Morales, Bolivar, ground zero as to why Colombia is not at peace

A great deal has been written about regarding the Colombian Government’s peace dialogues with the FARC guerrillas. I have spoken at length about this moment and indeed written a good many news articles about the topic and while I wholeheartedly embrace these immense steps that Colombia is taking towards becoming a country without a conflict with the FARC, there are fully justified doubts and worries which continue to ripple across the nation. The town of Morales and its surrounding regions are central to my concerns about the present and future problems and challenges facing Colombia. Perhaps more so, having now seen it all up close.

Travelling with a child to Morales, Bolivar

Travelling with a child to Morales, Bolivar

So, this last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the town of Gamarra, Cesar for the second or third occasion (I wrote about watching the Colombian military press-ganging local adolescents) and from here, cross the river to the Sur de Bolivar and the head to the town of Morales. It is here in places such as this, that the peace dialogues and their outcomes will continue to remain a mystery and distant to the local population.

Why did we visit Morales?

Not only is the area of interest to me both academically and professionally, it happens to be where my wife Alba has family. She had not visited in close to 15 years and it was an opportunity to show off our little son James to his great grandfather. There are numerous uncles, aunts, cousins and more and since our Casa Amarilla hotel in Mompos was completely full over the long-weekend it made for the perfect excuse to skip town for a couple of nights.

James with his 97 year old great grandfather Hippolito in Morales

James with his 97 year old great grandfather Hippolito in Morales

Where is Morales?

Morales, arguably has more in common with the neighbouring department of Cesar to the East just across the Magdalena River, Santander to the South and Antioquia to the West over the Serrania de San Lucas than with Bolivar’s capital of Cartagena 464km to the North and inaccessible directly from here. This is hardly unique in Colombia and one wonders what it would take to connect this town and the area within its Department, or cede it to another. Political minds in Cartagena probably are only marginally aware that Morales exists and is under their jurisdiction. Morales was actually under the political auspices of Mompos until 1845. How times have changed, but the river remains just as important to these communities.

Crossing the Magdalena River from Gamarra to Morales

Crossing the Magdalena River from Gamarra to Morales

The town of Morales

After a 10-minute boat crossing from Gamarra, we hopped on the back of motorbikes to head to the family finca some 15 minutes from the river. Here, we enjoyed a swiftly made sancocho and then later took further motos another 20-25 minutes to Morales. The roads were mainly dirt until we reached the entry to the town where it was then paved. Many parts of the road had been destroyed by floods from previous years and had it rained recently, the passage would have been a different prospect altogether. Right now it was dusty, but manageable. As always the Plaza de Bolivar of any town is the centerpiece and here we alighted to take a short stroll. On the river side of the plaza, and you cannot miss it, is a brutal example of what the long-running conflict will do to a town. The central police station is a hulking low-centered building covered completely in a metal grill providing much needed protection from ELN guerrilla attacks. As my father in law – who grew up in the area said: “The guerrilla would fire cylinder bombs at the police station from the other side of the river. Aqui fue cosa seria.”

the police station in Morales

the police station in Morales

Even today, the town is far from free of these issues affecting contemporary Colombia. Only in March the military had to securely detonate some explosives left close to the town center by the ELN (National Liberation Army). And just 30km away in the town of Micoahumado (literally: smoked monkey) a leader of the ELN was captured in June. In January, 17 fishermen were kidnapped briefly by the ELN’s ‘José Solano Sepúlveda‘ front. The list goes on the further you investigate.

There hasn’t been a FARC rebel influence in this area for a number of years but now, according to my moto driver, what is generating more fear is the presence of the criminal gangs or armed organized groups. Previously, these were known as paramilitary groups and they found their origins as self-defense units protecting their lands from the guerrillas but now are deadly criminal outfits with their hand in anything profitable.

The Brazo de Morales section of the Magdalena River

The Brazo de Morales section of the Magdalena River

Last week a young man accused of being a drug addict and cattle thief was summarily executed along an empty stretch of dirt road near to Morales. There is a “limpieza social” currently taking place in Morales at the hands of the criminal gangs. This horrific act referred to as a “social cleansing” is designed to instill fear in the local population and show people who exercises the real authority here.

So, in the region of Morales, it is clear that the criminal groups are involved in extortion – as it’s a profitable area for cattle farming – and taking cuts from both legal and illegal mining in the Serrania de San Lucas where there is gold, amongst other precious substances.

The problem as I see it

What we have in Morales and around is not only an issue regarding the legal or illegal extraction of gold, nor merely an exploitation of the land and wealth in terms of cattle farming but also as it’s region so disconnected from its political center at Cartagena and with little or no land communication possibilities. That one realistically can only get here by crossing the river at Gamarra between 6am and 6pm severely limits the State’s ability to reach Morales in a hurry – should they wish to. Outside of these hours, it’s anyone’s for the taking making it a wild west scenario. This was all too evident in Morales, as it was clear that there was money being spent. Just about every second establishment was a Billar or Pool Hall or drinking establishment and they were all well-equipped.

well-stocked and attended pool halls in Morales

well-stocked and attended pool halls in Morales

Money skimmed from the mines towards the town of Norosi (1,5 hours away up into the Serrania de San Lucas) was being spent and probably laundered here. Take a flight over the Serrania and you can see the scars from mining visible with just the naked eye. This is an area of untold natural and mineral wealth but has had so little interference from the Colombian State that there is a completely separate rule of law. No doubt there are decision-makers and influencers high up in the Government and in the Colombian elite who do not wish this area to open up to democratic processes, but, if Colombia is to move forward then it must do so.

the ferry back from Morales to Gamarra

the ferry back from Morales to Gamarra

Further Reading

In fact, my most recent Colombia Calling Episode (146) is a conversation with one of the Lonely Planet Colombia’s authors Alex Egerton discussing what a peace agreement means for tourism in Colombia.

Do you want to read proper in-depth reporting from Colombia? Then back my campaign on Indiegogo to produce an annual Colombia Calling Magazine.

PS: remember, this is all or nothing. If we don’t receive the minimum $15,000 by the end of the 60 day campaign, the project doesn’t happen and you aren’t charged.

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