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Harrowing video shows indigenous Colombians fleeing gunfire

A young Embera woman from Bajo Lepe. Image courtesy of the Rainforest Foundation.

A young Embera woman from Bajo Lepe. Image courtesy of the Rainforest Foundation.

  • While Colombia went into national lockdown on March 25, fighting between armed paramilitary groups in the northwest has continued unabated.
  • A video shared with Mongabay by If Not Us Then Who? shows indigenous Emberá running from fighting in their town.
  • The incident follows a series of murders and displacements of indigenous people in northwest Colombia since the pandemic began.

In the midst of a national lockdown in Colombia, a dramatic video showing dozens of indigenous Emberá fleeing gunfire and heavy fighting by canoe in the country’s northwest emerged on May 20. The video, which was shared with Mongabay by the multimedia advocacy group If Not Us Then Who?, is a grim window into the violence that indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities in the region have faced in recent years, and which may now be worsening amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Filmed by an Emberá with a cell phone in the town of Catrú, the video shows panicked residents of the town hiding and rushing onto packed canoes at a nearby riverbank. In the background, the sound of automatic gunfire can be heard. Catrú is a small settlement in the remote, forested department of Chocó, not far from Medellín and the Panamanian border.

A darker side to Covid-19: Colombian community flee crossfire as armed fighters vie for control

Chocó has been the site of heavy clashes between armed groups looking to secure control of the region’s lucrative coca trade, trafficking routes, and artisanal gold mining industry. The National Liberation Army (ELN), one of Colombia’s oldest left-wing insurgent groups, has been embroiled in a bitter fight for control of the area with a rival paramilitary unit since a 2016 peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) left a power vacuum in its wake.

Trapped in the middle are the region’s indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities, who have suffered the brunt of the fighting. The incident in Catrú follows a series of violent battles in recent months that have displaced thousands of Emberá living in the area.

In early April, Colombia’s National Indigenous Organization (ONIC) posted a video on Twitter that showed members of an Emberá community hiding from nearby gunfire in a forest. A week earlier, two Emberá were shot and killed amid a wave of violence and targeted killings of indigenous leaders in the country.

Chocó is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, with tropical rainforests that stretch up to the Darién Gap, a near-impassable strip of jungle that divides North and South America. The Emberá are one of a number of indigenous groups who live there — 97% of Chocó’s population is either indigenous or Afro-Caribbean, and 98% of its land has been legally granted to those groups. About half of Colombia’s 71,000 Emberá live in Chocó.

The Emberá have been dealing with violence and disruption from outside groups since the colonial era, when the Spanish fought a series of wars against them. The presence of large deposits of gold and silver, as well as other minerals, has attracted multinational investors and small-scale prospectors alike, leading to widespread environmental damage and court battles.

Chocó is also home to crucial smuggling routes, and for decades clashes between armed groups looking to control those routes and the narcotics trade that comes with them have taken a heavy toll on the Emberá and other indigenous groups. According to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in the first nine months of 2019 39% of Chocó’s residents were victimized by armed conflict.

It was hoped that the demobilization of FARC would bring an end to violence in the region, but instead other groups moved in to assert control of it.

In 2018, Mongabay visited an ELN training camp in Chocó and reported on the effects of the conflict on indigenous groups there.

While Colombia went into a national lockdown on March 25 to curb the spread of COVID-19, fighting in Chocó has continued, and representatives of indigenous groups say the dangers they face have intensified.

“We demand an end to attacks against ethnic communities and we urge the authorities to protect the population of the territory,” said the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia in a statement posted to Twitter on May 22.

In a voice message forwarded to Mongabay by If Not Us Then Who?, an Emberá leader in Panama decried the attack and pleaded with the Colombian government for support.

“Look at what is happening – COVID attacks, the pandemic, and in the midst of this arrive the paramilitary,” said Elivardo Membache, Cacique of the Emberá and Wounaan Collective Lands Congress. “Our indigenous peoples, without defenses, have to flee their territories and hide to be able to survive.”

Banner image: A young Embera woman from Bajo Lepe. Image courtesy of the Rainforest Foundation.

Correction: The first published version of this story erroneously attributed a quote to the Emberá man who filmed the attack. The information Mongabay was given was misleading and the quote has been amended to accurately identify its source.

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