In Tumaco: The March of Desperation

In Tumaco, as in other regions of the country, the Diocese of  Tumaco organized the Week for Peace under the motto, for the Dignity of the Victims, Truth, Justice and Wholistic Reparations. But this year two special events will occur simultaneously as part of the week’s activities. The first is the commemoration of 10 years after the murder of Sister Yolanda Cerón, and the second is a Massive Civic Mobilization, named by one of the people interviewed in the March of Desperation.

Commemoration of Historical Memory in the Week for Peace, 2008 and 2011.

September 15 was declared a non-working civic day, during which a strike was organized by the economic sector with the support of local government officials. The main objective of the strike was to denounce and say NO to a new form of violence in the second largest port of the Pacific: extortion of all economic activities, large and small, in Tumaco, leading to the use of explosives in attacks against those who refuse to pay.

According to the Chamber of Commerce, as a result of this type of extortion, 271 commercial establishments were closed in 2010 and 71 have been closed so far this year. There are indications that those responsible for these crimes are neo-paramilitary groups like Los Rastrojos and Las Águilas Negras, which are linked to paramilitary groups from Urabá, FARC militia from the Daniel Aldana mobile convoy, and common criminals. In recent months, explosives have been used to attack at least three shops, as well as the police and public forces. At the time of this report, the deaths of 9 policemen, 3 soldiers and 9 civilians have been recorded. Similarly, there have been increased kidnappings and assaults of people who travel by sea.

The desperation and hopelessness of those living in Tumaco is increased by the inability of State, civilian, and military institutions to prevent these acts and to protect civilians. This is despite the fact that Interagency Action was implemented in 2004 with the aid of U.S. resources to Colombia, first through the Interagency Action Coordination Center (CCAI), which in 2010 was converted into a Fusion Center, and recently under the new administration’s Coordination Center under the National Territorial Consolidation Plan (PCNT). Plan Troya Pacífico, which President Santos installed in May 2011 in Tumaco to combat the so-called criminal gangs, has also not succeeded in reducing violence.

On the contrary, it is indicated that Plan Troya has resulted in increased militarization (a new River Brigade with the Marine Infantry No. 4 , a command and a river assault battalion, and reinforcements of 1,400 men) in Tumaco in several sectors and by way of the presence of 2,400 members of 10 of the 30 mobile squadrons responsible for manually eradicating coca cultivation . This has increased the humanitarian crisis in Tumaco and neighboring municipalities through armed combat, mined areas, and military confrontations, among other situations that affect the civilian population. For example, according to the coordinators of the PCNT, between 2009 and May 2011 there were “41 incidents during eradication (30 cases of harassment, 8 landmine explosions, 1 ambush and 2 accidents), resulting in the deaths of 2 policemen and 1 eradicator, and injury to 18 policemen and 8 eradicators.”

The establishment of security in Tumaco is very precarious. During the seven years of this policy’s implementation they have only succeeded in stabilizing 9% of the area (24 of the 262 zones), and they are working on recovering the remaining 60% (Table 1 and Map 1.) The presence of the FARC, Los Rastrojos and the Aguilas Negras is especially strong in rural areas where these groups compete for territories and corridors for drug trafficking. These disputes over territorial and social control have moved to the urban area of Tumaco, where armed confrontations are replicated in many of the poorer neighborhoods and urban settlements. The struggle for control over the coast of Nariño is the cause of displacement, massacres, killings, and threats among other violations of human rights.

Map 1. State of territorial consolidation

Source PCNT, 2011.

The economic crisis and narcotrafficking

Despite the presence of more than 20 agencies that promote projects to replace coca with alternative production projects, unemployment and lack of income has remained constant in Tumaco. Proof of this are the 15,000 motorcycle taxidrivers who earn their living day to day moving people in Tumaco from one place to another. The economic crisis worsens, in part because the city continues to receive the displaced populations from rural areas as a result of disputes over territorial control by the guerrillas and paramilitaries, fighting between government forces and illegal armed actors, and strategies of forced eradication of coca crops that affect one’s means of daily support without offering economic alternatives. The humanitarian crisis especially affects the Awa indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities, particularly women, children and youth who are constantly victims of forced recruitment and/or who are forced to be used as informants and whistleblowers to monitor the movements in the neighborhood using a cell phone. These youth are also used for micro narcotrafficking.

