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Displaced and Duty-Free in El Tamarindo, Colombia

This article, written by Luke Finn , was originally published on the NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) blog Red Hot Burning Peace. Luke Finn is a writer and international accompanier with Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Presence in Colombia. He graduated from the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester. Follow @Peace_Presence and on Facebook.

The community of El Tamarindo lies about three kilometers outside the Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-biggest city and the largest conurbation and port on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It was formed of 120 hectares of land in the municipality of Galapa, and is home to approximately 130 families, who have lived and worked on the land for anywhere between five and twelve years. Before they arrived, the region was wasteland: no one lived on the land and no one was listed as owning it. They have been occupying the territory in good faith.

Chris, FOR Peace Presence, with Luis, of El Tamarindo

Chris, FOR Peace Presence, with Luis, of El Tamarindo

Prior to their arrival in El Tamarindo, the majority of these families had lived not in Barranquilla, but elsewhere on the Caribbean coast, and even further abroad. They had been displaced by violence. One leader of the community had been born and brought up in the Chocó on the Pacific coast, had been displaced by violence in the 1980’s to Apartadó in Urabá Antioqueño, and then in 1995 displaced again by the wave of violence that overran the gulf region, finally arriving in Tamarindo 12 years ago.

Now she is being displaced again.

El Tamarindo has in recent years been the subjected of severe harassment, both judicial and physical, in a government attempt to force the Tamarindo community off the land they now call their home. They are currently on their 43rd tutela, a legal notice to demand they leave their land, a strategy designed to intimidate and deplete their financial resources. They have made numerous official complaints to the Fiscalia and the Defensoria del Pueblo, and have made denouncements to the President’s office.

The reason for the current actions against the community is the expansion of the Barranquilla Zona Franca, a duty-free zone of the type proliferating around the Caribbean Sea (see also: Colón, Panama, Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, and Urabá, Colombia), very close to El Tamarino. There are tax exemptions on income tax and import and export duties, making it an attractive location for businesses all along the Magdalena River. The result of this development means the previously ignored scrap of land along the motorway leaving Barranquilla has now increased in value.

The people trying to buy up this land are some of the most powerful families in the region, occasionally called the “Cartel de las Tierras”—the families Char Abdala, Tarud, and Muvdi, who between them make up the economic and political elite of Barranquilla (always a useful index of power in Barranquilla—the Queen of the Carnaval in 2012 was Andrea Char, in 2013 Daniella Tarud). The Mayor of Barranquilla up until 2011 was Alejandro Char Chaljub, whose brother is a Senator and Diplomat in London, and whose father Fuad has been, amongst other things, Senator, Governor of Atlantico, Ambassador to Portugal, and owner of Barranquilla’s football team Junior.

As such, the Tamarindo community has been facing serious opposition from Barranquilla’s judiciary and police force. Two people have been murdered, including the young son of a community leader last year [es], and many more injured.

In January and February of last year, bulldozers arrived and tried to clear the plantain and yucca plantations that make up the subsistence crop of the community, and were only stopped when members of the community stood physically in front of the bulldozers, putting their own bodies on the line. When they refused to let the bulldozers past, armed men in civilian clothes threatened members of the community with knives, and a shot was fired. The leader of these men was Lexman Parra Gonzalez, whose brother Libardo was a high profile paramilitary, currently in jail in the United States. On other occasions the bulldozers have been more successful, destroying homes and killing animals under their caterpillar tracks. When the community staged a protest, blocking a road, there were 14 injuries, with baton and teargas attacks from the police.

Also involved has been the private security company 911 [es], owned by notorious Enilce López, known as “La Gata” (the cat), who had close ties with the Uribe presidency and the paramilitary group the AUC, and is currently under house-arrest in Manangué. Most recently, in February of this year a communiqué from the paramilitary group Los Rastrojos detailed a list of rewards for killing many of the people who have extended official support to El Tamarindo, ranging from 10–50 million pesos ($5,000–$25,000). The communiqué concluded with the words: “They will leave the country, or we will finish them.”

The community has responded by forming a legal organization—The Association of the Displaced and Campesinos of Tamarindo, or ASOTRACAMPO—issuing official complaints and requesting official protection. They have also developed a network of concerned supporters including the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes [es], the UN Refugee Agency, the regional Defensoria, and the organization I work for, FOR Peace Presence. Church, student, and trade union networks in Barranquilla have also taken up the banner and have offered Tamarindo support and at times sanctuary from violence.

However, the campaign against them continues: Last month, unknown armed men arrived to threaten them, and this last weekend they were officially evicted from 50% of their land. 

The worsening situation in Tamarindo has not gone unnoticed (though the current elections have diverted significant media attention) and the community is becoming an emblematic case: families who have been forced from their land by powerful economic interests not once, but multiple times. They have been subject to threats and violence repeatedly, with little or no assistance from the local government, highlighting the weakness of Colombia’s tenancy laws, and the malleability of Colombians’ rights. They have gone like so many before them from rural life to a peri-urban one, and now will have to look for somewhere else and some other way to live.

As is so common in Colombia, the people of Tamarindo are treated not as citizens with a voice in a representative democracy, but instead as obstacles in the way of the march of development and the enrichment of a hereditary and kleptocratic political class. As one of their leaders told me: “el pobre no vale en Colombia” (“the poor aren’t worth anything in Colombia”).

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