Urabá, a contemporary history of violence and territory

Urabá is always thought of as something of a lawless region, marked by endemic violence and fought over by the armed groups in the conflict.[1] In order to comprehend the violence in Urabá we must first of all understand the dynamics of a territory still being constructed, born out of successive colonisations. The region was a refuge area during the period known as “La Violencia” – a conflict between the two main political parties in the 1950s, an area of natural resources to be exploited and, at the same time, an area on the far margins of the country.

PBI has been accompanying organisations and communities in Urabá since 1997 during which time we have witnessed the violence and structural problems in the region.

A region on the periphery

Illustration: María Fernanda Lessmes

Urabá is a sub-region of north-western Colombia bordering Panama, extending around the Gulf of Panama, a natural port on the Caribbean Sea. The region is of important geo-strategic interest due to its proximity to the Panama Canal and its natural resources. Megaprojects have been an issue for some time, especially connective projects, such as the construction plan for a section of the Pan-American Highway, which would pass through Urabá via the famous Darién Gap.[2]

The region’s deep jungles, rivers, swamps, mangroves and mountain ranges have provided the ideal environment for illegal activities. Urabá has been a smuggling area since the nineteenth century; it is not so strange therefore that it has been the scene of activities related to drug and arms trafficking and illegal armed groups.

Land desired, land destroyed

A girl mills rice by hand in Jiguamiandó (Chocó department). As well as being a cultural tradition, many believe that milling the rice in this way conserves its nutritional properties. Photo: Bianca Bauer

The lands in the department of Chocó are exceptionally fertile and yet at the same time, are some of the most affected by deforestation, according to a report by the Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), which lists the causes for this deforestation as land grabbing, illicit crop production, large-scale livestock farming and mining.[3]

The banana boom and large-scale colonisation

Large-scale colonisation dates back to the 1960s when the main road between Medellín and Turbo was built. This wave of migration increased during the boom in the banana trade. Three hundred banana plantations were created by the Frutera de Sevilla (a subsidiary of the United Fruit Company).[4] Tens of thousands of migrants settled in the region attracted by labour prospects on the banana plantations, but also by the promise of untouched virgin forests to colonise.

Violence used to resolve conflicts

Ilustracion por cuadro
Illustration: Maria Fernanda Lessmes

Faced with this unprecedented wave of migration, there was insufficient infrastructure, public services and institutional presence in the region to respond to the need to regulate the distribution of resources and cover basic needs (water, sewerage and electricity).[5] The way that resources were appropriated, particularly land, has been the source of much litigation.[6]

Academic studies point to two fundamental patterns in the region: on the one hand, the concentration of land using legitimate and illicit investments for intensive single-crop farming or extensive cattle-raising,[7] and on the other hand, opposition by small-scale farming movements to this land concentration, including protests involving land occupation and land recovery after eviction. There have been a significant number of lawsuits since the 1950s that show irregularities, such as forced purchase and selling under threat, falsification of signatures and official documents, and various pressures ranging from threats to physical aggression, which have led to the murder or displacement of the legitimate owners of the land.

Land conflicts in Urabá. Illustration: Maria Fernanda Lessmes

This context has produced a situation of chronic violence in the region, which can be partly analysed as a consequence of the absence of an effective judicial power.[8] Indeed, since the demographic explosion caused by the banana boom, there has been a general consolidation of private justice systems,[9] very often monopolised by the illegal armed actors.

The annual rate of homicides tripled between the 1970s and 1990s, coinciding with the appearance and strengthening of organised armed movements (Farc, EPL, paramilitary groups, State Security Forces), who were fighting for socio-political control.[10] According to several investigations, it is clear today that forced displacement does not respond only to the dynamics of war, it is also associated with economic interests.[11]

Between 1996 and 1997 unprecedented displacements took place in the Bajo Atrato area, when paramilitary groups with the alleged participation of the National Army carried out counterinsurgency activities in the region.[12] Operations with names like “Operation Genesis” and “Black September” left a trail of deaths, disappearances, looting, burning of property and thousands of displaced people along the way.

The majority of the inhabitants lived, for many years, as displaced persons, in shelters or with relatives in other regions of Antioquia and Chocó.[13] The return of displaced families to the area began in 1999 in Jiguamiandó,[14] 2000 in Cacarica and from 2006 in Curbaradó[15] amid persistent armed conflict in the region.

