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Paramilitarization of the Choco, Colombia

Priests from northern Choco confirm this and say that part of the paramilitary strategy in the Choco involves destroying the region's tropical forests. "By threatening and paying campesinos to cut down trees, they hope to convert all of northern Choco ... into pastureland by the year 2000." 'Behind every tree is a guerrilla' is the para campaign slogan.
May 1996
The Paramilitarization of Urabá
By Daniel Bland
Published in Colombia Hoy

Maria Elena lost her mother and sister on February 21, six days after the Protocol 11 agreement of the Geneva conventions -established to respect the neutrality of the civilian population in a country's armed conflict- was officially signed into force in Colombia. She lives in the tiny hamlet of Las Casas, half an hour northeast of the town of Turbo in the department of Antioquia.
"The paras arrived at about 10:30 and came directly to our house. They grabbed my mother and sister, tied their hands and threw them on the floor. They were guerrillas, they said, and for guerrillas they had a special treatment." Maria Elena paused to clear her throat and wipe her eyes.

"They dragged them out and off 100 yards or so. We were too afraid to even go out. When we did, we found their bodies. They had cut their heads off and opened their stomachs up with machetes. As they left they said we had six months to leave; that they'd be back to burn what and whoever was left."

With access by land and water to the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean and through the Darien gap to Central America, the Urabá region in northwestern Colombia is as strategic a zone as exists anywhere in the country and probably in South America. The region is rich and fertile; bananas grown in central Urabá generated US$400 million in 1995 in addition to rubber and hardwood exports and there are half a million head of cattle grazing in northern Urabá. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contraband -arms and drugs in particular- enter and leave Colombia each year through the Gulf of Urabá. Legal and illegal economic interests that today are at the root of a vicious paramilitary campaign to wipe out the guerrilla presence -real or perceived- in the entire Urab´ region.

A recent ten day swing through much of Urabá shows just how dramatic this paramilitary advance is:-

Turbo - a town of 65,000 on the Gulf of Urabá and the Panamerican highway has been dominated by the paras since mid-1995. Since then, according to a priest in one of the town's three parishes, there have been about 10 disappearances a week and bodies are found almost every morning along the road leading out of town and on to Apartadó.

"That first morning, we woke up and most of the businesses had been painted during the night with graffitis announcing the arrival of the paras- the Autodefensas Campesinas of Cordoba and Urabá, ACCU. Businesses are forced to pay a tax to the paras. Because one of the para leaders in the town is a guerrilla, the group knows everyone who used to pay the 'vacuna' or guerrilla tax; those who did so 'voluntarily', their families and friends have all been killed or left.

During the last week of February, 5 unmarked graves were discovered on the outskirts of the town." Turbo is growing fast as displaced families forced out of the hills by the paras flood into the the shantytowns ringing the town. Trucks and jeeps leaving Turbo are routinely stopped by the paras and prohibited from taking more than US$50.00 worth of provisions out of town; any more, they say, is destined for the guerrillas.

The ACCU were created in the late 1980's in the neighboring department of Córdoba by millionaire landowner Fidel Castaño. Working closely with military and police officers, who saw the paras as a counterinsurgency force 'par excellence' and employing the terror tactics that characterize their actions, they soon dominated the department. Today, Fidel and his brother Carlos command a paramilitary army estimated at between 1,000 and 1,200 and have their sights set on Urabá.

A half hour drive up the Panamerican on the Gulf is Punta de Piedra, a tiny community of 60 living in 15 or 20 shacks. They have all been displaced since late last year; most of their shacks were built with wood brought down on horseback from the houses they left behind. On February 12, the paras arrived again.

"They came early, one of them wearing a hood, and said two of us had to go with them. We had talked about what to do if they came back and decided not to let that happen again. We told then no; that we knew the two men had nothing to do with the guerrilla and that we wouldn't let them go. After more discussion and threats of returning to take more of us, they left."

