Just hours into the New Year, some 300 armed men raided a small town in the Bojayá municipality of Chocó, in northwest Colombia, where drug-related violence that plagued the region in the early 2000s has returned.
On December 31, the community of Pogue said that some 300 armed members of the Los Urabeños paramilitary group were holding 121 families hostage along the banks of the Atrato river, the newspaper El Espectador reported.
The Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) confirmed the incident the same day, adding that Pogue was just one of several communities receiving threats from Los Urabeños in Chocó’ Atrato region.
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Luis Murillo, a regional ombudsman in Chocó, told W Radio that the situation is alarming, since communication with the communities under siege has become difficult, because of threats made by the paramilitary force.
In response to the incident, the Army’s Seventh Division sent close to 100 soldiers to Pogue to re-enforce security in the region, the Minister of the Interior Daniel Palacios told the newspaper El Tiempo.
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A dispute between the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and Los Urabeños for control of a strategic drug trafficking area has led to the hostage situation in Bojayá — a municipality that has long suffered from violent conflict and the abandonment of the state.
On at least three occasions in 2019, the Ombudsman’s Office warned that Los Urabeños would likely move into the communities in Bojayá in response to the expansion of the ELN’s Cimarrón Resistance Front.
According to the agency, the ELN began expanding from the sub-regions of Alto and Bajo Baudó towards the territories that make up Choco’s Pacific coast in Medio y Bajo Atrato since 2018 in order to challenge Los Urabeños’ territorial control of the area.
The importance of this municipality for both groups lies in two routes used in drug trafficking that transit Bojayá and the surrounding areas.
The first is the Bojayá River, which flows east to west, connecting the town of Vigía del Fuerte in the central department of Antioquia with Bahía Solano, a port town on the Pacific from which cocaine is shipped out and arms are trafficked into the region.
Meanwhile, the Atrato River provides a major drug route through Bojayá, along which drugs are moved to Ríosucio and Carmen del Darién in northern Chocó. From there, these shipments can head by land to Panama or by sea into the Caribbean.
Communities in Bojayá have long suffered from escalating conflict among irregular armed groups.
In 2002, the bombing of a church by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) left 79 people dead and hundreds injured in Bojayá. The cylinder bomb attack occurred amid a violent takeover of the town by the FARC, which, at that time, was in a battle with paramilitary forces.
In response to the latest warnings of armed groups maneuvering in Bojayá, the Colombian government said it is increasing military presence in the region, delivering food to the communities, and ensuring that health services remain available in Pogue.