Uraba, Colombia’s northwest where all actors’ hands are blood-stained

Uraba, one of the priority areas in Colombia’s peace process, is a banana growing region with a history of labor exploitation and extreme political violence dating back to the days of slavery.

The first major explosion of violence of the 20th century took place in 1928 when, under the threat of a US invasion, Colombia’s Conservative Party-led military massacred scores of employees of US multinational United Fruit Company who, supported by liberals, socialists and communists, demanded formal work contracts and 48-hour working weeks.

The protest ended when soldiers opened fire at the strikers, their wives and children after leaving the weekly church service. The dead were never counted.

In the 1940s, the region’s banana workers who had been forced to continue to work in horrendous conditions joined or were joined by loosely organized militias loyal to the left wing of the Liberal Party, which at the time was at war with Conservative Party militias in one of Colombia’s most violent periods, called “La Violencia.”

This period of partisan political violence ended in 1958 when the two parties decided to share political power and, with the support of the United States government, combat growing communist sentiments and groups instead.

1971 – FARC enters the scene

Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia (FARC), was the first organized illegal armed group to enter the area in 1971, reportedly with only 10 men who would later become the guerrillas’ 5th front.

At the time, the guerrillas were overtly working together with the Communist Party, which had been supporting the local banana workers and independent farmers, but had been exposed to extreme political violence.

The guerrillas at the time were rivaled by a second illegal armed group of communists called the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and violence would regularly break out between the groups.

The group’s hostility towards business owners and the EPL to some extent affected the civilian population, which found itself caught between the guerrillas and their employers, many of whom were multinationals like Chiquita Brands.

The FARC’s activity in the 1970s was mostly centered around the town of Apartado and the port city of Turbo and not really targeting Acandi, on the other side of the gulf of Uraba, because of its relative strategic insignificance.

This didn’t change until the 1980s when the FARC got involved in cocaine trafficking and the country’s borders became increasingly important drug trafficking routes. This new illicit income allowed the FARC to increase its armaments  and manpower and the group moved westward.

With cocaine and arms trafficking becoming more prolific, the Panamanian border and the west coast of the gulf of Uraba, including Acandi, became increasingly important strategically.

1986 – Communists assume political and armed control

During a ceasefire agreed with the government in 1984, both union organizations and the FARC were able to fortify themselves in the region and the FARC did move westward, into the Choco province and the area around Acandi, effectively controlling the Panamanian border.

After the FARC, together with numerous other communist and unionists were allowed to form a political party, called the Patriotic Union (UP), tensions between plantation owners and the representatives of the banana workers increased, especially after the UP was able to obtain the majority of council seats in the municipalities of Apartado and Mutata.

In order to “control” this local surge of political and military power of the joint communist forces, the National Government declared Uraba a Special Police District, which led to major tensions between the national government and large land and plantation owners on one hand, and the local leftist politicians, unionists and guerrillas on the other.

It also created tensions between the FARC and the EPL, which dedicated itself to inviting workers to join the local banana union and the protection of its leaders.

Large landowners and banana companies, in the meantime, were forced to pay protection money to the guerrillas.

The increased tensions between the unions, communist local government and guerrillas on one hand and the elite on the other spurred the government to declare Uraba an Emergency Zone after which military confrontations between the National Army and the leftist guerrilla groups increased.

The banana unions were declared illegal, but formed a new union, Sintrainagro, which is currently one of Colombia’s most active agricultural unions.

1989 – Paramilitaries join war

However, while the FARC and EPL were pushed towards each other, the military received reinforcement from an anti-communist paramilitary group led by Fidel Castaño, whose brother Carlos would later found the country’s largest paramilitary organization, the AUC.

In 1991, the EPL decided to demobilize, which proved a disaster in the area as the FARC considered this treason. In response, FARC guerrillas would actively hunt down former EPL guerrillas and whoever they considered an EPL sympathizer.

While the FARC had established entire territorial control and was working together with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel, the military and Castaño’s group, now called “Los Pepes” (Persecuted by Pablo), began a major anti guerrilla offensive in 1993. The Pepes were enforced by EPL members who were fearing from their lives.

One of these former EPL guerrillas, “Otoniel,” is currently the leader of the country’s now-largest paramilitary group, the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), called the Gulf Clan by the government.

