On 5 July 2018, the Inter-Ethnic Solidarity Forum Chocó, the Permanent Roundtable for Dialogue and Coordination of the Indigenous People of Chocó and the Dioceses of Apartadó, Istmina-Tadó and Quibdó issued a public statement regarding the serious humanitarian crisis in Chocó, which they report has been caused by the inefficiency of the State, the presence of illegal armed groups and the high levels of crime. They call for the continuation of the Peace Talks with the ELN and ask for a bilateral ceasefire and respect for international humanitarian law.
The territorial disputes between the ELN and the Clan del Golfo have been affecting the life in the communities, with armed groups living amongst afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. They are threatening the population and have been planting landmines in many places. The population is desperate; they do not see a light at the end of the tunnel of the peace process, which still has not delivered the expected changes for Chocó.
— Bishop Juan Carlos Barreto, Diocese of Quibdó, Chocó
Chocó is an area that has been severely impacted by the conflict. The organisations and the Catholic Church in Colombia draw attention to the neglect on the part of the State, with all basic needs in Chocó remaining unsatisfied. Added to this is the continued conflict between the paramilitary groups Clan del Golfo and the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) and the guerrilla group Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), engaged in a struggle for the control of territory and resources, such as illegal mining and coca cultivation.
The church and ethnic-territorial organisations value a negotiated solution to the armed conflict and call upon the national government to ensure an effective implementation of the Peace Accord with the FARC. Likewise, we ask for the negotiating table with the ELN in Havana to continue, based on criteria of truth and coherency, and with respect for the trust of the Colombian people.
— Public Statement issued by Bishops of Chocó
Bishop Barreto of ABColombia partner, the Diocese of Quibdó, says the Government needs to change its approach to the territorial and ethnic focus in Chocó. More than a year has passed since the signing of the Peace Accord with the FARC in November 2016, but the Government has not implemented the required changes to ensure an end to the conflict and the provision of basic services.
After a civic strike in August 2016, the State had entered into an agreement with the Civic Committee of Chocó and committed to implementing structural improvements in relation to education, infrastructure, public services, security and human rights, amongst others. However, these commitments have not been fulfilled. Today, Chocó still lacks aqueducts, basic sanitation, drinking water, adequate health and education services. The communities in Chocó should be guaranteed by the State a dignified life with the protection of their rights.
The Colombian state has historically been absent in Chocó and this has not significantly improved since the signing of the Peace Accord with the FARC. Whilst the Peace Accord has widely been seen as positive step in Chocó, the communities complain that the Government has made little progress in the implementation process and that it has failed to implement the Ethnic Chapter. The Government has also failed to recover territorial control over the areas that were left by the FARC, leaving the civilian population of Chocó defenceless vis-à-vis the paramilitary groups, the ELN and other armed actors that are now fighting over territorial control in those areas. This was confirmed by the Constitutional Court and has recently been documented by the ethno-territorial organisations and institutions like the Ombudsman and the UN OCHA.
Chocó is a highly militarised zone, but despite the deployment of over 2,500 troops to Chocó as part of Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta Titán (Titan), a special joint task force of Navy, Army and Air Force, the military has not been able to effectively control the region and protect the population. The Army and the Navy undertake operations in the territory, but they are not sufficient to offset the activities of the illegal armed groups. In addition, the communities are concerned that the Army has a network of informants from the civilian population, which violates the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants under international humanitarian law.
Moreover, the Armed Forces have not substantially assumed their responsibilities regarding its activities on collectively owned territories. The civilian population is also put at serious risk by infrastructure and sanitation works, as well as projects of social inclusion, which are implemented by the Army without effective security measures. Given the intensity of the ongoing armed conflict in the region, the presence of the armed forces in communities puts these communities at risk of reprisals. It is essential that the local authorities and civilian institutions carry out these tasks, and not the armed forces, whilst the conflict continues.
Increasing presence of illegal armed groups
The presence and territorial disputes between different illegal armed actors, including the ELN and neo-paramilitary groups like the AGC and Clan del Golfo, aggravates the humanitarian situation in Chocó, especially in ethnic territories.
The presence of the Clan del Golfo, which occupies and fights over the ethnic territories, is evident. This group has increased its activities in the region: it gets its funding from illegal economies, such as illegal mining, cocaine trade and extorsion, and it forces member of the communities to be their informants.