Poverty, lack of opportunities, and the pressure of having to maintain a family also subject many women who are heads of households to be victims of labor exploitation by commercial fish companies where they work long hours without labor protection or social security. This situation has been denounced by several women’s organizations in Tumaco. The single mothers are forced to do work in degrading conditions for low pay (the women who collect conch shells are paid between 9 and 11 pesos for every 100 shells, an activity that requires working more than 8 hours in the heat of the sun without leaving the mangroves; shrimp cleaners spend all day on their feet to earn $1,200 pesos per kilo. Additionally, the women of Tumaco are linked – unlike in other regions – to all activities in the palm industry under conditions that require time and effort, and they don’t receive equal compensation to their male counterparts).

Women from Tumaco in the palm industry.

The economic crisis was exacerbated by a disease that rotted out the hearts of palm trees, affecting more than 28 thousand hectares of large, medium and small-scale palm producers’ crops, which has been the main economic activity in Tumaco since the 60′s.

"The palm industry in Tumaco."

Also, the promotion of alternative crops such as cacao, banana and cassava among others was a failure due to extenuating factors such as not establishing a market for these products, and aerial spraying with chemicals that negatively affect many of these projects. One must add to this the absence of productive sectors of formal employment and increased labor informality (street vendors, hairdressers, etc.), restrictions on fishing activities for safety reasons, ocean contamination, competition from Ecuadorian ships in Colombian waters, and, in recent years, extortion of businesses, both formal and informal, which has forced them to close. Thus, a frequently heard phrase is “I have to close up shop and go because I don’t have any extortion money.” Those who don’t leave and don’t pay are victims of the terrorist attacks described above which have led to the “March of Desperation.”

Informal labor Tumaco

In a vicious cycle, a lack of economic opportunity pushes small-scale farmers, Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities into coca cultivation. Despite the fact that Tumaco is at the epicenter of forced eradication and aerial spraying programs and has been the subject of 9 years of indiscriminate and continuous spraying, the municipality is now the largest producer of coca: 5,025 hectares (almost the same as in 2002) and is the largest producer of cocaine: 21% of the national total (SIMCI, 2010).

Map 2 and Graph 1. Coca cultivations in Tumaco

Sources: PCT, 2011 y SIMCI, 2010.

Cocaine continues to exit by the ports of Tumaco. This trafficking takes place not only in rural areas that are difficult to access, but also it is intensely present in neighborhoods surrounding the main anti-narcotics base in the south of the country, despite the strong presence of the Colombian and US military. Insufficient state action to control illegal trade is reflected in the fighting between armed groups who invade marginalized neighborhoods, located in small, clandestine ports with exits to the sea, mostly in districts 4 and 5, and resulting in multiple human rights violations to the inhabitants of these districts. In general, the casualties from this war are almost always young people from poorer neighborhoods, some of whom are connected to armed groups, and others who drive boats, either under threat or in order to get some income from illegal activities, and therefore link themselves to these illegal activities. It is also common that farmers and innocent fishermen are killed for not being mindful of the timing surrounding illegal activity, and for not soliciting permission regarding their whereabouts and, therefore, are considered informants of the enemy. Furthermore, fear in the communities rises due to the cruelty that is used in some cases of torture and murder of victims.

Controls to combat the smuggling of fuel from Ecuador are also insufficient. This fuel is used for legal and illegal boats and vehicles in the municipality as much as for use in the processing of cocaine. Drug trafficking is also protected by the ingenuity of the gunmen in the area who specialize in constructing semi-submersibles (vessels that are able to bypass police and military controls). These are the only such vessels in the world.

Forced displacement and invisible borders

Even the official figures [as opposed to the greater, unofficial figures] are compelling. The number of people displaced from Tumaco has increased exponentially (spiked) since the year 2006. Although there was a decrease in 2010 compared to the numbers from 2009, there are still complaints regarding the underreporting of the situation (among many examples of this are authorities’ refusal to accept people affected by aerial spraying as displaced, or people who, exhibiting the psychological effects of displacement, do not recount specific details of their displacement; also, people who did not declare their displacement within the first year).

Graph 2. Displacement in Tumaco 2002 – 2010

Source: Acción Social, 2011.

Forced displacement takes place on an individual and/or massive scale: in 2011, as a result of fighting between narcotics police units and the FARC, 30 families fled the territories governed by the Community Council of Alto Mira and Frontera (OCHA, 2011).

