Editor’s note: This story is the second in a three-part series looking at the fight for rights of black people in Colombia. The first story explored the history of Afro-Colombians and the impact of the recently ended war with the FARC. This story examines the plight of blacks in Buenaventura, caught between booming industry and paramilitary groups.
The Colombian city of Buenaventura could be a tropical oasis lined with beautiful beaches. Instead, it’s an industrial eyesore crowded by huge cargo storage crates, cranes and docks.
Buenaventura is in the Pacific-coast region of black ancestral territories, where the largest concentration of the Afro-Colombian population has lived for centuries. Some black communities still inhabit small, traditional, wooden homes built on stilts over the water’s edges. But industrial development projects are expanding, which means that people are being forced out, dead or alive.
“Buenaventura is the most important port in Colombia, an international port,” says Victor Vidal, an activist with Black Communities’ Process, or PCN. “It’s through here that legal cargo enters and leaves. Drugs do, too.”
In some sectors of the Pacific region, the main fighting factions during Colombia’s recent 52-year civil war were the Colombian military and guerrilla armies. But in Buenaventura, paramilitaries—forces created by business elites who felt the government wasn’t protecting their interests—were in control.
Local activist William Mina says that he was in school on Feb. 9, 2014, the day a woman named Marisol was literally cut into pieces in a “chop house” in his Puente Nayero neighborhood. Chop houses are homes or other buildings that paramilitaries invade and where they kill victims by dismembering their bodies. It’s a way to terrorize and control people. If companies want land that people live on, they hire paramilitaries to get rid of them.
“We are not victims of the armed conflict,” says Mina. “We’re victims of development.”
Then 18, Mina was one of the community members who organized the neighborhood into a Humanitarian Space, a zone free of armed forces. With the support of the Inter-Ecclesiastic Commission of Justice and Peace, a Colombian organization, and international groups, the community banded together and nonviolently forced the paramilitaries to leave. They burned down the chop house where Marisol lost her life. Puente Nayero is a successful exception, an example of an Afro-Colombian community winning control of its territory.
Fast-forward to January of this year. The bodies of activist Emilsen Manyoma and her companion Joe Javier Rodallega, both black Colombians, were found in Buenaventura, shot and stabbed and with their throats slit. They were killed a month and a half after the Colombian Congress approved the peace treaty that ended the civil war.
Manyoma had been one of the leaders of the Communities Building Peace in the Territories, or CONPAZ, network. And she had supported the creation of the Puento Nayero Humanitarian Space. The ongoing homicide of human rights leaders is another intimidation tactic of combatants in a war that’s supposed to be over.
“Our territories are still under paramilitary force, imposition and control,” Charo Mina-Rojas, a PCN leader based in Cali, Colombia, says. “In fact, they are rearming and they are reappearing in big numbers in our territories.”
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) agrees. “Right-wing paramilitary groups continue to terrorize and continue to murder labor and human rights activists,” says Johnson, a staunch advocate for Afro-Colombians. “Basic rule of law processes are still not in place.”
As the country embarks on the transformation from a society at war with itself to one at peace, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that homicides of human rights leaders are increasing—40 in the first four months of 2017, compared with 80 in all of 2016. Human rights groups say that those numbers are inaccurately low.
And these homicides are not limited to the Pacific coast: Bernardo Cuero Bravo of the Association of Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians was gunned down in Malambo, an Atlantic coast town, on June 7.
The Washington Office on Latin America, a leading advocacy organization, regularly distributes lists of black activists and other human rights leaders who receive death threats and who are killed. Cuero Bravo is one of the many victims whose murder WOLA has denounced. Ironically, June 7 is the date of the letter, distributed by WOLA and signed by 10 members of the U.S. Congress, including Johnson, about state violence against Afro-Colombians. It addresses the unleashing of Colombia’s anti-riot police force on peaceful protesters.
Aurora Vergara is a sociology professor and director of the Afro-Diasporic Studies Center at Icesi University in Cali. She was a co-organizer of “Grief as Resistance: Racialized State Violence and the Politics of Black Motherhood in the Americas,” a conference held at the University of Chicago on May 25. Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, was among the speakers. Women from organizations in Brazil and Colombia, as well as other African Americans who have lost a loved one to police violence, were there.
The topic of genocide got everyone’s attention.
“All the academics were making the argument that we have to be really careful about using this word,” Vergara says. “And the women from the grassroots organizations, they were saying, ‘I really do not care about what you academics are saying. What I’m seeing in the streets of Cali; what I’m seeing in Bojayá [a black Colombian village where a massacre occurred in a church]; what I’m seeing in the streets of Chicago, New York, Texas; what I’m seeing in Bahia, in Rio, in Sao Paulo, is systematically killing Afro-descendant young men.’”
Vergara didn’t have to leave Colombia to discover this argument. In a discussion of the Bojayá massacre and similar atrocities, the National Center for Historical Memory’s 2016 report states:
The long history of the exclusion, discrimination and violations of these communities, as well as the armed groups’ premeditated and systematic efforts to exterminate them, were documented. A number of international organizations categorize these actions as ethnocide, as they threaten to wipe out communities that have made this country a multiethnic and multicultural one.
Vergara is no longer backing away from the word “genocide.” “We can place the Black Lives Matter movement in the context of global Africa,” she says. “It should be a call for global action, for global connection.”
Lori S. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and the author of I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing From Sexual Assault and Abuse. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Ebony.com, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune and several national magazines. In 2016, Robinson was selected as a Bringing Home the World fellow by the International Center for Journalists.