Human Rights in the Pacific Coast Region: An Interview with Carlos Rosero


Carlos Alfonso Rosero is one of the founding members of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN, or Black Communities Process) and a leading protagonist in the struggle for collective appropriation of traditional territories of the Pacific coastal rainforest by Afro-Colombian communities. The PCN has focused on the recognition of the cultural, ethnic and collective territorial rights of Afro-Colombians and seeks to challenge western modernization and development efforts in the vast rainforest region of the Colombian Pacific coast. In February and March he visited New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Montreal, in a visit supported by the Colombia Human Rights Committee of Washington, D.C., the Colombia Media Project of New York, and Colombia Vive of Boston, all members of the Colombia Human Rights Network, plus xx(in Philadelphia), and with support from Global Exchange. xx(talk with Luis Gilberto)



Colombia Human Rights Committee: What is the general human rights situation for the Afro-Colombian community in the Pacific Coast region?

Carlos Rosero: Historically in the Pacific there has been a constant violation of the social, economic, and cultural rights of our people, which can be seen in an infant mortality of 110 per 1,000 live births; a $500 to $600 per capita annual income, compared to the $1,500 to $1,700 national average; only 2 of every 100 Afro-Colombians go on to college; and health care is poor or non-existent. The situation has become even worse because of the armed conflict. Threats, selective killings, massacres, and displacement used to be limited to areas such as northern Chocó, but this pattern has now spread throughout the rest of the Pacific coast. Displacement by development projects is one of the biggest and most systematic human rights violations we face. The Afro-Colombian population is especially vulnerable because our political, social, cultural, civil and collective rights continue to be violated. There is also no representation of Afro-Colombians in the different levels of government. The national government's interest is the interest of a few rich elites, and those interests are hurting our communities, the environment, and our cultural rights.


CHRC: To what extent do the paramilitaries have a presence in the region?

CR: In the case of the Pacific, the paramilitaries made their presence felt in the north in Chocó in areas such as in San Juan, Quibdó, and Bajo Atrato, but they are also present in Buenaventura, Naya, and Nariño in general. They are in strategic zones in the Pacific, areas through which people have to pass. In Buenaventura paramilitaries control the highways and the port, from where 60% of Colombia's exports are shipped. That area is also key for cocaine shipments. Tumaco is a similar case; it is the port closest to Ecuador. There seems to be a major connection in the Pacific coast between large development projects, displacement, and the paramilitaries.


CHRC: How severe is the problem of displacement for the Afro-Colombian population?

CR: It is one of the biggest problems we face. Recently the Colombian government acknowledged that 30% of the 1.9 million people internally displaced in Colombia are Afro-Colombians. Two cases come to mind when I think of displacement in the Pacific coast. Seven thousand people from over 25 communities in Suárez and Buenos Aires were displaced, xx(when) despite the fact that various NGOs had informed the government of an imminent attack since September. Five thousand residents were trapped in the area because movement was restricted, and a blockade of food and medicine made the situation all the more difficult. The paramilitaries controlled that area for a period of months. What is going on in Santander, in the middle Magdalena region, is also happening in the Pacific coast, the killings and the displacement, except that the indiscriminate assassinations are targeting large numbers of Afro-Colombians. The situation is so bad in Cauca that we asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to issues measures to protect the civilian population in that region.

On May 11, 2000, in Valle del Cauca, there was a major displacement because of a paramilitary massacre. In June, a 40 point plan was made to stave off future attacks, but there have been 8 massacres since that date. The government has done nothing. Even the Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo), responsible for responding to early warnings, has not done its job. Two years ago, before the invasion of the paramilitaries, the Secretary of Government for Valle del Cauca had labeled the population guerrilla collaborators, and the Army warned the people that the paramilitaries were coming. The Army has a very strong presence in the area, and soldiers often wear ski masks, which are generally worn by the paramilitaries. The army would question children about the community and the location of people, clearly putting those children at risk, which violates many norms of international humanitarian law. The other famous displacement case is that of Río Sucio. xx(when) The people of the area say that the army and the paras worked together in that attack. Displacement of Afro-Colombians is a general phenomena. Refugees crossing the borders into Ecuador and Panama face major problems, especially since they are repatriated without guarantees for their safety. In November, 25,000 Colombians crossed the border to Ecuador; a large percentage were Afro-Colombians.


CHRC: How strong are the links between the army and the paramilitaries in the Pacific coast and what sort of evidence is there to prove this sort of collusion?

CR: The names on the lists that the paramilitaries carry are given to them by the Colombian Army. The threatening of our communities by the army, especially by the men in ski masks, is another example. In the May massacre that I mentioned before, the cars that the paramilitaries came in drove in through one military check point and left through another, without ever being stopped. This is all very difficult to explain. There are just too many strange coincidences. This phenomena is seen throughout the country. We see this as a strategy used by the military. Many times they are one and the same. xx(one in the same?)


CHRC: What do you think of Plan Colombia, especially the U.S. military aid package?

CR: Plan Colombia is not a Colombian plan. It was drawn up by the Colombian government and by the officials in Washington. There was no consultation with the people of Colombia, especially the Afro-Colombians. This plan will dramatically escalate the conflict in Colombia. It will regionalize the conflict and it supports unsustainable economic development projects that will only hurt our communities and the environment. The fumigation alone will cause terrible ecological and human damage. This is strategy that has not worked, and that must be re-evaluated very critically. Lastly, I am very suspicious of a plan in which they give us money to buy helicopters from the United States. It's a kind of business deal at the highest levels, a deal, though, that has a human cost. This war is not hurting the real people in charge: the money launderers, the chemical manufacturers, the bankers, and the corrupt politicians.


CHRC: What do you think the people in the U.S. can do to help the people in Colombia?

CR: First, they can inform the public about the conflict in Colombia. Secondly, there needs to be more international accompaniment of communities in danger. Thirdly, people need to understand the external consequences of U.S. policy towards Colombia. There is much to be done. U.S. citizens should go to Colombia and visit, and take back what they experience, to change the destructive policies of the United States.


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