For Juana, one survivor of a 2002 massacre perpetrated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the town of Bojayá, watching Colombian news reinforces a sense of isolation. The positive economic outlook and ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC that have lately dominated the national media feel like remote realities in the sprawling shantytowns of Quibdó in Chocó, one of Colombia's 32 municipal departments, where Juana was displaced by the massacre. In Chocó, 78 percent of the population has registered as victims of the armed conflict, and 58 percent are internally displaced. Sixty-four percent continue to live in poverty. These statistics stand as an alarming reminder that, in Chocó, both armed and structural violence are far from gone.
Since at least the 1990s, when drug trafficking reshaped political violence in Colombia, the armed conflict has been fomented by fierce competition for control of resources and the imposition of an extractive and exclusionary economic model. This is especially the case in Chocó, in which vast coca fields and cocaine trafficking corridors to the Pacific Ocean are concentrated together with plenty of natural resources for both legal and illegal mining, logging, and fishing. As a result, communities perceived as hindering the competition have been massively displaced or confined, their territories littered with antipersonnel mines and other explosive artifacts. Those who mobilize to defend human rights or claim land restitution face the threat of persecution.
Countless cases of mass displacement continue to ravage the indigenous and Afro-descended communities across Colombia’s Pacific coast. Since mid-2014, over 3,000 indigenous persons have been displaced in central Chocó. They suffer from a crisis of infectious diseases and lack potable water and basic sanitation. Although the Colombian Ombudsman Office has declared the situation a “social emergency” that demands urgent action from all of Colombia’s state agencies, humanitarian response remains absent or precarious, with scarce signs of improvement.
Besides displacing populations, armed groups impose territorial control in a less visible manner by restricting free movement, access to indispensable goods, and humanitarian assistance during emergencies. This has been the case for nearly 2,000 persons from nine indigenous communities who faced a nutritional and health crisis for several months in late 2014 after being cut off from medical attention and forced to suspend their agricultural activities. These groups had been displaced just two years before and had only recently resettled in their ancestral lands without institutional assistance, factors that only aggravated their situation.
Despite international prohibitions, armed groups continue to employ antipersonnel mines and other explosive devices to control land, leading to one of the worst landmine safety crises worldwide. According to the Colombian Campaign against Mines, Chocó is one of the provinces hardest-hit by mine-related civilian violence; last year alone, 15 people were killed by buried explosives. Demining will be an uphill battle, however. The government continues to drag its feet in order to accredit competent international organizations for the job, and information on the locations of these weapons is notoriously unreliable. Even if a peace accord with the FARC, the main perpetrator of such practices, is reached, mine-related violence will cast a long shadow.
Explosives are not the only cause for concern in Chocó, however. The province appears to be trapped between the forceful extraction of resources and institutional abandonment, with notoriously corrupt and inoperable local governments that have failed to stem the violence, respond to humanitarian crises, and generate conditions for human development. Ending the conflict with the FARC could open the door to dismantling some violent structures, reducing victimization of chronically impacted communities, and strengthening public institutions in the historically marginalized frontiers of Colombia. But significant obstacles remain. Economic incentives continue to be exploited by violent actors with ease, poverty remains entrenched, and social tensions abound.
As occurred with the demobilization of right-wing paramilitaries in 2003, an undefined proportion of guerrilla members will doubtlessly reject a final peace accord and attempt a takeover of the drug-trafficking and illegal mining industries. Even with a reduction in fighters, other illegal actors may rapidly capitalize on the power void if the Colombian state does not establish the required presence and capacity to maintain control. But conflict dynamics surpass the role of the FARC and demand an acknowledgement of the state’s failure to protect its citizens.
Part of the explanation for violence in Colombia is the limited state presence, capacity, and transparency to restrict criminal activity and its resulting, instability. This highlights the imperative need to strengthen Colombian public institutions, including vesting the armed forces with the power to secure a legitimate monopoly over the use of force and restrict criminality. But, however shameful it may be, the role the state has played in violating the rights of its citizens must not be obscured. Whether through direct abuses by its armed forces or by either directly supporting or failing to act to curtail the activities of paramilitary groups—especially when violence skyrocketed in previously serene frontiers like Chocó between the late 1980s and mid-2000s—the Colombian state is often just as guilty as the guerillas against which it has fought.
In order to regain citizens’ trust across conflict zones, the armed forces should reframe their mission from defeating an enemy to protecting civilians. They must also distinguish between functions that should be performed by the military versus by the police, prioritize the most vulnerable communities, and exhibit an exemplary respect for constitutionally protected rights. Most immediately, the Colombian government faces the inexorable task of responding to the humanitarian needs generated by both systematic violence as well as extreme and chronic poverty. For Colombia to emerge as the just and modern middle-to-upper class nation it aspires to be, it must close the breach with oft-forgotten provinces like Chocó and ensure respect for the rights and dignity of all its communities.