Home » “Obey and keep silent”: Colombian towns under the yoke of armed groups

“Obey and keep silent”: Colombian towns under the yoke of armed groups

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“Obey and keep silent”: Colombian towns under the yoke of armed groups

The mountainous south of the department of Bolívar is a tragic breaking latest news of the endless ordeal suffered by civilians trapped in the clutches of the Colombian armed conflict. The AFP accompanied a mission from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the few organizations working in the area, and spoke with residents who asked to keep their identity confidential.

Bolívar is the third department most affected by violence in the country, with almost 700,000 victims throughout the conflict, according to an official report from June. In 2020, 145 homicides were recorded.

Located in the Magdalena Medio region, its inhabitants are targets of guerrillas from the Guevarist ELN, FARC dissidents who did not sign peace in 2016, and the Gulf Clan, the largest drug trafficking cartel.

Communities devise survival strategies in the face of gunfire, selective killings, confinements, minefields, extortion and threats in one of the countries with the most internally displaced people in the world.

When the bullets stop, their “invisible” but omnipresent hand is imposed, “silent and threatening,” says Javier, one of the community leaders. «They are rarely seen in uniform or with weapons. “They are there, watching us without letting us see them.”

gold island
The south of Bolívar is shaped like an “island”, surrounded by the arms of the Magdalena River, explains ICRC delegate Sara Lucchetta.

Its mountains, which occupy almost the entire territory of 17,000 km2 (almost the size of El Salvador), are logistical corridors with neighboring Venezuela for the trafficking of gold from numerous artisanal mines, smuggling and cocaine.

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«Isolated and remote, southern Bolívar has historically been a territory of guerrilla and violence. It is also a conflict zone that is little talked about compared to other regions,” describes Lucchetta.

Apart from some graffiti on the walls with their initials, the presence of these guerrillas and drug armies is almost imperceptible, AFP confirmed in the municipalities of Morales and Arenal. The farmers continue working in their corn, potato and cocoa plantations.

“The consequences of the conflict on the civilian population have become structural,” highlights Lucchetta.

Coca, the main component of cocaine, is no longer profitable and is less cultivated.

“The real problem of the war now is gold,” says the miner José.

In recent weeks, the ELN and the AGC clashed again in the region and caused the displacement of at least 1,400 people in a “climate of fear and anxiety,” according to the government.

Mice and eagles
“People are afraid. They are constantly on alert, waiting for misfortune, (awaiting) whether armed men come to the door at night,” describes Carlos, another resident.

The groups usually have allies in the populations. «But, above all, communities try to stay out of it. It is a question of coexistence,” Javier emphasizes.

«Because of the conflict, there are rules that we have learned to live with. For example, it is prohibited to walk at night », he points out.

With urban networks and collaborators, the three groups know and approve each move: to buy a motorcycle you need the commander’s permission and justify where the money comes from, explains another farmer.

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People here are used to talking about a “tense calm,” but as soon as hostilities break out “we find ourselves in the crossfire, with bullets whizzing overhead,” says Wilson, another local leader.

«When there is only one actor (armed), you more or less know what to do, you adapt. The problem is when there are several of them and you find yourself in the middle,” says Juan.

“We find ourselves like scared mice with an eagle’s nest above our heads,” he adds.

Always suspicious
Carlos denounces the “stigmatization” of civilians, since the groups end up suspecting that they are “collaborators” of the opposing side. The lack of presence of the army triggers the attacks of the organizations, he adds.

«For some, we are guerrillas. For others, we are paracos (paramilitaries) (…). If one moves from one territory to another, he is quickly accused, interrogated, or even worse… A stranger is always suspicious », explains Juan.

Many live near fields with mines and other unexploded ordnance. Some of these dangerous areas are identified with a skull and crossbones, signed by the group responsible.

According to the ICRC, at least 10 people were victims of these devices in 2023, compared to 4 the previous year.

Violence, added to isolation, undermines access to drinking water, education and health.

«If it weren’t for the conflict, we would be living quite well. The conditions are harsh, but the land is generous,” says Juan. “The problem is this war, which is the never-ending story.”

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