“We Want Them Alive”: Afro-Colombian Women Lead Search for Disappeared

Eighteen Afro-descendant women wearing white T-shirts filled the wooden benches of a motorboat. At the front, a woman held a white flag wrapped around a thin stick. Its edges fluttered in the wind above her head as they sped down the Yurumanguí River in Buenaventura, on Colombia’s Pacific coast. More women followed close behind, their motorboat tilting on its side as it turned at the mouth of the river. All were silent, their faces stoic.

It was early December 2021 — just days after Abencio Caicedo, 38, and Édinson Valencia García, 46, were kidnapped and disappeared. In the hopes of finding them, the Yurumanguí Women’s Collective was traveling to neighboring communities along the rivers that serve as rural Buenaventura’s transport arteries.

Caicedo and García held leadership roles in the Yurumanguí River Basin’s Community Council. Community councils are recognized administrative units of autonomous government in Afro-Colombian territories. The Yurumanguí territory includes 13 Afro-descendant rural settlements dispersed along the river. Residents trace their ancestry to enslaved Africans brought in chains by Spaniards in the late 1600s. As official authorities representing the territory, Caicedo and García have been pivotal in efforts to halt criminal and commercial mining and the planting of coca crops. They were beloved teachers and were also active in the national human rights organization, Black Communities Process (PCN).

Both faced great personal risk for their work. Colombia has Latin America’s highest rate of murders of human rights defenders, and those defending the environment and collective territories are most targeted. On November 28, the two set out on a community organizing trip. That was the last their children, spouses and community ever heard from them.

A video that calls attention to the disappearances features the activists encouraging their communities to protect their collective territories. “There is no rural development policy,” Caicedo declares, standing before a community meeting during a humanitarian mission in Yurumanguí. “There are extractive regulations — of course — so that our resources can strengthen those in the big cities. But there is no countervailing policy to strengthen us internally to prevent our displacement, to avoid the misuse of natural resources.” He asks, “Are we waiting for a catastrophe before we do something? No.… We are leading a struggle in Yurumanguí.”

García, a PCN founder and key activist in the struggle to pass Colombia’s Law 70 of 1993 which grants Afro-descendants collective rights to territory and other protections, says in an interview, “The issue of security, in the framework of human rights … should grant us the internal tranquility to remain and live in our territory.” Given the government’s history of undermining Afro-descendant and Indigenous P collective territorial rights, he says, “What the law does is simply recognize a right. But we have to work together as a community to continue demanding that the laws be implemented.”

The 2016 peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was supposed to bring peace to regions like Buenaventura. Rural reform provisions would address unequal land distribution and bring much-needed infrastructure and services. Human rights defenders and groups targeted by paramilitaries and criminal groups would be guaranteed security. Under the accord’s “Ethnic Chapter,” the government would coordinate with Afro-descendant and Indigenous authorities to implement the accord’s provisions, including its security guarantees. Five years after passage of the accord, its rural reform initiatives and security guarantees are among its least implemented provisions, as are those promoting Indigenous and Afro-descendant collective rights and gender justice.

This lack of implementation has had especially harmful implications for Buenaventura. The majority-Black region has long suffered state abandonment and soaring rates of poverty and unemployment. Residents overwhelmingly lack access to quality health care, education and constant running water. Gender violence victims in Buenaventura have almost nowhere to turn for protection or justice. In the face of grinding poverty, youth are vulnerable to being pushed into armed groups that are battling to control narco-trafficking and illegal mining.

The national government’s failure to address these inequities and ensure holistic institutional presence after 2016 strengthened the foothold of armed actors in Buenaventura and other conflict-impacted regions. An array of armed groups thrived in the absence of the FARC, causing multiple waves of forced displacement and other human rights violations in Buenaventura over the last five years. These include paramilitaries, National Liberation Army (ELN) guerillas, criminal gangs and disidencias, groups led by a small percentage of former FARC fighters, many that re-mobilized in the face of persistent assassinations of ex-combatants.

Manuel*, an Afro-descendant human rights defender who has advocated with Buenaventura’s communities, said that in many cases, residents are too terrified to report the violence. These armed groups occupy Yurumanguí’s communities, and commit threats, killings, sexual violence and forced labor, including making women and girls cook and clean for them. On October 30, armed men shot to death an Afro-descendant authority in rural Buenaventura who served as sports and culture coordinator and board member for the Community Council of Río Raposo. Less than a month later, Caicedo and García were disappeared.

