After the flood: How the Hidroituango crisis changed armed group dynamics in northern Colombia

Wanted flier for "Cabuyo," the, leader of the FARC's rearmed 36th Front. (Image: Mariana Calvo)

The once bustling streets of the Remolino neighborhood of Puerto Valdivia, a small town next to the Cauca River in the Antioquia province in northern Colombia, were empty. It had been six months since catastrophic floods caused by the troubled Hidroituango dam project 38 km upstream had forced its residents to evacuate their beloved town.

On May 12, 2018, corruption and poor-planning by EPM, a state-owned utilities company based in Medellin, unleashed an unstoppable wave of water that displaced 2,500 families, destroyed over 70 homes, and damaged hundreds more.

Perhaps most devastatingly, the floods took down the town’s signature landmark—the Simon Bolivar Bridge—the first bridge to connect Medellin, Antioquia’s capital city, to the Atlantic Coast.

The loss was at first psychological as it severed the physical ties between the town’s historic square and Remolino. But with time, its loss at the hands of the Hidroituango megaproject would hint at something more sinister—an established boundary that for decades separated the territory of left-wing guerillas from that of the right-wing paramilitaries.

And with its loss would come a wave of violence that would remind Puerto Valdivia residents of the worst days of the Colombian armed conflict—the very thing Hidroituango was supposed to combat.

The brainchild of Antioquia’s ruling political and economic class, Hidroituango was advertised by urban elites as a breakthrough for rural communities most affected by the country’s decades’ long armed conflict. But rather than bring prosperity and growth, Hidroituango has brought economic ruin, and especially greater violence to the communities it was meant to benefit.

Hidroituango is a part of a larger pattern of massive development projects in Colombia that have taken people’s livelihoods and altered armed group dynamics in such a way that have caused more killings against civilians and social leaders in a country still reeling from the world’s longest war.  And Puerto Valdivia finds itself at the center of it.

Picture of Simon Bolivar Bridge taken in October of 2017 (Image: Mariana Calvo)

A Curse or a blessing?

As the gateway into the tropical Cauca River Basin, one of Colombia’s most important coca producing regions, and as the town that connects Medellin to the Atlantic Coast, Puerto Valdivia’s strategic location has at times been a blessing.

For decades, Puerto Valdivia has been a commercial center for coca farmers seeking to purchase food and drinks in the town’s many stores and cantinas, as well as a common replenishing point for cargo trucks and buses heading to the coast that have provided employment and a living for its residents.

But this strategic location has also been a curse as it has turned Puerto Valdivia into a battleground for rival factions fighting to control the cocaine trade that sustains the towns and villages of the Cauca River Basin, and one of the most coveted drug and arm trafficking routes in Colombia.

The Jose Maria Cordova Bridge overlooking Remolino (Image: Mariana Calvo)

The colossal Jose Maria Cordova Bridge that rendered the smaller Simon Bolivar Bridge a historic landmark, turned Puerto Valdivia into a conflict zone because controlling the bridge means controlling one of the principal routes from which cocaine is shipped to Mexico and from where it is then trafficked into its ultimate destination—the United States. And as a result, armed groups proliferate in Puerto Valdivia and in the lives of its residents.

Rosalba Mora knows this well.

The El Aro Massacre

Rosalba Mora, 60, has called Puerto Valdivia home since 1997 after she was displaced from her ancestral farm during a raid by a paramilitary group in what later become known as the El Aro Massacre.

Mora came from the land south of the Simon Bolivar Bridge, the land the bridge had designated FARC territory. FARC, the left-wing guerrilla group that in November of 2016 ended its 52-year long armed struggle against the Colombian government, dictated life in the region, long ignored and forgotten by the state.

“We were pretty isolated up there,” she said. “We were pretty high up, so it was a lot colder than it is down here. But it was beautiful to work in the fields and plant our own food.”

Mountainous and remote, the land between Puerto Valdivia and Ituango, where the Hidroituango dam now sits, was sparsely populated with small villages and family farms. But it was critical for a rebel movement looking for recruits and for refuge from government bullets.

Most importantly, it was a key entry point into a strategic mountain pass called El Nudo de Paramillo, a FARC stronghold, that was used by the armed group to funnel cocaine and weapons between five provinces and two oceans, a perfect set up for trafficking.

By the late 1990s, FARC supplied 90% of the world’s cocaine and it controlled as much as a quarter of Colombian territory. The left-wing guerilla group proved to be a formidable threat to the Colombian government and the landed elite. It was out of frustration and anger with FARC’s seizure of territory and killing of civilians, that the AUC was born.

