When General Ruben Dario Alzate stepped off a boat on the Atrato River into the hands of FARC rebels, he managed to bring the country’s attention to one of Colombia’s most deprived regions, the Atrato river valley which has endured over two decades of intense conflict that shows no sign of abating.
The general is commander of Task Force Titan, but was wearing Bermuda shorts and was without bodyguards, and in the township of La Mercedes allegedly to discuss village development projects. In previous public speeches, Alzate emphasized that the Army needed to support social integration if it was to win the war, telling troops they would spend 40% of their time engaged in military manoeuvres and 60% of the time involved in relations with the civil population.
This policy, known within the army as “combining guns with butter”, saw the Army and Navy combining through Task Force Titan to, in Alzate’s words, “understand the different factors that directly affect the civilian population” and “to search for immediate solutions and to provide a better quality of life to the region of the Pacific.” Titan is the Choco element of the Sword of Honor program; a strategy involving the US Embassy which seeks to confront the guerrillas in their strongholds.
Alzate has now surely understood first-hand a key factor of the region; the dominance of illegal armed groups including the FARC and paramilitary successor organisations such as the Black Eagles and Urabeños who fight each other for control of the Atrato region. The 34th front of the FARC that seized Alzate extorts miners in the area and controls the trafficking of drugs along the Atrato River and through the rainforest to the Pacific coast.
The guerrillas have responded aggressively to the advance of the army. On 30 January this year in Tagachi, a village of around 200 families in the Atrato valley, the 34th Front warned villagers that if they allowed the armed forces to enter the village the guerrillas would detonate a bomb capable of destroying the entire village.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reported that “they told people not to pay attention to what is happening in Havana (referring to the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC) because they are the people in charge in Choco. They also threatened them with an order to dispose of all the mobile phones in the community.”
The guerrillas have a presence which extends into the outlying areas of Choco’s state capital Quibdo itself where they recruit men and women who, after a generation of conflict, face a local economy offering little in the way of employment.
Their numbers are swelled by those displaced through violence in the countryside: waves of conflict between the guerrillas and paramilitaries hit the region in 1997-98, 2002-5, and 2011, with the worst displacement affecting the Afro-Colombian communities. In many cases their communal lands were then taken over to grow illicit crops or to produce palm oil, forestry products and cattle.
A WOLA visit to the Atrato River valley in April this year found that a “deterioration in the humanitarian and security situation faced by civilians in rural communities… who are facing serious security threats and are at a high risk of displacement.” As the army moves in, villagers face being punished by the guerrillas, or identified as insurgents if they ask the army to stay outside the community.
According to weekly Semana, the strength of the illegal economy in the area is only one aspect of the control exercised by the guerrillas and criminal bands. “In many places, cell phones only can be stored in a secure point …In others, bingo and domino can only be played at certain times and for a limited time. The guerrillas promote new organizations that compete with community councils and traditional organizations. …Soccer tournaments and parties with political harangues of compulsory attendance are made to recruit young people and keep the population ‘aligned’.”
Bombing and aerial spraying by the army have also caused harm and distress in these remote areas, leaving the local communities at the mercy of all sides to the conflict. It remains to be seen whether, if General Alzate is released next week, the people of the Atrato valley will again slide out of the national consciousness.