with Panama after a 15-day hike through the jungle…”