Protests over the non-indictment of the New York City cop who put Eric Garner in a lethal chokehold this summer have reached Colombia, which has a storied history of discrimination against its Afro-descendant populations.
Volunteers opposed to sexual violence in Buenaventura, a heavily black—and destitute—Colombian city. Photo via Flickr user UNHCR/ACNUR Américas
When Javier Ortiz accepted the award for Afro-Colombian journalist of the year earlier this month, he didn't mention Buenaventura, or Tumaco, or Chocó, or any of the other places where Afro-Colombians survive amid squalid and often desperate conditions. In fact, he didn't even mention Colombia.
Instead, Ortiz recited the now-famous last words of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black American who was killed some 2,000 miles away from Ortiz and his home in Cartagena de las Indias.
"To write, to question, to exalt, to investigate, to denounce, in the name of those who stop breathing, or those who are asphyxiating, should be the most solemn labor of journalism," the University of Cartagena historian said.
Garner's strangulation by a New York City police officer has been covered extensively in the international press, as have the ensuing nationwide protests. But in Colombia, which boasts the second-largest Afro-descendant population in Latin America behind only Brazil, the emotional resonance has taken on a more immediate note.
"It fills you with despair," Ortiz told VICE. "You would hope that a nation that's developed with respect to civil rights wouldn't maintain these kinds of racist expressions, expressions of exclusion, of marginalization." If black people can still be killed with impunity in the United States, he asks, what does that mean for the prospect of racial equality in a country with as much institutionalized injustice as Colombia?
Afro-Colombians, Ortiz points out, are covered by "perhaps the most progressive legislation" in the region. The 1991 Constitution declares Colombia an inherently "multicultural" and "multi-ethnic" society and recognizes Afro rights to territorial autonomy and designated political representation, among other forms of affirmative action. (Indigenous peoples, many of whom coinhabit rural areas alongside Afro populations, are afforded similar, and more extensive, privileges.)
Reality, however, bears little in common with the encouraging legal framework. While no equivalent to segregation has ever been codified, the central government in Bogota has historically neglected Afro regions along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The resulting state of abandon has inspired a mass migration to the major urban areas, where Afro-Colombians face labor discrimination, acute poverty, the cycles of gang recruitment and violence familiar to inner cities in the United States, and other, more naked manifestations of racism. In what has become something of an absurdist parable for the chronic under-representation of Afro-Colombians in public office and government, the two seats in Congress set aside for Afro candidates are currently occupied by non-black mestizos.
"If you look at an ethnic map of Colombia, and a map of poverty, they coincide," Edwin Salcedo, an Afro-Colombian activist and member of the opposition Green Party's Executive Committee, told VICE. "There's an obvious dynamic of systematic exclusion from the economic system."
The legal underpinnings have not been as explicit as in the United States, but the racial exclusion Salcedo refers to has been no less active a process. Starting in the 19th Century, writes historian Forrest Hylton in Evil Hour in Colombia, "sectors of the peasantry identified with whiteness and capitalist progress secured property rights and political incorporation." With no real protection from the state, Afro and indigenous populations were subject to the paramilitary terror of the landed post-colonial elite. In this way, "the unresolved legacies of conquest, colonization, and slavery" have been perpetuated into the present day.
Unlike in the United States, where slave patrols, lynch mobs, and other forms of racialized, extrajudicial violence eventually gave way—with some notable exceptions—to public police forces, paramilitarism was largely legal until 1997. Within the context of the country's 50-year armed conflict, right-wing death squads evolved as a quasi-officialbranch of state counterinsurgency, but also as a tool of private economic expansion.
As Gimena Sanchez, the senior Andes expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) explains, the "large-scale forced displacement of farmers" by paramilitaries has been a "deliberate strategy to depopulate areas" and "facilitate the implementation" of economic projects. Colombia's disproportionately Afro and indigenous 5.7 million internally displaced persons—the second-largest such population in the world, surpassed recently by Syria—are victims of land theft as much as political violence.
"It's not an accident that [...] before the construction of large economic complexes, there's a moment of deterioration in the violence," says Javier Ortiz, the historian.
The most striking contemporary example is Buenaventura. The much-maligned Pacific port city has drawn widespread attention following the discovery of its "chop houses," abandoned homes where warring neo-paramilitary drug interests dismember their victims with chainsaws and machetes. But Buenaventura did not plunge into crisis overnight. Eighty-four percent of the city's 370,000 residents are Afro-descendent and 80 percent live in poverty. Unemployment tops 40 percent. Urban forced displacement is the highest in the country, and many of those living in the city's sprawling, blood-soaked slums were already displacement victims from the war-torn Pacific countryside.
The government has touted recent investments in Buenaventura and the region, but critics insist that international commerce has been prioritized over the needs of local populations. Buenaventura is now the largest port in Colombia in terms of volume, and with the government's neoliberal free trade agenda turning to the Pacific and southeast Asia, it promises to take on an even more prominent role in the future.
