Afro-Colombians Under Attack

Against the Current, No. 104, May/June 2003

Bettina Ng'weno

ON MAY 1, 2002, during a fight for control of the Afro-Colombian fishing village of Bellavista (located on the Middle Atrato River in the municipality of Bojayá) the leftist guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) launched a bomb at the far-right paramilitary group, the Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), who had holed up around the catholic church of St. Paul the Apostle.

The bomb, made from a propane gas canister packed with explosives and shrapnel, hit the church instead, killing 119 (45 of whom were children) and injuring 108 of the 500 people who had taken refuge inside. The attack wiped out 10% of the village and some individuals lost as many as 42 relatives.

In horror and due to continued fighting in the area, over 5,000 people fled the Bojayá region, the town of Bellavista, and the town across the Atrato River, Vigía del Fuerte, for urban centers such as the capital of the department of Chocó, Quibdó, some 60 miles away.

It took the Colombian army six days to reach the village, after fighting eight battles with the FARC or the ACCU in the jungle environment to regain control of the River.

The massacre in Bojayá, considered the worst in the history of Colombia’s forty-year war, represents an extreme example of the conditions of life, death and displacement that disproportionately affect the Afro-Colombian population. The internal war in Colombia has consumed 200,000 lives and the civilian population continues to bare the brunt of decades of violence.

Most displacement and rural-urban migration is due to violence, which is predominantly located in rural areas. A small portion of displaced people in Colombia have been displaced by natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, volcanic activity and floods.

Since the decade of La Violencia (1948-1958) displacement first peaked again in 1988-1991 and increased steadily and dramatically after 1996. By 2002 there were over two million internally displaced people in Colombia (doubling from 1999), more than any other country in the world.

Strikingly, Afro-Colombians who are only 26% of the Colombian population, make up 49% of the internally displaced. That is to say that a million Afro-Colombians (10% of the population) are displaced, predominantly from poor rural areas to other rural areas and urban centers, often great distances from home and livelihood.

As a result Afro-Colombians are increasingly making up the urban poor and rural destitute populations in Colombia.

The massacre in Bojayá exemplifies the manner in which Afro-Colombians have increasingly become targets of Colombia’s internal war. On May 1, 2002 Bojayá was a village of subsistence farmers, fishermen and hunters, but also a site of political and civil abandonment, a thoroughfare for the transportation of drugs and arms from inland to the borders.

An area once controlled by the guerrilla forces and recently occupied by the paramilitary, finally and perhaps most importantly Bojayá was (and is) located within the largest collective territory for Black Communities, ACIA (Farmers’ Association of the Middle Atrato).

In order to understand how these factors, (poverty, strategic location, abandonment and ethnic territory) all figure into the manner in which Afro-Colombians are affected and displaced by the war, lets step back in time a little and take another look at what happened in Bojayá.

Poverty and Pacific Depopulation

The village of Bellavista is situated in the municipality of Bojayá in the department of Chocó across the Atrato River from the village of Vigía del Fuerte. The region is tropical rain forest and populated predominantly by Afro-Colombian fishermen, farmers and hunters.

Like 90% of the population of the Chocó region, the people of Bojayá are descendents of Africans who were brought as slaves to Colombia and who worked on extractive industries of mining, forest resources and fishing. Since manumission in 1851 Afro-Colombians have been incorporated into the Colombian nation through systems of racial hierarchies and structural racism that have materially marginalized and legally silenced them.

Today, the Afro-Colombian population has some of the worst social indicators in Colombia, demonstrating extreme disparities between Afro-Colombians and the rest of the population. For instance, the annual per capita income of Afro-Colombians is between U.S. $500-$600, while the national average is $1500. Additionally 74% of the Afro-Colombian population makes less than minimum wage.

These disparities are reflected in both health and education indicators as well. For Afro-Colombians infant mortality is 10-50% higher than the national average and life expectancy is 10-30% lower. Illiteracy is 43% for Afro-Colombians in rural areas while it is 23% for other rural populations.

Because of the poverty of the Pacific region there has been a large migration of people out of the region to the interior from 1951 onwards. By 1964, 20,000 people had moved and there was a steady decline in the population of the Pacific until 1985.