— Public Statement from 5 July 2018
In December 2017, the Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning about the homicide levels in Chocó; in some areas of Chocó, homicide rates increased by as much as 230% in 2017. Communities are concerned that in the larger urban centres of Chocó, where illegal armed actors are in control, the homicide levels exceed the national average.
The armed groups also systematically extort the population, enforce invisible borders, restrict the free movement of the population by imposing curfews, restrict access of people from outside, engage in small-scale drug trafficking, using children and young people as informants, and they frequently rape minors.
— Public Statement from 5 July 2018
Conflict-related sexual violence is used as a weapon of war to terrorise the population. In 2017, Human Rights Watch documented the increasing levels of pregnancies of young girls in Chocó, who are forced to have sexual relations with members of paramilitary groups. Families often do not report the sexual violence, for fear of retaliation by the armed groups. This means perpetrators can act with complete impunity.
The expansion of the ELN’s presence and influence in Chocó is further exacerbating the crisis and spreading generalised fear among the civilian population. The ELN, over the last months, has increased its presence in all sub-regions of Chocó, exercising territorial control with firearms and planting landmines. The ELN’s activities are funded through revenues from illegal economies such as illegal mining, drug trafficking, theft of domestic animals, as well as the systematic extorsion of small business owners. They recruit minors from the afro-Colombian and indigenous communities; they put pressure on members of the communities to be their informants and indiscriminately stigmatise and threaten people; they convene mandatory meetings, forcing the communities to participate in them; they force people on collectively owned territories to participate in arbitrary sports activities and cultural events and prevent people from pursuing their traditional way of life. On 13 May 2018, the ELN interrupted a community festival and killed José David Hurtado Mosquera in Pogue-Bojayá.
These actions of the illegal armed actors across the department of Chocó have led to forced displacement, forced confinement of several communities, as well as restricting community leadership. The humanitarian crisis is further aggravated by the social and environmental crisis in Chocó.
The signatories of the public statement from 5 July call for:
The Colombian Government
- to guarantee free movement and integrated security for social leaders, communities and civil society organisations in Chocó;
- to comply with the safeguards and commitments set out in the Ethnic Chapter in the Peace Accord;
- to dismantle the illegal armed groups;
- to address the serious humanitarian, social and environmental crisis in Chocó, in accordance with Constitutional Court Sentence T-622 of 2016, which recognised the River Atrato as subject of rights.
State Security Forces
- That the state security entities comply with their responsibility to protect the human rights of the inhabitants of Chocó.
ELN and Colombian Government
- That they implement the petitions made in the proposal for a humanitarian agreement for Chocó – Acuerdo Humanitario Ya!; and commit to a bilateral ceasefire, ensuring respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.
The department of Chocó, located on the Colombian Pacific Coast, is home to Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and Mestizo communities. In spite of its cultural and natural diversity and wealth, the region has a history of marginalisation, state abandonment, corruption and underdevelopment. Its population is most affected by the internal armed conflict, defined by drug trafficking, illegal arms trafficking, forced recruitment, illegal mining and forced displacement due to extensive agricultural projects and extractive activities.
According to the official census from 2011, about 80% of the population of Chocó has no or insufficient access to housing, public services and education. More than 30% live in extreme poverty. The Litoral San Juan in Chocó has the second highest number of displacements by paramilitaries in Colombia after Buenaventura.
In June, communities of Chocó sent an open letter to the ELN, about the humanitarian emergency (“SOS”) on their territory, caused by constant attacks by the ELN on indigenous and afro-Colombian communities.
On 7 July, COCOMACIA, Diocese of Quibdó, Association of the Embera, Katío, Chamí and Tule Indigenous communities in Chocó OREWA, Federation of Indigenous Chapters (FEDEOREWA) sent another open letter to the ELN, reaffirming the humanitarian emergency. You can read the open letter in English or Spanish.
 Contagio Radio, Paramilitares obligan a comunidad a asistir a reunión en Cacarica, Chocó (06 June 2017)
 According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the regions of Darién and Bajo Atrato were most affected by rising homicide rates in Chocó, with an increase by 280% in 2017, the majority of cases being related to disputes over land: Caracol, Tasa de homicidios en Chocó creció en 230 por ciento: fiscal (21 December 2017)
 Contagio Radio, La crisis humanitaria del Chocó según Human Rights Watch (7 June 2017)