In adversity, strength

Alette Latorre speaks passionately yet calmly as she recounts the events that led 3700 Afro-Colombian farmers into exile.

Alette, a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, sips coffee in an outer-suburban Melbourne home and ponders the atrocities she has witnessed in Colombia. She wants Australians to know about the crimes of government-backed paramilitaries in Colombia, who are pursuing a campaign of intimidation, torture and murder aimed at stripping a resource-rich patch of jungle of its inhabitants—the descendants of the original African slaves.

She will soon return to Colombia and considers it a privilege to live and work in the Cacarica River Basin where farming families are refugees on their own land.

The Cacarica River Basin, which lies in the Chocó district—the lush north-west corner of Colombia bordering Panama—is an area rich in timber and agricultural resources. Numerous multinational companies are keen to exploit the area.

The peaceful rural lives of the farming families in the Cacarica River Basin began to change in December 1996 when the paramilitaries arrived. It was then that the economic blockade, threats and murders began. The paramilitary units burned farms, stole livestock, looted homes and destroyed community projects including the women’s store.

But none of this would prepare the people for the shock of ‘Operation Genesis’ when military personnel from the 17th Brigade joined the paramilitaries in a combined air, water and land assault. On 24 February 1997, locals were given orders to leave within three days, which in some districts translated to only a few hours’ notice. The paramilitaries claimed they would not be responsible for what would happen if families failed to comply with the order. Indiscriminate bombing by Black Hawk helicopters allayed any doubts that the Colombian armed forces were behind the operation.

On 27 February 1997, Alette says paramilitaries beheaded a member of the community, Marino López Mena, and played football with his head, later hacking his body to pieces. People were horrified and started to evacuate the area in makeshift rafts made from tree branches. Some rowed with their hands and a few managed to flee in small speedboats. When aircraft and helicopters were heard overhead, the children fled from home to home in fear. Desperate mothers searched for their children in the rainforest and workmen dropped what they were doing and fled. Many managed to escape through the jungle to safety but 80 were killed or considered ‘missing’. Some hid in the Atrato River delta district or crossed the border into Panama, but the rest followed the orders of the paramilitaries and crossed the Gulf of Urabá to reach the town of Turbo on the other side.

In Turbo, members of the national police and local authorities met an initial group of 550 refugees and led them to an old sports stadium. After two weeks, 1200 people had arrived to set up home in the stadium, with no running water or basic hygiene services. Others stayed in shelters around Turbo or were taken in by volunteer hosts. Many lived in this state of forced displacement for four years. They suffered hunger and intimidation. The murders and disappearances continued.

Alette was called to be a witness to this human chaos and to try to prevent further atrocities. She was living in Australia at the time, after being deported from Rwanda where she was working with refugees. The head of the Colombian Catholic Church’s Intercongregational Justice and Peace Commission, FatherJavier Giraldo sj, asked if she would be willing to help out during this desperate time of exile. ‘I was simply going to help during the period of displacement in the stadium, but when the people started to resettle (on their original land), I asked to be able to accompany them.’

Ironically, the time in exile produced a positive effect that the paramilitaries had not anticipated. Rather than succumb to fear and intimidation, the people organised committees, each designed to respond to specific needs, from the care for victims’ families and orphaned children, to food storage, health, and housing. The people then compiled a list of demands and on 20 April 1998, presented it to Colombian President Ernesto Samper Pizano. Of the 3700 displaced people, 2500 wished to return to their lands, even though the area was in a state of war. The rest agreed to be resettled in other rural areas or cities.

The 2500 returnees demanded from the government the construction of two new settlements in their traditional territory, communal title to 103,024 hectares of land (as authorised by Colombia’s Act 70 of 1993, which recognises the rights of Afro-Colombians), unarmed government protection and several community development projects. Their final demand, which among others has not yet been granted, is an investigation to bring to justice those responsible for their forced exile, the murders and disappearances.

The Colombian government has since acknowledged that there were violations in the Cacarica River Basin of international treaties and protocols protecting civilians in times of war. But Alette says the people refuse to accept government claims that this was merely a skirmish between illegal paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas who are active in the area, believing instead that it was a premeditated attack designed to force them off their land. Alette says that the government’s failure to acknowledge what actually happened and make moral reparation is the biggest stumbling block for people  trying to rebuild their lives.

In December 1999, the Colombian government signed an agreement that only partially met people’s demands. In the following two years, thanks to persistent lobbying, the community managed to resettle more than 1300 people in the settlements of Esperanza en Dios and Nueva Vida, where they are experimenting with forms of self-determination.

Apart from the continued presence of paramilitaries and further reports of torture, intimidation and murder, a new economic persecution has begun. In June 2001 military and paramilitary personnel arrived to hijack the traditional farming of bananas, rice, maize, yams, yucca and sugar cane. They forced farmers to grow cocaine-producing coca plants and oil-producing African Palms. Military-backed corporations designate the farmers as ‘partners’ to avoid paying them fringe benefits or enter into costly labour contracts, but the farmers are not made partners in the lucrative processing of palm oil and soap products. The production of African Palm requires the clearing of vast tracts of forest and the use of chemicals that end up in the watercourses. The palms take five years before they start producing, in the meantime forcing the farmers into debt. They are left with a crop that produces no food and an income at the mercy of the  corporations.

Alette alleges that a private timber firm, Maderas de Darién, has been illegally clearing forest in the newly-titled territory with the support of the government environment ministry. The cleared areas have become sterile wastelands that allow easy access for the military and paramilitaries who safeguard lucrative economic interests.

While the government granted 103,024 hectares in the signed agreement, continued death threats have forced the people to live in areas of just 12 hectares each. The people of Nueva Vida and Esperanza en Dios now plan to fence and designate their communities as ‘humanitarian areas’, a more visible reminder of their rights and arms-free policy than the present billboards.

Alette says the people can no longer venture out to work their crops for weeks at a time for fear of the paramilitaries. ‘We are refugees within our own land because we [will have] to put up a fence to keep them out.’

The construction of the fence remains a controversial proposal. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees opposes the idea because of its overtones of a concentration camp. But Alette says the people have tried to explain: ‘People put fences around their houses because they don’t want burglars to get in—and this is just what we are planning to do. But we have faced a lot of opposition and we haven’t had much economic assistance. It is very expensive.’

The fence is not yet a physical reality, but several teams from private and international humanitarian aid organisations have taken it upon themselves to regularly patrol the proposed fenceline. Consequently the paramilitaries have changed their tactics. In June 2001 a second massacre was averted, due to what Alette believes was the heightened international, national and religious presence. On that occasion 800 armed paramilitaries invaded the territory and detained a group of people for three days. As they marched the detainees towards the two townships they became aware of the presence of international and church representatives, as well as the government official stationed in the district.

‘They no longer come firing machine-guns at everyone like they did in 1997, but they come to see which of the most outspoken leaders they can seize. We are sure that they came with intentions to do something. We believe that this presence prevented them from killing the group, or some of them at least.’

Alette lives with a missionary team of four young lay professionals. Missionary team projects, which also operate in other parts of the country, are an initiative of the Colombian Catholic Church’s Intercongregational Justice and Peace Commission, set up by 25 superiors of religious congregations in 1988. While they have a broader anti-terrorism role in other parts of Colombia, their aim in the Cacarica River Basin is to work against terrorism and repression from government-backed paramilitaries and to defend the rights of the poor and marginalised.

Alette says the community is now seeking answers so that the truth can be aired. While they wait for the government to start its promised infrastructure projects, the people also wait for justice.

Alette explains that a climate of impunity reigns. ‘From the highest functionaries to the lowest, they do as they please —kill who they want to, steal, or do what they want.

‘And nobody is guilty of anything. So [the people] want it made very clear who is responsible for what has happened to them.’

Alette doesn’t pretend that everything in the Cacarica River Basin community was perfect before the attack in 1997, but she sees a quality here that the persecutors haven’t. ‘My prayer involves contemplating the people and the environment—when I accompany the women sowing the crops, caring for their children, cutting firewood or spending time with the families.’

Alette says that the bloody attempts to drive these people into exile has unexpectedly made their communities stronger.  And living in solidarity with them means more to her than playing the role of spiritual mentor—it’s a matter of life or death as she returns to bear witness to their struggle for life and freedom. ‘For me it has been a privilege.’ 

Kent Rosenthal sj is studying theology.



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