Tag Archives: bacrim

The Power Vacuum in a Post Farc Colombia

On Saturday, the local and international press reported that the final group of FARC guerrillas, numbering around 300 combatants, from Frentes 3, 14 and 15 arrived at Agua Bonita, Caquetá, bringing to an end the massive mobilization of men and women from their clandestine camps deep in the Colombia jungles and voluntarily arriving at the 26 UN zones of concentration around the country.

FARC

FARC guerrillas arrive in their zone of concentration. Image provided by El Espectador newspaper

This effort took over three weeks and 36 different operations as 6,900 members of the FARC moved to their new homes to disarm, demobilize and slowly…reintegrate into society. The process of creating and registering IDs for these people has begun.

And while the images of this “revolutionary migration” have generated spine-tingling moments and hope for many Colombians. There is a sinister and altogether avoidable issue which is most troubling. Who is now in control?

With the departure of the FARC, formerly the de facto authority in these outlying, overlooked and it’s reasonable to say, areas abandoned by the Colombian state, there is now a startling power vacuum.

On February 10, some 96 families were displaced from their homes in the towns of Tibú and Teorama in the department of Norte de Santander.

153 members of the Wounaan Nonam people in Santa Rosa de Guayacán displaced from their homes on February 11 to the pacific port city of Buenaventura.

In 2016 more than 70 human rights defenders and community activists were assassinated. In 2017, this chilling figure could well increase.

And while Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had promised thorough military presence in each of the problem areas where the FARC would leave a significant power struggle for control of strategic transshipment routes and coca producing regions, it appears that on the ground, far from Bogotá, the reality is strikingly different.

Where are the increased patrols, increased military presence in the regions and confrontations to keep the paramilitary, Bacrim, post-paramilitary and armed gangs at bay?

Now, the Colombian state and the powers that be can never have been accused of paying too much attention to outlying Colombia, unless of course it is for some financial gain. In fact, historically the State’s activities have hardly been profligate in outer Colombia.

Which begs the question, is the Colombian Government completely blind to the regions or is it ignoring the countryside on purpose to protect financial interests in the regions through a new and increased reign of fear? Is there a tacit approval by the State for the post-paramilitary and their presence in areas of high value?

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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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Colombia: Thought-Provoking, Inspiring and Worrying

Tomorrow I finish my Especializacion en Resolucion de Conflictos, a course pretty much the equivalent of an MA which has found me pouring over material about Colombia, inspiring me to continue writing, recording interviews and striving forward with projects here.

parako by djlu

Parako by DjLu. Spotted in Chapinero.

But, that said, while I am excited for 2014 and what a new year brings and the presidential elections here, I am also worried. We have been studying the roles and influences and political chicanery of the guerrillas and paramilitaries or neo-paramilitaries if you like.

Graffiti DjLu

Gun by DjLu, spotted on the Avenida de Caracas

Personally, I don’t think too much has changed in the last few years and given that I have been interviewing experts in the field for my radio show, I have become more concerned. How is it that we can be governed by a President who is pushing for peace when we really don’t know how it is going to be implemented? This is something that needs to have been put into play ten years ago. Incidentally on next week’s Colombia Calling show I am discussing such themes as this and that of child soldiers in Colombia with the engaging and informed Paula Delgado Kling of Talking About Colombia.

graffiti

solo muere quien se olvida

I just think that there has been no concession provided on how to resolve the continuing problem of land ownership, in particular in the north around the Caribbean coast. This territory is completely run by the newly emerged criminal gangs (Bacrim) and there appears to be no solution to choking the strength of this mafia.

The Face

The Face

So, while we sit here pretty in Bogota, it’s worth remembering that there’s a great big country out there where the reality is very different to that of urban Colombia. Talk of problems in regions such as Uraba has been pushed aside apparently forgetting that members of the Comunidad de Paz have disappeared and that “landless” campaigners have been killed in Cordoba. Troubling times indeed if all that we are going to see and hear next year is a presidential campaign built on a sequence of empty promises of peace and how to “end the conflict” in Colombia. Food for thought.

 

 

 

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