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In October 2011 the U.S. Congress passed the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and six months later, at the 2012 Summit of the Americas, both countries lauded their strong economic and security partnership. The Agreement has been a boon for multinationals and the economic elite. At the same time, the security situation has improved for the middle and upper classes, and the state has taken the positive step of entering peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). So there is much to celebrate in Colombia.
But the changes are not benefitting everyone. Among those left behind are Afro-Colombians who reside in the areas strategic to the new free-trade economy, where violence continues to rage.
Colombia’s most important port is situated in Buenaventura, on the Pacific Coast. Despite increasing commerce, this majority Afro-Colombian region struggles with elevated unemployment and some of the country’s worst socioeconomic indicators. Many Afro-Colombians displaced by decades of conflict live here, cheek by jowl with paramilitaries and drug traffickers. The port that serves the legitimate economy is also a hub in the narcotics trade, and illegal armed groups vie for dominance.
In October 2012 alone, dozens of shootouts between those groups killed at least 30 people and displaced hundreds more. Afro-Colombian women who refuse to have sex with these violent men have been brutally targeted. Some women are perceived as friendlier to one side or the other, or they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time, with terrifying consequences. It has become common practice for armed men to torture and butcher women by tearing their limbs off their bodies, beheading them, and then displaying their bodies publicly. In early February 2013, Bishop Héctor Epalza called for national attention to the humanitarian crisis there and announced that Colombian authorities were launching a commission to investigate the recent finding of 23 dismembered bodies in an unmarked grave.
The authorities, however, have not done much to stem the violence. In the port city of Tumaco, the Catholic Church reports that Afro-Colombians suffer from abuses committed by FARC and National Liberation Army guerillas, paramilitary groups, and state armed forces. FARC guerillas regularly detonate explosives in populated areas, killing or wounding civilians; military combat operations result in civilian deaths, displacement, and exposure to land mines; and paramilitary groups subject civilians to torture, murder, death threats, and extortion. The situation has markedly deteriorated in recent months, especially for those most vocal about stopping the violence.
On November 13, 2012, paramilitary groups issued a death threat against leaders of all the prominent Afro-Colombian groups. Calls by advocacy groups to protect them were dismissed by the Colombian government. Then on December 1, Miller Angulo of Tumaco, a prominent Afro-Colombian leader affiliated with the human rights organization AFRODES, was murdered. Angered that their calls for protection had fallen on deaf ears, 30 other leaders protested at an appearance by Vice President Angelino Garzón. One lay down at the event to symbolize the dead.
U.S. human rights groups launched a campaign to obtain protection for threatened Afro-Colombian leaders, and AFRODES’s U.S. arm initiated a Change.org petition to encourage the U.S. ambassador in Bogota to act. But nothing has changed since the request for protection was made in July 2012. In January of this year, AFRODES founder Marino Córdoba was attacked by unknown assailants.
Afro-Colombian leaders are not the only vulnerable group. On February 13, Father Alberto Franco—a founding member of the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, an organization that supports Afro-Colombian communities in their land-rights struggles—was waiting for his government-provided armored car to take him to a meeting in Bogota when someone shot three bullets into the passenger side of the windshield. Justice and Peace staff have suffered a string of violent assaults in recent months. The organization has also been subjected to an elaborate defamation campaign that attempts to link its staff with FARC guerillas, making them targets for the paramilitaries and armed forces.
It is not clear if the deepening business ties between Colombia and the United States are themselves contributing to the violence. But the growing number of shipping containers routed through Buenaventura as a result of the U.S.-Colombia FTA could provide additional opportunities for narcotics trafficking, leading to escalation in the drug war. What is clear is that authorities don’t take seriously the security of African descendants living in areas essential to the country’s prosperity and stability.
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