Founded in April of 1997, the AUC or the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia was a collection of right-wing paramilitary groups formed with the explicit goal of exterminating FARC.

By the latter half of 1997, the AUC made tremendous strides in seizing FARC territory, until it eventually set its eyes on El Nudo de Paramillo. Their desire to wipe out FARC culminated in a military campaign into El Aro, a small village ten hours away on foot from Puerto Valdivia in October of 1997.

El Aro, 20 years after the massacre (Image: Mariana Calvo)

By the end of their incursion, the paramilitaries murdered 15 villagers, burned El Aro, and displaced over a thousand people. The government later paid to rebuild parts of the community, but El Aro never grew back to the thriving village it used to be. The trauma was too great and the majority of its residents sought new beginnings elsewhere. Like Mora, many of those displaced by the massacre found a new home in Puerto Valdivia.

The story of Remolino

When Mora was displaced from her family home, she was forced to find refuge inside Puerto Valdivia’s school. The school building barely stands today because it was severely damaged by the floods on May 12, 2018.

“It was terrible,” she recalled. “We had to sleep on the floor one next to the other and some people had to sleep on the street. So many people got sick, they were too horrified by what they had just witnessed.”

“We were hungry for most of the three weeks we were sleeping here, but there were some incredible townspeople who came and fed us because the government wouldn’t.”

Mora never forgot the generosity of the people of Puerto Valdivia. Once settled, she became a part of a group of women that brought food to young children who could not afford school lunches.

“It was so beautiful to see the community get together to feed the children,” Mora remembered. “It’s hard to believe we are never going to do that again.”

“The thing is if you live down here you have no idea how much water there is above”, she added. Her voice was still full of disbelief as she stood on the ruins of the building that had housed her 21 years earlier.

The remains of Puerto Valdivia’s school after the Hidroituango crisis (Image: Mariana Calvo)

Mora was a proud resident of Puerto Valdivia, as it had been the place to grant her shelter after El Aro was destroyed by the AUC. But the paramilitaries only displaced her into another conflict.

Like most communities in Colombia, Puerto Valdivia began as an informal settlement, a settlement constructed on land that the occupants have no legal claim to. Although settled since the late 1800s, the community began to grow after the Simon Bolivar Bridge was built in 1931, and especially during La Violencia, a ten-year civil war in Colombia from 1948 to 1958 that killed 170,000 civilians and uprooted hundreds of thousands of campesinos or people native to rural areas from their homes.

Once in Puerto Valdivia, like in many communities throughout Colombia, desperate campesinos looking for a place to live built simple houses with anything they could find, in this case, with wood cut from the surrounding tropical forests. Over time, Puerto Valdivia grew. As more people were able to build a livelihood for themselves, the wooden houses became brick houses, and they ultimately acquired registered titles from the government with an electric grid installed by EPM.

This is Mora’s story. She and her husband chose to settle in the neighborhood of Remolino, named after a plantation, or a finca owned by a nameless wealthy family in Medellin. In Remolino, beside the Cauca River, she and her husband brought up their children. There, she also witnessed a new iteration of the conflict she had fled.

Life under armed groups

Unlike the rest of Puerto Valdivia, Remolino was the only sector south and adjacent to the Simon Bolivar Bridge, right in the middle of FARC territory. Everything north of the bridge, was paramilitary territory. As a result, Remolino was often the site of battles between FARC and the paramilitaries.

Unlike FARC who up until the 2016 held the same name, the paramilitaries went through numerous names changes post-2006, after they went through a secret peace process with the Uribe administration and the government ceased to recognize them. Today, they call themselves El Clan del Golfo or Urabeños, but to avoid confusion locals simply call them—paracos. Paracos are as much a part of life in Puerto Valdivia as the Cauca River itself.

In the land, north of the Simon Bolivar Bridge, business owners pay monthly bribes or vacunas and farmers sell their cocaine paste to them. But that’s not their only function. In a country where the rule of law has always been weak, they also administer justice, punishing all sorts of offenses like drug use, theft, and rape. However, unlike the government that punishes with jail time, paracos punish with murder. And in the land south of the Simon Bolivar Bridge, FARC did the same, or rather does the same.

In the same way that the paramilitaries never left Puerto Valdivia and the Cauca River Basin post-peace deal in 2006, FARC never left El Nudo de Paramillo and the territory south of the Simon Bolivar Bridge after its own peace deal in 2016.  The peace deals did nothing to eradicate the poverty and the allure of cocaine profits that push thousands of poor young men and women into the frontlines and into the scramble for territory.

