News

Who is Killing Colombia's Black Human Rights Activists?

The Colombian government calls the 15 human rights leaders assassinated so far in 2017 a coincidence. But the numbers point to a crisis.

In January, at least four black community leaders were murdered in Colombia’s Pacific region, suggesting a crisis in an overlooked region of the country that is home to the majority of Afro-Colombians.


According to the Colombian news site ¡Pacifista!, at least 15 human rights activists, black or not, have been killed in 2017. According to the NGO Front Line Defenders, at least 85 activists were killed in the country last year. Yet, the Colombian government has dismissed these murders as “isolated cases”—coincidences—and has tried to focus attention on the (true) fact that violence caused by the conflict with the leftist Armed Forces of Colombia (also called FARC, for their initials in Spanish) guerrilla has all but ended since the peace agreement last year. Many community leaders nonetheless recognize a historic pattern, in which large political shifts in the country have been met with violent backlash against leftist activists, and worry that this time the black community will be targeted disproportionately.

The Afro-Colombian activists murdered this year all came from the area near the Pacific Ocean, which is the part of the country with the largest black population, and one of the areas that has suffered more from the Colombian conflict. The stories of their killings also reveal deeper problems there.

At some point between January 7 and 9, in Riosucio—a town in the western Chocó region —Moisés Mosquera Moreno was killed, allegedly by men from the Gaitanistas Self-Defenses of Colombia (or AGC), one of the scattered right-wing paramilitary groups that remain in the country. Mosquera’s father, Juan de la Cruz Mosquera Rodríguez, was also murdered by the Gaitanistas. Moisés was a member of the Community Council of the Salaquí River Basin—one of the black citizen’s organizations the Afro-Colombian community is entitled to form to reclaim ancestral lands as collective property—while Juan de la Cruz was the priest at a protestant church, and a community leader.

On January 17, Emilsen Manyoma, a community leader of Bajo Calima (a zone between Chocó and the Valle del Cauca region to its south) and a member of CONPAZ—a network of activists in regions impacted by the country’s armed conflict—was murdered alongside her husband, Joe Javier Rodallega. Their bodies were found in the coastal city of Buenaventura. Soon afterwards the FARC published a press release in which they attributed the murder to Emilsen’s brother, Marco Antonio, a former FARC member who deserted last December.

Many pamphlets by paramilitary groups have started to appear in western Colombia, threatening the lives of other human rights activists, particularly those who, like Manyoma, worked with the government’s newly established “Truth Commission,” which is meant to establish culprits in many noteworthy crimes during the Colombian conflict.

Yet, the Colombian Minister of Defense, Luis Carlos Villegas, said earlier this month that the murders of human rights activists “are not systematic” and that there are “no paramilitaries in the country.” And indeed, officially in Colombia there are no paramilitary groups. Paramilitary groups were illegally organized armed bands that were created to attack left-wing guerrillas, protect the interests of big landowners, and extinguish any attempts (peaceful or not) at land reform.

The last group to be classified as such, the Self-United (or AUC), demobilized from 2003 to 2006. But some rebel AUC leaders decided to not give up their weapons and to organize new groups that are still extorting and trafficking drugs. The government reclassified these groups as “Bacrim” (a Spanish portmanteau of “criminal bands”) in order to deny them political recognition and treat them, instead, as mere criminals. The AGC, among many others, were classified as Bacrim (which the government rebranded as “Armed Organized Groups” or GAO last year).

However, people in Chocó know all too well about paramilitaries and their permanence. Back in 1997 in Riosucio—where the Mosqueras were killed this year—the Colombian Army carried out a joint operation with the AUC called Operación Génesis in search of guerrilla collaborators. Eighty-five people were killed. Some people also report that a black farmer’s head was sawed off and used to play football in the main square. This created a mass exodus which contributed to the reported seven million internally displaced people in Colombia.

But, since the government and the FARC guerrilla started peace negotiations five years ago, people have started to come back. Those who returned, created an organization, Cavida, to work together at restoring their land and their rights to it. Many similar organizations throughout Chocó and the country have sprung up. But some fear that the recent killings are a way of scaring those who were displaced into not returning and not reclaiming their land. That is at least the position of Chocó’s newspaper Chocó 7 Días, which denounced the dangers of neo-paramilitary presence in an editorial this week.

It wouldn’t be a new tactic. Throughout Colombia’s recent history, the gains of those who have chosen to peacefully advocate for land reform have been met with disproportional violence. In the mid-1980s, during different peace negotiations, the FARC guerrilla proposed to create a political party, which they called Unión Patriótica, or UP. Members of this party were persecuted by narcos, paramilitaries and the Colombian state alike, and as many as 3,000 of its members were killed, including two of their presidential candidates.

In the early 1990s, another guerrilla group, the April 19th Movement (commonly known as M-19) reached a peace deal with the government of then President Virgilio Barco, and became a political party. At least 600 of their members, including the presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, were murdered. It didn’t stop then. The leftist Marcha Patriótica movement has reported that, since its foundation in 2012, 126 of their members have been murdered, mostly in Colombia’s west and southwest.