Resisting in their territories

88. Cacarica
Photo: Bianca Bauer

When the families returned to their homes in Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó, they found that the lands seized by the paramilitaries had been converted into gigantic palm oil plantations.[16] Those who returned to Cacarica found their lands surrounded by armed actors.

They found a way to stay in their homes despite the siege of the armed conflict, by creating Humanitarian Zones. They delimited and enclosed small plots of land with barbed wire and made them visible with a large sign, which inform all who pass that entry is prohibited to any illegal or legal armed actor. And that is how they have lived their lives since then. They built homes, schools and community classrooms. They went out in large groups to plant, harvest, fish and hunt. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has supported the creation of Humanitarian Zones as “a positive mechanism for the protection of the civilian population faced with the actions of the different armed groups in the area.”[17]

Instead of joining the thousands of displaced people, in 1997 the small-farming population created a pioneering project: the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, a community that declared itself neutral in the face of the armed conflict and rejected the presence of all armed groups in its territory. In the twenty years since then the community has faced overwhelming violence: 320 people killed, 350 death threats, 100 cases of torture, and 50 displacements.[18]

Collective land

Ilustracion por cuadro

Much of the land in Urabá forms part of the collective property that Law 70 of 1993 granted to people of African descent, because their ancestors had lived in these territories since the eighteenth century, when as descendants of slaves brought centuries ago from Africa, they opted to live according to their African heritage (cimarronismo) and they took refuge in the deep jungles.

According to this law, the lands are non-transferable, imprescriptible and guaranteed against seizure, since collective property is recognised as inherent to Afro-descendent people’s ethnic and cultural identity. Nevertheless, in many cases it is still necessary to formalise the lands or restore them to their owners. In 1999 the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (INCORA) awarded 103,000 hectares of land to the communities of Cacarica and in 2000 awarded 46,000 to the Community Council of Curbaradó, 55,000 to the Council of Jiguamiandó and 48,000 to the Council of Pedeguita y Mancilla.[19]

Land theft and punishment

Illustration: Maria Fernanda Lessmes

Despite being a collective territory where land cannot be bought or sold, when the paramilitaries displaced the communities, many plots of land were occupied and used to grow palm oil and keep livestock. The Superintendence of Notaries and Registry, a Colombian State body, concluded in 2011 that 17,720 hectares that belonged to the ancestral communities in the Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó areas had been illegally purchased by third parties. Irregularities include the alleged signing of contracts by people who had already died, the multiplication of hectares sold, the falsification of documents, coercion and direct threat to the population in order to force them to sell their properties.[20]

In 2014, a court found 16 businessmen guilty of forming an alliance with the paramilitaries to develop a palm oil agro-industrial project in Chocó.[21] In 2017, a High Court sentenced businessman Antonio Nel Zúñiga Caballero to ten years in prison for crimes of aggravated conspiracy, forced displacement and invasion of the collective territory of Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó.[22] Zúñiga Caballero was the majority shareholder of the Urapalma and Palmura companies that belonged to the paramilitary commander Vicente Castaño. Together Castaño and Zúñiga Caballero ran palm oil businesses in a number of regions.

Land claimants

Alto Guayabal, Jiguamiandó, 2017
Women are often against the implementation of extractive and agro-fuel projects, road megaprojects, mining exploitation, intensive livestock farming and agro-forestry, because of the pollution that these projects bring, the social dynamics that they create and the breakdown of the social fabric that they cause. Photo: Bianca Bauer

Land claimants live in fear for their lives due to threats and killings used to intimidate and terrorise them. According to the Popular Training Institute (IPC), since 2008, 73 land claimants in Urabá have been murdered.[23]

The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office reports that there has been a resurgence of conflict in this region: until its demobilisation, the 57th Front of the Farc guerilla operated in Urabá. The ELN guerilla arrived at the end of 2015; the group had not been present in this area for the previous two decades. Since 2014, hundreds of fighters from the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC) have also gathered in the area and since 2015, the Ombudsman’s Office has been alerting the authorities about the group’s expansion. The armed dispute between the AGC and the ELN for territorial control has also led to a humanitarian crisis.

