Vacation nearly over; coming back soon Colombia’s House votes on reelection referendum
Aug 242009
One of the 8 river crossings on the road to Macayepo.

Here is another lengthy post – the second of what should be a three-part series on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” programs in the Montes de María region of northern Colombia, which we visited in July. (The first post is here.)

Written principally by CIP Associate Abigail Poe, the observations below come from meetings with human rights and victims’ leaders from San Onofre and María La Baja; community members and leaders along the “road” to Macayepo (“road” is in quotation marks because in order to arrive in Macayepo, we had to ford a river at least 8 times and drive along a dirt road filled with potholes, mudholes and other variations of disrepair); the governor of Sucre, Jorge Barraza; and the chief of the Marine Corps brigade in the region, Colonel Eduardo Cardona; in addition to informal meetings with civil-society leaders, journalists and academic experts in the area.

Throughout our travels, a few themes were consistent. First, “emerging criminal groups” are rampant in the region and it would be difficult to deny that they are remnants of the old paramilitary structure. Second, the lack of state presence outside of urban centers, along with corruption and armed-group infiltration when the state is present, are obstacles to the attainment of the Integrated Action policy’s stated goals. Third, the problem of land, which some scholars say is the backbone of Colombia’s long history of conflict, is severe, and difficult to resolve. And finally, while some displaced families want to return and others do not, this decision is largely influenced by the lack of basic services and security in their communities of origin.

Emerging criminal groups and security in the region

As mentioned in our earlier post about Montes de María, this region of Colombia is adjacent to Córdoba and northern Antioquia, a cattle-raising zone often referred to as the “birthplace of the paramilitaries.” This small region includes the sites of some of the country’s most notorious and brutal massacres of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

While the AUC began a demobilization process in 2003, remnants still remain and are emerging as new criminal groups, with names like the Paisas, Águilas Negras, Rastrojos and Grupo de Don Mario. By most accounts, their numbers and activities are growing as they compete for dominion of the region’s lucrative drug-trafficking routes.

Fighting between them has brought a spike in homicides after several years of sharp declines. National Police statistics showed 106 homicides in the department of Sucre in the first six months of 2009, more than double the 49 recorded during the same period in 2008.

Colombian Marines talk to a young woman at a local “tienda” outside our meeting in Macayepo.

In San Onofre, a coastal municipality in northern Sucre, we met with victims’ leaders and other displaced members of the communities where some of the region’s major paramilitary massacres took place, including Mampuján and El Salado. After the massacres many of the displaced fled to urban centers – including the county seats of San Onofre and María la Baja, as well as Sincelejo and Cartagena – where the majority remain today.

While the Colombian national and local governments contend that recent paramilitary violence in the area is merely a phenomenon of gangs fighting gangs, those in San Onofre tell a very different story.

Following the demobilization of the AUC, the region calmed down and violence levels subsided. In the past year, however, violence and threats against community members have skyrocketed. The spike in violence is being at least partly attributed to the extradition of top paramilitary leaders to the United States in May 2008, leaving the lower levels of the groups to fight for power and control of important narcotrafficking routes and valuable land.

In San Onofre, we were told that 15 people have been murdered so far in 2009 in the municipality; the body of one victim who disappeared four months prior had been found the week before our visit in a roadside grave. And while violence has not returned to the peak levels of the early 2000s, some victims described their situation as worse, because with so many groups and armed actors “you don’t know who is doing the killing. So we can’t speak out.”

Community members from María La Baja, just over the border in Bolívar department, told us they do not receive as many threats as their counterparts in San Onofre. However, many people are still being killed in their town. “It is normal to wake up and hear that a young man was found dead,” one victims’ leader told us.

These leaders receive threats via telephone, cell phone and even email. Many cannot leave their homes or are hiding in the mountains, and others cannot speak out due to fear of being killed by one of the “emerging criminal groups.” Threats against women’s groups have also increased; one leader was recently murdered in front of her five year old daughter.

While government officials, such as the governor of Sucre, say that “only criminals are being killed” right now, the victims with whom we spoke in San Onofre told us that “those who are killed are not only the bad ones, some are being killed for telling the truth.”

The “new” criminal groups have dramatically increased their recruitment. According to one displaced person in San Onofre, “many of the demobilized paramilitaries returned to their ranks. Of the young men from our neighborhood, we estimate that around 20 have gone with them.” In San Onofre, members of these armed groups will sit in the park and offer 1,000,000 pesos (about US$400) to join their group. It is tempting for these young men and women to join the emerging groups – especially those who are displaced, unemployed and living in extreme poverty. If accepted, the new “member” is given a motorcycle, a gun, a salary, and a sense of purpose.