Displacement within urban sectors has also been increasing. Drug trafficking is the cause of an increase in rape and displacement within neighborhoods located on the three islands of the San Andres Archipelago in Tumaco. Disputes over control of cocaine routes, supplies and weapons, especially in the neighborhoods situated on coastal banks next to the sea have forced the displacement of families to different neighborhoods and between different islands. The area most affected are the 15 neighborhoods of Ciudadela , most of which have been displaced due to the armed conflict or because of the precarious economic situation caused by aerial fumigations. (La Ciudadela, November 11, Buenos Aires, California, El Carmelo, El Porvenir, Exportadora, Iberia, La Paz, Obrero 1, Unión Victoria, Unión Victoria 3-4, Viento Libre, Viento Libre 1, Viento Libre 2, Viento Libre 3, comprise Comuna 5, considered by Aid Agencies and social organizations as one of Tumaco’s biggest zones of conflict).

Map 3. San Andrés Archipelago in Tumaco

Serious situations of isolation and confinement have been reported in several settlements. In Viento Libre and Panamá for example, aid agencies, human rights organizations and public entities, including the police, cannot enter. The displacement between neighborhoods has several different causes, including murders of well-known figures in the community, threats against people who violate transit rules or who allow the entry of unknown persons, violence against women, forced recruitment, and use of young boys and girls as messengers and informants. During the visit it was common to hear of neighborhoods where people could not pass through the streets near their homes’ a situation which is popularly known as invisible borders’ where a street marks the division where no one can enter or leave without the permission of the [armed] actor who controls that area. Similarly, it was a common complaint that often small sums of money ($5 thousand pesos, the approximate equivalent of U.S. $2) would be given to children and adolescents to transport weapons in their school bags. Many of these children are then pulled into using drugs and joining illegal armed groups.

The hopelessness and the richness of Tumaco children and adolescents

In 2011 there have been several cases of inter-city displacement, including the most recent case involving 16 families in the Panamá neighborhood, which is one of the most violent neighborhoods in Ciudadela. Many of the displaced families were relocated to Barrio Brisas near the Airport, and one family was given support by the city to move to Ecuador. Needless to say, most of the districts of Tumaco are located in areas at high risk for natural disasters, which exacerbates the situation of marginalization and exclusion because in many of these areas basic public services such as power, sewage and garbage disposal cannot be installed.

Abandonment: militarization, marginalization, and poverty.

In Tumaco it is common to find a household that has been displaced more than twice, and often these households are headed by women whose spouses or partners have been murdered or disappeared.

Ethnic territories

Of the total population of Tumaco (183,006 people), 54.2% live in urban areas and 45.8% in rural areas. Those living in rural areas are part of the 15 Community Councils affiliated with RECOMPAS and the 12 indigenous reserves of the Awa and Eperara Siapidara peoples who occupy 48.21% and 18.26% of the territory respectively.

Collective territories of Alto Mira, Frontera and Rescate las Varas.

The recognition of ethnic groups’ land rights in Tumaco has been marked – just as it has in the rest of the country – by violence and by administrative and judicial dispossession of territory (when state officials participate in illegal and illegitimate appropriation of land). There are many leaders that have been killed or threatened when they seek to reclaim their lands. But undoubtedly, the most emblematic case is that of Sister Yolanda Cerón who was killed on September 19, 2010 in front of La Merced church in Nariño Park in Tumaco. Although the former commander known as Pablo Sevillano of [paramilitary group] the Libertadores del Sur took credit for the murder, the case continues in impunity, as it is said that it’s still unclear who ordered the crime. Sister Yolanda championed the struggle for the collective territories of black communities against groups that had appropriated the land for palm plantations, ranching and aquaculture, among other activities. The work of the Indigenous Social Pastoral group and of Sister Yolanda was instrumental in safeguarding the Awa reservations and in granting the collective titling of 264,836 hectares of land to black communities. But this was also the cause of threats to the Diocese of Tumaco and of the violent death of Yolanda.

Some of the people interviewed recalled that after the protest on the Panamerican Highway in 1996, where the key point of the petitions referred to the titling of lands traditionally occupied by black communities, there was an increase in the displacement and assassination of leaders (including Francisco Hurtado who conducted a census to recognize the rights of the Community Council of Alto Mira and Frontera). This absence of property titles allowed for the purchase and appropriation of land by outsiders. The territory governed by this Council continues to be the subject of many displacements and other human rights violations. On the one hand, the palm oil companies Palmeiras and Salamanca still have not returned the land to its rightful owners, despite the order of Incoder to do so. On the other hand, Asominuma has a presence in their territory, which is an organization that has been denounced for the forced displacement of the natives and their leaders, usurping their decision-making processes and representative bodies, and repopulating the territory with people from other parts of the country. These two situations are part of the PCNT’s Strategic Plan to strengthen the governability of black communities. But this is not the only case. In other cases of Afro-descendant and indigenous collective land titling (Bajo Mira and Rosario, among others) there are recurrent complaints of companies that build fences to expand their properties .

