SAMURINDO, Colombia—In her 72 years living in Samurindo, Encarnación Palacios has only seen a few changes to the village.
“We did get a school,” she said, after thinking for a moment. “But before, it was safer for people to travel. Now, we can’t travel as easily because [the armed groups] can kill us.”
Two years after the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, the region of Chocó still hasn’t experienced a break in decades of violence. In an environment where armed guerrilla, paramilitary, and local gangs compete for territory, the Catholic Church has served as a key mediator in rural communities.
Samurindo is just seven and a half miles north of the region’s capital Quibdó, but it’s one of many in the heavily Afro-Colombian Department of Chocó suffering from government neglect. Palacios, who prefers her nickname Conoa, hasn’t seen a police officer since the country’s presidential elections.
Padre Sterlin Londoño Palacios grew up in a town called Yuto, just north of Samurindo. It’s a 20-minute motorcycle ride from the recently paved highway, and Londoño has many family ties between Yuto and Samurindo.
As an ordained priest in the Catholic Diocese of Quibdó, Londoño cares for 14 communities north of Quibdó. He’s about six feet tall, and travels with a backpack that containing a change of clothes and a laptop. He is quick to laugh and express anger about the injustices facing his community. To illustrate a point, he’ll tell a story using his whole body, even changing his voice to act it out.
Londoño is also the deputy of Bishop Juan Carlos Becarios in the Diocese of Quibdó’s human rights council. The Diocese officially formed the Committee for Life, Justice, and Peace (COVIJUPA) to address the human rights crisis that has plagued Chocó since the 1980s.
“We keep having conflict because this is such a strategic location,” said Loberlin Palacios, COVIJUPA’s administrative coordinator in Quibdó.
Chocó is a perfect trafficking route. In addition to forming the link between South America and Panama, the region has coastline on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Rich in natural resources, over three-quarters of the land in Chocó is covered with tropical forests. But the forests are under threat from mining-related deforestation. Chocó is also Colombia’s top gold-producing region, attracting both multinational mining corporations and local “artisanal” mining.
Though the region has suffered from extreme poverty and underdevelopment for most of Colombia’s history, the country’s armed conflict did not spread to Chocó until the early 1980s. Once the FARC entered Chocó in 1985, paramilitary groups quickly followed to put down roots in a decades-long struggle for territory.
“The land is extremely valuable here,” Londoño said. “The paramilitary groups want the land, so they will do anything to force people to leave.”
The Diocese of Quibdó founded COVIJUPA in 1997 to formalize their response to violence in Chocó.
“At first, we were responding to a crisis in the Cármen del Atrato and we were a bit disorganized,” said Sister Elsa Jaimez, a member of COVIJUPA’s base team. “As we continued working, we began to seek out training from international organizations because the conflict kept growing.”
Jaimez was referring to the nine-year “wave of terror” that gripped Chocó in 1996. According to the Diocese, the period marked a time when armed groups killed 800 people and displaced 55,000 more.
Even after the peace deal, Chocó continues to experience one of Colombia’s highest rates of forced displacement. According to a United Nations report, over 1,900 people were displaced by violence from the Pacific region in the first three months of 2017. Amnesty International found that over two-thirds of Chocó’s population have registered as a victim of the conflict.
This violence comes from Chocó’s status as a battleground between paramilitaries and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ELN, founded soon after the FARC in 1964, is another guerrilla insurgency that espouses ideology rooted in Marxism and liberation theology.
Though the ELN is currently estimated to control approximately 2,000 fighters, this group has attempted to hold territory to gain concessions from the Colombian government during intermittent peace talks.
The rightwing paramilitary groups, dominated by the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces, or AGC and the Clan de Golfo, compete with the ELN for territory and trafficking routes in the drug trade.
COVIJUPA documents trace the escalation of violence in Chocó to conflict over land titles. In 1993, the Colombian government passed Law 70, granting Afro-Colombian communities the right to hold collective land titles. This law also recognized the creation of community councils to govern the land in tandem with the Colombian government, legalizing what ethnic minorities in Colombia call “etnoterritorio.”
“Our concept of territory in the Afro-Colombian tradition is different from the rest of the country,” said Claudio Quejada, a member of the directive council of COCOMACIA. Short for the unwieldy title of the Greater Community Council of the Integrated Farmers Association of Atrato, COCOMACIA forms the umbrella organization that represents 124 communities north of Quibdó.
“For us, it’s where our grandfathers were born, and has sustained our customs and culture for generations,” Quejada said. “It’s different than land for the interior of the country. For them, it’s where they live. For us, it’s our territory and it’s where we grow our cultural food and medicinal plants.”
Although Law 70 gave Afro-Colombian communities the legal framework to organize, they have faced substantial barriers to receiving official land titles.
