The campesino struggle in Catatumbo

Catatumbo in the North of the Santander department, is a misunderstood and complex place, where the roots of the colombian conflict are still tangible.  Historically it has been a battle field involving all actors in the armed conflict figfhting over land, control of natural resources (such as coal, petrol and uranium), coca production and drug traficking routes.

At the centre of the fighting, the campesino community struggles to demand their rights and insist on the need to invest in alternative economic models, so they can enjoy a dignified life in the colombian countryside.

The relationship between the colombian government and the campesino population in Catatumbo has always been difficult.  One side has promoted an economic model based on extractives and free trade agreements, whilst the other focuses on fair land distribution, food sovereignty and fair prices for their produce.  This relationship became even more tense during the agrarian strike in 2013 which left 12 people dead, 485 wounded and 4 disapeared[1].

The campesino population of Catatumbo has been victim of a drawn-out defamation campaign against them.  Labelling them as guerrilla, many have been stigmatised[2], detained and killed. Spreading the doctrine of “the enemy within”[3], the militarisation of Catatumbo has meant a huge investment from the colombian state, the results of which have been killings, repression and persecution[4].  A few days ago President Santos refered to Catatumbo as “The Bronx of the country”, making the area and its population out to be criminals, linking it to the neighbourhood The Bronx[5] in the centre of Bogota[6].

Paramilitarism has deeply affected the lives of those living in Catatumbo, generating fear and instability as a strategy to silence the campesinos and not allow them to organise themselves or to resist[7].

PBI accompanies the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers Collective, a group of female lawyers committed to the defense of the campesino population of Catatumbo´s human rights, as well as other areas of the country.  We accompanied them to an act of conmemoration of a masacre that took place in Las Carboneras, a district close to Tibú where paramilitaries killed campesinos 17 years ago[8].  People attended from nearby regions as well as representatives from national organisations in solidarity with the population of Catatumbo in their struggle against the violence they have suffered.


Despite the pleasant atmosphere in which we shared a traditional soup whilst the communities participated in cultural acts, there was an air of discomfort and anxiety that the tragic events of the past could be replicated.  The night before the event in La Gabarra, a hit man killed the owner of a disco whilst member of the Campesino Asosiation of Catatumbo (Ascamcat) were there[9], demonstrating that the violence continues.

The resurgence of the phenomenon of paramilitarism over the past few months has been visible[10], evoking memories of the previous decades, that doesn´t seem to coincide with the hopes of the peace process between the government and the FARC.  During the conmemoration, many people expressed their discontent at the hipocracy of speaking of peace when killings and violence continue.

At the moment the campesino population of the country is on strike because the government has not complied with the 8 points agreed in the Agrarian Summit[11].  The campesinos of Catatumbo have been proactive in developing proposals for peace building from the grass routes, such as the implementation of the law 160 with the creation of a Campesino Reserve Zone in Catatumbo.  As a tool to implement their own economic models, the figue of Campesino Reserve Zone gives autonomy to campesinos and protects their land against the threat of multinational companies.

PBI continues to accompany campesinos who are human rights defenders as well as other organisations who support the true building of peace from the grass routes and a dignified life for campesinos who have been hit so hard by violence and persecution of a conflict that has lasted decades.



[1] Radio Santa Fe: Paro agrario dejó 12 muertos, 485 heridos y 4 desaparecidos, afirman líderes campesinos, 9 September 2013

[2] Prensa Rural: Rechazan señalamientos por parte de Mindefensa Pinzón contra Ascamcat, líderes y campesinos del Catatumbo, 9 February 2015

[3] Telesur: Colombia: piden que Estado abandone la doctrina del “enemigo interno”, 4 June 2015

[4] Prensa Rural: Militarización en el Catatumbo pone en riesgo a la población y amenaza el cese unilateral, 2 August 2015

[5] El Espectador: Arquitectura criminal del Bronx: Torturaban hasta en edificios del Distrito, 4 June2016

[6] El Espectador: “El Catatumbo es una especie de Bronx a nivel nacional”: Presidente Santos, 28 May 2016

[7] El Espectador: “El ingreso de los paramilitares al Catatumbo fue bestial”, 5 October 2015. Verdad Abierta: El férreo poder de las Farc en el Catatumbo, 3 March 2016

[8] Prensa Rural: Campesinos del Catatumbo rinden homenaje a víctimas de la Masacre de Carboneras, 31 May 2016

[9] La Opinión: Asesinan a dueño de bar en La Gabarra, 30 May 2016

[10] Semana: Regresa el fantasma paramilitar, 12 March 2016

[11] Caracol Radio: Campesinos santandereanos tienen pliego de 8 puntos para el gobierno, 2 June 2016.  El Espectador: Vuelve y juega la protesta agraria, 28 May 2016

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