Coca field north of Puerto Valdivia (Image: Mariana Calvo)

This is the story of the communities downstream from Hidroituango where land is always up for dispute and where civilians almost always pay the cost in land lost and lives lived. Mora lost her brother to that conflict.

“I wish I could tell you why my brother was killed,” she said. “All I can tell you is the instrument that was used—a machete.”

Mora was never given a reason. Reasons are scarce commodities in contested territory. But there are patterns.

Community leaders as Targets

Since the Colombian government signed its historic peace accords with FARC in 2016, at least 340 social leaders have been assassinated. And it’s something that Yeison Ladeu, 33, the former vice-president of the Community Action Board and the current president of a board of business owners affected by the Hidroituango crisis, fears deeply.

When asked if he was a community leader, Ladeu denied it.

Many of my family and friends have told me to be careful with this community leader thing,” he said. “I am not a leader. I don’t characterize myself as one. I will say that a lot of community leaders have been killed in Colombia.”

But Ladeu is a leader. His reluctance to claim that title, however, is well-founded. Just ten days before Hidroituango unleashed its catastrophic flood on Puerto Valdivia, two community leaders were murdered.

Community leaders are frequently targeted by paramilitary groups, as the right-wing groups associate change-makers and change-seekers with left-wing ideology and a stronger state. In their mind, left-wing ideas and strong states are the enemy, and enemies must be discarded.

It is no surprise that in 2018, according to a study by Indepaz, Valdivia, the municipality to which Puerto Valdivia belongs, was ranked the fourth municipality in Antioquia with the most leaders murdered. In 2018, 35 community leaders were murdered in the province, 5 of them were in Valdivia.

Some residents said the Hidroituango crisis was punishment for so much sin in Puerto Valdivia. But the floodwaters expelled from the dam site did nothing to wash away generations of warfare. It was not a rebirth, it was a revival. A revival of some of the bloodiest days of the Colombian conflict.

Because of fears of retaliation by armed groups and low reporting, it is hard to quantify how much violence has increased since the flood, but Ladeu asserted that the violence has increased dramatically.

Much of this is due to the ongoing emergency at the dam site. Since May of 2018, EPM has not been able to guarantee that another flash flood will never happen again and Puerto Valdivia has remained on red-alert. This threat, has paralyzed the local economy and rather than face another flood, hundreds have chosen to try their luck elsewhere, transforming Puerto Valdivia into a ghost town.

Young boy passes through Remolino (Image: Mariana Calvo)

These numbers do not include the 400 families, to which Mora belongs, who were permanently evacuated from Puerto Valdivia due to the damage sustained on their homes and the risk of future flooding.  The proliferation of empty homes has proved devastating to the security situation in Puerto Valdivia.

“The community has gotten a lot more dangerous since the emergency in May,” Ladeu said. “Armed groups have taken advantage of the emptiness of Puerto Valdivia to dispute the territory.

“Because so many homes are empty, especially in the sector of Remolino which is scheduled for demolition, armed groups have taken advantage of those empty homes to hide and to fight with one another in ways they didn’t when the town was fully occupied.”

Hidroituango turned what used to be sporadic skirmishes into frequent combat, as dissident members of what used to be the 36th Front of FARC led by alias Cabuyo, not only fight more frequent incursions by paramilitaries into their territory, but also to invade the territory north of the Simon Bolivar Bridge; territory they had once deemed a lost cause.

Like community leaders, motorcycle taxi drivers know this well.

Taxi drivers drop dead

The emergency caused by Hidroituango did not just put control over Puerto Valdivia into question, it also placed the greater Cauca River Basin into contestation, as mass evacuations and displacements because of the crisis at the dam site emboldened armed groups to seize territory.  As a result of this crisis of displacement and paranoia, taxi drivers or mototaxistas as locals call them because they conduct their services on motorcycles and tut-tuts, are being heavily targeted by armed groups simply for doing their jobs.

Mototaxistas often cross invisible boundaries established by armed groups to get paid and they cannot discriminate who they carry; even if the person is associated with an enemy group. Both facts turn them into scapegoats.

“It all about suspicion,” Ladeu explained. “In this community and in all of the Cauca River Basin, if you take a job as a mototaxista you risk being accused of working for a rival armed group.”

When fears of encroachment of a rival armed group run high, taxi drivers are easy to blame and in the Cauca River Basin suspected blame is always guilt and guilt equals death.

Image of empty street in Remolino (Image: Mariana Calvo)

Prior to the Hidroituango crisis, Valentina Tapias* was one of 120 mototaxistas in Puerto Valdivia. Because of the mass displacements and the collapse of the local economy, there are now fewer than 40. And she fears that one day she too will have to quit, partially for economic reasons, but mainly for security reasons.

