‘We saw our family members cut into pieces’: how Colombia’s Wiwa people have been forced from their mountain – again

Last Updated: June 17, 2024By

The Unending Struggle of the Wiwa People: A Tale of Survival and Hope

Luis Angel Mejía first heard the gunshots around 11pm. The thunderous noise echoed through El Limón and the surrounding areas in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, northern Colombia, until the early hours of the morning.

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“They were firing missiles that made the ground tremble. We heard gunshots, grenades, and rockets constantly,” Mejía recalls. “We thought: ‘Once the shooting stops, they’ll come for us.’”

That terrifying night on February 24 was even more disturbing because it brought back painful memories for the Wiwa people, who had faced violent displacement in the early 2000s. Fearful that history was repeating itself, many fled, leaving behind their homes and farms.

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“After what happened to us in 2002, seeing our family members hacked apart with machetes or chainsaws, we felt scared seeing these groups in our land again,” says Mejía.

Life in the Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the world’s highest coastal mountain range, home to 37,000 Indigenous people. Its remote location has helped preserve their traditions but has also made it a target for armed groups since the 1970s. The area has seen numerous violent clashes as groups vie for control.

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Recently, the Wiwa community was displaced by fights between the Conquering Self-Defense Forces of the Sierra (ACS), a paramilitary group, and the Clan del Golfo, which has expanded its reach since 2022.

Mejía’s family was among those who fled in the middle of the night. He stayed behind for five days, hoping the army would protect their homes. But when military help didn’t come, he joined his family in the coastal city of Riohacha.

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“I tried to stay calm,” says Mejía, a father of four and a community leader. “I didn’t want to leave because of my animals. We didn’t know if leaving would help us or make us lose everything we’d worked for over the last 22 years.”

Seeking Refuge in Riohacha

Since the clashes began, about 500 Indigenous people have taken refuge in Riohacha’s Indigenous center and the Coliseum, a gym and stadium three hours from their homes. Some African-Colombian communities have found shelter with relatives.

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Mejía was just 8, the same age as his son now, when he was first forced from his home. His family hid in the mountains for six months, enduring harsh conditions and lack of food. One of his sisters died.

Since their recent flight, Mejía has felt trapped. He dreams of the day his family can return to their natural surroundings and animals, which are crucial to Wiwa culture.

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“We’re waiting for the go-ahead to return,” says Jose Manuel Gil, another Wiwa member. “We need to feel the cold mountain water and see the trees. We’re not used to being confined.”

Broken Promises and Continued Violence

Years of peace efforts in Colombia led to the demobilization of the far-right paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in 2006 and a peace treaty with the far-left group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in 2016. These agreements included promises to stop crimes against civilians and compensate victims.

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But these promises have been broken. “We’re still waiting for compensation for what happened more than 20 years ago,” says Miguel Yepes, leader of the Conchomake community, also living in Riohacha’s Coliseum.

The Wiwa are not alone. In 2023, about 121,000 people in Colombia were victims of forced displacement and confinement.

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Pedro Loperena, human rights coordinator at the Wiwa Yugumaiun Bunkuanarrua Tayrona (OWYBT), says that demobilized groups have turned into new illegal armed groups. He mentions factions of the far-left guerrilla group Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and Farc dissidents operating in the region.

“We have testimonies of rockets being used during the clashes. That noise is unmistakable,” says Loperena, suggesting Farc dissidents might be involved.

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The Government’s Response

Colombia’s left-leaning president, Gustavo Petro, has made his “total peace” plan a priority. This strategy aims to engage multiple armed groups in peace talks but has faced challenges, including fragmented groups and broken agreements.

According to Camilo González Posso, a peace and conflict researcher in Colombia, the struggle for control over territories like the Sierra Nevada is at the heart of the conflict. “More than 40% of Colombia’s land is collectively owned by Indigenous communities, which is unique in Latin America,” says González. “These areas are rich in spiritual and mineral resources, making them targets for control.”

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González explains that these territories help control populations, recruit civilians, and facilitate illicit activities like drug, human, and arms trafficking. “The ACS has been entrenched in this region and has gained strength recently,” he says. This clashes with their stated willingness to hold talks with the government and operate legally.

Life in Riohacha

The Wiwa struggle to adapt to life in Riohacha. They suffer in the heat, with temperatures reaching 37°C, far different from their cool mountain climate. Changes in diet have caused illnesses, and contact with modern society threatens their traditions, especially among the young.

“This place isn’t suitable for our children or for getting together as we do in our community. I worry they’ll lose their traditions and forget their language,” says Yolenis Mendoza, a mother and teacher who continues to give classes in the refuge.

The displaced people face overcrowding, unsanitary cooking conditions, disease risk, and noise pollution. These problems add to the already severe restrictions on their movement, illegal appropriation of their land, and death threats.

OWYBT has called on the government to relocate the displaced to better housing, but no action has been taken. “Even though properties seized from drug traffickers were identified for housing the communities, no progress has been made,” Loperena notes.

Waiting for Home

Iván Velásquez, Colombia’s defense minister, has promised to evaluate a return plan for the communities. “Displacement is an intolerable crime and even more serious when it involves Indigenous communities,” he said on March 22.

In April, government officials and Wiwa representatives met in Bogotá to discuss the possibility of returning home. Since then, however, there has been silence. “The immediate situation is still one of violence, difficulties, and limited hope,” says González.

Meanwhile, the Wiwa continue to wait. “I’m the father to my whole community. I don’t sleep thinking about when we’ll be back. We want to return, but they have to give us guarantees,” says Yepes, who fears going back after receiving death threats.

Despite warnings from the ombudsman office and the UN rapporteur on internally displaced persons, no action has been taken to prevent displacements. Public authorities have not yet responded to questions from the Guardian.

“This was a chronicle of a death foretold,” says Loperena, referring to Gabriel García Márquez’s book. “The state has failed in its duties to protect the human rights of the Wiwa people.”


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