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Afro-Colombians Being Left Behind In Country’s Growth

In October 2011, the U.S. Congress passed the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Six months later, at the 2012 Summit of the Americas, both countries lauded their strong economic and security partnership.

The Agreement has been a boon for multinationals and the economic elite. At the same time, the security situation has improved for the middle and upper classes, and the state has taken the positive step of entering peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

So there is much to celebrate in Colombia.

But the changes are not benefiting everyone. Among those left behind are Afro-Colombians who reside in the areas strategic to the new free-trade economy, where violence continues to rage.

Colombia’s most important port is situated in Buenaventura, on the Pacific Coast. Despite increasing commerce, this majority Afro-Colombian region struggles with elevated unemployment and some of the country’s worst socio-economic indicators. Many Afro-Colombians displaced by decades of conflict live here, cheek by jowl with paramilitaries and drug traffickers. The port that serves the legitimate economy is also a hub in the narcotics trade, and illegal armed groups vie for dominance.

In October 2012 alone, dozens of shootouts between those groups killed at least 30 people and displaced hundreds more. Afro-Colombian women who refuse to have sex with these violent men have been brutally targeted. Some women are perceived as friendlier to one side or the other, or they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time, with terrifying consequences. It has become common practice for armed men to torture and butcher women by tearing their limbs off their bodies, beheading them, and then displaying their bodies publicly.

In early February 2013, Bishop Héctor Epalza called for national attention to the humanitarian crisis there and announced that Colombian authorities were launching a commission to investigate the recent finding of 23 dismembered bodies in an unmarked grave.

The authorities, however, have not done much to stem the violence. In the port city of Tumaco, the Catholic Church reports that Afro-Colombians suffer from abuses committed by FARC and National Liberation Army guerillas, paramilitary groups, and state armed forces.

FARC guerillas regularly detonate explosives in populated areas, killing or wounding civilians; military combat operations result in civilian deaths, displacement, and exposure to land mines; and paramilitary groups subject civilians to torture, murder, death threats, and extortion. The situation has markedly deteriorated in recent months, especially for those most vocal about stopping the violence.

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