More than 3,000 members of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities have been displaced over the past week as Litoral de San Juan municipality of Colombia's Chocó department has been convulsed by a three-way conflict between government troops, ELN guerillas and remnant right-wing paramilitary forces. The majority of the displaced have taken refuge in the municipal center as fighting engulfs outlying hamlets, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Some of the displaced have started to voluntarily return, although the threat of violence remains. (El Espectador, April 22)
Havana peace talks between Colombia's government and the FARC are said to be stalled as the government refuses to acknowledge the existence of far-right paramilitaries, while the rebel movement demands their dismantling. The Colombian and US governments both maintain that paramilitary groups ceased to exist in 2006 when the last unit of AUC formally demobilized. The paramilitary forces that resisted demobilization are dubbed "Bacrim," for "criminal bands." But Los Urabeños, one of the AUC's successor organizations, shut down much of the country's north with an "armed strike" for several days early this month. The strike was called to proest government opperations against the Urabeños—refered to officially by the name of their ruling family, the "Clan Úsuga." In Havana, the FARC's Pastor Alape asserted that "the attention of the country cannot center on the so-called Clan Úsuga" because "the problem of paramilitarism is much more profound." (El Tiempo, April 9; Colombia Reports, April 8; El Colombiano, March 29)
Despite the peace process in Colombia, assassinations continue against leaders of the country's campesino and indigenous communities who stand up to landed interests. On Feb. 28, Maricela Tombé, a leader of Playa Rica community, in El Tambo municipality of Cauca department, was killed by unknown gunmen in the village center. The mother of two children, Tombé was the former president of the Environmental Campesino Association of Playa Rica, and had led efforts at community land recovery. Leaflets threatening the community and signed by a local paramilitary group had recently been left in El Tambo. (El Tiempo, March 1) Late January saw the disappearance of Henry Pérez, a community leader at La Gabarra, Tibú, Norte de Santander, after menacing leaflets had similarly been left in local villages. Pérez had also been involved in land recovery efforts. The community continues to organize search parties for the missing leader. (El Tiempo, Feb. 27)
Indigenous and Black communities in Colombia's Chocó department filed a lawsuit this week, claiming 37 of their children died after drinking water contaminated with mercury by nearby mining operations over the past three years. The suit was brought before Colombia's Constitutional Court, which has ordered a thorough test of the water quality in the Riosucio and Andagueda rivers, which merge to form the Río Atrato. The affected Embera Katío and Afro-Colombian communities depend on these rivers for fishing and agriculture as well as direct consumption of water. The plaintiffs, represented by the Greater Community Council of the Popular Campesino Organization of the Upper Atrato (COCOMOPOCA), charge that unchecked gold mining in the zone has caused an "environmental crisis, which has had a devastating effect and cost the lives of the indigenous and Afro-descendant children." The Constitutional Court, in addition to asking the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for assistance in the water quality tests, also called on the University of Cartagena to prepare a report on the health impacts of mercury and cyanide contamination. (Colombia Reports, Feb. 4; El Tiempo, El Espectador, El Colombiano, Feb. 3)
Since Colombia's FARC guerillas called off their unilateral ceasefire following a military air-strike last month, peace talks with the government have resumed in Havana. As the new phase of talks opened May 25, FARC leaders appealed to the government to instate a bilateral ceasefire. (EFE, May 25) But the very next day, government forces carried out a mixed land and air assault on a camp of the FARC's 18th Front along the Río Chimirindó, in Riosucio municipality, in the Pacific coastal region of Chocó—leaving 41 guerillas dead. Among the dead was the 18th Front's commander, Román Ruiz, authorities said. (El Teimpo, May 26) The next day, Colombia's air force carried out new strikes, targeting the 4th Front of the FARC's Magdalena Medio Bloc at Alto la Cruz hamlet, Segovia municipality, Antioquia. Ten guerillas were killed in the strikes—which came as the climax of a three-day operation in the area that authorities said left 36 guerillas dead. (El Tiempo, May 27)
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos on May 9 called upon his National Drug Council to halt the spraying of glyphosate on suspected coca fields following its recent reclassification as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. The decision to put an end to 20 years of the US-backed aerial spraying was applauded by leaders of the FARC guerillas. The spraying has long been opposed by the FARC as well as by Colombia's peasant communities. Santos' announcement came one week after government representatives and FARC leaders met in Havana for the 35th round of ongoing peace talks—this time to focus on justice and restitution for victims of Colombia's long civil war. (Colombia Reports, May 10; Prensa Latina, May 3)
In another case of Colombian villagers staging a local uprising in response to militarization of their communities, on March 24 a detachment of some 20 special anti-narcotics agents of the National Police were detained by indigenous peasants at the hamlet of Alto Naya, in the southern region of Cauca. Villagers apparently accused the troops, who were on a coca eradication mission, of entering indigenous lands without community consent. But the local National Police commander said consent had been secured at a meeting with village leaders held in the nearby town of Santander de Quilichao. In any event, police seemingly agreed to call off the eradication mission in order to win the release of the detained troops.
Victim representatives at peace talks with the FARC rebels held a press conference in Bogotá Feb. 20 to demand action from the Colombian government over mounting death threats against them. At least 14 of the 60 representatives have received death threats because of their participation—and the son of one representative was killed. Nilson Liz, a regional leader of the National Association of Campesino Land Users (ANUC) from Cauca department, said that following his trip to Cuba for the talks, unknown assailants murdered his son Dayan on Jan. 1. ANUC, which is seeking return of lands stolen by armed groups, has had 90 leaders assassinated since its founding in 1970. (Colombia Reports, Feb. 21; Semana, Feb. 20)