The uncertainty surrounding land possession is due to delays in titling processes and to customary practices -land is inherited by children without [legal] mediation in the processes of succession. In Tumaco, titling processes have been suspended for 22 years, which has created a situation that especially affects the more than 1,200 families that live along the highway to Pasto. In this vein, the PCNT has also solicited that Incoder revisit 800 applications for land titling certification.

Sexual violence and femicide

The serious situation of misery and poverty in Tumaco along with human rights violations must also be denounced. These conditions are openly exploited by Colombian and US military personnel who use their earnings on child prostitution among the local youth in the area along Morro’s beach (the area where the famous hotels are located). Similar complaints are made in rural areas where the coca eradicators are found.

Moreover, various people interviewed said that the militarization of Tumaco by legal and illegal armed groups, both national and international, is related to the increase in sexual violence and femicides. The neighboring municipalities do not escape this reality, but there is little from those areas that gets reported and made public.

The fear of reporting is the reason why there are no official figures on gender- motivated crimes against women, girls and adolescents, nor about the possible use of this violence by armed groups to challenge their opponents. To that extent, while aid agencies, members of the Diocese and women’s organizations take into account the rise in murders and other violations against women (including sexual violence, forced disappearance, torture and cruel forms of murder), civil and military authorities, including the PCNT, are emphatic in stating that it is just “rumors” that generate a collective imagination of terror against women. For women living in neighborhoods dominated by the neo-paramilitary groups, gang retaliation is triggered when a member becomes enraged with a woman for being the partner of, or for having any emotional relationship with, the enemy. The uncertainty in this area is reinforced by distrust in state institutions, including the proscecutor’s office. Distrust of the District Attorney is not unique to the victims and people of Tumaco. Some public officials have exerted pressure on the District Attorney in order that cases be re-routed to Bogota directly.

Female desperation

Civil society and international aid organizations, just like the Diocese, frequently receive reports of threats against those who do the reporting. Furthermore, in cases of crimes against women, prosecutors, mostly from the center of the province, revictimize girls and women victims through stereotypes and thought patterns that are classist, sexist and racist. During MINGA and INDEPAZ’s visit, they learned of a district attorney who responded to a rape case involving a female minor with, “Now that this happened, tell her to use a condom when she screws.” In other cases, aggression against women is considered a “petty offense” next to cases of homicide and terrorist acts that deserve priority attention.

Consolidation in Tumaco

According to municipal and PCNT officials following WOLA, CIP, MINGA and INDEPAZ’s visit to the area (Security and consolidation plans), members of the Community Councils participated in meetings organized in RECOMPAS with the goal of spreading information about the PCNT and defining the Strategic Plan along its three points: i) protection, justice and security, ii) economic recovery and reduction of vulnerability indicators and iii) strengthening of institutions and the community. They also created coordinating bodies and focused on areas of intervention (12 indigenous reservations located in 43 villages, 15 Community Councils in 191 villages, and 2 Townships “Espriella and Llorente” that are comprised of 25 villages).

Headquarters of the PCNT's Coordination Center.

The core lessons from 7 years of consolidation in Tumaco indicate the need for connection to local entities and to the communities, coordination between PCNT and other state agencies, and the intervention model in the Rescate Las Varas Community Council. Similarly, it has become clear that the greatest difficulties arise in respect to access to justice. As mentioned above, given the shortcomings of the local District Attorney, investigations against members of the so-called emerging gangs are sent to Bogota. Moreover, despite the requests of the coordinators of the PCNT, they have not appointed specialized judges in this municipality.

In terms of economic recovery, the progress of the PCNT consists in becoming part of ongoing initiatives led by authorities of the Community Councils with support from the Nariño Government and international aid, mainly USAID. This is the case of the program “Yes We Can” (“Sí se Puede”) in the territory of the Rescate de Las Varas Community Council that manages its governance, and which the Coordination Center considers to be the Consolidation Intervention Model. It is the only Community Council that has voluntarily eradicated its coca crops, replacing them with production projects that are accompanied by actions to strengthen the governance of the Council. (In the next installment on Consolidation in Tumaco, an additional note will be included examining this experience).
Other current initiatives involving the PCNT are: i) a project aimed at forest conservation, Forest Care-Takers of the Pacific (Guardabosques del Pacifico) in the Community Council Bajo Mira and Frontera ii) the Monte Bravo Project, initially led by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the FAO, and later taken over by USAID- ADAM, and currently by ARD in the territories governed by the Community Councils of Chaguí, Rosario and Mejicano iii) the planting of cocoa and coconut in Alto Mira and Frontera, ACAPA and other Councils in Tumaco’s Ensenada area iv) reviving the crops of small-scale palm producers associated with Cordeagropaz and Palmasur and v) the establishment of the Transformation Agrarian Society for the cultivation, processing and marketing of seafood – USAID – the Nariño Government .

