Families Displaced as Groups Dispute Control of River
(Washington, DC) – Two armed groups competing for control over stretches of Colombia’s San Juan river are committing serious abuses against Afro-Colombian and indigenous Wounaan riverside communities, Human Rights Watch said today. The National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and the paramilitary successor group Gaitanist Self-defenses of Colombia (AGC) have been engaged in conflict with one another in the Chocó province for years.
Human Rights Watch has documented evidence of responsibility by both groups for a range of abuses against scores of victims in the Litoral de San Juan municipality and in rural areas of the Buenaventura district. The abuses include killings, child recruitment, planting landmines, and threats, and have resulted in the displacement of thousands of people in recent years. Armed groups have also limited families’ ability to work on the river and in the neighboring hills. Human Rights Watch research suggests that such abuses in Litoral de San Juan are illustrative of abuses in other municipalities in the province. The Colombian government is obliged to provide adequate shelter to those who flee, but its efforts to do so have fallen short.
“As they dispute control over the San Juan river, these two armed groups have displaced hundreds of families and forced many others to confine themselves to their immediate villages,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless the authorities protect them, the promise of peace in Colombia will continue to be only an abstract idea for these vulnerable communities in Chocó.”
The official estimate of almost 3,000 people displaced in 2016 from Litoral de San Juan, with a population of 15,000, makes it the municipality with the second highest number of displaced people after the big port city of Buenaventura, which has for years had high rates of forced displacement. In the first two months of 2017, over 1,300 people were forced to leave their homes in Litoral de San Juan, according to Colombia’s ombudsman’s office.
Even as the ELN, a leftist armed group, conducts peace talks with the Colombian government in Quito, Ecuador, its fighters are injuring and abusing community members. Abuses have occurred both during fighting against the government and the AGC and through the group’s efforts to impose social control on riverside communities. The peace talks started in February, after two years of exploratory negotiations. The parties are discussing an agenda item called “humanitarian actions and dynamics” which, according to an agreement reached in April, is meant to protect civilians from the armed conflict in conformity with international humanitarian law (the laws of the war).
“The negotiating parties in Quito should address the abuses inflicted on people in Chocó as part of their discussions,” Vivanco said. “If the ELN is serious about peace, it should at least respect the most basic laws of war.”
The AGC, which emerged after a flawed paramilitary demobilization more than a decade ago, has also been implicated in many abuses. On April 16, two boat drivers were abducted from the Afro-Colombian community of Pichimá Playa and killed. Local officials who had looked into the case told Human Rights Watch that they believe that the AGC were responsible. In August 2016, two members of the AGC allegedly attacked a woman on a hill, injuring her to force her to provide information about community leaders. Human Rights Watch also received credible allegations that both the ELN and the AGC recruit children by force to join their ranks or work as informants and that AGC members have pressed girls as young as 12 to become their sexual partners.
The hills flanking the villages provide cover for the armed groups, and the river is a vital, contested transit corridor to the Pacific Ocean. Both groups are seeking to control the area, so the villagers’ daily activities – fishing, tending crops, woodcutting, and foraging for materials for craftworks – expose them to threats and violence. Sometimes villagers are trapped by fear of crossfire or of landmines, and at other times, the armed groups impose restrictions on villagers’ movements, impeding their livelihoods.
In 8 of the 16 communities Human Rights Watch visited in March, residents said that one or both groups had inhibited their ability to engage in such daily economic activities as fishing, chopping wood, and growing crops. They said it was often difficult to get food and drinkable water. In one instance, on February 19, a Wounaan community reported that the ELN had “forbidden” residents from going out to fish, hunt, or harvest.
Many residents said they fear retaliation for reporting abuses in part because they believe that authorities or others may leak information to armed groups. “I am afraid” of reporting, one Afro-Colombian villager said. “Nobody knows who is who and what might get you killed.”
Human Rights Watch also documented that government assistance to displaced families is lacking. Under Colombian law, authorities must guarantee victims of displacement decent shelter and food. Yet scores of displaced people from Litoral de San Juan live in deplorable conditions. In one example, when a community of more than 450 people was displaced to the town of Docordó in May 2016, most of them had to sleep for more than eight months on the floor of a community center with no interior dividing walls. Some contracted preventable illnesses such as diarrhea. Many community members said that inadequate sustenance in host communities was forcing them to return to their villages even though they did not feel safe there.
“Residents of the San Juan riverside communities are often left to their own devices,” Vivanco said. “Many displaced families are forced to decide between overcrowded and unhealthy conditions in the cities and the very real threat of abuses by armed groups in their villages.”
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