Another leader killed in Urabá

Urabá has always been considered a lawless territory where the strongest hand rules, stained with endemic violence and fought for between actors in the armed conflict.  And despite the peace process in its phase of implementation, the attacks in the region have not ceased, especially against those who play an important role in land restitution.  The most recent victim was a prominent leader from the Community Council of the Larga Tumaradó, Mario Castaño Bravo, who was killed a week ago outside his house, in front of his wife and children.[1]  The leader had special protection measures that the Colombian Government awarded to the communities in the collective territory given their delicate security situation, as well as a protection scheme from the National Protection Unit.

Despojo
Illustration: María Fernanda Lessmes

The death of Mario Castaño Bravo is not an isolated case.  This year there have been three assassinations of land restitution leaders in the same region.[2]  Land claimants fear for there lives due to threats and selective killings that seek to intimidate and generate terror.  According to the Popular Training Institute (IPC), between 2008 and march 2017, 73 land claimants have been killed in Urabá.[3]

asesinato lideres curba_web
Paramilitaries murdered Orlando Valencia in 2005, Ualberto Hoyos in 2008, Argenito Diaz in 2010 and Manuel Ruiz and his son in 2012. All of them were prominent leaders from Curbarado. Illustration: María Fernando Lessmes

The Human Rights Ombudsman states that there is a reconfiguration of the armed conflict  in the region: the 57th front of the Farc operated in the Urabá until their recent demobilisation.  Since the end of 2015 the ELN guerrilla have been gaining territory; the group hadn´t been present in the zone for the past few decades.  Since 2014 hundreds of combatants of the Gaitanista Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) have been strengthening their presence in the zone and since 2015 the Human Rights Ombudsman has been alerting authorities of their expansion.  The dispute between the AGC and the ELN for territorial control has created a humanitarian crisis for the communities that once again find themselves in the middle of the conflict.

Collective territories

The Larga Tumaradó and a large part of the land in Urabá, is part of collective property that the Law 70 of 1993 awarded to afro-descendant communities, because their ancestors had lived in these territories in the XVIII century, when the descendants of slaves brought over centuries back from Africa escaped and sought refuge in the deep forest.

According to the law, the lands are inalienable, untouchable and indefeasible, as they are recognised as collective property and have a character inherent to their ethnic and cultural identity.  However the formalisation and restitution of many of the lands is still lacking, and there are also many other interests and complications that stop the process from advancing.  Between 1999 and 2000, through the Colombian Agrarian Reform Institute (Incora), large extensions of land were awarded to the community councils.

Ilustracion por cuadro
Large extensions of land were awarded to these afro-descendant community councils. Illustration: María Fernanda Lessmes

Violence used to resolved conflicts

Between 1996 and 1997 displacements without precedent took place, when paramilitary groups with assumed participation of the National Army initiated operations of a counter-insurgency character in the region.[4]  Operations known as “Operation Génesis” and “Black December” left a trail of deaths, disappearances, lootings, the burning of properties and thousands of displaced people.  Mario Castaño Bravo also had to flee his lands due to the violence in 1996.

The majority of the population lived in conditions of displacement for many years.[5]  Years later, from 1999, they returned to their territories but only in 2013 did they manage to return to the Larga Tumaradó.[6]  Since then, afro-descendant farmers and mestizos have been asking the Government for the restitution of their farms, through the Land Restitution Unit.[7]

Dispossession and punishment

Despite being a collective territory where land cannot be sold, when the paramilitaries displaced the communities, many of the lands were invaded to plant palm oil and for cattle farming.  In the Larga Tumaradó, extensive cattle farming, especially buffalo, and palm oil cover the countryside.[8]  The Research and Popular Education Center (Cinep), calculates that 94 percent of the productive land in the Larga Tumaradó is in the hands of bad faith possessors and large occupants, and only three percent is administered by the communities.[9]

Many of the lands that today are occupied by large landowners were acquired by illegal means, according to the Superintendent of Notaries and Registries, Colombian State entity, that reported in many irregularities in a report in 2011, such as the supposed signing of trading contracts for people that had died, the falsification of documents and the direct threat to settlers with the intention of forcing them to sell their properties.[10]

empresarios
In 2010 the Prosecutor General’s Office ordered the arrest of 24 businessmen for their involvement in the forced displacement of local communities. In 2014 a judge sentenced 16 businessmen after proving their links to paramilitaries. And in 2017 a Superior Tribunal sentenced businessman Antonio Nel Zúñiga Caballero to ten years in prison for crimes of conspiracy to commit a crime and forced displacement.

