“If the rivers could speak, they would tell us about our dead”

“We are a kilometre away from where the bodies were found. They were over there, around the next corner, just left on the road (…)”

We arrive at Argelia, a municipality in the Cauca department, in the heart of the Colombian Massif region. It is a place that can only be reached by crossing the Patia valley, with its resplendent cambulo trees and the shimmering waters of its interweaving rivers. A dusty and winding road then leads up to the municipality, with the odd impromptu toll point set up by the inhabitants, who make it their job to keep the pathway clear.

The road takes us to the village of La Mina, where we are accompanying the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – CIJP). The organisation is visiting the area for the first time since the bodies of 7 small-scale producers were found there last month[1]. Although a certain peace seems to have descended on the municipality which has historically been hit hard by the armed conflict, the region still moves to the rhythm of those who seek to control its natural wealth and geostrategic position.

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“We said yes to peace”, one of the local leaders confides. “It was the first time we had been hopeful that the war would be gone from our lands. But they have come back again to kill us. They kill our leaders, they kill our teachers, and they kill our people.”

Argelia was one of the areas most strongly affected by the conflict[2]. This is a place that overflows with water, gold and other minerals and that has attracted the attention of a myriad of actors, including multinational companies.

In 2006, the area was militarised as part of the democratic security policy. This coincided with a paramilitary onslaught by groups like the Rastrojos and Águilas Negras in Patia and Argelia.[3] [4] The inhabitants talk about the violence they have faced throughout the years, remembering the people who were forcibly disappeared[5], the torture to which some of them were submitted, the extrajudicial killings, the constant terror. “If the rivers could speak, they would tell us about our dead”, one of the leaders says to us.

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Coraline (PBI) in the Patía Valley

In light of all this violence, the people got organised. In 2012, they asked the army to withdraw from the centres of Mango, El Plateado, Puerto Rico, El Sinaí and Argelia, turning them into places exclusively for the civilian population, free from armed actors[6]. This year, when the ELN tried to install themselves here, the people called them to a meeting and made the same request. Thanks to this community effort, the ELN also left[7].

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Yvonne Furrer with Santiago and Milvia from the Interchurch Comision of Justice and Peace

Although the people of Argelia agree that the peace agreements have brought a certain peace to their lands, over the last few months, the fear has come stomping back. The violence has hidden its face this time, it has become more cunning and silent, more complex in the way it affects the lives of the inhabitants. Out of the shadows, little by little, bodies are starting to appear, left by the side of the road, or shots are fired at the population during the carnival festivities[8]. At the end of June, a pamphlet signed by the self-named “COMANDO POPULAR DE LIMPIEZA[9]” announced that they were going to kill all undesirables, evoking the darkest and most painful moments of the armed conflict.

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The town of Argelia

The leaders tell us that they have once again received anonymous threatening calls ordering them to stop their activities: “we are scared to even meet. A lot of people have simply not come today; they are keeping themselves to themselves. But we need you to know about what is happening to us. We only want the peace agreements to be implemented and we want the State to take care of our basic needs, and provide healthcare and schools. They stigmatise us for growing coca crops, but we are just small-scale producers, we are not drug-traffickers or drug addicts, we only grow it to survive. We want to change our crops and grow other things, but to do that we need the support of the State.”

After the massacre, the Human Rights Ombudsman, Carlos Negret, visited the area. Afterwards he reported that the villages he visited are facing problems related to public order, education and healthcare.[10] According to this State body, to date 326 leaders have been killed since the peace agreements were signed, and 81 were from Cauca[11]. The people of Argelia do not want any more killings added to those numbers.

Coraline Ricard

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Footnote

[1] Semana : Autoridades confirman hallazgo de siete cuerpos en zona rural de Argelia (Cauca), 3 July 2018

[2] El Tiempo: Con desarme de Farc acabará el miedo al Ejército y Policía en Argelia, 12 December 2015

[3] Verdad Abierta : En Argelia, temen por su tranquilidad y dudan de la paz, 26 June 2018

[4] Cijp : Sitiamiento y terror paramilitar en Argelia, 9 January 2009

[5] Cijp : 16 posibles desapariciones forzadas, generan un nuevo desplazamiento forzado en Argelia, Cauca, 15 December 2009

[6] Verdad Abierta : En Argelia, temen por su tranquilidad y dudan de la paz, 26 June 2018

[7] Canal 1 : Argelia se moviliza y resiste, 24 July 2018

[8]  Cijp : Incursión armada deja tres muertos en El Plateado, Argelia, 22 January 2018

[9] Cijp : Limpieza social y amenzas en el municipio de Argelia, 26 June 2018

[10] El Espectador : « De 326 líderes asesinados, 81 serían del Cauca » : Defensoría del Pueblo, 18 July 2018

[11] Ibid

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