Violence in the western department of Chocó has led to the forced displacement of approximately 680 Afro-Colombians since January 5. In response, Colombian Ombudsman Jorge Armando Otálora has called for a full-fledged state response to illegal groups.
The situation erupted as a result of heightened fighting between criminal bands and paramilitary groups over a territorial dispute in southern Chocó. The Ratrojos and Urabeños are fighting over control drug trafficking routes at the mouth of the San Juan River.
Members of the semi-nomadic Wounaan tribe are the main victims of the unstable situation, and continue to search for safe haven and food.
In a separate communication, the Unidad para la Atención y Reparación Integral a las Víctimas (Victims’ Attention and Comprehensive Reparation Unit) said that an estimated 7,200 refugees from Chocó have fled to the nearby department of Docordó.
Colombia is home to more than 3.7 million displaced people—among the top such figures in the world—as a result of the criminal gangs, leftist guerrillas, narcotrafficking and other armed actors affecting the country for half a century. Under Colombia’s August 2010 Victims and Land Restitution Bill, victims of forced displacement are eligible for reparations and land restitution.
Among the many crises competing for international attention, the ethno-territorial conflict plaguing the Afro-Colombian population on Colombia’s Pacific Coast is barely making headlines. Afro-Colombians have been systematically displaced from their communities, often violently, at the hands of guerillas and neo-paramilitary groups since the mid-1990s. Yet few Colombians, let alone foreigners, are paying attention.
This comes despite the de-escalation of Colombia’s three decade-long drug war. Still today armed militias are active and using terror tactics to expel Afro-Colombians from their ancestral territory. The reason is that the land is so valuable. It is considered among the richest in the world in terms of natural, exploitable resources, including oil, timber and minerals. Groups like the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), which can no longer generate enough income from drug trafficking and kidnapping, are turning to mining, both legal and illegal, along the Pacific Coast to finance weapons sales, according to President Juan Manuel Santos. With gold at near record levels, neo-paramilitary groups appear to be cashing in on this business as well.
The socioeconomic condition of the Afro-Colombian community, estimated between 4 million and 10 million strong, and a lack of political representation help to explain why this population is vulnerable to internal displacement. In fact, 78.5 percent of Afro-Colombians live below the poverty line compared to 49.2 percent of the general population, and only one out of every 50 completes a university education. Afro-Colombian representatives only hold two seats in the national chamber and none in the Senate, adding to the challenge of getting issues of inequality, exclusion and the more pressing displacement epidemic on the national agenda.