Since then there have been many investigations against businessmen with land in Urabá.  In 2014 a judge sentenced 16 businessmen after proving their links to paramilitaries in order to develop an agro-industrial palm oil project.[11]  And in 2017 a Superior Tribunal sentenced businessman Antonio Nel Zúñiga Caballero to ten years in prison for crimes of conspiracy to commit a crime, forced displacement and invasion of the collective territories of Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó.[12] Zúñiga Caballero was a major shareholder in the companies Urapalma and Palmura, that belonged to the paramilitary commander Vicente Castaño; he set up palm oil businesses in various regions with Zúñiga Caballero.  Mario Castaño Bravo was a witness in a trial against palm growers and cattle farmers accused of dispossessing farmers of their lands.[13]

The labyrinth of land restitution has an additional element, as in 2013 the Government awarded the multinational company AngloGold Ashanti a mining title without undertaking prior consultation, to extract copper, silver and gold in an area of roughly 800 hectares situated in the Larga Tumaradó.[14] This year the community met with members of the Land Restitution Unit and demanded the mining title be declared null.[15]

Mario Castaño was a key figure in the fight for the restitution of the lands in the Larga Tumaradó, as well as being a witness in a trial against businessmen and spokesman of the community demanding the retraction of a mining title.  Mario Castaño was a leader with a lot of enemies and for many years received threat after threat.  For many of the communities in Urabá the death of this emblematic leader is a hard blow that represents yet another obstacle in the way of the process of restitution.  But despite the dangers, each day new leaders are born who represent their communities, so that one day they may live in peace and enjoy the deep forests, rivers, mangroves and mountains that form part of the beautiful region.

Bianca Bauer


Footnotes:

[1] Verdad Abierta: Reclamantes de tierra del Bajo Atrato, bajo fuego, pero ¿de quién?, 28 November 2017
[2] Ibid. Reclamantes de tierra del Bajo Atrato, bajo fuego, pero ¿de quién?
[3] IPC: Rechazan amenazas de muerte a reclamante de tierras en Urabá, 24 March 2017
[4] Disaster Info Net: Un llamado por el Chocó; Verdad Abierta: La complicidad entre militares y paras en el Urabá Antioqueño, 26 April 2011; El Espectador: El ‘dossier’ de los palmeros, 26 January 2008
[5] Cijp y Banco de Datos del Cinep: La Tramoya — Derechos Humanos y Palma Aceitera – Curvaradó y Jiguamiandó, 25 January 2006
[6] Verdad Abierta: Proceso de restitución enreda a funcionario en el Urabá antioqueño, 10 July 2017
[7] Verdad Abierta: Título minero enreda restitución en consejo comunitario La Larga-Tumaradó, 20 September 2017
[8] Verdad Abierta: Proceso de restitución enreda a funcionario en el Urabá antioqueño, 10 July de 2017
[9] Cinep en El Espectador: El camino para ser líder de restitución en Urabá, 30 October 2017
[10] Ibíd.; La Silla Vacía: Curvaradó y Jiguamiandó: La gran prueba de la restitución de tierras de Santos, 18 March 2011
[11] Verdad Abierta: A la cárcel 16 empresarios de palma de Chocó, 8 December 2014
[12] Palabras al Margen: ¿”Terceros” o determinadores? El proyecto económico paramilitar en Bajo Atrato, 15 June 2017
[13] Verdad Abierta: Reclamantes de tierra del Bajo Atrato, bajo fuego, pero ¿de quién?, 28 November 2017
[14] Verdad Abierta: Título minero enreda restitución en consejo comunitario La Larga-Tumaradó, 20 September 2017
[15] Ibid.; El Espectador: El camino para ser líder de restitución en Urabá, 30 October 2017

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