“We presented our collective title (to the government) in 1999. That’s when they rejected it for the first time,” said José Gil Córdoba, member of the directive council of COCOMOPOCA. Córdoba’s organization represents municipalities in the Alto Atrato, south of Quibdó.
The government rejected two subsequent applications over the next 10 years. The municipalities finally received their official collective land titles in 2011, and Gil credits Diocese oversight in ensuring that the government completed the land grant. “The Diocese was the most supportive,” Gil said. “The bishop [of Quibdó] designated a priest to the zone so that he could accompany our official titling process.”
Emblazoned on the front pocket of Londoño’s backpack, the seal of the Diocese of Quibdó reads “God sent me to serve the poor.” The Diocese of Quibdó derives its pastoral philosophy from liberation theology. Arising during the 1950s and 1960s in Latin America, liberation theology focused on providing a preferential option for the poor and marginalized. The framework, instead of becoming a global movement, has mostly remained in Latin America.
The Diocese acts on its philosophy, called acompañamiento, by traveling to community councils and hosting community governance seminars. “The Diocese trained us about how we should manage our territory and begin sustainable agricultural projects,” Gil said.
Acompañamiento also refers to COVIJUPA’s response to crisis situations. According to Sister Jaimez, flare-ups in the conflict have become “permanent.”
“An emergency in our community happens quite often,” Jaimez said. “For example, an armed group will kill a community leader and generate a lot of fear.” Communities confronting this violence will often call COVIJUPA as they decide whether or not to leave their land.
Padre Álvaro García described his responses to emergencies in the communities he serves in Riosucio. “If a community calls [the Diocese] and says that they have received a threat of displacement from an armed group, we will often go to that community and sleep there to gather testimony and talk to the armed group,” said Padre Álvaro García. Garcia serves Riosucio, a municipality in Chocó, home to paramilitary-driven violence. “This lets the community know that they are not alone and has in many cases allowed [the community] to continue living on their land.”
On their visits, the Diocese will often collaborate with Chocó’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman. The office, called “la Defensoría del Pueblo” in Spanish, literally translates to “Defense of the People.” This independent division of the government is tasked with documenting and denouncing human rights violations.
The Diocese will often call on the Defensoría to accompany them on their emergency visits. “We don’t have the economic resources to do the kind of work that the Commission can do,” said Piedad Klinger, a reporting official in the Defensoría’s office. “We at the Defensoría do the legal part [to relocate or protect communities.]”
Often, the traditional respect for clergy members is not enough to protect them from retaliation. In 1999, paramilitaries assassinated Padre Jorge Luis Mazo, one of the members of COVIJUPA, on the Río Atrato just in front of the city of Quibdó. The assassination followed a threat the paramilitary group had issued against the entire Diocese the year before.
“I didn’t sleep for a year,” Londoño said. “We were all on edge because we knew that they could come for us at any time. In the end, when they killed [Mazo], we had been living through a nightmare.”
Clergy are often common targets for armed groups, who see their resistance and status in their communities as a threat. Between 1984 and 2013, 83 priests and pastors were assassinated. Londoño received threats as well, driving him to seek refuge in Medellín for three years.
Civil society leaders, who lack even the small protection of the church leader’s status, face even more threats after the peace deal. Over 311 civil society leaders have been assassinated since 2016.
This trend doesn’t exclude Chocó. Franklin Martínez, one of Samurindo’s community council members, has started to receive calls that concern him.
“I’ll pick up the phone, and the person on the line will immediately hang up,” he said. “This didn’t used to happen before I was on the council.”
These calls are similar to threats that other council members have received. He still does not want to quit the council. “I ran for this position because of the deep issues I saw in my community,” he said.
Jaimez is aware of the dangers in negotiating directly with armed groups. “The only protection is God,” she said.
Bullets are not the only killers in Chocó. Almost half of babies born in Chocó die before their first birthday. This staggering number describes life beyond violence in Chocó. According to national statistics collected in 2015, 65.9 percent of people in Chocó live under the poverty line and 40 percent live in conditions of extreme poverty.
These indicators are nearly three times the poverty rate in Bogotá. Colombia’s economy has developed while leaving its periphery behind.
In Chocó, the cycle of poverty feeds the cycle of violence.
“The state needs to make its presence known in Chocó,” Londoño said. “Right now, the situation is basically lawless because the paramilitaries know that they can do anything they want without consequences. If the army started providing security, that would go a long way to establishing basic stability so we could focus on deeper problems.”
Chocó’s poverty rate is driven by a combination of state neglect and lack of industry. “Here, we’ve always worked in mining,” Martínez said. “Right now, it’s small-scale mining and agriculture. We don’t have companies or industry in this region. Nor do we have government support.”
Chocó lacks the infrastructure for economic development and continues to suffer from the country’s history of enslavement.
“My father didn’t have an education,” Londoño said. “My grandfather could not read, and neither could his father. My fifth-great-grandfather was a slave. That’s what we’re dealing with right now. Many of us still feel that here.”