Over the years, Tapias* has seen her fair share of lifeless bodies belonging to her coworkers appear in Puerto Valdivia. In recent months, the possibility of her becoming a lifeless body has never felt more real.

Prior to the Hidroituango emergency, she used to take rides at night, now she no longer dares leave her home after dark. The paramilitaries have prohibited taxis from operating at night, as they patrol the streets in search of potential guerrilla members.

Her inability to work after hours has affected her income dramatically. Instead of making 80,000 pesos a day or 26 dollars a day, she now makes 30,000 or 10 dollars a day. But the biggest reason that explains the decline in her income is her inability to cross into territory where the local paramilitary group does not know her.

“I used to give rides to people going from Puerto Valdiva to towns nearby,” Tapias* explained. “I went to towns like Tarazá, El Doce, and El Quince. I made good money taking people longer distances, but now I am too afraid to. Far too many people I know have gotten killed.”

Tapias* is especially afraid of going deeper into the Cauca River Basin, north of the Simon Bolivar Bridge towards Tarazá, where many taxi drivers have gotten killed in recent months, and where paramilitary presence is even more pronounced than it is in Puerto Valdivia. But it’s not just mototaxistas that are getting murdered.

A mototaxista in Puerto Valdivia (Image: Mariana Calvo)

It’s also civilians taking their motorcycles through towns where the local paramilitary groups do not recognize them. On March 27, 2019, a couple heading from Yarumal, a town about an hour south of Puerto Valdivia, towards Caucasia, the largest city in the Cauca River Basin, was found dead. While no one knows who killed them, Tapias* has her suspicions.

“I believe it was the paramilitaries,” she said. “I believe that they did not recognize the couple, and thought they were members of this new armed group called the Caparrapos. Unfortunately, that is all too common these days. The news is full of stories like theirs.”

Although the Cuaca River Basin has been decisively paramilitary controlled since the beginning of the 2000s, their hold on the region is now being called into question with the entry of the Caparrapos. The Caparrapos are a new armed group comprised of dissident members of FARC who have declared war on the paramilitaries in their quest to control the region’s coca production.

The pending arrival of the Caparrapos has caused great paranoia among the paramilitaries and consequently, greater civilians deaths.  And those whose livelihood depend on moving from community to community like Tapias* have found themselves trapped, bracing themselves for their impending arrival.

But rather than leave Puerto Valdivia and the future battles that she believes are coming— caused by the incursion of the Caparrapos from the north and dissident members of the 36th Front from the south—Tapias* refuses.

“I cannot leave this community,” she exclaimed. “I am used to what I have here. Where else would I go? All I can do is pray and hope for the best. But this is going to be a warzone. I know it. By the end of it, the Cauca River Basin may no longer be paramilitary territory.”

To wait or not to wait

Tapias’* response is just like that of many Puerto Valdivia residents who find themselves waiting, waiting for a new flood from the Hidroituango dam site and for a new phase in the Colombian conflict. All she knows is that Puerto Valdivia has not been the same since.

Rosalba Mora, however, is done waiting. There is nothing left for her in Puerto Valdivia. Her home is gone. And despite news that those who lived in Remolino are going to be relocated to a new community by the state governments, she plans on leaving the Cauca River Basin, permanently.

“I am going to find a home elsewhere where I can live calmly,” Mora said. “It’s very difficult to leave the place you have called home for so long, but I can no longer live here in peace.”

And yet, despite having to leave her beloved home, Mora is not defeated. She has found hope in her memories and in the resilience of her home.

“There is a wonderful God out there because the river was not able to tumble my home,” she said. “My house was one of the simplest homes in Remolino. Unlike many houses in the community that have metal doors, my door is wooden. It’s made from the same trees from which the homes were first made of when we were displaced here 21 years ago. For some reason, the river did not take that door. I can’t help but feel proud of that.”

Rosalba Mora stands outside Puerto Valdivia’s old health center (Image: Mariana Calvo)

Perhaps, dissident members of the 36th Front of FARC planning their incursion into greater Puerto Valdivia have hidden behind that wooden door, not knowing that they have stood behind a monument just as important to the history of Puerto Valdivia as the Simon Bolivar Bridge once was.

But the one thing they do know is that the wave of violence they are unleashing on Puerto Valdivia will force residents to build, or rather rebuild, wooden doors of their own in places far away from their homeland.

The question is what comes first, displacement by violence or displacement by water?

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