Brisa*, an Afro-descendant feminist organizer for collective territorial rights in the region, often met with Caicedo to discuss their work. She said his and Garcia’s disappearances have deeply impacted the movement for Afro-descendant collective rights.

“This was a very direct hit for us. It has been very difficult,” she said in late December, her eyes filling with tears. Caicedo had told Brisa that he felt at risk, and Brisa had shared with him some of the coping strategies she had found necessary to learn in order to live and work under constant threats.

Given the region’s conflict dynamics, Brisa worries Caicedo and García may not be alive, “which would be an irreparable harm for the Afro-descendant people.” If Caicedo and García are found, Brisa wants them to witness the community mobilization that has risen to call for their return. “And if they don’t return,” she said, “we cannot let their struggle be in vain.”

Buenaventura’s activists and community members are working diligently to ensure that Caicedo, Garcia and their struggle for Afro-descendant collective territorial rights are not forgotten. “We have been searching for them, putting our own lives at risk,” said Brisa. Led by the Women’s Collective of Yurumanguí, dozens of women participated in the search caravans through Buenaventura’s rivers in December. Part search mission and part political demonstration, the women disembarked at communities carrying white banners that matched their shirts, symbolizing their desire for peace. Walking together through the rural settlements, they called out for their missing authorities.

Because armed groups permeate their communities, many residents feared the consequences they could face for appearing to support the women. Sometimes the Women’s Collective arrived at seeming ghost towns where a few hundred residents sheltered soundlessly inside wooden homes. The women marched, chanted and sang, but no one dared come out to meet them.

Candlelight vigils held in Colombia for the disappeared leaders.
Candlelight vigils held in Colombia for the disappeared leaders.

The women also led Permanent Assemblies in Yurumanguí for weeks, calling for their authorities to be returned alive and for the government to address the region’s humanitarian crisis. Children from Yurumanguí participated in events calling for the return of their elder community members. Across Colombia, Afro-descendant organizations have led candlelight vigils for the disappeared leaders.

These grassroots actions contrast with what appears to be a sluggish response on the Colombian government’s part. In a December 31 resolution calling for the government to act to find the disappeared leaders, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Organization of American States’ autonomous human rights monitoring body, questioned the government’s celerity. Issued in response to a petition from PCN and NOMADESC Association, a Colombian human rights and peace organization, the resolution noted the government’s failure to directly report on whether and when it initiated a search. It also documented repeated warnings from civil society and from international and government rights monitors about imminent threats to the region’s Afro-descendant leaders and human rights defenders.

The Colombian government’s initial response to the petition, sent late December, failed to provide details on the status of any official search for the activists. It instead reported that it requested but did not receive any information from its own attorney general regarding whether or not it had activated an Urgent Search Mechanism. The mechanism requires relevant authorities to initiate a coordinated search within 24 hours of a valid request on behalf of a missing person.

Advocates had requested the attorney general and other entities operationalize the mechanism for Caicedo and García as early as December 2. The government told the IACHR that after it received no response on the status of any Urgent Search Mechanism, its information request was shifted to a different entity within the attorney general’s office. Yet, as the IACHR notes, nearly a month after the disappearances, the government provided “no details on whether the Urgent Search Mechanism ha[d] been effectively activated.”

In a move that reeks of victim-blaming, the government also centered much of its response on its National Protection Unit’s (UNP) attempt to reevaluate its individualized protection scheme for Caicedo earlier in the year. It stated that Caicedo had asked the government to establish collective protection measures for Yurumanguí’s many threatened leaders instead of just evaluating his individual case. The government refused, stating that its risk review was individual, not collective. It then claimed it did not hear back from Caicedo regarding the individual review.

Caicedo’s apparent request for collective protection measures aligns with a long-standing demand from rural Buenaventura’s human rights defenders — one that was bolstered by a 2017 court order as well as alerts by Colombian government human rights monitors. Afro-descendant advocates have criticized UNP protection measures for failing to account for their unique geographic and social contexts, and for framing threats against them as individualized anomalies rather than as acts directed at entire communities that organize to defend collective territories. In Buenaventura, the UNP has provided bulletproof vests, cellphones and guards to individual activists — measures laughable to threatened leaders in a context where cellphone signal is unavailable and armed groups with powerful weapons occupy entire communities.

