SAN JUAN BASIN, Colombia — Along the snaking waterways of the San Juan River, the village of Noanamá sits on a steep bluff with modest wooden houses and dirt streets giving way to a verdant expanse of jungle. The streets are empty most days, as locals tend to their crops or pan for gold at the riverside.
But the bucolic setting disguises mounting tensions in this mineral-rich region in northwestern Colombia, called Chocó. A key corridor for Colombia’s booming cocaine trade, Chocó is overrun with armed groups and drug gangs that have been fighting to fill the void created in 2016, when the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) brokered a peace deal with the government after 53 years at war, and left the bush for good.
Now, as Colombians head to the polls this weekend to decide their next president, the country’s fragile peace treaty hangs in the balance, and villagers in formerly rebel-held regions like Chocó worry they’ll be caught in the crossfire.
“We don't want to be stuck in the middle of a war again,” said Jesusita Moreno, one of Chocó’s Afro-Colombian leaders.
Chief among their concerns is the government’s simmering war with the last armed insurgency in the Americas: The National Liberation Army (ELN), an enigmatic Marxist guerrilla group that declared a revolution in the 1960s.
Inspired by the Cuban Revolution and led by radicalized Catholic priests who took up arms in the mountains of central Colombia, the ELN originally sought to establish a Marxist regime. Today, it’s best known for attacking Colombia’s oil industry. Rebels have dynamited Colombia’s second-biggest oil pipeline an average of once a week since it was built in the 1980s.
“We don't want to be stuck in the middle of a war again.”
The ELN has been in peace talks with the government for years, but it won't renounce violence until the government provides security guarantees. Such promises appear increasingly unlikely, however, especially if Colombia votes in presidential favorite Ivan Duque, a right-wing populist who’s called for the ELN’s surrender or a return to war.
Caught in the crossfire
“We are a neutral village,” Moreno told fellow villagers during a town meeting recently. “Everyone must know that, or else we’ll suffer.”
The day before, the village had teetered on the edge of combat after an ELN guerrilla had hurled a grenade at a navy patrol passing by the town. Thankfully the grenade didn’t detonate and the patrol moved on, but it was an urgent reminder of their precarious position, and Moreno wanted anyone who’d listen to know.
"The army saw. You know what that means? It means they are legally within their right to return fire if they are attacked from here,” Moreno warned her fellow villagers.
Moreno had reason not to let the incident slide. The San Juan Basin has experienced some of the country’s worst violence in recent years. Shortly after the FARC left their strongholds here a year ago, where they maintained an imperfect order in the absence of government, the ELN and other armed actors sprang to action in order to seize the valuable assets left behind, such as goldmining operations and drug trade routes.
The aftermath has been bloody: A huge conflict over territory broke out between the ELN and the Gaitanistas, an ultra-right-wing paramilitary group involved in the drug trade.
Village leaders were murdered, girls as young as 12 were raped, and 20 percent of the population were forced to flee their homes, according to an investigation from Human Rights Watch last year.
Noanamá stayed silent for the rest of the evening, save for a couple houses blasting vallenato music and the eerie appearance of a drone, hovering in the night sky.
Later, a rebel officer strode up to the edge of town, and offered a partial apology for the grenade incident. "It was not my order," he said, visibly displeased. Wearing rubber boots and a vest, the Eleno — as ELN guerrillas are known — intimated that it would not happen again.
The Eleno added that the situation was "complicated" by the recent military escalation in the region, a reality that has put everyone on edge. The army patrols the rivers in "piranhas" — small but zippy speedboats outfitted with machine guns that are manned by baby-faced soldiers. Military helicopters pulse across the region, flying low overhead.
"It was not my order."
The Eleno said the situation was likely to get worse with the recent appearance of the Mexican mafia — in particular the Sinaloa Cartel — which has been trying to muscle its way into Colombia.
"We've known about the Mexicans for a while," he said.
Yet amid the fighting, there have also been recent gestures of peace: The ELN group laid down their arms during the first round of voting last month and promised to do the same in the final round this Sunday, June 17.
But experts fear that if Colombians choose Duque, backwaters like the San Juan Basin could soon become one of the country’s major battlegrounds.
Acutely aware of the volatile dynamics at play in the country right now, the ELN leadership has remained surprisingly diplomatic, saying that whoever wins the election will find them “at the negotiating table."
But nearby villagers aren’t taking any risks. Since the government’s war with FARC "ended" two years ago, Noanamá has slowly been abandoned. Families continue to leave, and houses sit like empty shells. Recently, local kids have been using these vacant homes as their playgrounds, which for Moreno is yet another cause for concern. She fears they could get caught in the crossfire if fighting resumes.
Moreno ended the emergency town meeting with one last urgent plea. She was holding a piece of paper and waving it for all those huddled in plastic chairs to see. She said it was time to send a letter to the armed groups fighting in the region, as well as the army, to let them know that Noanamá is a neutral village. The letter stated that armed groups must stay 1 kilometer from the village, and respect the rules of combat.
"If we don't sign this,” she said, “we'll be the ones suffering."
Maximo Anderson is a reporter focused on social and environmental conflict.
Cover image: An ELN rebel poses with his AK47 in a village in Chocó, western Colombia. Ramon Campos Iriarte for VICE News.