To compound this trend, in 1959 the state passed Law 2 that dispossessed most Afro-Colombians in the Pacific region of the land they owned, lived or worked on by turning all land in the Pacific basin into baldios or public land. This dispossession by the state included lands that had been previously titled to Afro-Colombian families and communities making them illegal occupants of their ancestral lands.

The combination of poverty, tenure insecurity and legal invisibility made the rural Afro-Colombian people living far from centers and relying on the river as the only form of communication, like the population of Bojayá, particularly vulnerable.

In the 1980s economic investment and development was promoted by the macro-economic policy of Apertura, designed to “open up” the frontier of the Pacific to commercial interests and Colombia to the Pacific Rim economy.

This resulted in the appearance of multiple extractive industries, Andean colonization to expand the agricultural frontier, state infrastructure development projects, agro-industrial capitalism of banana and cattle plantations in the north and of African palm and shrimp aquaculture in the south.

Between the 1960s and 1990s the proposed mega-development projects included a naval base, the conclusion of the Pan-American highway, the expansion of the ports of Buenaventura and Tumaco on the Pacific and Turbo on the Caribbean, a planned interoceanic canal to replace the Panama Canal, hydroelectric dams and large forest and mineral commercial concessions.

Local Indigenous and Afro-Colombian residents demanded legal protection of their lands as they saw them disappear into such projects, and began to organize social movements in defense of territory and culture. The area of Bojayá falls squarely in the middle of all these changes.

Since the 1980s the Pacific region, which used to be on the margins of Colombian violence, has entered dramatically into the internal war with these many changes. For the guerrilla and the paramilitary forces, who use the control of territory as a way to control the production and transportation of drugs, frontier regions, coasts and borders are particularly important for drug related activities.

For instance, in the last few years the paramilitaries have had an increased presence in the region of Urabá, less than 100 miles to the north of Bojayá, pushing the FARC southwards from Urabá into the Chocó. The FARC took control of the area of Bojayá in March of 2000, destroying the national police station in Vigía de Fuerte and killing 24 policemen.

The police station was never rebuilt. In fact Bojayá has been without a police force for over five years, one of the 180 municipalities without police presence in Colombia (mainly located in the Chocó). The residents were thus living in a state of civil abandonment long before the events of 2002.

Strategic Location

On April 21, eleven boats carrying ACCU paramilitary troops docked at the two towns of Bellavista and Vigía del Fuerte. After two years of FARC presence in Bojayá, the ACCU occupied the towns. The guerrilla presence, however, should not be seen as the reason for the paramilitary presence, but rather the excuse behind which lies a more organized national agenda.

Localizing paramilitary presence is a tactic in the production of terror and facilitates the ordered displacement of the population. The paramilitary presence, however, like that of the guerrilla forces today, has more to do with the control of territory and civilian populations and the production and transportation of drugs.

Drug production and trafficking has become a main source of income for guerrilla and paramilitary groups alike, transforming their revenue base and their rationale of existence. Both the FARC and ELN (National Liberation Army) managed to expand considerably (the FARC doubled in size) in the 1980s due to the drug economy.

On the other side, with the buying up of property with laundered money and the consequent reconsolidation of huge tracts of land in the hands of drug traffickers in the 1980s, capital from drugs made possible paramilitary development, growth and consolidation into a national force in the 1990s. The drug economy has thus played a crucial part in shifting the stakes of violence, as all armed protagonists have acquired the potential to control the key economic and productive sectors of the national economy.

At the same time the internal conflict has shifted geographically as the guerrilla forces, paramilitaries and drug traffickers have strategically taken over areas near borders, lines of communications, coasts and so forth to facilitate the production and trafficking in drugs.

Importantly for the residents of Bojayá, the Atrato River is of strategic importance for coca cultivation, drug trafficking and weapons-smuggling, and as one of several western transportation corridors that the paramilitary and the guerrilla have been fighting to control.

Territory itself is strategically important in the internal conflict as it serves as a bargaining chip in peace negotiations. In the 1990s Pastrana’s administration created a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland, over which the FARC had de facto control, as part of the conditions to bring the FARC to peace negotiations.

Throughout the 1990s the control of territory was used as a show of strength before going into negotiations. Although demilitarized zones disappeared in 2002 with the installation of Uribe’s government, other territorial entities such as rehabilitation zones, where civil liberties have been removed in order to facilitate control, point to the continuing importance of controlling territory to all sides in the internal conflict.


In Bojayá since December 2001 the Colombian military had restricted the supply of food, gasoline and propane cooking fuel to this region of the middle Atrato, believing a portion of these supplies were destined for the FARC.

Perhaps not so coincidently these restrictions were lifted the same day the ACCU occupied the region. The ACCU occupation prompted the FARC to block food and supplies in return. This tactic of restricting goods from movement is also common to the Colombian internal war. It has a paralyzing effect on the local economy and on food security and often presages the ordered displacement of residents.

For example, in 1999 I worked with Afro-Colombian communities in the Andes in southwestern Colombia. In 2000, first the leftist ELN guerrilla group and then the far-right AUC paramilitary (United Self-Defense of Colombia) took control of the area.

Where I worked in the Andes, when the AUC took over families were restricted to US $35 worth of goods per month and storekeepers to US $50, and one could not transport gasoline or explosives. Overnight the stores became empty. This was followed 6 months later with the ordered displacement of 6,000 residents.

The restrictions on food and supplies by the FARC in Bojayá caused town officials to warn the authorities in Quibdó that the paramilitary and guerrilla forces were gearing up for war, and to request the presence of police and army troops.

Also alarmed, the Human Rights Ombudsman Eduardo Cifuentes filed a high-alert advisory on April 24th saying that the civilian population of Bojayá was in extreme danger. This advisory was one of roughly 50 his office files each year. Colombian People’s Defense Organization and the United Nations also warned the government that the community was in grave danger and needed security force protection.

Nevertheless, none of the relevant authorities acted at the time. In fact the guerrilla and paramilitary forces staged a major battle over several days without interference from the government. General Mario Montoya excused the lack of response by the armed forces by saying he received 125 early warnings by May 2002 from various agencies and had acted on 80 of them.

On April 30th the ACCU started by ordering people to leave their homes in Bellavista. The residents of the town took refuge in the Church of St. Paul the Apostle. Some of the survivors said they felt they were hostages in the church, while others believed the ACCU tried to offer cover from the advancing FARC.

Fighting continued into May 1, when the Church was hit by the FARC’s bomb. In a communiqué released after the massacre the FARC expressed regret for the civilian deaths claiming it was never their intention to harm the community. After the massacre fighting continued around Bojayá and in Vigía del Fuerte and Napipo.

Ethnic Territories

Many of the displaced were housed at the ACIA headquarter offices in Quibdó and in a school. Founded in 1986, ACIA (Farmers Association of the Middle Atrato) is the best-organized Afro-Colombian community-based organization in the Pacific area.

ACIA has a territory of 695,254 hectares of land on either side of the Atrato River, which covers three municipalities and is in two deparments. The territory was titled to ACIA as a collective territory for Black communities in 1998 in recognition of their ancestral occupation of the land as an ethnic group. Such ethnic territories are made possible by legislation arising from the new 1991 Colombian Constitution, in particular Law 70.

ACIA was formed through small neighborhood associations and came to claim collective territory in opposition to land and timber concessions in the Middle Atrato. In 1990 at the Meeting in Defense of Our Traditional Territory of the Pacific, ACIA claimed their territorial rights as a minority ethnic group, as part of the patrimony they have earned historically and though labor, and as a responsibility of state duty.

They demanded that these rights be fulfilled through the collective titling of the space in which they live. However, in 1999 many of the members of ACIA were internal refugees in urban centers, and extra-governmental armed groups had imposed control of parts of their territory, negating their hard won autonomy and self-governance.

In other parts of the Pacific where collective territories had been titled to Afro-Colombian communities, similar things were taking place. Shortly after the collective titles of the Black communities of La Nueva, Dos Bocas, Taparal, Clavellino and Chicao of the Lower Atrato River were issued in 1997, the populations were displaced by the paramilitary. Violence in the Rio Sucio area in 1997 caused over 20,000 people people to flee, some as far away as to Panama.

In 1998 other displaced communities of the Lower Atrato River sent a letter to the World Bank (who had funded land titling), requesting the participation of the International Red Cross, the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees of the UN (UNHCR) and delegates from the Dioceses of Apartado and Chocó to form part of a high-level commission to look into titling and violence. They demanded collective entitlement as part of their proposal for a dignified return to their territories.