This example of a community's courage and resistance to the paras spread by word of mouth throughout the area and the next Sunday in churches throughout Turbo sermons touched on the case. "Don't turn off your lights and shut your doors when they come. If it's your neighbor one day, it could be you the next." Posters put up in the back of churches proclaimed: 'Solidarity! -your indifference makes you an accomplice.'

There are perhaps 1,000 people in Ti, the next small town up the highway. Paramilitary graffitis are everywhere and all the small stores and businesses are boarded up. "The paras told us to close everything up, that anyone caught selling was only helping the guerrillas and would be killed." At least 25 families have left the community and more than a dozen others are on their way. A store owner with children and grandchildren in Ti asked what he plans to do shrugs his shoulders and says -"Leave. What else?"

This desolate panorama changes abruptly in El Totumo 20 minutes further up the coast. Sunday morning in the town of 2,000 is alive with music, children playing and three Protestant churches in full swing. A huge graffiti on entering the town "Sapos (informants) - we'll kill you one by one. Just wait and see. ACCU." The town is prosperous compared to the others further down the road and under complete control of the paras. Those who haven't left or been killed are now with them.

Another half hour drive leads into the coastal town of Necocli, a paramilitary centre of 40,000. A teenager from Turbo tells how adolescents from there are routinely taken to Necocli, uniformed, armed and trained. "The paras have a marine base here and make frequent incursions across the Gulf in high powered boats to the Choco." Priests from northern Choco confirm this and say that part of the paramilitary strategy in the Choco involves destroying the region's tropical forests. "By threatening and paying campesinos to cut down trees, they hope to convert all of northern Choco from R!osucio to the Darien into pastureland by the year 2000." 'Behind every tree is a guerrilla' is the para campaign slogan.

According to analysts of the paramilitary strategy in Urabá, the groups operate in predictable, military like fashion as they sweep through the countryside. "They arrive in large groups, almost always with several hooded individuals. First, they capture a number of residents, accusing them of being or collaborating with the guerrillas. Then they announce their intention to 'clean up' the zone, order all businesses closed and tell anyone disagreeing with their plans to leave. Then they kill their captives, almost always torturing them first in public and frequently decapitating them. That's one key to their strategy -the absolute ruthlesness of their actions- the seeds of terror are sown. Before they go they announce when they'll be back. What choice do the people have? They leave."

Thirty miles and an hour's drive to the east of Turbo is Pueblo Bello, a town occupied by the paras since February 22. Early that morning, "they gathered everyone together in the kiosk beside the church and outlined their plans to establish a base here and charge businesses and residents a 'tax' to support their activities. When they finished, they dumped a huge stockpile of weapons on the ground and told everyone to take one. Today, about 90 of the town's 100 families have weapons in the house and we are living a nightmare."

"The paras broke the lock on the primary school and regularly sit in on classes, looking through the teachers' notebooks and lesson plans. Groups of them sleep there at night. They enter the church armed. They go wherever they want and do whatever they like. They own the town. Children as young as 12 and 13 are with them, some of them can hardly carry the weapons they have been given. It's pathetic."

"There are two large groups in Pueblo Bello. Those here in town are the group's 'eyes and ears' -they all have rifles and radios and are given free food by the paras. The other group is in the countryside -they have automatic weapons, grenades, walkie talkies and are being trained militarily. They receive US$200.00 a month and are essentially patrolling, widening the paras' radius of action little by little towards Turbo. The groups rotate." On March 3, during a combat between paras and guerrillas in the neighboring hamlet of La Esperanza, two paras were seriously wounded. An army helicopter landed and evacuated them, apparently to Medellin.

Almost no one expects the Urabá conflict to die down in the near future; most analysts fear the worst has yet to come. "There is simply too much at stake. The guerrilla have almost thirty years of presence here and the paramilitary force is probably the strongest and best equipped anywhere. Arms, drugs, huge economic interests and, of course, the absolute indifference of the government, are simply too important to let humanitarian concerns get in the way."

