The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) turned 51 this week, continuing their run as Latin America’s oldest armed insurgency, and the future of Colombia’s peace talks hung in the balance. In the wake of a May 22 military offensive in Gaupi, Cauca that killed 27 guerrillas—including FARC peace delegate Pedro Nel Daza Martínez— the FARC announced that they were formally suspending their unilateral ceasefire.
This was merely the latest instance of escalating violence in Colombia’s embattled southwestern Cauca province over the last several weeks, which included Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ renewal of aerial bombings on guerrilla camps in response to the FARC’s April 15 attack that killed 11 soldiers.
While both the Colombian state security forces and the FARC have clearly suffered casualties, Cauca’s most vulnerable citizens are also paying a heavy price.
Since the attack in Guapi, a city of about 30,000 on Cauca’s Pacific Coast, nearly 400 people have been displaced from their homes in rural areas, fleeing to the city in search of safety. At least 200 are children or elderly people, and all are Afro-Colombian—a group that already bears the brunt of displacement in Colombia.
“In Guapi we already had a serious problem with displacement due to armed actors that threaten black and indigenous communities who live in the nearby jungle regions, but the FARC attack has aggravated the crisis. Since Friday, May 22, displaced people keep arriving to the city,” said Sinson Carabalí, the Guapi city Ombudsman, to the El País newspaper based in Cali, Colombia.
At nearly 6 million people, Colombia has the one of the highest internally displaced populations in the world, second only to Syria. While 10 percent of Colombia’s population self-identified as Afro-Colombian in the 2005 census, at least 25 percent of internally displaced persons are Afro-Colombian, according to CODHES, a Colombian NGO that focuses on human rights and displacement. Actual figures for both are likely higher, due to limitations on census terminology, a long history of racism and stigma against identifying as Afro-descendant in Colombia and under-reporting and registering among displaced populations.
“We were hoping to return to our homes but now we have to stay here without knowing what to do, because with the bombings we can’t go back,” said Joaquín Carabalí, a 52-year-old Afro-Colombian resident of Guapi.
Along with the 400 displaced persons, an additional 500 people are confined out of fear of retaliation from the FARC’s 29th Front against the Colombian military.
“The population is really afraid because [the offensive] happened right in their neighborhood, which means that residents, whose daily livelihoods depend on agriculture, hunting and fishing, haven’t been able to do this. So that’s also generating a food security crisis,” said Mauricio Redondo, the Regional Ombudsman.
Redondo added that Guapi lacked adequate shelter, sanitation and potable water even before the crisis, and that the absence of facilities for newly displaced people is “the biggest challenge.”
Continued calls for a bilateral ceasefire
Meanwhile, civil society groups reiterated the urgent need for an immediate bilateral ceasefire to reduce violence.
“Today we insist on a bilateral truce and ceasefire that allows the deescalation of the conflict and that has effective verification and follow-up mechanisms agreed to by both parties,” wrote the National Movement for the Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE).
“This would be a real indication from both sides that they are interested in ending the conflict. We also demand respect for the proposals presented by victims at the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, for whom a bilateral ceasefire was a key demand. We cannot continue negotiating in the middle of hostilities, victimizing the civilian population and losing fellow Colombian lives.”
Indeed, the lives lost are generally those of the most socially vulnerable Colombians. Colombia mandates two years of military service for all males, but those who can afford to pay a modest fine are excused from it. Facing few other opportunities, youth without these resources are often forced to choose between the state security forces, the guerillas or the paramilitary-descendant groups known as the BACRIM (criminal gangs).
“Not a day goes by when I don’t ask myself: ‘Do the lives of Afro-descendant, indigenous and campesino communities matter for this country?'” wrote Afro-Colombian leader Francia Marquez, a native of La Toma, Cauca.
“I mourned for the death of the soldiers, because unfortunately they are our brothers, or cousins or nephews who couldn’t go to college or get a job, and whose only choice is to go fight a war that is not theirs. Many call it defending the homeland, but…Whose homeland are they talking about if since slavery until today the same 10 families who think themselves heir to the Spanish crown have held the economic power of this country and have shown no regard for our lives?”
A renewed commitment to the peace talks and a bilateral ceasefire would stem some of the bloodshed of the last few weeks, but given the myriad of actors and interests at play in Colombia’s conflict, a lasting peace will require much more.
“Peace will not be possible if there are no protections for the defense of human rights and no mechanisms for the participation of civilians, social organizations and social leaders in peace building,” wrote the Cauca Network for Life and Human Rights.