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At the end of February, FOR Peace Presence joined a national and international1 delegation who accompanied the Communities for Self-Determination, Life, and Dignity of Cacarica (CAVIDA) to commemorate 19 years of suffering and displacement caused by the military/paramilitary operation Génesis in the Río Cacarica Basin, Bajo Atrato, in the department (province) of Chocó. It was to be a pilgrimage for peace with socio-environmental justice, and the walk lasted several days, going from the humanitarian zone “Nueva Vida, Cacarica, all the way to Cerro Mocho. Cerro Mocho forms the limit of the black community’s collective title in Cacarica with the Panama border, and where a binational Colombian/Panamanian military base was installed in June 2013, generating new concerns.
Operation Génesis, executed in February of 1997 by militaries and paramilitaries, caused the death and forced disappearance of more than 80 victims and resulted in the displacement of 4,000 people. The members of CAVIDA remember the atrocities, the suffering, the escape, former leaders, mothers and father who have lost their loved ones, children now grown-up through songs, poems and testimonies. In November of 2013, for the first time, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (ICHR) condemned the Colombian State for the forced displacement of afro-decedent communities as a result of Operation Génesis. They have also condemned the collaboration of the army with paramilitary groups in the displacement of communities, as well as death and heinous acts committed against campesino Mario López. According to testimonies, paramilitaries cut off his head and after played soccer with it. The operation was directed by General Rito Alejo Del Río, commander of the Army’s 17th Brigade and former student of the School of the Americas, and who is also known for his violations against the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. In August of 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder of Marino López.
Until today, the collective reparations ordered by the ICHR have not been repaid, reparations which would be a tribute to the memory of what happened as well as a recognition of responsibility by the state. Apart from the pain of having lived through the operation, the members of CAVIDA and the group of women Clamores have pointed out that the individual reparations haven’t been given to the survivors.
They held a ceremony in the coliseum in Turbo at the beginning of the pilgrimage which not only paid homage to the suffering, but also to the community processes currently underway, and to the perseverance and resistance of the population. They have faced four long years in Turbo- including not being able to be treated in Turbo’s hospital. During all this time of displacement they have demanded recognition as being afro-descendent communities, and finally received this recognition in July 1998. The collective title was finally handed over to the Black Community of Cacarica, of more than 103,024 hectares, in December 1999. Showing their courage and commitment they returned to their land in 2000 and 2001 despite threats from armed groups, and were able to create the first humanitarian zones in Colombia, Nueva Vida y Esperanza en Dios (New Life and Hope from God), as a way to protect themselves as civilians inside a zone of internal armed conflict. “We still haven’t really returned,” says one member of CAVIDA. They settled in humanitarian zones, and only a few have been able to return to their original homes to retake their way of life as it had been before, with houses dispersed in an area rich in biodiversity. Many have stayed concentrated in humanitarian zones from fear as armed actors are still present.
Five months before the ruling from the ICHR, in June 2013, a binational Colombian-Panamanian military based was constructed in el Cerro Mocho. As previously mentioned, Cerro Mocho shares a border of the collective title held by the afro-descendent communities and is generating new concerns among those living there. Initially called la Unión, the base is now known as Guamal. According to interventions from the community and international delegations, the base is actually inside the collective title, a fact Colombian tribunals have denied and which has not been officially verified. The population has seen heavy machinery being brought to the base, raising suspicions of mining exploitation. Additionally, in 2014 a report was seen in Panamanian news saying that William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and former ambassador of the United States in Colombia, visited the base. This created doubts as to the kind of support the US government is giving in a such strategic area, where in addition to the interest in possible mining exploitation is the anticipation of the construction of the Inter-American highway as well as an electrical interconnection with Central America.