While the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic and many are experiencing for the first time the unsettling reality of having to consider whether a visit to see family or friends could put oneself in danger, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, already accustomed to these risks, has been organising. Crisis management and limits on their movements are nothing new in a community that, in their 23 years of non-violent resistance to the armed groups that have controlled this area of Urabá, has seen over 300 of its members killed1.
Even before the government announced an official quarantine, the community started taking necessary actions to protect themselves and the wider civilian population, limiting contact between members and with those from outside the community2. This is especially important in San José de Apartadó where, like many rural areas of Colombia3, access to healthcare is limited.
The community has adapted their work to minimise the risk of infection and ensure their long-term stability. Unfortunately, the pandemic has not removed the previous conditions that made their non-violent resistance so necessary and so courageous. On the contrary, across Colombia armed groups are taking advantage of the pandemic to increase their control4. In San José de Apartadó, the group that continues to threaten the wellbeing of the members of the Peace Community are the self-named Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC). The community have consistently denounced the lack of a response from the Colombian authorities to control this group5. Recently the bishop of Apartadó also stated that the Colombian government does not have the will to bring this group to justice6.
The community have recently denounced the fact that the AGC have wasted no time in taking advantage of the crisis. Firstly, further increasing their control over the civilian population, resulting in even more pressure on the members of the Peace Community, who resist this control7. Secondly, trying to isolate and demonise the community, spreading false rumours that, through their international accompaniment, they are bringing the virus to the area8.
The Peace Community’s reaction to the pandemic, showing preparedness and responsibility, will come as no surprise to those familiar with the community, their history and their decision-making processes. Since their conception they have survived, resisted and managed countless crises through a consistent focus on the collective above the needs of the individual, a decision-making process in which various voices are heard and valued, and a sense of love and care for their community. Their care for their community does not just extend to their own members; they have consistently shown their support to other residents of San José de Apartadó though community actions, denunciations of human rights violations9 and many other acts of solidarity. Despite attempts from armed actors to drive a wedge between them10, the Peace Community have shown that they have always known what the COVID-19 crisis is teaching many of us; that our neighbour’s health is our health and our community’s security is our family’s security.
As the pandemic has increased pressure on the community, international support remains essential. Actions that have been taken since the start of the quarantine have helped to draw international attention to this situation, such as a letter in April11 from the community’s European support network and, in July, a letter from 94 US congresspeople12 highlighting the importance of protecting human rights defenders in Colombia, and specifically mentioning the situation of the Peace Community. These actions are extremely important, since the international community demands that the Colombian government guarantee the safety of the women, men, girls and boys who are the present and future of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.
Sam O’Hara, field volunteer in Urabá
1 Colombia Plural, ¿Por qué resiste la comunidad de paz de San José de Apartadó?, 3 January, 2017
2 Interview with peace community member
3 Semana Rural, Ir al médico, toda una odisea en la Colombia rural, 22 May, 2018
4 Verdad Abierta, ¿Grupos criminales aprovechan pandemia para fortalecer sus negocios ilícitos?, 8 April, 2020
5 Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Paramilitarismo que reconfirma su instinto asesino, 3 July, 2020
6 El Espectador, “No hay voluntad del Gobierno para someter a los gaitanistas”: obispo de Apartadó, 20 April, 2020
7 Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Los camuflajes de la muerte en la verdadera pandemia, 22 June, 2020
8 Interview with peace community member
9 Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Aniversario en medio de virus mortales, 30 March, 2020
10 Interview with peace community member
11 Zarabandas, San José de Apartadó, en momentos de COVID19 se estrechan las relaciones de solidaridad internacional, 21 April, 2020
12 El Espectador, Congresistas de EE.UU. piden a Trump que presione a Duque y se proteja a los líderes sociales en Colombia, 6th of July 2020
Featured image: Alejandro González