General Rito Alejo del Rio was released on 27 September, under the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP). Alejo del Rio, known as the ‘Pacifier’ of Uraba, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for one of the horrific murders carried out by paramilitaries during their violent takeover of Uraba in Choco in 1997.
The Afro-descendant communities of the Cacarica river basin, in the department of Choco, have not forgotten what happened in February 1997. The paramilitaries arrived in a wave of violence, captured farmer Marino Lopez, decapitated him and played football with his head in front of several community members. Army troops were stationed just a few hundred metres away.
The day Rito Alejo del Rio was released, the organisation Communities of Self-determination, Life and Dignity (Cavida) of Cacarica sent a statement in which they “welcome General del Rio’s willingness to appear before the JEP, an innovative mechanism centred on the truth, which will, if everyone is willing, enable us to get to the bottom of what happened during operation Genesis and what caused us to be displaced, and those who are responsible or who benefited from it and have remained hidden”. Cavida highlights that “this will be an opportunity to find out the truth, unspoken and unrecognised in ordinary justice procedures that have distanced Colombians from one another, and made it impossible for us to acknowledge and recognise each other”.
Cavida welcomes General del Rio’s willingness to appear before the JEP, an innovative mechanism centred on the truth, which will, if everyone is willing, enable us to get to the bottom of what happened during operation Genesis and what caused us to be displaced, and those who are responsible or who benefited from it and have remained hidden
The facts of the case took place during Operation Genesis, an operation which included participation by the Army, the Navy, the Airforce and the National Police, in coordination with paramilitaries from the Cordoba and Uraba Self Defence Forces (AUC). The military and paramilitary operation resulted in over 70 crimes, including murders and enforced disappearances. As a result, around 3,500 people from the 23 communities of the Cacarica river basin were forcibly displaced.
Those who didn’t flee the Uraba region or make it over the border to Panama were obliged to stay in the sports stadium in Turbo municipality, where they lived for three years in appalling conditions. They had to take it in turns to eat and sleep. But their pathway to resistance had only just begun, and the years they spent in Turbo were the beginning of a long process in which the displaced communities of Cacarica started to organise themselves.
With the support of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) they constituted the Community Council for the Black Community of Cacarica. At the end of 1997, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) requested that the State grant precautionary measures of protection for the displaced people, to protect them from the threats, intimidation and attacks by paramilitary groups.
In 1999 the community created Cavida. They negotiated with the Government of Andres Pastrana, demanding that it guarantee conditions for their return to their territory, and they worked so that their relatives who were displaced to other areas could resettle in Turbo and they could begin to return to Cacarica together.
That year they carried out a first exploratory mission to the territory, which was still under the control of the parties to the armed conflict, returning to the area that was to become the Nueva Vida Humanitarian Zone. Even though all that was left of the settlement were the remains of the church and the school, they cleared the grounds, recovered crops seeds – rice, yucca and corn – and sowed them so that when the people returned the crops would be ready to harvest. It was the birth of the Nueva Vida and Nueva Esperanza en Dios Humanitarian Zones, protected collective spaces reserved exclusively for the civilian population in conflict areas, where the presence of legal and illegal armed actors is prohibited. The Nueva Vida Humanitarian Zone was the first initiative of this kind in Colombia.
In December 1999, after a long struggle, they succeeded in getting the State to recognise the Cacarica communities’ collective title for 103,561 hectares of land. The official grant of the title was completed in December 1999 in the Turbo stadium. And finally, in 2000, they could return to Cacarica.
Several years later, in September 2008, General Rito Alejo del Rio, commander of the 17th Brigade who was responsible for Operation Genesis, was detained, and four years later he was sentenced by the Colombian courts to 25 years in prison for the crimes he committed. On 27 December 2013, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the Colombian State for its responsibility in the mass displacement of 1997, its failure to protect the Cacarica population, its collaboration with paramilitary groups and the murder of Marino Lopez. The State was ordered to grant protection, restitution and reparation measures to the Cacarica population.
Despite the sentence and their achievements, the communities consider that policies to implement the security measures have not been forthcoming. To date, the population continues to receive threats, suffer attacks, and its members are followed, kept under surveillance and defamed. In effect, the Cacarica basin is a convergence point for a large number of economic and geopolitical interests. Because it is situated in an extremely biodiverse border area between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the communities in this basin are faced with the interests of paramilitary actors, national and transnational companies, and the State.
In February 2017, 20 years after the forced displacement, the Cacarica communities met up once again to commemorate their struggle and resistance. Marco Fidel Velasquez, a member of Cavida, told us how it is during an interview:  “We are commemorating 20 years of having been displaced, but these are also 20 years of forging resistance in the face of so much adversity. Two decades of pain, but we have the hope that one day we will be happy. 20 years of impunity, but we have the hope that one day there will be justice. 20 years of misery, but we hope that one day the Government will hear us and we aren’t asking for charity, we are demanding what we deserve, what is ours, what was once taken from us. We want it to be given back, and not even all of it, just give us back the chance to rebuild what we lost”.
 Cijp: Pronunciamiento ante libertad de General Rito Alejo del Río, 27 September 2017
 “VIII Visita de la Comisión Ética de la Verdad”, Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, 15 June 2010.
 Defensoría del Pueblo. 2002. “Resolución defensorial N0. 025. Sobre las Violaciones Masivas de Derechos Humanos y Desplazamiento Forzado en la Región del Bajo Atrato Chocoano”, Bogotá, October 2002
 “Hoy, de nuevo, tenemos el territorio invadido de paramilitares”, PBI Colombia, 16 February 2017.