Colombia, as a whole, is "interested in this space insofar as it's a fundamental element to move the macroeconomy," explains Ortiz, but that hasn't translated into "political representation or an improvement of the conditions."
In recent days, photos have surfaced on Twitter under the #blacklivesmatter hashtag and depicting Buenaventuran residents, hands raised in the air, holding signs reading "Buenaventura=Ferguson=NYC." It was a poignant gesture of support, but also an indictment of the common threads of black American and Afro-Colombian suffering.
After all, the United States has a long and sordid history of fomenting terrorism in Colombia. The CIA and School of the Americas have trained the Colombian military in the use of torture and paramilitary counterinsurgency tactics. And US multinationals including Drummond coal, Coca Cola, Dole fruit, and Chiquita banana have all been accused of financing right-wing death squads in the heavily Afro Uraba region. (All the companies named have repeatedly denied allegations of institutional wrongdoing, with Coca Cola telling VICE the claims "are simply not true." Chiquita is the only one to later admit to having paid what it paints as "extortion" fees to paramilitary groups. In 2007, the company settled with the Justice Department for $15 million less than it made selling its then-most profitable operation. No reparations have been paid to victims.)
All of which pales in comparison to the damage wrought by the War on Drugs. International prohibition, explains Edwin Salcedo, the political and community leader, has turned the entire Afro-indigenous Pacific region into "a corridor not only for the production and distribution of coca [the plant processed into cocaine] but for the production and distribution of war."
In the south, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia's largest and longest-standing leftist insurgency, manages production, extorting, coercing, and brutalizing small farmers, repressing dissent, and lining coca fields with land mines. The rebels then sell coca "paste," the precursor to crystal cocaine, to their nominal enemies, the neo-paramilitaries, who transport it up to the strategic port of Buenaventura, for shipment north to Central America or west to the growing southeast Asian markets. In the Afro-founded northern Choco department, consistently the most impoverished in the country, the fighting over land-based smuggling routes and the increasingly profitable illegal gold mining industry has displaced tens of thousands and inflicted gruesome collateral damage, like the infamous 2002 FARC church bombing in Bojaya that killed 113 people.
The military, even when it hasn't acted in direct collusion with paramilitaries, has often been just as harmful to Afro and indigenous populations as the groups from which it is supposed to be protecting them.
"For some reason, in the logic of war," says Ortiz, it's always "easier to violate and kill black people."
From afar, the United States has quite literally dumped poison on this already perverse drug-fueled dynamic. A former USAID official, Salcedo administered a multi-million annual aid package designated for Afro development initiatives and secured by the US Congressional Black Caucus. But the overwhelming majority of the over $8 billion that has flowed to Colombia since the start of Plan Colombia in 2000 has come in the form of military and anti-drug assistance, the centerpiece of which is aerial coca fumigation.
Fumigation is the intellectual and moral doppelganger of "urban" anti-drug fervor. Under the doomed pretense of eradicating coca production, it has seen seen thousands of gallons of weaponized Monsanto herbicide dumped indiscriminately over the Colombian countryside, where it has contaminated Amazon waterways, endangered vast swaths of jungle, destroyed legitimate as well as illicit crops, adversely affected the health of Afro, indigenous, and peasant populations, and done nothing to alter the price or availability of cocaine in the United States. At both ends of the "supply and demand chain," as Ortiz puts it, the War on Drugs is predicated on "attacking those who are weakest"—and, often, those who are black.
In spite of this toxic admixture of abuse and disregard, Afro-Colombians today continue in a centuries-old tradition of resistance that traces back to the palenques—runaway slave refuges, similar to Brazilian quilombos, that became the first truly free African communities in the Americas. Earlier this year, a general strike in the southwestern Pacific drew commitments from the national government to address problems such as corruption and under-investment. Earlier this month, a 24-day march from the northern Pacific succeeded in opening dialogue between the government and groups of Afro-Colombian women, who face elevated levels of already rampant sexual conflict violence. In Cartagena, organizations like Corporacion Colectivo Calleshortbus stand at the intersection of racial and LGBT equality movements.
Other examples abound, and at the Afro-Colombian of the Year award ceremony, Javier Ortiz used the metaphor of Eric Garner to call on his peers to breathe life into those fights for social justice. He told VICE he feels strengthened by the outpouring of support around #Blacklivesmatter in the United States and encouraged by any demonstrations of international solidarity with Afro-Colombian struggle. But ultimately, he wishes that kind of understanding and commitment to action could be built on something other than black bodies.
"It seems like solidarity only comes to us after horror. To exist, you have to have suffered."
Steven Cohen is a freelance journalist based out of Colombia and former editor of Colombia Reports.