In 2010, the Colombian government started, with a painfully slow pace, to return land to those who were displaced by violent groups. Now, with the promised transition of FARC to a completely political and peaceful organization, this reparation process is expected to pick up pace. But the transition will also mean that the violent groups that remain will try to occupy the void in criminal activity (such as drug trafficking and extortion) left by FARC fighters. And as more civilians try to reclaim their lands and their lives, the right-wing reactionary groups that remain are certain to try their violence to scare people into not returning.

According to the Ombudsman Office, about 40 percent of all of Colombia’s internally displaced people come from the four Pacific regions: Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño. According to the National Statistics Department (DANE), this is also the area of the country with the largest percentage of Afro-Colombians: Chocó’s population is 82 percent black, for example, while Valle del Cauca’s is 27 percent, Cauca’s is 22 percent and Nariño’s is 19 percent.

So it is obvious that returning land to displaced Afro-Colombians and another disarmament, despite being the right choices, are likely to create an even more dangerous situation in the Pacific coast. Small farmers might again be wrongfully targeted as guerrilla aides by the illegal armed groups that remain, or they might be killed just to preserve the status quo. If the Colombian government doesn’t acknowledge this situation, black Colombians from the Pacific might be headed towards another irreparable tragedy.

popular
(From left to right) Stéphane Bak and Marc Zinga in 'The Mercy of the Jungle.' Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Congolese Actor Stéphane Bak on His Intense Experience Shooting 'The Mercy of the Jungle' In Uganda

We catch up with the actor after the film made its North American premiere at TIFF.

When actor Stéphane Bak first got the script for The Mercy of the Jungle (La Miséricorde de la Jungle), he knew there was one person he had to consult: his father. "My dad did school me about this," he says. While Bak was born and raised in France, his parents had emigrated from what was then Zaire in the 1980s—before the events of the movie, and not exactly in the same area, but close enough to be able to pass on firsthand knowledge of the simmering ethnic tensions that underpin the action.

The story takes place in 1998, just after the outbreak of the Second Congo War—which came hot on the heels of the First Congo War. Two Rwandan soldiers find themselves separated from their company and have to make a harrowing trek through the jungle to link back up with their regiment. Bak plays Private Faustin, the young recruit hunting Hutu rebels to avenge his murdered family, a foil to Marc Zinga's seasoned Sergeant Xavier. As a Congolese militia swarms the area, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell enemies from friends, the two are forced off the road and into the thick vegetation.

Their journey is physically difficult, but the jungle also nurtures them, providing food, water, and shelter. "The title is very explicit in a way," says Bak. It is the human beings they encounter, from rival soldiers and militiamen to the hostile security forces guarding illegal gold mining operations, who bring sudden danger and violence. The challenges are conveyed as much through the actors' physicality as through the minimal dialogue. As for the strain on his face, Bak says it was all real. "To be honest, it was very difficult," he says of the shoot, which took him 25 days. "I had to learn my accent in two weeks." Prior to commencing, there was training with the Ugandan army for realism. Due to the ongoing conflicts in the DRC, the movie itself was shot in Uganda.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

Brazil Has Made Yoruba an Official Language

The language will also be incorporated into primary and secondary school curriculum in the country, says the Minister of Culture.

Yoruba history and culture has an undeniably strong presence in Brazilian society, due of course, to the Transatlantic slave trade which brought millions of enslaved West Africans to the Americas. Despite the inhumanity they faced, many managed to keep their ancestral culture and traditions alive.

Centuries have passed, and Yoruba influences still continue to thrive in various regions of the country, as many Brazilians maintain a strong relationship with the language and religion. Its influence can be seen through the music, food and spiritual practices of various communities. Last month the Ooni of Ife—the spiritual leader of the Yoruba people—visited the country, where he was met by crowds of Black Brazilians who turned up to pay their respects.

This connection will likely remain strong for future generations, as the language has now become an official foreign language in the country.

WATCH: How Ilê Aiyê Brought Blackness Back to Carnival

Brazil's Minister of Culture, Dr. Sérgio Sá Leitão, has said that the language will now be incorporated into primary and secondary school curriculum, reports the Nigerian Voice.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

This EP Blends the Afro-Brazilian Rhythms of Bahia With Bass Music

Get into Telefunksoul and Felipe Pomar's Ré_Con Ba$$ EP.

Brazilian producers Felipe Pomar (of TrapFunk & Alivio) and Telefunksoul come through with a dizzyingly energetic EP in the form of Ré_Con Ba$$.

Telefunksoul, who happens to be one of the main promoters of Bahia Bass music, came up with the concept of exploring the rhythms coming out of Recôncavo of Bahia and showing how they can fit into bass music.

Through the 7-track Ré_Con Ba$$ EP, him and Pomar mold and transform the diverse music of Bahia, fusing its rhythms with afrobeat, future house, deep house and much more.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.