7 November 2015
The armed conflict in Colombia continues to wreak havoc on vulnerable civilians, despite historic achievements in the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), such as the recent agreement by the parties in Havana to create a joint commission to search for the bodies of the over 77,000 disappeared. This is because implementation will not begin until the signing of the final agreement, which is common in peace processes around the world, but difficult for Colombian society to understand, especially those like the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, who are sceptical about the peace process, as I wrote in a previous article.
One of the on-going threats to the civilian population is continuing paramilitary activity. The rural township of San José de Apartadó, where the Peace Community have many of their settlements, is an urgent example. In the last month, paramilitaries have patrolled openly (in contrast to their usual more clandestine operations), issued verbal threats and circulated blacklists of people who are to be killed, including some Peace Community members. In the hamlet of La Esperanza, the situation is so tense that the non-members of the Peace Community are leaving their houses and grouping together in and around the little school, where they have set up a temporary camp. According to the peasant farmer organization ACASA (Asociación Campesina de San José de Apartadó – Farmers Organization of San José de Apartadó), 85 people are in the process of being forced out their homes in La Esperanza due to paramilitary threats, and a UN Humanitarian Response press release documents another 120 people from both La Esperanza and nearby hamlet La Hoz as being displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance.
The press have started to circulate their version of events. I know from experience how frequently the reporting on the situation in San José de Apartadó is misinformed, so I phoned a member of the Peace Community’s Internal Council to ask what was going on. He told me that things have been getting worse over the last month. Together with ACASA and the local human rights ombudsman (the Defensoría del Pueblo), they had recently taken part in a humanitarian mission to visit La Esperanza, a six or seven hour walk up muddy mountains. La Esperanza is a settlement that I know well from working in the Community. It’s located in a long valley with steep sides and houses dotted along the banks of a river with clear, running water. It’s an hour’s walk between some of the houses.
One family from the Peace Community owns a farm bordering land said to be owned by Otoniel, the current leader of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Urabá or AGC (Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Urabá), the region’s main paramilitary group. My contact told me that the family has not abandoned the Peace Community’s farm, even though the head of the family is on the paramilitaries’ blacklist. The Internal Council had sent reinforcements to ensure that, with the help of the international accompaniers (the Peace Community has unarmed accompaniment from Peace Brigades International, Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Operazzione Colomba), the Peace Community is constantly visible and protected.
My contact told me that during the humanitarian mission, the other inhabitants of La Esperanza had said that they were scared they would be killed if they stayed on their land, and had asked for help. Many had been under pressure to sell their farms. Some had received threats from the paramilitaries, who had told them they would be killed unless they collaborated or left. More than ever, the argument was that, if they were not collaborating with the paramilitaries, then they must be collaborating with the guerrilla. The Peace Community advised the families to stay firm, as in their eyes, abandoning the land was never the answer: over 18 years, and at the cost of nearly 300 lives, the Community themselves have won enough legitimacy in the eyes of the different armed actors of the region to be able to stay on their land and to defend it in a non-violent way, as they are now doing with their farm in La Esperanza.
The farmers of the hamlet said that, if the Peace Community promised to accompany them, they would remain in La Esperanza too – but not in their farmsteads. They would all stay together: safety in numbers. They cannot immediately join the Peace Community – membership is a serious matter and generally takes three months, with would-be members taking part in a general assembly and promising to adhere to the strict principles of non-involvement in the armed conflict and to participate in collective work. But the Peace Community’s project is about protecting the way of life of all the civilians in the region, not just their members’. So when anyone in the rural township of San José de Apartadó is at risk from paramilitary threats, crossfire, or any other elements of the armed conflict, they phone the Internal Council, who organise a delegation to travel to the affected area and try to work out a solution. In the case of La Esperanza, the Peace Community delegation promised to remain in the hamlet and support the farmers who were organising themselves around the school.
Inhabitant of hamlet of La Esperanza feeding her chickens
The most interesting thing my contact told me was that, in the midst of the current turmoil, the farmers had taken inspiration from the Peace Community’s model of community organisation, which values working the land together as an ethical principle as well as a protection strategy. They were organising working groups, and holding meetings to come up with their own principles. My contact in the Peace Community told me that the idea was to form a Humanitarian Zone, which they could defend collectively and non-violently.
The paramilitaries have recently increased their presence and intensified their threats in other parts of the country, especially in the part of the department of Antioquia where the Peace Community is active, and in the department of Chocó. This could be due to both local factors, such as tensions over land ownership and drug-trafficking routes, and a broader concern, as the FARC have been calling for the issue of the dismantling of paramilitary structures to be discussed in Havana. Many social movements and victims’ organisations have echoed this demand, and the Peace Community calls for it in pretty much every public communiqué it issues. Indeed, the situation in La Esperanza highlights the importance of the issue.
The dismantling of paramilitary structures has not so far been publicly announced as a topic in the negotiations, although in the second partial agreement on political participation the government has made clear its commitment to designing systems to protect FARC ex-combatants who want to go into politics, from precisely the kind of threat that the continued existence of the paramilitaries represents. There is no doubt, however, that the dismantling of paramilitarism will be a thorny issue because paramilitaries have penetrated Colombian society at all levels, and shadowy links exist between groups like Otoniel’s and private and state actors.
It is interesting to note in the case of La Esperanza that the farmers’ plea for help went to the Peace Community. It is often said of Colombia that the armed actors fill the gap left by the state, in terms of setting rules and administering justice. In San José de Apartadó, the gap left by the low civil presence of the state (the main state presence is the army) means that the Peace Community fulfils some functions that would normally be done by the state. It is clear that any future strategy to address successfully the paramilitary presence will need to have both a military element for hunting down the paramilitaries and a civilian element for strengthening the presence of the state in remote regions, so that local communities can resist co-option by the paramilitaries. It will not be easy, for not all communities threatened in this way have the Peace Community to turn to.
Meanwhile, those affected by conflict are not giving in and becoming passive victims; they are organising themselves and refusing to give up their land. This building of a more organised civil society and the strengthening of the bonds of solidarity are essential steps for preparing the ground for a successful peace-building process, whatever the outcome in Havana.
Photos by Gwen Burnyeat.
Gwen Burnyeat is a British anthropologist and writer doing postgraduate research and teaching in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. She has worked in Colombia on and off for six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International in the Urabá region. As well as academic articles she also writes short fiction, and is currently producing a documentary called ‘Chocolate of Peace’.