By Colombia Informa
Original Spanish version can be read here.
The San Juan River and all of Chocó seem to be in a different country. Since mid-August last year, the communities that live there (Afro and indigenous) constantly denounce that they’re in the middle of a war between the "Gaitanista" Self-Defense Forces of Colombia -AGC- and the National Liberation Army -ELN-. But long before that, they denounced something worse: the abandonment of the State, which only sees them as a drug trafficking route and a perfect territory for its extractivist and neoliberal economy.
Despite the many efforts of community authorities, national and international human rights organizations, and the Catholic Church, there is no relief for this territory. Bombings, military bases, marines, stigmatization and oblivion are the only things that the government is bringing to San Juan.
This has caused an escalation of the conflict that during the current week seems to intensify. According to the communities, today there are clashes on the coast of the San Juan, specifically in the villages of Copoma, Vereda Tordo and Brisas. A person who lives there, and who for his safety did not want to identify himself*, contacted Colombia Informa to denounce the events of the last three days.
Colombia Informa (CI): How is the situation in San Juan?
The situation is extremely complex because until now an offensive against the armed groups has been carried out, which is what the communities were told (mainly against ELN) and that brought a military base in one of the villages called Noanamá, in the municipality of Medio San Juan. That is what the Army told us in all its military operations: that it was fighting illegal groups. But we were concerned about the militarization, because that leaves us immersed in the conflict.
In reality, the public forces are not carrying out the task of defending the communities, but rather they are in complicity with the AGC. And this is what has been expressed and has been denounced. For us the situation is very worrying because every day the presence of these groups and the dispute within the communities is intensifying. They are not only fighting in the territory, but also within the communities.
And we see that the objective of the presence of the public forces is to arrive at the communities, stay for a day or two days, and then leave. Then the AGC arrive in the communities. Because of this, we have suffered the murders of children, young people, adults. When the paramilitaries arrive, they threaten so that no one can move. And to this we have to add the fear of being accused of collaborating with subversive groups.
There are a lot of things that really worry us a lot, and there is little that can be done from the territory because whoever says anything is a military target. And it is not only a threat: there are already the facts as such, which are the murders.
CI: How have you become aware of this relationship between the security forces and the AGC?
The public forces have come to the communities disguised as groups that are not legal. Sometimes they pose as dissidents, sometimes they pose as the ELN using the armbands. And then the same people reappear as members of the security forces.
But we also see complicity because one is on one side of the river and the other on the other; and never in the San Juan has there been a confrontation between the security forces and the AGC. That has not happened.
The situation worsens even more after the bombing in which a guerrilla commander was killed. Military operations and the presence of the AGC increased.
CI: And what has happened in the last two days?
The communities have decided that when such a group arrives, they move to protect their lives. But on February 14, the AGC arrived in the community of Negrida and took it over. Since then, they have not let anyone move.
Today (February 16), the community moved because they saw no guarantees. There could be confrontations and the ones who pay the price are the civilian population. It is also reported that the AGC reached the communities along the coast of the Tordo River, in the lower San Juan. And that some people who live on the banks of the river are being detained and no one can move.
We are concerned because they are forcing the community and the civilian population to confine themselves. Nobody can move or give a report on the situation and the crisis that is being experienced, until they make a decision on what to do (if they stay, if they leave or when they give permission to move).
And really, in none of the communities has there been any response from the State about this situation. Not even from the military forces that are in the territory. Previously, there was a presence at all times of the military forces in the territory. And today they no longer visit, they no longer patrol. We used to pass daily through the checkpoints that were set up for us as civilians by the Marine Infantry, headed by the 15th Brigade. But today there is not even a presence in the San Juan River, because the paramilitary groups have taken over everything.
What they say is that they are going to remove the ELN that is in the territory, and we are worried because there is going to be confrontation and they do not allow the communities to move. All the communities at the mouth of the Tordo River are confined. The situation is really very delicate. Whoever goes out, does so running the risk that there could be a checkpoint anywhere and if they want to leave, they will be marked or killed. This is how the situation is in Chocó.
CI: How many people have been killed so far this year?
So far this year, we have reported more than five people murdered. And this has been made public through denunciations.
CI: Were there minors among those killed?
Yes, a girl in Dipurdú. The paramilitaries arrived shooting in blood and fire against the community. There was no combat, no confrontation. And then they took out several people, intimidating the community, and they killed them and left them on a beach.
CI: What day did that happen?
More or less on January 15.
CI: As authorities, what do you demand from the armed groups and the Government to achieve guarantees for your life and your permanence in your territories?
We had previously met with the two parties that were disputing the territory (the ELN and the AGC). The communities had demanded that the territory be respected, since that allowed us not to be immersed in the confrontation. This was respected for almost three years, respecting the territory and also that we could travel along the river, because it is the only means of transportation we have. The San Juan River is for us like a main road.
This was being fulfilled until -we don't know how- the confrontation took place. One day the AGC took one of the villages that could not be taken, Dipurdú. They entered the town, took it over, threatened many people there. Then there was a confrontation and the community moved towards San Miguel and towards Medio San Juan.
After that, the public forces arrived saying they were going to take control. But they came to support the paramilitaries. The harassment of the communities and the threats increased.
What have we demanded? In the last few days a communiqué was sent by the community authorities to the two groups. Asking them to please sit down, talk and respect the agreements again. But we have not really heard any concrete response, but rather their slogan has been to continue the war as such.
Are there also dissidents present in the territory?
Not confirmed as such. Whenever there is said to be a presence, it has always been the Colombian security forces that have made these montages. We have been able to prove that. So far there is no presence of the dissidents. It is said but we have not really seen that they identify themselves as dissidents or that they patrol.
*The name of the person interviewed has been omitted due to the current threat from the AGC that states that anyone who talks about what is happening in the territory will be a military target.