Twenty years ago, the unimaginable happened in the settlement of Bijao, Cacarica (in the Bajo Atrato region, Chocó). Paramilitaries entered the small village and detained Marino Lopez, they tied him up, tortured him, killed him, cut his head off and played football with it. This assassination formed part of many barbarities committed in the context of Operation Genesis; a joint operation conducted by the military and the paramilitaries. For this incident, General Rito Alejo del Río was sent to prison for twenty years.
However today, the communities are afraid that history will repeat itself and the cycle of violence will return. In February this year, the usual calm of the settlement was interrupted by a group of neo-paramilitaries that entered into the Humanitarian Zone (ZH), Nueva Esperanza en Dios (close to Bijao). In total, there were eight men, and they all were wearing black tops with long sleeves. They were armed with pistols and large calibre rifles, radios and four of the men were wearing balaclavas. They entered the ZH via the football pitch, the children who were playing there were frightened and ran towards the fields. This made the mothers nervous, and they spent about 15 minutes frantically trying to find them. The fear spread through the inhabitants of Nueva Esperanza en Dios, a woman who was seven months pregnant fainted when she saw the neo-paramilitaries, making the women around her worry for the baby.
The men who had their faces covered searched every corner of the houses as well as the wells, they told the inhabitants that they were looking for some people. They also prohibited the population from leaving the ZH during the two hours that the armed men were there.
For Pascual, one of the community’s leaders, this incident was one of the hardest he has lived since he returned to his home. The memories of fear and violence, due to their forced displacement in 1997, are all very present. They spent three long years sheltering in the sports stadium in Turbo, in Bahía Cupica, in Riosucio and Bocas del Atrato, suffering inhumane conditions and persistent stigma and death threats.
When they finally managed to return home, they created the Humanitarian Zone, precisely for the reason of prohibiting the entrance of armed actors, be they legal or illegal. They did this as a strategy so that they could remain in their home territory in the midst of the armed conflict. The concept had worked until now, “here the paramilitaries had not entered before, they have passed by, they have threatened us, but they have never entered”, Pascual tells us.
Erika Carvajal from the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) accompanies and gives advice to the communities in the Humanitarian Zones of the Cacarica river basin. She highlights the fact that since 2015 there has been an intensification of the conflict in this part of the Bajo Atrato region. In 2016, the neo-paramilitaries, under the denomination of the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces (AGC) announced a ‘pacific strike’ in the Urabá region, where the Bajo Atrato is located, and all activities ceased during the day. “They managed to paralyse everything”, Erika recalls, and concludes that this is clear evidence of the power that the neo-paramilitaries have achieved in this region, “they are again presenting themselves as an irregular army”.
According to CIJP, these armed groups are looking to regain territorial control, but with a new strategy, “now they don’t come spreading fear and murdering people, instead they are proposing socio-economic projects”. Like many other regions in the country, Cacarica is a forgotten region where Colombian state presence is only noticeable due to the military interventions. In these areas, everything is lacking: roads, infrastructure, health, education… The neo-paramilitaries are looking to win over the communities by offering to build what the Colombian state doesn’t.
Danilo Rueda, a member of CIJP, points out that the neo-paramilitaries have arrived with new tactics: “They give gifts; footballs, toys, school stationary, to the children”. According to Rueda, “what they are showing with these tactics is that this is about an operation to stay in the territory and in order to do this they try and satisfy the needs not satisfied by the Colombian state in relation to education and basic infrastructure such as unclogging the rivers in order to make them navigable. The end result is territorial control in order to implement productive projects based on palm oil and banana plantations, cattle farming as well as illegal activities such as trafficking drugs to countries north of Colombia”.
Despite the shock and fear, many of the inhabitants of the ZH showed courage and stood up to the armed men telling them: “look, the things aren’t like they were before, we are the people in charge of this territory and you lot don’t have any reason to be here, please leave” For Jahaira, a young leader who tells us this, attitudes like these are important because it stops the neo-paramilitary groups achieving social control in Cacarica.
Bianca Bauer and Noelia Vizcarra
 Interview with Erika Andrea Carvajal Arriaga, member of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, 27th of February 2017
 Interview with Danilo Rueda, Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, 26th of February 2017