Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Tuesday, 6 October 2009 12:09 UK

The devil wears military boots

Street scene in Riosucio
Poor and remote, Riosucio is a world away from Colombia's major cities

By Mark Doyle
BBC News, Riosucio, western Colombia

Father Elkin Nazrallah is a Catholic priest who works in an unremarkable church in the small riverside town of Riosucio, one of the backwaters in the poorest part of Colombia.

Riosucio means dirty river. It is a town populated mainly by Afro-Colombians. They are descendants of African slaves brought here as forced labour by Spanish colonisers when the indigenous Amerindians began dying off from imported diseases.

Father Elkin is a small man, but his bravery is breathtaking.

Father Elkin Nazrallah
Father Elkin Nazrallah has taken a stand against local paramilitaries

"The devil walked through here," he says, referring to a dark chapter in the history of the Riosucio region that began in 1996.

"The devil came down the river wearing a green combat uniform with military boots."

Father Elkin's devil was a paramilitary group led by businessmen and landowners - and, to my astonishment and admiration, he was not afraid to say so, quite openly, to the BBC.

The right-wing paramilitaries said they were fighting left-wing rebels on behalf of the government. But the Catholic priest of Riosucio said the truth was rather different.

"These unscrupulous businessmen said they were fighting the rebels. But that was just their way getting into the area - their way of throwing the black population, and the other poor people around here, off their land," the priest said.

"Massacres started taking place - we don't know why or how. But they caused the black people and the other poor farmers to flee from their farms."

"The justification from the paramilitaries was that they had to chase the rebels but the result was the illegal expropriation of the peoples' farms by this group of unscrupulous businessmen," Father Elkin said.

'New slavery'

Some of the Afro-Colombians who fled their rural homes in the mid-1990s still live in the town of Riosucio. They are refugees in their own land.

Jose Angel Palomeque
Jose Angel Palomeque is an Afro-Colombian leader in Riosucio

They are some of the total of three million Colombians estimated by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to have been made homeless by the violence in this country.

For several decades the government army - sometimes backed by right-wing paramilitaries - has been battling left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

On many occasions the political leanings of these groups have been irrelevant; all of them have been involved in one way or another with the overlapping phenomenon of the multi-billion dollar cocaine trade.

One of the leaders of the Afro-Colombians in Riosucio is Jose Angel Palomeque.

"Our liberation from slavery came about 150 years ago, when abolition came into force," Mr Palomeque said.

"But then another sort of slavery continued - through racism and refusing to recognise our political and social rights".

After they were thrown off their land, the Afro-Colombians organised themselves - with the help of the church - to mount a legal challenge against the paramilitary-backed businessmen.

'Forgotten world'

Colombia is a curious combination of countries in one.


It is a violent country once dubbed a "narco-state" by a US congressman. Parts of the rural areas - including the Choco region where Riosucio is - feel like forgotten bits of the Third World.

But the city centres of the high-altitude Andean capital Bogota, or the bright city of Medellin, are very much part of the First World.

These cities teem with rich white businessmen, glamorous young women in spray-on jeans, and freshly coiffeured matrons walking poodles past designer shops.

In these places there are also lawyers and courtrooms and endless discussions about constitutional rights.

Where law rules?

By a sheer stroke of luck (I think), I was in Riosucio when the news came through from Bogota that the Afro-Colombians had won their case.

The government now has to implement this ruling for us. I don't think they have any choice in the matter
Senaida Edine Martinez
Afro-Colombian activist

"The ruling says we should be allowed to return to our land," said Senaida Edine Martinez, another Afro-Colombian activist.

I asked Senaida Martinez if she thought this would really happen.

"Of course," she said "It's the law. And they have to give us back the land in good condition. The government now has to implement this ruling for us. I don't think they have any choice in the matter."

Father Elkin agreed that it was an important ruling. But he also sounded a warning.

"The problem with legal judgements in Colombia is that they are just something on paper," he said. "The farms concerned in this case are a very long way from the centre of power in Bogota and the legal authorities play a minimal role in this area".

A ruling has been passed down from a First World courtroom to a Third World riverbank community.

The Afro-Colombians of Riosucio are pleased with it.

But they still have the devil in their midst.

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