Lack of legal employment opportunities play a role in the success rate of recruitment, a problem to which the governor of Sucre alluded. He told us, “All of the dead and arrested are displaced persons. The problem is that the government doesn’t give them an employment option, or an alternative. Therefore the displaced are using weapons as a machine of their work. The governor suggested few solutions, however, and he said he has heard no complaints about social leaders or victims’ organizations receiving threats.

Lack of state presence and basic services

For a region near major cities that has been settled for centuries, the communities of Montes de María have a striking lack of government presence. This is a factor of a lack of political will and insufficient resources, themselves often a result of local corruption. We heard indications of a general mistrust in local institutions, complaints about public access to health care and education, a lack of basic services such as potable water, electricity, tertiary roads and sewage outside of urban centers, and a police force that is unable to respond to crimes promptly, or at all.

Remnants of the only contact some campesinos have with local political leaders: campaign ads painted on their homes.

Many of the victims and displaced people we spoke to, especially in San Onofre, did not trust the local government, largely due to its recent history of working closely with paramilitaries. “We do not have the trust necessary to denounce the violence or threats made against us, therefore all of our complaints must be made at the national level in Bogotá,” we were told by one victim. “Paramilitarism is so much a part of the structure here that it is difficult to win, or even to speak out.”

The low level of confidence in the local government is also manifested through a weak police force. We were told that “the police are not carrying out their duties” by both community members and military authorities. The first group attributes this mainly to corruption of the police force via collaboration with narcotraffickers and emerging criminal groups, while the latter attributed it to a lack of resources, telling us that many police squads must patrol without police cars and must even hail taxis to take them to a crime scene. The governor of Sucre also said that while the national government recently dispatched 700 additional officers to the region, they still are unable to reach the rural areas, “where the majority of the violence is now occurring.”

As a result, the police often resort to calling the military to help them respond to crimes and violence. As Colonel Cardona explained the military’s role to us, it became clear that the military – with little guerrilla presence to confront in the region – is playing an ever-increasing police role. Marines are manning control points, gathering intelligence and soliciting arrest warrants. Colonel Cardona appeared frustrated that the military could not carry out arrests. “We were told that the problem of the [emerging] criminal groups is of the police, and that we can only intervene when their capacity is surpassed, but since the beginning the police have been overwhelmed.”

Weak (or non-existent) health and education

In San Onofre we heard complaints about the underfunded and understaffed condition of the public hospital in Sincelejo. We were told that the hospital only has five doctors, when at least 12 are needed, and that it does not even have an ambulance. According to one community member, “This is not due to a lack of resources, but to political corruption.” The community member continued, explaining that seventy percent of the hospital budget is to be allocated to the public facility and 30% to private clinics (GPS). However, those assembled alleged, the mayor’s brother runs the GPS in Sincelejo, and therefore it receives 70% of the budget, while the public hospital barely can afford to pay its staff – a strategy which some claimed is intended to shut down the public hospital in Sincelejo.

In the rural communities we visited, access to health is virtually non-existent. A complete lack of health clinics, doctors, and nurses in these rural areas results in the need to travel to Sincelejo – several hours without a private vehicle – when someone is injured or falls ill. The poor quality of the roads leading to these towns often means that a simple injury or sickness is a death sentence.

While there are some schools in some of the rural communities, their lack of resources results in a poor quality of education. The school in Macayepo does not even have a roof, according to one community member.

Lack of basic services

The lack of services means no potable water, sewage system or electricity in many of the rural communities, especially those above Macayepo in the mountains, where the “road” does not reach.

Delivery of basic services in these rural areas is the responsibility of the local government, which receives some funds for this purpose from the central government. These funds, themselves insufficient, frequently fail to reach their destination. As we were returning to Sincelejo after a day of meetings with rural communities, we made one final stop in Chinulito, a community that sits along the main coastal highway. Community members, along with the sergeant heading the local police detachment, told us of several unanswered petitions to the local government for basic services to reach this community.

They told us that resources for the community’s rebuilding had been stolen by local officials. They allege that the previous mayor of the municipality of which Chinulito is a part (Colosó), now in prison for ties to paramilitaries, stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of central government funds intended for the town. As a result, Chinulito remains without a decent school, health post or potable water. Chinulito is so close to the highway that these services would be easy to provide, yet the community appears just as neglected as those that sit two hours away up a dirt road.

The role of the Colombian armed forces

Behind the soccer goal is the Chinulito-El Carmen road that is being constructed by the Colombian Marines.