As a result of years of community organizing in which Caicedo and García played key roles, says Manuel, Yurumanguí’s residents signed a commitment to refuse illicit coca crop planting, mechanized mining, and other destructive mega-projects in the territory. As in other gold-rich swathes of western Colombia, Yurumanguí has confronted corporate mining interests that seek to undermine Afro-descendant collective territorial claims, as well as armed groups involved in narco-trafficking and illegal mining.

Despite enduring displacement, assassinations, and other violence, community members have manually eradicated coca plants and decommissioned illicit mining machinery themselves. While their active stance has helped protect their territory, these have also suffered constant threats.

The Colombian government’s often hostile posture towards Afro-descendant and Indigenous collective territorial rights has not helped. In 2009, Colombia’s Constitutional Court linked increased armed group violence in Afro-descendants’ communities to the state’s weak institutional backing for their rights. It recognized three factors driving Afro-descendants’ disproportionately high rates of forced displacement: extreme poverty and exclusion, large-scale mining and agricultural interests, and deficient institutional and legal protection for their collective territorial rights. The court found that these factors encouraged paramilitary and guerrilla groups to threaten Afro-descendant populations in a bid to get them to flee their territories. By late 2017, a year after the peace accord was signed, the court found that these conditions had only worsened.

That same year, a court specialized in land restitution and formalization ruled in favor of the Yurumanguí Community Council’s collective territorial rights in opposition to private mining concession claims. That court also found that as conflict victims, the community had rights to restitution, and for its displaced members to safely return. The decision detailed the history of violence and ongoing risks the community faced, and ordered the UNP to provide collective protection measures to its representative entities and autonomous authorities.

In response to a reporter’s questions about why it hadn’t implemented collective protection measures in Yurumanguí a year after the 2017 court order, UNP spokespeople claimed they would begin the process of defining the measures with the community starting in 2019. However, by the start of 2022, “in terms of implementation of the measures, nothing has been done,” said Manuel. “There’s always a process of delay — even to implement one small part of the measures.”

Manuel noted that the majority of the government functionaries assigned to the task of implementing the 2017 decision have been short-term contractors with limited decision-making power. Community members have found themselves going from one futile discussion to another with different government consultants, each conversation separated by months of inaction.

Moreover, Manuel said, “We have submitted mechanisms for implementing the protection measures to them, but they won’t accept decisions made by the community.” The UNP appears to be stuck in its ways, and “if they implement their style of measures, they are not going to be effective.” Nor, he said, would they meet the requirement of a differentiated approach required by law to meet Afro-descendant territories’ security needs.

In addition to calling for the government to center collective territorial rights enforcement in its protection strategies, advocates in Yurumanguí have requested basic measures tailored to their geography — a dedicated boat, for example, to allow them to travel through Buenaventura in emergencies. The UNP’s “In Territory” (En territorio) strategy launched in October 2020 has led to some tailored protection resources in certain Afro-descendant and Indigenous territories. However, unreasonable delay and lack of consultation with community authorities to establish adequate collective protection measures overwhelmingly persists.

Both Brisa and Manuel stressed that while the disappeared leaders’ communities are calling for state institutions to enhance the search and to enact collective protection measures, including for the Women’s Collective, they do not seek militarization of their territories. “We don’t want the community to be caught in the cross-fire,” said Manuel.

Government armed forces have a history of violating Buenaventura’s residents’ rights, including contributing to home confinement, goods blockades and forced displacements. In some instances, they have smeared civilians as “guerillas” and committed extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions and sexual violence. Afro-descendant, Indigenous, and other civil society organizations have called repeatedly for the government to pursue humanitarian dialogue with armed groups in the region and nationally, but the government has ignored these requests.

Yurumanguí Women’s Collective led Permanent Assemblies in Yurumanguí for weeks, calling for their authorities to be returned alive and for the government to address the region’s humanitarian crisis.
Yurumanguí Women’s Collective led Permanent Assemblies in Yurumanguí for weeks, calling for their authorities to be returned alive and for the government to address the region’s humanitarian crisis.

“Hopefully a new government arrives to address our screwed-up humanitarian situation,” Brisa said. The current presidential administration has consistently slow-walked or neglected to implement key provisions of the 2016 Peace Accord. With election season violence already at a steady clip and the next presidential administration not to take office until August, the coming months look ominous.

The Women’s Collective and other Yurumanguí residents plan to continue advocating for their collective rights. Protecting their lives will require that the Colombian government meaningfully enforce their rights.

* Name has been changed to protect the interviewee’s safety.

The author would like to thank Laura Barón Mendoza for research assistance on this piece.