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The Afro-Colombian Community: Caught in the Middle of the Armed Conflict in Colombia
By Luis G. Murillo
Colombia has undergone forty years of armed conflict brought about by social injustice and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Some five thousand victims of political violence (mainly peasants, unionists, community leaders, academics, students, human rights workers and independent political leaders) die every year in Colombia. Colombia is the third largest Latin American country, with 42 million inhabitants. About 40% of the population is Afro-Colombian. The Afro-Colombian community has traditionally lived on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and in the middle and lower Magdalena River Valley, although recent migrations have led many to large cities like Bogota, Pereira and Villavicencio.
The Afro-Colombian population faces widespread poverty, social exclusion, racial discrimination, institutionalized racism and a state of invisibility. It is still socially acceptable for the Colombian mass media to commonly refer to Afro-Colombians using racist and stereotypical language. 85% live in poverty. There is one doctor per 10,000 Afro-Colombians; the national average is 1 per 1000. Per capita income is only $500 per year, while the average in Colombia is $1700. Due in large part to the colonial heritage of racism, the social and economic conditions of Afro-Colombians differ from those of Colombians of non-African descent. Like the vast majority of Colombians, we are affected by the exclusionary and repressive political system that characterizes modern Colombia.
The Armed Conflict
Most of the armed conflict in Colombia occurs in areas traditionally inhabited by Afro-Colombians. The armed actors - be they the government army or their paramilitary allies, or the guerrillas - are all guilty of grave human rights violations. Afro-Colombians have fallen victim to hundreds of selective assassinations and massacres. This violence is related to a round of Afro-Colombian victories based in the 1991 Colombian Constitution, which recognized Afro-Colombian ethnic and cultural rights, as well as their collective right of land ownership in Colombian Pacific coast river valleys. These lands contain tremendous natural and mineral resources (timber, gold, copper, oil, gas, etc.) and are among the most biodiverse lands in the world. This area is also of geostrategic importance, being at the entry point from Central to South America.
In the early 1990s, at the same time that Afro-Colombians were receiving collective titles to their land, a wave of military and paramilitary violence was unleashed on their communities, with bombings and massacres leaving hundreds dead and thousands displaced. This violence continues unabated today. In Colombia, there are two million displaced people (i.e. internal refugees), 60% of whom are Afro-Colombian. Nevertheless, public debate on the conflict in Colombia invariably ignores the Afro-Colombian perspective.
The Colombian conflict goes far beyond a simple drug problem. U.S. policy towards Colombia has erroneously focused on an unsuccessful drug war, which has tremendous social costs as well as destructive environmental impacts. The Clinton administration approved the $1.3 billion Plan Colombia, 80% of which consists of military aid to the Colombian army, which has the worst human rights record in the Western hemisphere. Paramilitary forces, closely allied to the Colombian military, commit 80% of the massacres and human rights violations affecting Afro-Colombians. As in the United States, the poorly-named "war on drugs" has a markedly racial nature. U.S. policy toward Colombia is throwing oil on the fire of the armed conflict. Colombia does not need U.S. helicopter gunships, it needs support for peace and reconciliation.
You Can Help
We call on citizens of this country - especially African-Americans - to raise awareness, visit Colombia to see the situation first-hand, support Afro-Colombian organizations, and/or sponsor material aid campaigns to assist those displaced by the violence. We call on you to contact your congresspeople and senators and educate them, to reorient U.S. policy on Colombia toward the promotion of peace and reconciliation, especially with respect to human rights and the rights of Afro-Colombians.
Luis G. Murillo is the ex-governor of Chocoa, a predominantly Afro-Colombian province. He is one of several brilliant, independent leaders to lead the fight for land rights: a fight in which Afro-Colombians have legitimately won collective title to Choco. Although relatively unknown in the United States, this struggle is an important inspiration in South America among those who support development that is autonomous to the influence of wanna-be exploiters, such as multinational corporations looking for oil, or Colombian financiers looking to make a buck off infrastructure development.
People like this come under attack. The well-financed opposition uses its money and endemic corruption to whittle away at the people's victories and wear the people down. When that fails, the paramilitaries chase the people off the land. It makes it quite a bit harder to fight for your land rights when half your family has been killed and the other half is trying to stay alive in some filthy refugee camp. Luis was an outspoken critic of the paramilitaries and tried to have the entire state of Choco declared a peace zone that's off-limits to all the armed groups. So he was abducted by the death squads who showed him photographs of his family as they undertook their daily routines. Luis was given the choice of paying the paras off or having his entire family killed.
Like many other grassroots leaders, Luis had to take his family out of the country. But unlike most, he came to the United States instead of Europe. Thanks to the support he has received here, he has been granted asylum! Luis has been studying English and has begun to speak out publicly. He spoke eloquently against U.S. policy at VVAW's Memorial Day ceremony in Chicago this past May.
Luis is passionate about returning to Colombia to continue the struggle, but in the meantime, we can help here! If you want to sponsor him at your university or other function, or if you are willing to help with badly-needed financial support, contact: Colombia Human Rights Committee, P.O. Box 3130, Washington, DC 20010, telephone 202-232-8148, e-mail <email@example.com>. Checks should be made out to the Colombia Human Rights Committee with Luis Gilberto Murillo written in the item line.