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 esteemed leaders from Curbarado. Illustration: María Fernando Lessmes

Both the Ombudsman’s Office and the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Cijp) have continuously reported forced recruitment, confinement, forced displacement, accusations and threats against leaders, land claimants and ethnic authorities.[24]

Frederic Latour and Bianca Bauer


[1] Observatory of the Presidential Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Program: Diagnostic of the situation in the municipalities inhabited by the afro-Colombian communities prioritised by the Honourable Constitutional Court and the department of Antioquia, 2009, pp. 14 – 15
[2]According to Conpes 3612 from the National Planning Department, a section of the Transversal de las Américas project would pass through the Cacarica river basin and continue to the area known as Palo de Letras.
[3] Semana: Deforestación en Colombia aumentó un 44% entre 2015 y 2016, 6 July 2017
[4] Cultures & Conflicts: Violencias estratégicas y violencias desorganizadas en la región de Urabá, Colombia, Gérard Martin, Number 24-25, 1996-1997
[5] Fernando Botero Herrera, Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín: Urabá. Colonización, violencia y crisis del Estado, 1990; Edición Cerec/Iner, Universidad de Antioquia: Urabá: región, actores y conflicto 1960-1990, Clara Inés García, Bogotá, 1996.
[6] Edición Cerec/Iner, Universidad de Antioquia: Urabá: región, actores y conflicto 1960-1990, Clara Inés García, Bogotá, 1996.
[7] Instituto de Estudios Políticos Internacionales (Iepri), Universidad Nacional: Urabá: pulsiones de vida y desafíos de muerte, C. M. Ortiz Sarmiento, La Carrera Editores, Medellín, 2007
[8] Cultures & Conflicts: Violencias estratégicas y violencias desorganizadas en la región de Urabá, Colombia, Gérard Martin, número 24-25, 1996-1997
[9] Instituto de Estudios Políticos Internacionales (IEPRI), Universidad Nacional: Urabá: pulsiones de vida y desafíos de muerte, C. M. Ortiz Sarmiento, La Carrera Editores, Medellín, 2007
[10] Cultures & Conflicts: Violencias estratégicas y violencias desorganizadas en la región de Urabá, Colombia, Gérard Martin, número 24-25, 1996-1997
[11] Organización Panamericana de la Salud: Sistematización de experiencias de atención psicosocial en Antioquía, Bogotá, 2003
[12] 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
[13] CIJP y Banco de Datos del CINEP: La Tramoya — Derechos Humanos y Palma Aceitera – Curbaradó y Jiguamiandó, 25 January 2006
[14] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: Report on the field visit en relation to the precautionary protection measures ordered in favour of the members of the communities constituted by the Community Council of Jiguamiandó and the families of Curbaradó, municipality of Carmen del Darién, department of Chocó, Colombia, 20 February 2009
[15] Interviews with inhabitants of the Humanitarian Zones in Curbaradó, PBI Colombia, 2010
[16] Voltairenet: La palma de aceite y la usurpación de territorio a las comunidades negras, 9 March 2006
[17] Unofficial translation Medidas Provisionales respecto de la República de Colombia. Caso de las comunidades del Jiguamiandó y del Curbaradó,  Order of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of 15 March 2005
[18] Padre Javier Giraldo, speech, 23 March 2017 in La Holandita, Peace Community of San José de Apartadó
[19] La Silla Vacía: Curbaradó y Jiguamiandó: La gran prueba de la restitución de tierras de Santos, 18 March 2011; Verdad Abierta: Campesinos y afros se enfrentan por la tierra en Rio Sucio, Chocó, 25 June 2015
[20] Op. cit. Curbaradó y Jiguamiandó: La gran prueba de la restitución de tierras de Santos
[21] Verdad Abierta: A la cárcel 16 empresarios de palma de Chocó, 8 December 2014
[22] Palabras al Margen: ¿”Terceros” o determinadores? El proyecto económico paramilitar en Bajo Atrato, 15 June 2017
[23] IPC: Rechazan amenazas de muerte a reclamante de tierras en Urabá, 24 March 2017
[24] Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office: Nota de Seguimiento no. 004-17, 27 April 2017

*Cover photo: Eduardo Acosta Ulloa

3 thoughts on “Urabá, a contemporary history of violence and territory”

  1. One very significant additional factor comes into play and has had a pervasive influence – ongoing today – on many of the dynamics mentioned in this article, and that’s the cocaine economy, especially the criminal networks running it, the enormous amounts of money that come with it, and the complex collusions these have engaged – and continue to engage in – with guerrilla, paramilitary, public force, justice administration, private sector, white washing of illicit gains (in cattle, land, farms, commerce, fishery …), and more.

Leave a Reply