Perhaps due to the lack of state presence and civilian government political will in Montes de María, the Colombian armed forces are not just acting to secure the area, but they are also serving as the main “developers.” The military is working with some communities to create a “census” of their most immediate needs. They then take this list to other government ministries and petition for health, education, roads and other services. (This process is a bit more formal – though incipient – in the four municipalities where the CCAI is operating. More on that in the next post.)

Currently, as part of the “Integrated Action” effort, the marine corps (Infantería de Marina) is building the first east-west paved road in Montes de María, which will connect El Carmen to Chinulito. The route, which exists as a dirt road in severe disrepair, will be paved and have multiple bridges over the winding Macayepo River.

Colonel Cardona was quite pleased with this project, indicating that the military hopes to take part in more development projects in the future. When asked why the military should play such an important role in development, he responded that using soldiers for labor is cheaper: the Montes de María highway, he said, is being built for “40 percent less money” than civilian projects contracted out by the country’s road institute. As a result, he continued, “the goal of the military is to eventually carry out projects such as helping to build roads, instead of being in this conflict. Each brigade wants to add a battalion of engineers to carry out constructions such as these.”

In the region, however, we heard complaints that the El Carmen-Chinulito road-building project is being carried out inefficiently, with antiquated equipment and inexperienced military engineers.

The problem of land

The lack of state presence and political will is a major obstacle in achieving a principal stated goal for CCAI in the region: the return of displaced communities. We visited rural communities whose residents said they have not been visited by a state official in years – other than during election season, when someone shows up to paint a campaign slogan on some houses in the community. While the governor of Sucre told us that he did not have the resources to carry out projects for rural dwellers, officials at the CCAI in Bogotá suggested that he did.

Another obstacle for CCAI in Montes de María will be to change the attitudes of local political leaders. According to one staffer at the “Fusion Center” in Cartagena, “The major challenge is to sit down with the political class. The problem is not how to build the road for the community, it is how to change the attitude of the people.” This may be the greatest challenge, as it requires taking on not only the issue of corruption, but also the perhaps even thornier issue of land tenure.

The problem of land distribution in Colombia is not a recent one, nor is it simple. Many scholars cite it as one of the major factors behind the continuation of the conflict. Yet a chief goal of CCAI in Montes de María – the return of displaced communities to their land – will require officials to take on the land problem energetically. What we saw and heard in the region, however, indicates that this will be a monumental task.

CCAI, supported by the Colombian Armed Forces, is conducting a campaign to convince campesinos not to sell their land. However, this does nothing to address the conditions leading them to sell in the first place. When asked who is selling their land, Father Rafael Castillo, of the Montes de María Peace and Development Foundation, listed off characteristics: “campesinos in debt, campesinos without access to credit, campesinos who do not want to return, relatives of those campesinos who have lost their love of the land, and threatened campesinos.”

The situation is worsened by the quality of land in Montes de María (some of the most fertile in Colombia), its proximity to major cities, or a widespread belief that the region has potential for oil and mineral production. Large landowners, investors in “mega-projects” and foreign corporations are making very rapid land purchases in the newly guerrilla-free zone.

Many campesinos are selling their land as a result of the large debts they owe to INCODER, the state land-reform agency – a problem explained in the first post of this series. Large landowners and investors in mega-projects, such as African palm, bitter yucca (which produces starch and can be used for biofuels) and teak, are taking advantage of this situation and offering a price that will cover the farmer’s debt plus a little extra – an offer that, though below current market prices, many campesinos cannot refuse.

We were also told that when a small farmer refuses to sell his land, he risks eventually being forced off by a strategy known as “circling them out.” Basically, an investor buys up all the land around the farmer who does not want to leave, and cuts off his access to roads and services, leaving him no way to leave his land without “trespassing.” Another strategy described to us involves the large landowner allowing his animals to “accidentally” eat the small farmers’ crops.

Other campesinos are being “convinced” to join cooperatives to grow crops such as African palm and bitter yucca. The agreements bind the campesino to growing crops for biofuels on their land for twenty years, a period of time after which the once-fertile soil is depleated. Many community members we met in San Onofre expressed skepticism about these monocultural cooperatives, which they say worsens the problem of food security in the region.

In parts of El Carmen de Bolívar, where rumors are spreading that a large mining project is in the works, land is being bought up so quickly that the local government has had to place an embargo on more land sales.

However, even though the “land grab” taking place in Montes de María appears often to be illegal, due to the intricate problems of land titling, it is being carried out in a way that, by the standards of INCODER and the Ministry of Agriculture, appears to meet all procedural requirements for legality. “This theft of land is being legalized,” a Cartagena-based government official with land responsibilities explained to us.

