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In adversity, strength

  • 26 June 2006

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