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Victims of Colombia's long war fear peace won't be any better

Residents in the poverty-stricken refugee town of Riosucio believe the violence that forced them to flee their land will continue despite the signing of a historic peace accord.
Photo de Joe Parkin Daniels

As she looked nervously through the window of one of the wooden shacks on stilts that dominate Riosucio, Quibea recalled the moment she fled to the poverty-stricken town from her hamlet of a few hundred people seven hours downriver.

"I had land there, beautiful land," the indigenous community leader said, her hushed voice beginning to crack with emotion. "But as soon as I heard the boom-boom-boom of the army, I abandoned it. I lost my son that day."


The military bombing raid that killed her son happened 19 years ago, part of an offensive against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as FARC), which formed in 1964 promising a socialist revolution.

Those were dark days in Chocó, one of Colombia's 32 regional departments, when the government's efforts to wipe out the country's biggest rebel group were complicated and intensified by a state-aligned federation of death squads called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC.

Colombia's half-century-long civil war has left an estimated 220,000 people dead and displaced 6.9 million — the highest internal displacement in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Chocó, which lies just south of the border with Panama, is one of the regions where the pain has been the most intense.

That pain, theoretically, should now be ending after the FARC and the government signed a formal end to their conflict on Monday, with the accord to be put to popular vote on Oct. 2. The latest polls suggest the people will overwhelmingly vote to ratify.

But while the prospect of peace is being celebrated with street parties in the capital Bogotá and in gushing speeches to the UN General Assembly in New York, the people of Riosucio appear distinctly underwhelmed, even worried.

"When one group goes, another comes," lamented Quibea.

Her pessimism is partly based on the strategic location of the lush, lowland region dominated by the wide Atrato river and winding tributaries that connect its isolated indigenous communities, most belonging to the nomadic Embera tribe, who live along the waterways between Chocó and Panama.


Related: The cocaine industry has a lot riding on Colombia's peace deal

Bajo Atrato, the municipality surrounding Riosucio in northern Chocó, has long been prime turf for traffickers of Colombian cocaine owing to its access to the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the land border with Panama.

The FARC had dominated the territory in recent decades, blocking other armed groups looking to muscle in, at least in part because of its trafficking importance. But the imminent arrival of peace — which began with the acceleration of negotiations over the past year — has triggered a rash of clashes as these groups gear up to claim territory once the FARC lays down its weapons.

The groups ready to pounce include the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), a moniker apparently calculated to add gravitas to an ostensibly criminal organization. The government refers to them as the Urabeños, named after the Urabá area in which Riosucio is located, or Clan Úsuga, after the gang's best-known leader. Analysts commonly suggest these names also help the government downplay the group's origins in the paramilitary death-squad federation, which demobilized in 2006.

The National Liberation Army, Colombia's second-largest guerrilla group, has also recently mobilized in the region. Like the FARC, the group (known as ELN) has also relied on the drug trade to fund its ideological battle.

Between March and May of this year, at least 6,000 people fled their homes in the area to escape clashes between these illegal groups, according to a briefing from the UN refugee commission. And another 7,000 have had their movement severely restricted, the report said.


Many of the refugees from the recent violence have followed in the footsteps of those displaced during the height of the FARC-government conflict at the turn of the century, and ended up in Riosucio.

"Peace won't look any different to war here," said one indigenous community leader in his ramshackle office overlooking the river, where a group of young children were bathing in the filthy water, their laughter in stark contrast to the conversation inside. "We have been left behind before, and when the paramilitaries supposedly demobilized, nothing changed except their uniforms."

German Senna Pico was a commander with the state-linked death squads that operated along the Caribbean coast in areas not far from Riosucio's trash-strewn riverbanks. He demobilized in the 2006 deal that guaranteed former paramilitaries reduced sentences in exchange for information about the atrocities they committed. He describes those who did not demobilize as traitors to their original anti-rebel cause.

"They don't have an anti-Communist bone in their body; they are drug traffickers and nothing more," he told VICE News during an interview in his prison cell in Bogotá. "Sadly they use the tactics they learned from us against the rebels to assert their power."

These tactics include injecting fear into local communities to keep them docile.

