Paramilitary forces have been mobilizing to launch an assault on communities in humanitarian zones in northern Colombia, according to community representatives.
Self-Determining Communities, Life, Dignity (CAVIDA) released a statement saying reliable sources had informed them paramilitaries were gathering in towns near the humanitarian zones of Nueva Vida and Nueva Esperanza en Dios in the region of Uraba.
The humanitarian zones at Nueva Vida and Nueva Esperanza en Dios were set up by people displaced by paramilitaries in 1997 who have since returned to the land. The zones are supposed to be demilitarized.
CAVIDA claim that approximately 100 paramilitaries are already in the town of Carmen del Darien in Choco, while in the Antioquian towns of Turbo, Apatado and Chigorodo they are recruiting local youths for the assault, paying them approximately $420 each.
According to the spokesman, “there is a new phase of paramilitarism in the region that wants to demonstrate its capacity to exert pressure and control over the population.”
He said, “up until two years ago the paramilitary operations were more discrete, dressed in civilian clothes and with small arms. Now they have decided to operate once again in an open manner like they did from the 1990’s until 2006.”
According to the spokesman in the last month, two people have disappeared, two have been assassinated, six families have been displaced and 35 people have received death threats.
He added, “it is different to [the era of the AUC] because now they don’t want to displace the population, instead they want to define how the land is used. That is why they have planted and developed coca plantations and cocaine laboratories and they have tried to protect banana plantations and the expansion of livestock ranches.”
Both CAVIDA and Justicia y Paz insist the army is aware of the paramilitary buildup and collusion between the army’s 17th Brigade and the paramilitaries is widespread.
The CAVIDA statement says, “in Turbo, Riosucio, and in Tumarado they are in plain sight with the authorities, they can be seen in conversation with members of the armed forces.”
The claim was supported by the Justicia y Paz spokesman. He said, “the paramilitaries say they have the backing of the 17th Brigade and the businesses [in the area].”
He added, “the army tolerates them. If there is a road whose width is no more than 15 meters and you have a permanent roadblock, and at this place paramilitaries pass with coca or large arms what do you call this?”
According to CAVIDA, their source told the communities, “for the army and the paramilitaries, our [the communities’] crime is denouncing their abuses and demanding the right to Consultation and Consent over the infrastructure projects they intend to implement in our territories.”
The main infrastructure project planned in the region is the controversial extension of the Pan-American Highway connecting Colombia to Panama, which is currently 39 miles from the border.
According to the Washington Office on Latin America, “the project will have a significant cultural and environmental impact because it would trace through the waterways and the Los Katios National Park in what is one the most environmentally diverse areas of the world.”
Under the terms of laws passed to protect the right of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, the people in the area have the right to be consulted over development proposals and should give their consent before they can go ahead. However, local communities claim that the project has been pushed through without community involvement or consent.
The Justicia y Paz spokesman said the paramilitaries are keen for the highway to go ahead as it will allow easy access to international markets so they are protecting businesses operations related to the project.
Since 2005, the humanitarian zones have had the backing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which requires the Colombian government to grant them special protection.