The FARC responded to the increased (para)military pressure by indiscriminate attacks. The result was a full-blown war with the FARC caught between the military and the Pepes, who received financing from the Cali Cartel.

After the death of Escobar in December 1993, the Pepes officially disbanded and reformed to become the anti-guerrilla paramilitary group Peasant Self-Defenders of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU).

1997 – The “Pacification” of Urabá

In 1994, Fidel Castaño was “disappeared” and presumably murdered, and his brothers Carlos and Vicente, together with a coalition of anti-guerrilla paramilitary groups formed the AUC in 1997, the year the United States declared the FARC a terrorist group.

Together with the AUC and with the blessing of then-governor Alvaro Uribe, the military began a “pacification” campaign, driving the FARC away from the gulf, and towards the Pacific coast and inland amid brutal violence and numerous massacres.

The guerrillas sent one of its most senior commanders, “Ivan Marquez,” to counter the offensive but to no avail.

The violence caused not just the displacement of the FARC, but also that of thousands of locals, who had become a target of the guerrillas and paramilitaries alike.

The FARC retreated to the north of the Choco province and in the mountainous Nudo de Paramillo region on the border with the Cordoba province, territories they have maintained until this day.

With the support of the military, local ranchers, banana plantation owners and multinationals, the AUC maintained control over Uraba until 2002.

The United States declared the AUC a terrorist group on September 10, 2001, a day before the attack on the twin towers in New York City. In 2002, former Antioquia governor Alvaro Uribe was elected president and began talks with the AUC to seek their demobilization.

The formal demobilization between 2003 and 2006 caused a violent split in the AUC.

2004 – Paramilitary split

Vicente Castaño, a demobilization skeptic, allegedly murdered his brother in 2004 after which the organization’s leadership was taken over by the more politically-oriented paramilitary commander, Salvatore Mancuso.

The last remaining Castaño went underground in 2006 and teamed up with a former subordinate “Don Mario,” to form a paramilitary back-up group that would ultimately announce itself as the AGC.

According to authorities, Castaño was killed in 2007, but this has been questioned by several former paramilitary commanders who testified Vicente had always intended to evade justice “and never be seen again.”

The testimonies led to the incarceration of more than 60 (former) congressmen and numerous local officials. According to the prosecutor General’s Office, some 12,500 private companies and persons are formally suspected of supporting terrorism.

But the revelations of the widespread ties between the military, local elites, national politicians and the police led to violent repercussions and more than 2,200 former paramilitaries have “died” since their demobilization.

2008 – Birth of the AGC

In 2008, Uribe extradited almost the entire leadership of the AUC in a surprise move that was condemned by both the prosecutor general and the Supreme Court as illegal and the incrimination of mainstream political and business leaders virtually ended.

Immediately after, the AGC announced its formation, citing the persecution of their former brothers in arms and Uribe’s “betrayal” as the primary reasons to rearm.

From Uraba, the group then began a tremendous expansion, growing from 250 men in 2008 to approximately 10-fold in 2013 while recovering most of the AUC’s drug trafficking routes along the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts.

Since then, the AGC’s unofficial authority in Uraba has been unchallenged, resulting in relative calm but amid ongoing extortion of the local population and hostility towards labor rights activists often with fatal consequences.

The group has requested to be included in the peace process with their old arch-enemies, the FARC, but this has openly been rejected by the administration of current President Juan Manuel Santos.

The group is negotiating new demobilization conditions with the government of Antioquia, but at the same time strengthening its territorial control throughout Colombia.

In Uraba, the group is alleged to be violently preventing the return of land that was stolen from displaced farmers and sold to the local elites and businesses.

2015 – Murky collage of criminal actors

However, the so called “anti-restitution armies” or death squads carrying out these activities could also be a not-associated new breed of paramilitary factions. Arrested alleged members of these armies were, like the AGC, former members of the AUC.

These death squads only target victim organizations and land claimants and seem entirely political in nature while the AGC’s primary activity is drug trafficking.

Additionally, human traffickers have become increasingly active in the area to the extent that Panama closed its borders earlier this year.

The primary human trafficking route is from Medellin to Turbo, then across the gulf to Capurgana and then either over land or water to Panamanian territory, straight through the AGC’s heartland.

These coyotes are unlikely to be members of the AGC, but are almost certainly paying protection money to the paramilitaries or are collaborating with them.

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