“We Returned and Here We Are: We Are Genesis”

Operations Genesis and Cacarica: In the face of terror, a resistance story

The Bajo Atrato region, in northeastern Colombian, has been particularly hard hit by violence and the armed conflict. According to the Victims Unit, the registry for this area includes close to 429,820 victims of forced displacement, dispossession, selective murders, and other victimizing acts.[1] One of the cruelest events that marked forever the history of the Atrato River’s Afro-Colombian communities occurred in the Cacarica river basin. Between the 24 and 27 of February 1997, Operation Genesis was executed. It was an offensive led by General Rito Alejo del Río, then commander of the Army’s 17th Brigade, in coordination with the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (Elmer Cárdenas Bloc) paramilitary group, and under the pretext of taking back control from the FARC-EP guerrillas.[2] In parallel and through joint operations with  Military Troops,[3] the paramilitary group called the Peasant Self-defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), initiated Operation Cacarica, crossing the Atrato River until they invaded the Salaquí, Truandó, and Perancho river basins.[4]


These military and paramilitary operations, which included a week of bombardments, caused the mass displacement of 3,500 Afro-Colombians,[5] 86 individuals were murdered, and hundreds of homes and communities were burned.[6] In 2013, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)[7] declared that the Colombian state was responsible for the mass displacement, illegal dispossession of lands belonging to the Afro-descendant communities, and the brutal murder of Marino López.[8] López was a farmer from Bijao (Cacarica) who was tortured and murdered by paramilitaries who then played soccer with his head in the middle of his terrified community.

Some of the people forcibly displaced by these serious incidents were exiled to Panama or were displaced to other regions of Colombia.[9] Around 2,300 people was provisionally sheltered at the Turbo coliseum and Bocas del Atrato under inhuman conditions, while experiencing threats and stigmatization. Three long years passed before the displaced communities were able to initiate the process to return to their ancestral territories. In 2000, under the concept of a peace community, they returned with the name of “Community of Self-determination, Life, and Dignity” (CAVIDA), and they created the settlements of “Esperanza en Dios” (Hope in God) and “Nueva Vida” (New Life), which have since been established as Humanitarian Zones.  The entrance of armed actors, whether legal or illegal, is prohibited in these spaces as a resistance measure and way to remain in a territory that continues to be hard hit by the armed conflict.

After 25 years of resistance: Memory without forgetting

The 25th anniversary of Operation Genesis was commemorated on February 24 to 28, in the context of the VII Memory Festival, organized by the Commission of Justice and Peace (JyP). From the Humanitarian Zones of Cacarica, the focus is on reconstructing history from a collective memory, which includes different truths, different perspectives, and places survivors’ memories, voices, and struggles as the corner stone. Starting from a dignification of their experiences, victimizers and survivors can recognize the innermost meanings of these central events. The focus is also placed on the needs of both parts who, united by a will to dialogue, have a clear horizon: acknowledge the truth through narratives that aim to generate coexistence and reconciliation. Amid the tropical heat of Urabá, the synergy created through the Memory Festival, accompanied by PBI, builds bridges of solidarity. Testimonies are used to share similar struggles that occur in other territories, both in Colombia and abroad.

In the context of a punitive culture—where prison time continues to be seen as the only option to achieve justice—organizations, individuals, and communities that promote human rights are defending alternative proposals such as restorative justice. Initiatives like the Memory Festival seek out to uncover the roots of justice, empowering society from the premise that forgiveness cannot be instrumentalized but should be restorative and in no way should signify forgetting. The protagonists of the terror that was Operation Genesis understand that remembering opens a path to a new future. They understand that truth, justice, and non-repetition are not possible without individual and collective memory.

On the other hand, sharing testimonies and speaking the truth helps to understand something that is nonsensical and allows for a recovery of histories with a deep human, social, and political dimension rooted in collective listening. That is precisely what made this a liberating experience: it demonstrated that words are more than words. They are more than just naming or describing the world around us, instead they flow and generate movements that call us to act. The women of Clamores exemplified this during the March of Silence in Turbo, using their culture of singing stories and demonstrating the rich and creative memory held in their voices, as well as their needs and ability to generate proposals.

At a time when the armed conflict continues to expand in the Bajo Atrato region, the dialogue between the past, the present, and the horizon that marks the future allows us to glimpse the strength of a voice that breaks under the pain of memory, and the will of all parts to forgive, coexist, and focus on a new societal model. Under the motto “We Are Genesis”—an expression that calls forth the efforts, courage, and collective resistance—the communities continue to promote the idea that the territories remain at the center of efforts to build stable and lasting peace.

Ariane Paredes and Margherita Forni

Uraba Team – PBI Colombia

[1] Comisión de la Verdad: El Bajo Atrato y Urabá quieren la paz: ¿por qué ha sido tan esquiva?, 7 July 2021.


[3] According to the confession from ex- paramilitary boss Fredy Rendón Herrera, alias `El Alemán’ before public prosecutors and Justice and Peace judges.

[4] Verdad Abierta: Estado no protegió a comunidades durante Operación Génesis, 28 December 2013.

[5] Semana, El caso Marino López, 3 September 2008.

[6]El Tiempo: Colombia, condenada por la operación Génesis, 27 December 2013.

[7]Verdad Abierta: La Operación Genesis fue denunciada ante la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, 26 July 2011.

[8]El Tiempo: Colombia, condenada por la operación Génesis, 27 December 2013.


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