The AGC, the offshoot of the paramilitaries, has scrawled its moniker across buildings in Riosucio. Residents usually ask for their names not to be used in print and many are too scared to even consider talking anonymously. Community leaders will only agree to meet in secret and often make plans at the last minute. It's too risky, they say, for those displaced from the recent skirmishes to be seen talking to a reporter.


"If you talk, you're a sapo," Quibea whispered, using the Spanish word for toad, which also means a rat or snitch. "They'll kill you for that," she added, insisting that only her first name be used.

The AGC's control of the town of 28,000, of which local leaders say about 24,000 are direct victims of the conflict, is aided by the vulnerability that comes from the town's extreme poverty.

Riosucio has no paved roads, no drinkable water, and no health infrastructure. Mobile phone coverage is patchy, and the town floods when the river rises, leading residents to prop makeshift bridges between houses and stores. There is no regular trash collection, so residents dump waste into the river. The stench wafts across the town when it washes up on the riverbanks.

Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels

"Nowhere in Colombia has been more affected by the conflict, and the government has abandoned us," said Ana Rosalba Mosquera. She's willing to use her name but notably avoids mentioning the paramilitaries.

Mosquera arrived in the city 15 years ago when an armed group — she says she never knew which one — attacked her home and killed her sister.

"People arrive here with nothing. They only know how to farm, and that means they can't find work," she said as she tried to fan away the sticky heat in the small drugstore she runs. "There's no good water, no hospital, no education: The state is completely absent."

The army patrol boats chugging up and down the river that runs along the eastern flank of Riosucio — the only obvious state presence in the town — also fuel rumors that the former paramilitaries–turned–drug gang members have maintained their old ties with the military.


"They ride along in the same boats. We see them every day," a teenage resident said, raising a hand to cover his mouth as he spoke and looking over his shoulder, worried someone might be listening.

"They fight against rebel groups and threaten civilians in their communities," he said of the AGC drug gang, laughing at the suggestion they could be acting without the consent of the army. "How is that not a paramilitary structure?"

The boy said he has relatives living in a nearby riverside community where he thinks the AGC may be active. When the AGC moves into a hamlet, he claimed, the army blocks passage along the river to help them.

Related: 'False Positives': How Colombia's Army Executed Civilians And Called Them Guerrillas

A UN refugee commission's officer, who asked not to be named, said that reaching the hamlets usually means passing military checkpoints, noting it "certainly makes sense" for communities to suspect that the AGC entered with the army's consent.

The UN official added that his office first noticed a major AGC expansion into Bajo Atrato, last November. He added that fighters from the ELN arrived at around the same time. The ELN, he said, had not been seen in this part of Chocó for over 30 years.

Besides living in fear of being caught in the crossfire, he said, local communities are also laboring under curfews imposed by the armed gangs, and demands for protection money.


"These communities have already been displaced five or six times [over the decades]," he said of the latest wave of people fleeing their homes when things get really bad. "These people have to live in Riosucio, but they have a relationship with their land. It's ancestral land and protected by law, and living in the city is a hard adjustment to make, so they return as soon as they can, and are then displaced again."

Photo by Joe Parkin Daniels

The peace deal that was signed on Monday, in the Caribbean colonial city of Cartagena, includes accords on issues ranging from the transformation of the FARC into a political party to expanding existing programs designed to help displaced people return home or obtain financial compensation.

Many in Riosucio are expecting a repeat of the disappointments that followed a 2011 victims law that looked good on paper but, critics say, has proved toothless.

Jesuit priest Francisco Rodriguez underlined the skepticism after accompanying community leaders from Riosucio to a meeting with government officials in the city of Apartadó, about a four-hour drive when the road isn't flooded.

"These meetings always go well," the priest said of the encounter, designed to pressure the government for more resources for Riosucio. "Then the Apartadó field office sends the papers to Bogotá, and everything gets lost."

Clutching her leg, which aches continually from circulation problems, Quibea said she yearned to go back to the land she fled back in 1997. But, she added, even if this were possible, the continuing violence would force her to leave again soon, or she would die because of lack of medical attention.

"It's a vicious cycle," she said. "[That's why] people keep arriving in Riosucio, drip by drip."

Related: How a French woman became a Colombian rebel

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan