Dozens of Indigenous children line the bank of Colombia’s San Juan river, an orange glow on their faces as the sun sets. Aid workers rush to their boats after visiting for the first time in weeks, scrambling away to obey a guerrilla curfew. The community is left to its fate: sick, hungry, and surrounded by conflict.
“Whoever moves south from Istmina after 6 PM is a military target for the ELN,” a thick voice sounded earlier on a WhatsApp audio message shared with community leaders in Chocó, the province along Colombia’s Pacific coast where the village of Puerto Olave is located.
“Lead [bullets] for anybody who does,” continued the voice, likely belonging to a National Liberation Army (ELN) fighter. “Nobody can move. If a person is sick, he stays in his house and dies.”
This week, Colombia marked five years since the deal that ended decades of conflict between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, but groups like the ELN and a range of other non-state actors are fighting as much as ever.
At almost five million, Colombia has the third largest number of internally displaced people in the world – only Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo have more. During the first nine months of 2021, more than 60,000 people were displaced across the country, but lesser known is that another phenomenon is increasing rapidly: confinement.
The threats of violence on the river, shootouts in the countryside, and landmines in the fields have confined settlements like Puerto Olave, a community of around 300 people that – like much of Chocó province – can only be reached by river. Fighting has displaced hundreds more from nearby settlements, many of whom are also now confined in Puerto Olave.
Confinement is not new in Colombia, but escalating violence between guerrillas and paramilitary groups has caused the total number of those confined to more than triple over the past four years, peaking at more than 70,000 known cases in 2020, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation, suspending many law enforcement and humanitarian operations that could have brought supplies to these communities.
“Nobody can move. If a person is sick, he stays in his house and dies.”
“We are extremely concerned about the increase of confinement events that we are witnessing in Colombia, some of them known, but huge numbers completely invisible,” said Country Director for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Jaume Rado, speaking to the information gap that is common when confined communities are unable to communicate with government and aid organisations that could assist them.
Since the beginning of this year, more than 50,000 people have been confined across Colombia, with OCHA estimating that around 23,000 remain confined today.
What is confinement, and why is it getting worse?
“A confinement occurs when a community faces several mobility and access restrictions, mainly imposed by non-state armed groups, which prevent the population from accessing more than three goods or services (healthcare, food, education, etc.) for a week at least,” explained Claudia Rodríguez Burrell, the head of OCHA in Colombia. “The number of confined people has increased disproportionately due to the multiplication of non-state armed groups, especially in the departments of the Pacific coast.”
Forced confinement is an understudied phenomenon in humanitarian crises and conflict settings. Aid agencies warn about the increasing confinement numbers in Colombia, but the issue warrants further investigation in other regions tormented with similar conflict dynamics, such as Rakhine, Myanmar, where acts of terror have left over 130,000 Rohingya and Kaman confined in camps.
In Colombia, the power vacuum left by the FARC has been one of the main contributing factors.
Life in Colombian villages cut off by conflict
After the FARC demobilised in 2016, conflict dynamics changed across the country. As part of the peacebuilding process, the Colombian government promised to develop the country’s most conflict-ridden areas, including some municipalities in Chocó province, whose lush jungles and rich biodiversity once made it fertile ground for FARC militants to benefit from growing coca (the main ingredient in cocaine) and trafficking drugs.
Instead, other armed groups showed up, namely the Gaitanistas Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC) and the ELN. As Colombia’s largest active guerrilla organisation, the Marxist-inspired ELN already had a presence in southern Chocó, and used the space left behind by the FARC as an opportunity to expand its influence, recruiting militants – including minors – into its ranks, promising to fight inequality.
Meanwhile, the AGC – better known as the Gaitanistas – is thought to be Colombia’s largest criminal enterprise. An offshoot of the United Self-Defences of Colombia (AUC), the Gaitanistas are considered to be right-wing mercenaries, inspired by their AUC predecessors, who were known for their connections to political elites and wealthy landowners. While the ELN and the AGC espouse different political ideologies, they both depend on the same illicit economies for their revenues, replicating the FARC as they exploit vulnerable populations like the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities along the San Juan river.
“There’s nobody left, just our animals.”
While community leaders from villages along the river were able to broker a pact of non-aggression between the ELN and the AGC shortly after the FARC demobilised four years ago, the agreement was broken with a spat of violence in August 2021, sparking new territorial disputes. The Gaitanistas jumped on the opportunity to expand their influence in the Istmina and Medio San Juan municipalities, tormenting communities in Puerto Olave and La Lerma before pushing south along the river.
“They used us as a human shield,” explained one of the survivors, describing how the Gaitanistas camped out in their community for six days. As soon as the Indigenous guard, a self-defense group organised by the community and based on principles of non-violence, could broker their exit, they fled. “There’s nobody left, just our animals.”
‘We cannot enter the rivers’
Many of those who fled the fresh wave of violence are now not only displaced but also confined.
While Chocó department only has around 550,000 inhabitants, OCHA estimates that more than 60 percent of Colombia’s confined population live there. One reason for this is that most of its largely Indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations can only be reached by river, making it easy to seal off their access to the outside world. Another is that its rich natural resources make it attractive for guerrilla and paramilitary groups looking to assert territorial control in order to profit from growing coca and illegally mining gold.
“[Armed groups] are more interested in the territory because that’s where the resources are,” explained Eduardo, an Indigenous leader from the Chocó region whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
Non-state armed groups benefit from confinement because they use it for social control and can hide in plain sight, using the population as a human shield, but mobility restrictions also prevent communities from alerting the outside world about the presence of criminal actors and illegal activities.
“We cannot enter the rivers,” said Eduardo. “Armed groups are guarding the [river] entrances.”
In addition to controlling the rivers, both armed groups are known for planting landmines around the communities, on jungle paths and near food crops, making it impossible to move safely. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, there have been more than 378 victims of explosive devices in Colombia this year alone. Often, victims are not able to reach medical assistance in time, or at all.
Eduardo, who now lives in an ELN-run area that is contested by the AGC, said it was safer when the FARC controlled the territory. The ELN expanded into areas previously dominated by the FARC, including coca-growing regions along the Venezuelan border like Catatumbo, combatting other armed groups and asserting their control through landmines and kidnapping.
“At least [the FARC] had their own rules, and controlled themselves more,” Eduardo said.
“Communities cannot perform their economic activities such as growing food crops, travelling on the river, or fishing to sustain themselves.”
Along with natural resources, the Chocó region’s dense and impenetrable jungles provide cover to paramilitary and guerrilla groups. The numerous rivers and waterways facilitate the movement of troops and shipments of weapons and cocaine. Controlling these waterways gives armed groups an easy way to restrict the mobility of local populations and cut them off from their livelihoods.
“It is a cruel punishment,” said Lucia, an Afro-Colombian social leader in Chocó who represents communities across the region and whose name has also been changed to protect her identity. “Communities cannot perform their economic activities such as growing food crops, travelling on the river, or fishing to sustain themselves.”
Unable to access the river they once depended on, many confined communities are driven to work for the armed groups, picking coca leaves or carrying fuel to illegal gold mines to scrape together a living. Often, militants punish people suspected of working for the opposing faction.
“They demand obligatory favours,” added an Indigenous leader from the municipality of Litoral de San Juan, a few hours south of Puerto Olave by boat. “If you do not do the favour, they will think you collaborated with the other group,” she continued, describing the way that ELN and AGC militants demand that locals share information about the opposing faction.
“They kill you or make people disappear. That’s our fear.”
Military operations sow distrust
Military attacks on rebel structures also cause severe problems. Early in the morning of 16 September, loud explosions shook the Afro-Colombian community of Corriente Palo in Chocó, as part of a joint operation between the Colombian police, military, and air forces against a top ELN commander.
“I was cooking when I heard the bangs, boom, boom!,” said Mabely, a 39-year-old single mother of five whose name has been changed to protect her identity. The ground-shaking detonations rattled her wooden walls and were followed up by gunfire. “At 5:45am we heard bursts of bullets from the helicopters.”
After the bombing, locals tried to approach the impact site by boat, but were met with gunfire from the Colombian army.
“Here, the public force only comes to hinder us,” said a community leader in Corriente Palo, describing how military operations often put local populations at risk. It also makes it more difficult for humanitarian organisations to deliver emergency assistance, as both groups spread rumours that aid workers are passing on information to law enforcement.
“Military operations right after UN or humanitarian teams have visited an area also compromise the integrity of the UN, as non-state armed groups assume that we are state informants,” Rodríguez explained, mentioning that OCHA has also had to suspend or postpone humanitarian missions due to these operations.
“Mostly, military operations affect civilians in the area since they are usually caught between the two parties.”
Not a single government official has visited Corriente Palo since the operation. Paralysed by fear and unable to tend their crops without risking landmines, many have remained in isolation against their will and gone hungry as a result.
“Before the bombing, we ate three meals a day,” said Mabely, sharing that she had been skipping meals to make sure that her children had enough to eat.
“We want the calmness and peace from before to return,” she continued. “You could harvest or grow whatever you wanted, but now everyone is afraid.”
A lack of funds and response capacity
When The New Humanitarian visited Puerto Olave in early October, 150 of the children were sick, suffering from diarrhoea, vomiting, and skin problems. There was no medicine and no one could exit the village, leaving many without essential medical care.
“We don’t have any means to transport ourselves,” explained Hernán, a local leader whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
Confinement also means that children cannot pursue their education. While schools were already closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have not returned due to ongoing security issues. As a result, many of the armed factions are taking advantage of boredom and desperation to recruit minors into their ranks.
“We know this will happen, because other groups have done this,” an Indigenous teacher from a community a few hours south of Puerto Olave said, pointing out that many of the children would rather join an armed group than sit around and do nothing.
Before the 2016 peace agreement, the FARC recruited six children from his community. Now, the ELN is doing the same.
“We need something to be able to distract our youngsters,” he continued, sharing that over the past five years, his community has lost four young people to suicide – a trend also seen in other communities along the San Juan river. Even though the community requested psychologists from both state institutions and NGOs, they never arrived, nor did any other substantial form of aid.
When the absence of state institutions leaves such deep wounds, humanitarian aid organisations are often unable to adequately fill the gaps. International donor money has largely been funelled towards peacebuilding efforts, leaving insufficient funds for emergency response, aid workers said.
“We are witnessing an increase in emergencies in the country, mainly in rural areas, and in regions like Nariño or Chocó we see that the institutional and emergency responses are falling short to respond in a timely and appropriate manner to the acute needs of the population,” Rado said, pointing out that in addition to the ongoing violence, many of these areas are also impacted by extreme weather events, such as torrential rains and flooding.
According to OCHA representatives, an average of around four conflict-related emergencies occur in Chocó every month, but it can take as long as 45 days to respond, often further isolating communities.
Sometimes, aid organisations only learn that a community has been confined after it has already suffered months of isolation – armed groups have been known to seize people’s mobile phones to prevent them from sharing information about their presence.
“Here, the law of silence reigns,” said Lucía. “[Armed groups] will look for a way to forbid communities from revealing that they live in their territory.”
For this reporting, The New Humanitarian used transportation provided by OCHA.
Edited by Anna Lekas Miller and Paula Dupraz-Dobias.