Additionally, the PCNT was part of the Strengthening Security Processes and Citizen Coexistence project led by the Municipality of Tumaco, which was targeted at urban areas. It has supported infrastructure projects such as the construction of the Government House for the Community Council of Bajo Mira in Imbilí, the aqueduct and Chilví – Robles road in the Rescate Las Varas Council, the Candilejas de la Mar pier, the Junín- Barbacoas road. Of these projects, the last three were with the participation of Army engineers.

Consolidation in Tumaco has also been linked to the Ministry of Agriculture’s support program for the revival of palm plantations, and to the strengthening of artisanal fishing, the titling of vacant land along the road to Pasto, and the recovery of the occupied territories of the Alto Mira Community Council, which are all actions being advanced by Incoder.

Graph 3. Tumaco’s Consolidation Zones of Intervention

Source. PCNT, 2011.

Challenges of the PCNT

Among the major challenges of the Consolidation Policy in Tumaco, as in other municipalities, is the challenge of coordinating with the mayors that will be elected in October and who begin their work in January 2012. This means adjusting the Strategic Plan for Consolidation to the new government’s plans of municipal development and involving the local authorities in implementing this policy. This is only possible when the restructuring of the National Territorial Consolidation Policy on Territory along with mechanisms to ensure its publicity and diffusion is defined from the core so that its implementation gaurantees the information, participation, and control by communities, local authorities and representative bodies.

In addition, the PCNT will have to advance the recovery of zones that remain under the control of illegal armed paramilitary and guerrilla groups, and prevent their actions in neighboring municipalities from intensifying and continuing to be the cause of serious and systematic violations of human rights that undermine their results. One must not forget that Tumaco is the third recipient of displaced people from neighboring municipalities such as Olaya Herrera, Barbacoas, Francisco Pizarro and Roberto Payán, among other areas where the humanitarian crisis has increased due to the fighting for control of the west of Nariño. This new population experiences exacerbated violence, unemployment and insecurity in Tumaco. For example, there have been cases of people killed in Tumaco after having fled from their places of origin. Finally, targeting the consolidation in a municipality without looking at what happens in surrounding areas does not seem to be ideal for ensuring the safety and welfare objectives of the Consolidation Policy.

Faced with cases of alleged violations of the rights of women and children, it is essential that the PCNT initiate actions to facilitate and encourage reports, investigations and actions against those responsible for the crimes, under the terms ordered by the Constitutional Court (Order 092 of 2009). To not do so is to otherwise allow that the violations be invisible, increasing levels of impunity. Similarly, the commitment of the Coordination Center to the defense of ethnic groups’ territorial rights, particularly in the Alto Mira Council, should lead to compliance with Court Orders 004 and 005 of 2009 above the budding develop patterns in Tumaco.

Another challenge for the PCNT is to ensure that those responsible for dispossession of lands do not benefit from the titling process of vacant lands along the highway to Pasto, nor do lawyers who want to take advantage of the ignorance and the state of need found within the communities to the detriment of the rights and claims of the native peoples.

PCNT – National Consolidation Plan of Democratic Prosperity 2010 – 2014 – Beyond Democratic Security 2002 – 2019.

The Plan is defined as “a coordinated, progressive and irreversible process, seeking to consolidate the coordination of state efforts to ensure an environment of security and peace in a sustainable manner that allows the strengthening of democratic institutions for the benefit of the free exercise of civil rights and creating conditions for human development”. It isn’t “an entity, but rather an example of interagency coordination”. And, for that reason, “is also articulated by its ability to administer resources”.

It is part of the U.S. Doctrine of Interagency Action; which seeks to coordinate military resources and actions with social ones, and is receiving economic resources through military and social funding from the United States.

The plan is being implemented in 12 provinces and in 58 municipalities, three of which are in Narióo: Tumaco, on the Pacific Coast, and Leyva and Rosario, which are in the Andean zone.

Source: Report of the National Government to the Constitutional Court on the progress in the state’s overcoming of things declared unconstitutional in the ruling t-025 from 2004, Bogota, June 2011. The National Development Plan 2010-2014 (Law 1450/11) and reports and interviews and documents about the PCNT.

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