The most obvious result of this paramilitary advance is a massive exodus of families. According to the Defensoria del Pueblo, more than 4,000 families and 25,000 people were displaced in 6 months between December 1994 and May 1995. Today, there are probably twice that many -by far the continent's largest internal migration in such a short period. And there is the staggering number of victims of the paramilitary advance. "The massacres are what garner the headlines and media coverage nationally and internationally. But the vast majority of victims -and there have been well over two thousand in the last year or so- are simply buried in unmarked graves by family and friends too terrified to say anything to anyone."

Down the Panamerican highway south from Turbo, the panorama remains much the same. Currulao, Apartadó, Carepa and Chogorodó all scenes of terrible massacres in recent months and all witnesses to the ruthless advance of the ACCU forces. 100 kilometres south of Turbo is the town of Mutata , the southern limit of Uraba and the apparent territorial objective of the paras. 40 kilometres or so to the east is the town of Belen de Bajir . At the end of February, an army patrol entered the town. The captain in charge told the town's priest and community leaders he wanted their help in rounding up 30 'guerrillas' from the town whose names were on a list he showed them. When they assured him the individuals were not guerrillas but long time campesino residents of the town, he gave them an ultimatum: "Cooperate, or we'll leave and the paras will come and take care of you." They didn't cooperate.

"They arrived firing their rifles into the air at about 9:30 a.m. on March 3. They had a campesino with them from one of the outlying hamlets, his hands tied behind his back. They dragged two people out of their houses right away -they had a list- and tied their hands together. Then they went for the doctor, saying they needed her to treat a wounded para. After parading their captives around the town's park and painting graffitis on the walls, they left. Several minutes later we heard shots. They shot the men and left their bodies by the cemetery. They took the doctor with them. Two miles or so up from the cemetery we found another body; later that evening we found two more on the road leading to Mutata."

"They asked me constantly about the location of guerrilla camps in the area," says Dr. Luz Marina Arteaga, "and whether or not I treated wounded guerrillas. I said that as a doctor I treat anyone who needs medical assistance. I recognized guerrillas among them, people who grew up around here and know everone in Bajir and knew that if I lied they would kill me." Dr. Arteaga says that the paras made frequent reference to her two children and husband by name and said they planned to "exterminate" everyone in Bajir who had even the remotest connection to the guerrilla. They also boasted in great detail of the atrocities they had committed and planned to commit.

She was released two days later and told to tell the town of the paras' plans. 'A town that has been sentenced to death' is the way the doctor summed up her experience and what the future holds for Bajir . In spite of the installation of two military bases in the area, one of them only 3 kilometros from Bajir , a group of 40 paras returned in the early morning of March 13. "They were here almost all day threatening us." When they left, they took five more of the town's residents with them.

National and international commissions have visited the region - Amnesty International and a contingent of Colombian human rights NGOs last year and a group from Pax Christi headed by the Bishop of Rotterdam ended a four day mission on March 10. And delegations from Germany and El Salvador are planning to follow suit later this year. Denunciations of paramilitary activities routinely fall on deaf ears here, though, and in a region as strategic economically and militarily as Urabá, this will almost surely continue to be the case.

Father Leonidas Moreno, who coordinates the Apartadó diocesis's human rights work in Urabá says that although a peace accord in Urabá is clearly a "very remote possibility" at the moment, immediate measures must be taken to stop the slaughter of innocent victims of what promises to be a long drawn out conflict. "Specific agreements are more realistic possibilities now," he says, "something to at least protect the civilian population that has been displaced. The establishment of a neutral 'protection zone', for example, where all parties in the conflict agree to respect the civilian population and its right to neutrality." Who to sponsor and guarantee such a zone, though, in a region as volatile as Urabá remains an unanswered question.

homepage: homepage: http://www.colombiasupport.net/uraba/paras.html