Nikki Drake, WfP Colombia Team
“If I had seen you come I would have filled you with lead from here onward so you couldn’t take one more step!”
The Panamanian soldier barks his threat at us as more Colombian and Panamanian troops surround us with guns readied, fingers on the triggers, scanning our mixed group of Afro-Colombians, indigenous, mestizos, and international accompaniers that caught them by surprise moments earlier on top of Cerro Mocho along the Colombia-Panama border. They quickly yell at us to put away all cameras and recording devices; meanwhile they continue taking photos and filming us with their cell phones. Another soldier angrily shouts that we are “invading their territory,” which is met with bitter laughter from many in the crowd of community members who know exactly what it means to be forced off their own land by the state forces sworn to protect them.
Over the past several months, communities of the collective territories of Cacarica in the Department of Chocó have reported seeing helicopters delivering large equipment and supplies to Cerro Mocho– land they assert is part of their territory. In order to confirm their suspicions of military presence and the construction of a base on the mountain, leaders organized a land verification commission with the accompaniment of Colombian and international human rights organizations. Our arrival was set for February 24th to coincide with the 17th anniversary of Operation Genesis, the collaboration of Colombia´s 17th Brigade with paramilitary forces to forcibly displace thousands of community members from these lands for the expansion of African palm oil plantations. The joint operation included the brutal murder and dismemberment of civilian Marino Lopez Mena, whose head was then used by paramilitaries to play soccer through the community.
Operation Genesis was carried out in 1997, after the Colombian government had passed two laws that on paper were considered big steps forward for Afro-descendent and indigenous groups. Law 21 was established as part of the 1991 Constitution, making Prior Consultation a prerequisite for the development of any projects, administrative actions, or legislative initiatives in legal territories of ethnicgroups. In 1993, the Colombian government passed Law 70 to specifically protect the rights of Afro-descendants “to collectively own and occupy their ancestral lands,” among other guarantees. Cacarica is just one of numerous examples not only of the government’s empty guarantees of its citizen’s rights, but of its active participation in violence and displacements against its Afro-descendent, indigenous, and farming communities.
On top of Cerro Mocho, community members are quick to cite Laws 70 and 21 to the military personnel, who confidently dismiss them. They will not allow us to look around the premises, threatening that “If you step past here, you guys are the enemy.” A teacher from the community is told to back up and then pushed roughly onto the ground by a Panamanian soldier. His Colombian counterpart explains to us in simpler and less violent terms: “I am two years away from retiring. If I let you pass, I’ll lose my pension.” A soldier wearing special recording sunglasses roams throughout the crowd, but his attempts to joke and socialize are not well-received. I immediately wonder if his glasses are a product of the millions of dollars in annual U.S. military funding to the country. As part of Plan Colombia, the U.S. has given nearly $8.9 billion to Colombia since 2000, the large majority for military and police aid, despite links to illegal paramilitary groups and an alarming record of human rights abuses.
As our group hikes back down the mountain – after an hour with the forty armed troops – I picture the faces of the overwhelmingly young soldiers and wonder how they feel representing the side of the government. Colombia’s obligatory military term of service for those with a high school diploma is one year, while those without a high school degree must serve 18 to 24 months. University students can defer each year, and wealthy families easily buy a military record for their sons in lieu of service. The resulting reality: it is the poor and uneducated young men of Colombia who are forced into an institution that has likely displaced or committed violence against people in their very own families or communities.
Back at our camp along the Perancho River, the community leaders call a meeting. People position themselves along the stones and rocks of the riverbank as the sun sets behind the thick jungle canopy of trees and night falls on the group. The communities have great concern about the presence of security forces on Cerro Mocho, in particular why they are building a secret base, and the involvement of Panamanian soldiers. The military personnel refused to answer any questions earlier, only stating that it is “an important joint border area of united forces.” Community members worry aloud that the State presence is part of a larger project relating to natural resources and multinational corporations, and the memories of Operation Genesis are quick to surface.
The Colombian government´s ties to big-business and reportedly “demobilized” paramilitary groups have been part of its larger continued effort to displace communities throughout the country in order to facilitate the expansion or entry of big industries such as African palm oil, cattle, and mining. At over 5.7 million, or 15 percent of the national population, Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. In the first half of 2013 alone, 61 large groups – consisting of more than fifty people – were internally displaced, with only a small handful of those even registered by the government Victims’ Unit. While many of the communities of Cacarica returned to their lands in 2000, seventeen years and a court-ruling later, several are still waiting for full restitution and reparations from the Colombian government.
Back in Bogotá days after the trip, I meet with Jani, a youth leader from one of the communities that participated in the commission. Although he was only eight at the time, he remembers the displacement of his community very well, adding that “all of the older people also tell us about it and pass the stories along.” He tells me proudly about the organized group of 30 or so youth from his community who meet once per week to “talk about all of the things that affect us, about our community’s struggle, about our culture.” He has recently been invited by a human rights organization to participate in a speaking tour in Europe. I ask him about what will be his first trip out of the country, and he responds with a shy smile and quiet laugh: “I’m excited, but honestly I’m quite nervous!” He has an endearing and personable way about him that I hope will touch the hearts and pens of citizens and politicians abroad so that they too will pressure for change and support the struggle for justice in Colombia.
Violent oppression of its people, collusion with multinational corporations and paramilitaries, exploitation of its precious resources at the expense of its poor – this is the story repeated over and over in Colombia. Yet it remains unchanged and unchallenged by the country’s leadership, whose rhetoric of advancements in security and peace continues to draw financial aid and attract foreign investors. So despite the corruption, and the constant threats and violence, it has been left to individuals and communities, with the support of Colombian and international organizations, to keep uniting their countrymen and women in the fight for justice and human rights. And it is young people like Jani who will continue their parents’ and grandparents’ struggle to change Colombia’s story.