The Gulf of Urabá is one of Colombia’s most beautiful and violent regions. The jungles of Darién y Baudó, crossed by the Atrato River, are some of the last remnants of tropical rainforest by the sea and home to indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities of incalculable cultural wealth.
However, because of its strategic location – a shared border with Panama and a coastline along the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean – illegal armed groups have been fighting for dominance in the region since the 1970s.
Its inhabitants have faced massacres, kidnappings, theft and the monopolization of land, forced recruitment of minors, killings and forced displacement. In response, local communities have organized and are trying to live in peace.
In this three-part series about the Gulf of Urabá, Infosurhoy.com shows the wealth of the region, examples of community work amidst the conflict and one of the emblematic cases of land restitution in Colombia that could pave the way for reparation for victims elsewhere in the country.
APARTADÓ, Colombia – The conflict has left deep wounds in the popular Obrero neighborhood in Apartadó, a city of 160,000 residents between the Gulf of Urabá and the Darien Jungle in northwestern Colombia.
Due to its strategic location and natural wealth, illegal armed groups have been fighting for dominance in the region since the 1970s, introducing all types of legal and illegal businesses, such as narco-trafficking as well as arms trafficking.
Settlement began in the neighborhood, which is surrounded by enormous banana and plantain plantations, after the influx of workers from the La Chinita banana company. It has grown throughout the years, with the arrival of settlers and those displaced by violence in the region and in other parts of Colombia.
The violence spilled over on Jan. 23, 1994, when Rufina Gutiérrez threw a party to raise money for school supplies for her five children.
Some of the attendees were recently demobilized fighters from the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), which, after the peace agreement, changed its name to Esperanza, Paz y Libertad (Hope, Peace and Liberty). In the early morning hours, several members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) arrived at the party and massacred 35 people.
In less than three years following the La Chinita massacre, there were 18 more regionwide, resulting in the murder of at least 300 people associated with the Esperanza, Paz y Libertad political movement, and another 300 from Unión Patriótica, a political group made up of FARC dissidents, according to Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory.
This wave of violence led to the formation of the Comandos Populares, which later gave rise to the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá, one of Colombia’s first paramilitary groups.
The armed conflict hasn’t stopped.
The neighborhood of Obrero, which now has 37,000 residents, has supplied the ranks of the illegal armed groups, particularly the emerging criminal groups (BACRIM), who recruit men, young adults and even children with promises of money, which is so scarce in the neighborhood.
Amidst the poverty and violence, the community, which is often led by women, began to organize. Through a variety of actions, efforts are being made to rebuild lives and show that “dreams can do more than memories,” in accordance with the slogan for the observance of the 20th anniversary of the massacre.
Sara Moreno, 38, is the first woman to serve as president of the Community Action Committee (JAC) in the neighborhood where she grew up.
In the late afternoon, a breeze sweeps away the heat and the streets echo with the sound of people: Children coming in and out of schools; women preparing hojadraldas – made of fried flour and cheese – or selling exotic fruit juices; exhausted men coming back from the banana plantations; and young people getting together for an urban dance class.
Moreno walks to the headquarters of the JAC on the platform built by the community along Avenida 103 through months of volunteer work, using materials from the municipal government. Many people came together on Sundays and worked all day for the common good.
There are several fruit and vegetable gardens alongside the avenue that are weeded and watered by women. Some of the gardens have irrigation systems made of recycled materials and feature examples of vertical farming, a technique for growing plants in small spaces without soil.
Some young people chat beneath the shade of a tree. Moreno says hello to them and reminds them that they need to fill out their forms for the soccer tournament, which began on May 1.
“You can count on it, ma’am. We’re going to play,” they say.
In 2012, 111 people were killed in Apartadó, many of them young people from the neighborhood of Obrero, according to statistics from the Crime Observatory.
Under the project “Buena vibra, jóvenes en paz” (Good vibes, young people at peace), the JAC organized a tournament to engage young people and harness the influence of soccer in their lives. At least four players from the Gulf of Urabá will play for Colombia in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil: Aquivaldo Mosquera, Amaranto Perea, Camilo Zúñiga and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado.
During the delivery of uniforms or the technical meeting for the tournament, the participants will be given a talk about peaceful coexistence, and the names of their teams will correspond with specific values, including honor, respect, solidarity and peace.
In the matches, groups of young people – including some who have been involved in violent clashes – will face off, this time in the light of day, using a ball instead of weapons. In 2013, the first year of the tournament, more than 200 young people participated in the exciting and peaceful tournament. This year’s edition will bring together 500 young people.
“An entire generation grew up watching the armed conflict in the streets, and some learned that problems are settled with violence,” Moreno said. “That’s the big problem that we have, and the change we are seeking to promote.”
In December 2013, before the holidays and after a string of violent incidents prompted by youth gangs, the JAC took the risk of bringing together more than 200 young people from the neighborhood. They were invited to make peace and signed a nonaggression pact for the holidays, which was fully observed.
Outside JAC headquarters, several men prepare cement blocks using a recently acquired machine. Families buy the materials and make their own blocks, saving money when building their homes or making improvements.
The nursery school has been expanded. The 13 women who volunteer at the nursery from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. take care of 100 children between the ages of 2 and 4, most raised by single mothers.
“We want to create a healthy environment for the children to prevent what’s happening to our young people from happening to them,” Moreno, the mother of two children, said.
Additionally, the JAC is carrying out the construction of a sewage system for a part of the neighborhood, as well as a community space, with funding provided by the Inter-American Development Bank.
María Olave spends afternoons at JAC headquarters mediating conciliation sessions, where individuals or groups in conflict convene, their positions are heard and a peaceful solution is sought.
At the San Pedro Claver School, teacher Luz Marina Gracia meets with Despertando Conciencia magazine’s editorial committee, which is made up of young people. The May issue featured an interview that one of the reporters conducted with a young gang member.
“We don’t have a home,” he said when the students asked him about the causes of the problem.
“It would be a lie to say there are no young people in the armed groups, but at least they’ll know what the issue is all about when (the recruiters) come to the neighborhood and start offering them things,” said Aleyda López, who promotes the “Mambrú no va a la Guerra” (Mambrú won’t go to war) project, which works to prevent the recruitment of minors.