The disappearance and murder of four people and a number of cases of mass forced displacement and confinement, have drawn the government’s attention to the neglected Naya region, located between the Colombian departments of Cauca and Valle del Cauca.
A dissident group from the 30th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) claimed responsibility for the deaths, and an impending conflict is feared between this group and another moving into the area.
After several weeks of uncertainty, on June 3, the name of the group wreaking havoc on the Naya region was made public: United Force of the Pacific (Fuerza Unida del Pacífico). A two-minute video was released featuring a black man dressed in camouflage with insignia reminiscent of the FARC and his face covered by a balaclava. Accompanied by three men armed with rifles, he read a brief statement in which the group took responsibility for the “retention” and “execution” of brothers Hermen, Obdulio and Iber Angulo Zamora, as well as Simeón Zamora.
The events date back to April 17, when a man known in the area as alias “Cachetes” contracted the services of Hermen, a fiberglass boat builder, to pick up a delivery in the town of Taparal on the Micay River. Before departing, Hermen’s brother Obdulio, an area teacher, offered to go along. Cachetes also sent Simeón with them.
It was assumed it would be a simple one-day, round trip. However, the men’s whereabouts were unknown after they left the village of Juan Santo, until last Sunday. Their disappearance led Iber — an active community leader who promoted the substitution of coca crops and was a member of the National Coordinator of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Farmers (Coordinadora Nacional de Cultivadores de Coca, Amapola y Marihuana – COCCAM) — to inquire after them and contact the leaders of the FARC dissident group. The leaders of that group are alleged to be two men, one of whom goes by the aliases “Jair” and “El Loco,” and the other by the alias “Chumbi.”
In response to the inquiries, on May 2, Jair arrived in Juan Santo with 15 armed men and began desperately searching for Iber, looting several homes. But they did not find him. The community leader had already escaped out of the back of his house. He then spent three days in the jungle before an Ombudsman’s Office humanitarian mission set out from Buenaventura and picked him up in a boat provided by Colombia’s National Learning Service (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje – SENA).
After navigating for several minutes, Iber’s worst fears were confirmed: Hermen, Obdulio and Simeón were being held at one of the dissident group’s checkpoints. According to a statement released by the Ombudsman’s Office, “At 2:28 p.m. a call was received from the mission announcing that the boat had been intercepted on the Naya River at the village of Santa María by another boat with people armed with long range weapons who aggressively proceeded to seize the mission sent for Iber Angulo Zamora.”
The press release also stated that “when the officials from the Ombudsman’s Office stopped to request an explanation and respect for the humanitarian mission, the weapons were pointed threateningly at them in grave violation of the principles of international humanitarian law.”
Sources that have worked in the region consulted by Verdad Abierta still have no explanation for why this attack on the humanitarian mission occurred in an area where the navy has presence.
“A security council meeting was held the night before in Buenaventura, and the authorities knew that the commission was going to go in the next day. The question is, ‘Why didn’t they protect it?’” a source said.
From the moment he was captured, Iber was added to the list of people held by the dissident members of the FARC that had formed in the Naya region after the FARC laid down their weapons. At the time, authorities had no information about the group.
The silence was broken, however, when the United Force of the Pacific claimed responsibility for the “execution” of the four men. But their “justification” produced a great deal of outrage throughout the Naya because the dissidents claimed the four men were criminals with links to paramilitary groups, and even questioned the work of the national and local ombudsman’s offices and international organizations because they recognized the detained men as human rights leaders.
Allegations that the four men were criminals with ties to paramilitary groups caused pain and indignation among the people of the area. One person with detailed knowledge of the situation in the region told Verdad Abierta that the statements are false because the four abducted men worked with their communities, and no one in the region would have ties with paramilitary groups. One reason it is unlikely they would be part of such illegal structures stems from a past event: During Holy Week in 2001 the Calima Bloc of the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) committed one of the worst massacres in the history of the armed conflict and caused a dramatic massive displacement.
Trapped Between Dissidents
The same source also said that the justification given by the United Force of the Pacific regarding alleged links to paramilitary groups could be an effort to stave off a confrontation by sending a message to another FARC dissident group moving into the territory from the upper Naya region.