However, when we asked local community leaders who was buying the land, we received responses ranging from “paisas” (large landholders from Antioquia department) to investors from a group calling itself the “Friends of Montes de María Foundation” to “we don’t know.”

Food security

The “transportation center” in Macayepo, where small farmers can rent burros to travel up the mountain to their plots of land.

Interviewees often alluded to the problem of food security, which promises to worsen as more and more land is bought up for large plantations of biofuel crops. As one leader put it, “the campesino land plot has a very important function: food security.” And that function is weakening.

Rural community members noted that the lack of transportation infrastructure makes it nearly impossible to get crops to market. In order to transport their products, small farmers must first make a long trip by burro to reach their land. They must use the same burro to haul the harvest down the mountain, either all the way to the highway or to a town along a rutted dirt road, like Macayepo, where groups of farmers will chip in to pay for a truck to carry their harvest the remaining distance. This is a lengthy and expensive strategy that leaves very little profit for the small farmers. The road being built through many of these communities will eventually help make this process more efficient, although most of Montes de María’s farmers cultivate land very far from this new road.

Return

CCAI plans to support the return of displaced populations to their original communities in Montes de María. However, many obstacles remain in the way, some described above. We asked what people thought about the viability of return, and asked those who had returned about the problems they were facing. Some told us they did not want to return, others wanted to yet did not have the resources to make the move, while those who had already returned were struggling with virtually no state involvement or assistance.

It was common for government officials to tell us that people did not want to return. Yet from our conversations, it seems that some of those who say they do not want to return now, would do so if the local government provided the basic services necessary for their return to be viable. In San Onofre, these demands included security, roads, rebuilt houses, and basic services, which were referred to as “the basic conditions of dignity.” Because these conditions were not present, many of those we spoke to in San Onofre said they would not return.

Evidence of new life emerges alongside abandoned homes as some of the displaced begin to return.

Another element that must exist in order for displaced persons to return is education. In many cases, males are returning to farm their land, leaving their families behind in towns and cities so that their children can go to school – an opportunity that does not exist in rural communities.

We were also told that many displaced persons fear returning, especially through a program run by the local government or military, since they saw few guarantees that they would not be displaced again by violence. This fear resonated in many of the meetings we held. People were wary of working with the state without a guarantee that the program would continue for more than two years, for fear of retaliation from illegal armed groups once the state – in their view, inevitably – disappears.

The rural communities we visited were scarcely populated by displaced persons who had returned on their own initiative – perhaps 20 to 25 percent of the original pre-2000 population. These community members felt empowered to do things on their own, and noted that “we couldn’t sit back and wait for someone from Bogotá to come help us.”

Not only have they returned to cultivate their land and continue with their lives, but they have initiated efforts to educate about democracy and human rights, and to work to keep the youth from being enticed by violence. However, the basic disrepair of their houses and the lack of basic services indicated the need for a great deal more assistance from the local government. They cannot do this alone, in a vacuum.

Conclusion

A main goal of CCAI in Montes de María, as presented to us at the Cartagena Fusion Center, is the return of displaced people and victims to their communities and the creation of a political pact between the community and the local government. However, we learned that some huge hurdles stand in the way of actually achieving this goal. Emerging criminal groups threaten human rights and victims’ leaders, land is an incredibly sticky subject, and true buy-in and support from the local government are far from guaranteed.

We were struck by how differently the government and military talked about the Montes de María, compared to the descriptions offered by those who live there. Government and military officials said the zone was secure and that there were almost no reports of murders of victims’ leaders, or even threats. They told us that people were not returning because they are content with their lives in the urban centers, and that those who are getting killed or threatened are the “bad guys.” It is true that many displaced campesinos do not want to return to their communities because, after eight or nine years, they are now used to living in cities and towns. However, if access to health, education, and a sustainable livelihood existed in their original communities, we were assured that far more of the pre-2000 population of Montes de María would gladly return to their land.

One Response to “Montes de María (2): What we saw and heard”

  1. Buck Richards Says:

    I was a PCV in Atlantico and Huila 40 odd years ago (Col 44) and since 1981 have been working as an agricultural consultant from Tajikistan to Bolivia (and lots of places in between) but never returned as a professional agronomist to Colombia. I would like to know more about current ag production practices/farming systems in the Montes de Maria region. On very short notice (yesterday!) I might be participating in a study there for a proposal starting next week. Was there an agronomist in your group and if so, would he or she be willing to share his/her observations?
    Thanks, Buck Richards

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