Interview with Padre Alberto Franco
On 27 December 2013, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights declared the Colombian government responsible for forced displacements—a joint operation between military and paramilitary forces under Operation Genesis—and the murder of Marino López, a young Afro-Colombian man from Cacarica. In 1997, between 24 and 27 February, more than 4,000 individuals were forcibly displaced. They lived in precarious conditions for many years, in shelters in Turbo and even Panama. In 2000, the communities returned to Cacarica and created the first Humanitarian Zones to survive in the midst of the armed conflict.
The Inter-church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) has accompanied Cacarica communities from the moment they were displaced. CIJP has worked on the human, psycho-social, legal, and even environmental aspects, and has been able to build a bridge between the international community and the people of Cacarica. Padre Alberto Franco, member of the Commission, has been moved by this struggle, now in its 17th year, and the fact that the communities of Cacarica were able to develop alternatives and hold out in their lands in the midst of the armed conflict, despite threats against their leaders and the uncertainty that surrounds them. PBI interviewed Padre Alberto about the meaning of the Court’s ruling.
PBI: How does the ruling issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights relate to the Cacarica case?
Alberto Franco: The ruling issued by the Court recognizes the responsibility of the government for the displacement of the communities of Cacarica during Operation Genesis due to the join actions of military and paramilitary forces. It also recognizes their responsibility for not investigating and for neglecting the communities, as well as for not having organized their return under adequate conditions. It is a very important decision because it proves the environmental damage inflicted while the community was displaced. Furthermore, it reviews the collective nature of the effects on the community and the community’s needs.
PBI: What process that has led to this ruling?
AF: This process has taken place thanks to the community’s decision to assert its rights. In 1997, once displaced, they got together and faced the reality of their situation. All of them wanted to return. Thus began a process of organization and non-violent resistance to claim their rights in front of the government and make proposals. This, at a moment when there were no public policies for collectively handling displaced populations. The complaint and organizational process was always supported by the CIJP. Lack of government action towards fulfilling is obligations—in terms of investigating or providing assistance—led to filing a complaint through the Inter-American human rights system.
PBI: What does the sentence mean for the communities of Cacarica?
AF: The Court’s ruling is very important for the communities because it gave them the opportunity to express their experiences before an international tribunal and prove the truthfulness of their declarations. The communities have decided to take a look at the meaning of reparations in terms of comprehensive health, adequate housing, psycho-social reparations, and education. Right now they are developing proposals to be presented on 28 February.
PBI: How has the Colombian government responded to the sentence?
AF: There have not yet been any meetings with the government to discuss the implementation of the ruling. The most important aspect is the recognition that the displacement was a result of a joint operation between the military and paramilitaries. The Court demanded an in-depth investigation of the events. After this, we were able to know who was responsible for Operation Genesis, whether General Rito Alejo del Río decided to do it himself or what other individuals from the political or financial sectors were involved. Also, why it was not investigated on time. Thus, I believe that this is an important opportunity for the communities to assert their rights, but also for the government to change the tone with respect to victims and turn words into action. The government has the opportunity to change the course of events.
PBI: What will happen now in terms of reparations?
AF: According to the ruling, reparations must be negotiated with the communities. The communities are waiting for the government to call for a meeting to discuss the implementation of the ruling. It is the responsibility of the communities and the petitioners to follow up on the ruling. The Court must be informed of all developments. In the government, the Chancellor is responsible for convening the different government authorities that must take action in this instance.
PBI: What is the current security situation in the communities of Cacarica?
AF: Threats against their leaders continue, as does the presence of paramilitaries on the river.
PBI: What economic interests continue to exist in Cacarica?
AF: It has been shown that the displacements were motivated by financial interests in the region. One aspect is the fact that it is in a strategic location, next to the border. It is a connection point between the Caribbean coast, the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Urabá, and the Atrato river, which is very important for connections with the Chocó river.
Furthermore, there are various infrastructural interests: the Pan-American highway,power transmission to and from Central America and a gas pipeline originating in Venezuela and directed towards the Pacific. There are also interests related to tourism and other financial aspects: banana production and timber extraction.
And there is a very important interest, which is the issue of biodiversity. This is one of the most diverse areas of the planet. One of the greatest riches is the water of this region, which has been scarcely contaminated by humans. It is an absolutely strategic place. The most painful aspect is that the profits would benefit only a few people and that the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that inhabit the region would be left with pollution, death, and destruction.
PBI: What would you like from the international community?
AF: The greatest challenge for the communities is to get organized and make a good proposal for comprehensive reparations, to strengthen themselves to be able to have good interactions with the government. This is the most important part. The international community should follow up on the ruling so that adequate protection is given to the communities and to guarantee that people are able to claim their rights to truth, justice, comprehensive reparations, and the absence of recidivism.
Ideas could be developed to consolidate the proposal. Technical and financial support that enables people to have the conditions necessary to develop a definitive proposal. It could be a timely and concrete contribution.
But the main task must be to follow up and exert political pressure so that the government complies with the ruling.