In mid-May, a group calling itself the Jaime Martínes Mobile Column began to circulate a pamphlet in which it introduced itself as a political-military group that was not involved in either drug trafficking or common crime, in contrast to other groups acting under the guise of the guerrilla cause. In the five points made in the pamphlet, the group distances itself from those who call themselves “the defenders of the Pacific” and points out that they are causing deaths and disappearances such as those of the Angulo brothers.
For that reason, the group announced, “our organization will combat that group because they have not accepted the ideological political-military guidelines and have only caused great discredit to the FARC.”
It is being said throughout the region there was a confrontation two weeks ago in the village of El Saltillo between Jair’s men and a dissident group that has been encroaching on the area from the upper Naya. Versions of the event vary but consistently indicate that men from the United Force of the Pacific died. Some say two perished, others four and still others that up to eight died in the fighting.
According to fieldwork carried out by the Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas Para la Paz – FIP), which on 15 April published a detailed investigation on the state of the FARC dissidents, since October rumours were heard regarding how the 30th Front had settled in the town of Jamundí, Valle del Cauca department and was expected to expand to the valley towns of Suárez and Buenos Aires. The move could be further confirmed through a confrontation that occurred between FARC dissidents in the jurisdiction of an indigenous reservation that left several casualties in its wake and caused the displacement of dozens of native Colombians.
Meanwhile, Valle de Cauca department’s Secretary of Peace and Reconciliation Fabio Cardozo, who was in the region as part of an interinstitutional commission to learn about the situation first-hand and assist the displaced, told Verdad Abierta that he does not know about the version of events involving a second dissident group and possible confrontations in the upper Naya region because the mission only reached the middle Naya. He clarified, however, that the area could be reached from Jamundí on mules or along the riverbank, adding, “It’s a wild and distant place. It’s where a good part of illicit farming is concentrated.”
The Inter-Ecclesial Commission on Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz), which assists communities near the Pacific coast, has also commented on the situation. In a May 22 press release, it stated that the previous day “in the morning residents in the area of the village of La Concepción heard shots fired estimated to have come from … El Saltillo, on the road leading from the lower Naya to the upper Naya.”
The statement continued, “the existing militarization from the mouth of the river to San Francisco, criminal group operations in the lower area — to which the alleged disappearance of the Angulo brothers and Simeón are attributed — and the FARC dissident groups that could be controlling the upper Naya region, are putting the population at high risk. The Community Council reopened two refuge spaces in San Francisco and La Concepción.”
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If the region’s rumors are verified, the situation could worsen because the 64 communities in the Naya region could become trapped in a violent and bloody dispute for control of the area’s illicit economies. Sources knowledgeable of the regional dynamics indicate that Jair’s group, which is concentrated in one of the areas where the FARC laid down their arms, is made up of 30 men, has informants on its payroll in almost every town in the region and charges those transporting drugs to the Pacific coast a “tax.”
In the wake of the four disappearances finally recognized by the United Force of the Pacific as executions, four massive displacements have occurred involving 232 families that went to Buenaventura and Cali. Some residents of La Concepción and Juan Santo also took refuge in neighboring communities such as Las Pavas, San Lorenzo, San Bartolo, San Francisco and La Y.
Moreover, “people have been confined and cannot go out to harvest their crops or hunt for fear of getting shot because the assailants and security forces are scattered throughout the area,” explains a source who requested to remain anonymous.
The source went on to say that the situation is “the result of non-compliance with the peace accords because no institutions have arrived there, and these kinds of situations are created as a result.”
After spending two days in the region, Ombudsman Carlos Negret said that the most affected populations are from the communities of Concepción, Las Pavas, San Francisco and Joaquincito.
“The community has told us that some families went to Buenaventura due to the events of May 5. There is confinement in sectors where the illegal groups don’t allow the communities to go out to fish and harvest their crops, which is why we need greater security and navy presence in these areas,” he said.
Regarding victim assistance, Secretary Cardozo says that next Sunday they will hold a meeting in the town of Puerto Merizalde with the community council to assess what is happening in the region regarding humanitarian and security efforts.
“Of course, keeping in mind the demands the communities shared with us during our visit and our response to them.”
He adds that all the institutions present in the region the previous week would give a joint report to the governors of the Cauca and Valle del Cauca departments so they can take action on the matter.
According to one leader in the region, such meetings can be key to preventing the situation from worsening and increasing risk to residents.
Once again, as in 2001, the communities of the Naya region are being plunged into the anguish of guns and illegal economies. The violence has not disappeared with the FARC and, for now, not with the government either.