Mario Castaño, in memoriam

The 26th of Novembre 2017 seemed like any other hot and humid Sunday in the collective territory of La Larga Tumaradó. Mario Castaño, a land-restitution leader in the Chocó region of Urabá, had gathered his family to spend the day together at their small holding farm. However, this day came to mark a change the lives of the family forever when, in the early hours of the evening, three masked armed men entered the property looking for Mario. They dragged him from the house and shot him dead infront of his wife, daughters and grand-daughters[1]. His two sons fled into the night, away from the farm fearing that they too would be assasinated.

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The Farm of Mario’s family, “La Poderosa”, where he was murdered

A year has already passed since the departure of this land restitution leader, and the impact of his assassination has been significant not only to his family but also for the communities of the Bajo Atrato region. The family, in the midst of mourning their loss, were displaced and sought refuge in an urban area a few hours from the family farm. They had to change their lives completely, from a rural lifestyle living on and cultivating their land, to living in an urban area where they have had to find a way to pay for rent and bills. They’ve also begun the long path to seek truth and justice for the death of Mario. His widow Isabel Flores recounts the night he was killed, reliving the events over and over, “the day that they came, they asked if he was Mario Castaño and when he said yes, they grabbed him, they dragged him from our house and shot him, without saying a thing, without asking anything…they didn’t even let him speak.” She told me that the same week that Mario was assassinated he had told her that he was going to be killed. It’s still not known the exact reason why he was targeted, nor who organised or executed his assassination.

Eliana Isabel Flores 1_blog
Nathalie (PBI) doing an interview to Edilia Isabel Flores, the widow of Mario Castaño

The impact of Mario’s death upon the communities of the Bajo Atrato region has also been significant. Firstly, for the loss of a fellow comrade in the struggle for land rights “He was the leader in the region who most stood-out, he always spoke up the most and he wasn’t afraid to tell the truth in-front of whoever was there”[2], commented one of his peers. His widow told me the same thing, “he wasn’t a selfish person, everything that he had he wanted to share with others. He was very supportive of the other land-reclaimants in the area. He accompanied them in their struggles, in their work on land-right. and he always looked after his family, ensuring that we were ok as well.” His death also had an impact on other land-reclaimants, they became much more fearful of the continued attacks and threats having seen that they might be carried out to their finality as they had been with Mario. Land restitution in Uraba is complex and slow: despite being a prioritised region, of the 6372 claims presented, only 180  properties have been returned to their rightful owners.[3]

Urabá, a contemporary history of Violence and Territory

The story of the Castaño-Flores family is one marked by the many times they have been displaced. Chatting with Mario’s widow, she tells me how they met as adolescents in the farmlands of Arbol del Pan in La Larga Tumarado (Choco). Mario was her first love, and a year after they met they were married and she was pregnant with their first daughter. They lived happily together on the land that her father had gifted them. However, at the start of the 90s they were displaced for the first time in what would become a long series of uprooting the family and moving to a different area. At first they moved to an area called La Dispensa, “further downstream from El Guamo in the collective territory of Curbarado”, she tells me. There they lived with their first four daughters for quite a while, working the land together producing a wide variety of crops to eat and living happily despite having left the lands where they had grown up. Later the dark years of the military operation “Black September”[4] arrived. They were forced to move various times between Rio Sucio, Carmen del Darien and a place called La Pala (the spade).

In 1999 they were able to return to their property in Arbol del Pan, but according to Isabel they found the land occupied by a large business owner. They tried to stay and work the land but were forced to leave again and bought the land where they were living when Mario was killed, which they called La Poderosa (the powerful one). From then onwards, Mario Castaño began the process of reclaiming his land by legal means through institutional routes, and before long he began to receive threats. “Due to these threats we were forced to move to Monteria (a city in a neighbouring department)”, Isabel tells me, “but he was also threatened there and we were forced to move again, but then he connected with the Inter-church Commission for Justice and Truth (an organisation accompanied by PBI since 1994) and he began to travel lots, going to meetings with other leaders in other departments around the country. We stayed in Monteria for a year and then we came back to the farm.”

Another leader killed in Urabá

Mario lived in the Humanitarian Zone created in Caracoli in Curbarado, joining them in their process and later asked for help so that he and his family could return to their land in Arbol del Pan. In 2013 he formed the Biodiversity Zone of Arbol del Pan in La Larga Tumarado. For the last five years of his life he received constant threats against his life as a result of the demands and public statements he made in defense of the land and supporting other land-reclaimants in the area. However Mario decided to put-aside his own fears and continue with his work denouncing those who had taken ownership of the lands of which the reclaimants had been forcibly dispossessed.[5]

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Mario Castaño’s family in a act of memory a few months after his assassination

“He was man who fought for what he believed in, and he was very funny and entertaining, that’s how I will remember him,” concludes Isabel. It’s also how we will remember him.

Nathalie Bienfait


[1] Cijp: Asesinan al líder Mario Castaño Bravo, integrante de Conpaz en Chocó, 26 de noviembre 2017 ; Defensoría del Pueblo: Defensoría del Pueblo condena homicidio de líder de restitución de tierras de la región del Urabá chocoano, 27 de noviembre 2017

[2] La Paz en Terreno: Mario Manuel Castaño Bravo

[3] Forjando Futuro: Forjando el futuro de las regiones, Diálogo con las familias restituidas en : Urabá & Bajo Cauca, 30 de julio 2018

[4] Cijp: Una expresión de la guerra psicológica, 10 de septiembre 2014 ; Contagio Radio: Víctimas conmemoran los 20 años de la Operación “Septiembre Negro”, 8 de diciembre 2017

[5] Cinep: Mario Castaño Bravo, memoria de un líder incansable, 29 de noviembre 2017

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