What's In Blue

Posted Wed 14 Feb 2024

Dispatches from the Field: Visit to Buenaventura

On Saturday (10 February), the last day of the Council’s visiting mission to Colombia, the delegation traveled to the Pacific port city of Buenaventura in the Valle del Cauca department, one of the most conflict-affected areas of the country. While there, Council members met with Colombian Vice President Francia Elena Márquez Mina, municipal officials, local community leaders, and youth and victims’ representatives.

Much of Saturday’s discussions focused on issues relating to the implementation of the ethnic chapter of the 2016 Final Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Building a Stable and Lasting Peace between the government of Colombia and the former rebel group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP). In Buenaventura, Council members were able to hear from Afro-Colombian and indigenous representatives, who spoke on behalf of communities that have endured long-standing exclusion and inequality and continue to be disproportionately affected by violence. The city is home to approximately 450,000 people, 85 percent of whom are Afro-descendent Colombians who can trace their heritage to Colombia’s colonial period, when enslaved Africans were brought to the Pacific region.

Buenaventura suffers from endemic violence, and 80 percent of its population lives in conditions of poverty or extreme poverty. Residents also face significant food insecurity, lack of access to basic services, and high rates of unemployment. Since the signing of the 2016 accord, disputes have increased among armed groups, which fight for control over drug trafficking routes and illegal mining sites in the area, leading to the mass displacement of communities and killings of social leaders. The city has also experienced an increase in urban violence, with civilians bearing the brunt of territorial disputes between two rival criminal gangs—the “Shottas” and “Espartanos”—including sexual violence, enforced disappearance, high rates of homicide, recruitment of young people, and forms of social control such as extortion.

The delegation flew from Bogotá to Buenaventura and then travelled by car to a hotel in the city’s centre where the meetings were held. While the day’s tight schedule did not allow for Council members to walk around the city, what they saw from their car windows, including many dilapidated structures, gave them some sense of the difficult conditions in Buenaventura. Council members’ interactions with Afro-Colombian and indigenous community leaders and young people, however, helped paint a more compelling picture of the hardships faced in Buenaventura and similar cities, as well as the immense efforts by these actors to construct peace.

Meeting with Government and Municipal Officials and Civil Society Representatives

The first meeting of the day started with a ceremony performed jointly by one Afro-Colombian and one indigenous person, demonstrating the rich and diverse cultural tradition in Colombia. At the meeting’s outset, Márquez, Colombia’s first woman Afro-Colombian vice president, thanked the Council for accepting her invitation to visit the country, which she extended in her address at the Council’s January 2023 quarterly meeting on Colombia.

The meeting featured statements from municipal officials, including Buenaventura’s mayor, Ligia del Carmen Córdoba Martínez, who noted that it is important to tackle the underlying reasons for violence in cities like Buenaventura, namely lack of employment, education, and access to basic services. Márquez described steps taken by the government to promote implementation of the ethnic chapter of the peace agreement and to improve the conditions of ethnic communities, such as land distribution, water sanitation projects, and the establishment of higher education institutions in the territories. She lamented hurdles to substantive progress, and referred to a lack of tools at the municipal level to implement policies, complicated bureaucratic procedures, and systematic racism in certain state institutions. In an impassioned speech, she reiterated her continued personal commitment to bringing positive change to conflict-affected communities, despite facing institutional hurdles and personal attacks.

Márquez acknowledged that violence persists due to a lack of state presence in the territories, which has been exploited by armed groups. In this regard, she discussed the government’s efforts to reduce violence through its “total peace” policy, which entails the promotion of dialogue with armed groups operating in the country, as well as the implementation of the 2016 agreement. As part of the government’s initiative to foster new dialogue initiatives, it brokered a ceasefire, with the Colombian Catholic Church, between the “Shottas” and “Espartanos” in September 2022. Shortly before the Council’s visiting mission, the gangs agreed to extend the truce until May. The truce has reportedly contributed to a reduction in homicides and other criminal activity. Further progress in the formal dialogue with these groups is pending, in the absence of an agreement within the government on a legal framework for the talks.

During the meeting, several Council members commented that seeing women hold crucial governmental and municipal positions in Colombia brings them hope, particularly considering the Council’s emphasis on the importance of women as decision-makers in peacebuilding efforts. Special Representative and Head of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia Carlos Ruiz Massieu noted that when the Council visited Colombia in 2019, it was supposed to meet with Márquez—then a social leader—but the meeting did not take place due to security threats against her. The fact that the Council was able to meet with her now, in her new role as vice president, shows the major transformation that Colombia has undergone. Challenges to the consolidation of peace persist, however, including due to endemic violence. As in 2019, several social leaders were unable to attend Saturday’s meeting with the Security Council due to concerns about their safety, noted Ruiz Massieu.

Council members also interacted with community leaders and human rights defenders who represent different Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The representatives said that the signing of the 2016 agreement had given them hope for peace, but that the slow implementation of the ethnic chapter, which is the least implemented chapter of the agreement, is cause for alarm. They called for better articulation of the indicators to measure implementation of the ethnic chapter, taking into account the different needs of women and various communities. The speakers also emphasised the importance of having ethnic communities represented in the new dialogue efforts with armed groups, noting that such participation during the formulation of the 2016 agreement resulted in the elaboration of the ethnic chapter.

Meeting with Youth Leaders

In a working lunch, three youth leaders from different conflict-affected areas described the difficult daily realities and trauma that young people in their communities face. In a moving testimony, one participant said that a friend had been found dead and dismembered only a few days earlier. Lack of economic and educational opportunities continue to make young people vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups, who use them as pawns, making them “small change” in the conflict, the participants said. Young people are not only victims, but also agents of change. Here, too, the importance of implementing the 2016 accord, particularly the ethnic chapter, was noted. Participants reflected that dialogues with criminal gangs are also an important tool in eradicating violence.

The representatives described some of the work that they have done to promote peace, noting that the current government has facilitated young people’s participation in the elaboration of development plans, and that projects have been created to facilitate better opportunities for young people (but require more funding). Council members were impressed by the resilience and strong commitment to peace that was reflected in the youth leaders’ statements, with one permanent representative saying: “if this is the future of Colombia, then the future is bright”.

Meeting with Representatives of Victims’ Organisations

In its last meeting of the day, the delegation listened to victim representatives, hearing accounts of sexual violence and enforced disappearance and calls for concrete measures to eradicate both. The representatives also described how violence continues to affect communities to date. Approximately nine million people have been acknowledged as victims of Colombia’s armed conflict. One speaker highlighted the need for a gender perspective in seeking justice for victims. The fact that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP), the judicial component of the transitional justice system established by the 2016 agreement, opened Macro Case 11 on sexual and gender-based violence was welcomed in this regard.

In aspects of the Colombian situation, and in the stories conveyed by their interlocutors, some Council members found elements that resonated with their own country’s experience. Ecuador and Sierra Leone mentioned similarities in their cultures and environment. Mozambique noted that the struggle of Colombian ethnic communities for rights and dignity resonated with its own experience of expelling colonial rule, pledging to continue standing for their cause at the Security Council. The Republic of Korea (ROK) referenced its success in recovering from war despite many difficulties, adding that seeing the strong political will in Colombia and the vibrancy of its civil society inspires confidence that the country can follow a similar positive trajectory.

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