Colombia’s highest government human rights official encouraged citizens of Colombia’s north-west Choco state to take legal action against state functionaries who do no meet the needs of the community, according to an official statement from the Ombudsman’s office.
After a week-long visit to Colombia’s impoverished north-west Choco state effectively abandoned by the government amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis, Colombia’s Ombudsman Jorge Armando Otalora announced his crusade for the region and his plan to promote legal and disciplinary action against public officials who do not meet the demands of the community.
“If the [Colombian] government and other state agencies do not address the complaints of [Choco’s] citizens, they will initiate legal and disciplinary action against officials who fail in their duty, and if that’s still not enough, the citizens will call on international organizations,” said Otalora in his official statement.
Besides health issues, inadequate education resources, public services and public safety, Otalora warned of the serious problems caused by illegal mining and called particular attention to the recruitment of children to criminal gangs. Children as young as eight or night years-old are recruited into micro-trafficking and drug addiction, alerted Otalora. Furthermore, environmental damage caused by illegal mining has lead to the pollution of rivers and people can no longer fish for food.
Expressing his anger over the absence of many government officials at a human rights convention held during his visit to Choco, Otalora said “unfortunately Choco and its people have became accustomed to this. (…) Choco is always put second because it seems that there is always something more important than Choco.”
The situation in Choco has grown progressively worse over the course of the past several years, as a government response has proven unforthcoming.
“It is time we stopped grieving and using the famous phrases “State abandonment” and “the historical crisis of human rights.” It is time to act,” said Otalora in a bid to put the power back in the hands of the citizens.
A deepening crisis
Despite boasting among the most extensive natural resources in Colombia, Choco is one of the poorest states in the country.
Almost half of Choco’s inhabitants live in extreme poverty, meaning they are unable to provide for their basic sustenance, reported Caracol Radio. Food scarcity and access to health are major concerns throughout the state.
Criminals and narcotraffickers run the region, using the coastline to access trafficking routes across Latin America and Asia, and converting the area into “a place where the human condition is lost,” said Julio Hernando Garcia, the bishop of the Istmina municipality.
Forced displacement, economic blockades, intimidation tactics, rape, murders, and the recruitment of child soldiers are all widespread effects of the ongoing conflict for the state’s resources and narcotrafficking routes.
A UN report issued in June shows that over 2,000 people had been displaced in the region.
Choco – the forgotten state
In 2012 a Colombian politician landed himself in hot water when he likened investing in Choco to “adding perfume to a turd.”
This is not the first time the Colombian government has been accused of neglecting the region. In 2012, many of Choco’s politicians expressed frustration over the lack of governmental support during a shut-down of the region allegedly caused by the guerilla group FARC:.
“If this shut-down had happened in another department, President Juan Manuel Santos and his military staff would have visited the area immediately,” said Victor Copete of the Choco-Pacifico foundation.
The state, home to some of the most concentrated biodiversity on the planet, is predominantly indigenous and Afro, groups that have been traditionally ignored and exploited in Colombia.