In 1998 ACIA proposed the declaration of the department of the Chocó as a “Territory of Peace,” joining other Indigenous and Afro-Colombian organizations calling for armed groups to leave their region in the Pacific and the Andes. They also called for the region to be a drug free zone.

This move to claim authority within their territories, both authority over people and control of space and activities within territories, has made Indigenous and Afro-Colombian ethnic territories particularly threatening to extra-governmental armed groups.

Leaders and Social Movements

The fact that ethnic territories are self-governing units outside the control of the armed groups makes them particularly vulnerable to violence. The tragic result has been the assassination or displacement of community leaders and political organizers, committed both by guerrilla and paramilitary groups, and most recently the displacement of communities from their territories.

Some national Afro-Colombian politicians have also been targeted for kidnapping, blackmail and exile. In 1999 the Afro-Colombian senator from Antioquia, Piedad Córdoba was kidnapped by the AUC at a hospital in Medellín in reaction to her outspoken stance on human rights violations. Afro-Colombian groups and women’s groups marched in Bogotá in protest of her kidnapping. She was released a few months later but feared for her life and now lives in exile in Canada.

The former governor of the Chocó, Luis Gilberto Murillo who declared the Chocó a neutral zone, was also kidnapped by the paramilitary and his family threatened. He fled in exile to the United States.

Marino Córdoba, a community and national level Afro-Colombian activist from Rio Sucio, one of the areas where immediately after community titling occurred the community was displaced, is also in exile in the United States. Marino Córdoba started the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians, AFRODES, and argues that widespread violence came to the Chocó in 1996 as Afro-Colombians began receiving communal land titles.

He is adamant that displacement is a goal of the armed groups, rather than a side effect of the internal conflict. Afro-Colombians are being displaced not only because the conflict has reached where they live, but also because of who they are and the territories they control.

In Colombia civilians are displaced either through flight or expulsion. Some flee an area because of the violence, or attacks on the economic base, or accusations of collaboration; others are ordered out of an area in an attempt to clear the land of people and free it for drug production or cattle ranching.

Either way, displacement for rural Afro-Colombians has profound effects on communities and individuals. Displacement breaks up social networks and governing forms internal to communities; disturbs economic life and traditional forms of work; breaks up traditional ways of managing nature, using natural resources and defending ecosystems; and can often also break up families and generational and gender relationships.

Most Afro-Colombians are displaced to departmental capitals and to major cities such as Bogotá, Quibdó, Medellín and Calí, as cities tend to be safer than the countryside. While Quibdó (majority) and Cali (50%) already have substantial Afro-Colombian populations the Afro-Colombian population in other cites is mainly a result of displacement.

Over 500,000 Afro-Colombians live in Medellín and over 1,000,000 in Bogotá. Displacement to cities has devastating effects on the majority of Afro-Colombians from rural areas because once they have lost their entitlements, in the form of land and tools, they have lost their whole wealth. Many are stuck in menial labor and domestic service and also forced into crime and prostitution, whereas formerly they were self-employed and proprietors.

Life in the cities is difficult for all displaced people as they have to cope with substandard housing, poverty, poor services and discrimination as displaced peoples. But Afro-Colombians face additional discrimination as Blacks, as well as poor displaced peoples. This combination affects their ability to get credit, secure a living place and to get jobs. Additionally they often end up living in areas already stigmatized and criminalized for being “black” such as the Agua Blanca area of Cali.

Displacement also has profound effects on the possibilities of participation and action at the local level both in the countryside and in cities. The armed attack on Afro-Colombian territories and leaders disrupts the connection between territory and inhabitants and between territory and authority as people are displaced. At the same time it displaces the process of forming political units while setting up a system of constant terror and instability that refracts to the level of the household.

For Afro-Colombians living in places such as Bojayá or in the Andes where I used to work, the prospect of the U.S. military aid of Plan Colombia ($700 million for 2003) escalating an already devastating conflict is very real. Early warning systems that are part of the package can be shown not to work, as they did not work in Bojayá.

The movement of arms from the military to the paramilitary and the increased armed conflict in their territories has devastating potential for still further displacement. Rather than such “aid” packages, substantial changes to the form of economic development, the structure of social services, government protection and the security of collective property rights are needed to prevent against displacement and to help return.

ATC 104, May-June 2003