The Two Pandemics of Ethnic Peoples in Colombia

By Natalia Messer

June 3, 2021

Audio Story

Ethnic peoples in Colombia, both Indigenous and Afro, are facing two pandemics. On the one hand, the arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and, on the other, the increased violence carried out by armed groups, such as paramilitaries, guerrillas, and some criminal organizations or mafias, which have taken control of areas where these communities live ancestrally.

A report by the Organization of American States indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the increase in armed violence, murders, and massacres in territories where the state is absent, in addition to a delay in the implementation of the peace agreement signed in 2016 between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC.

Social leaders denounce an increase in massacres and murders in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, there were 91 massacres and 381 murders of community leaders, many of them Indigenous and Afro-Colombian. Ethnic peoples are recognized as direct victims of the internal war in Colombia, which lasted almost 60 years and left 260,000 dead.

According to a recent report by the UN Human Rights Commission, ethnic and social leaders are a threat to armed groups and mafias for “implementing peace, opposing the interests of organized crime, illegal economies, corruption or protecting their communities.”

Listen to the story, in Spanish:


Below is an English translation of the original transcript from the audio story in Spanish. Translated by Fermín Koop.

ARMANDO GOURIYU VALBUENA, Indigenous leader, Wayuu nation, Colombia: “The pandemic hit us hard, very hard, because it is like remembering when the black plague struck, most people were rearranged in Europe. There were new incidents of economic, political, and social order, as well as of ideas of thought. In this opportunity, we leaders are either killed by the pandemic, because there is no public attention for the human being, or we are killed by paramilitarism and the state.”

NATALIA MESSER: He is Armando Gouriyu Valbuena, Indigenous leader, named master of wisdom by UNESCO in 2009.

GOURIYU VALBUENA: “I am from the Wayuu nation, sedentary desert people, we live in the north of Colombia.”

MESSER: Armando Gouriyu Valbuena represents not only the Wayuu people but also the 102 indigenous peoples that inhabit all of Colombia.

The four most numerous Indigenous peoples in Colombia are the Wayuu, Zenú, Nasa, and Pastos. They account for 4 percent of the total population of the country.

GOURIYU VALBUENA: “There are murders and deaths every day. The media hides that, but every day they tell lies, they tell falsehoods. And that is the state of things. […] And there is no response, no human will, not even political human will from the Colombian government.”

[El Tiempo news archive plays]

JOURNALIST: “In the town of Mango, in the municipality of Argelia, in Cauca, armed men came to a public establishment and shot the people who were in the place.”

[Archive playback fades out]

MESSER: In Colombia, day by day, murders and massacres of Indigenous and Afro-descendant leaders continue, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Systematic violence against ethnic peoples originates from colonial times, and it’s linked to economic interests in the territories these ancestral communities inhabit.

[Reverie music plays]

MESSER: In 2021 the situation does not seem to be improving. The Institute for Development and Peace Studies [Indepaz, in Spanish] records until May 20 this year 36 massacres and 135 fatalities as a result.

It is estimated that in Colombia, on average, a social leader is assassinated every two days.

[Music fades out, El Espectador news archive plays]

PRESIDENT IVÁN DUQUE: “A mandatory preventive isolation for all Colombians from next Tuesday, March 24, at 11:59 pm.”

[Archive playback fades out]

MESSER: Indigenous communities have been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Colombia is one of the countries with the highest death rate from COVID-19. Until mid-May, it ranks third in the countries with the highest number of infections in Latin America, after Brazil and Argentina.

President Iván Duque has imposed border restrictions and confinements, but his collapsed health system and the delay in the vaccination plan have the country facing a serious health crisis.

A crisis that also became institutional.

At the end of April this year, a series of protests and national strikes were carried out against a tax reform proposed by the Duque government.

[El Espectador news archive plays]

JOURNALIST: “Demonstrations that as far as we have been able to see have developed in a peaceful way. The number of people who have come to this place is very large.”

[Archive playback fades out]

MESSER: People have taken to the streets in rejection of this reform and also to express unease about how the government is dealing with this pandemic. To date, more than 20 deaths have been registered as a result of police attacks and clashes with tear gas and firearms.

GOURIYU VALBUENA: “There is a case in Leticia, department of Amazonas. It is a triborder city: Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. The Ministry of Health did not help in 2020. Today, 2021, it has not been present either. Several elders died in Leticia, and the pandemic was fought with ancestral medicine, just like in almost every other village…around 1,100 people have died, mostly adults.”

MESSER: Ethnic peoples are trying to prevent the spread of the virus in an environment of constant hostility.

Indigenous and Afro-descendant leaders denounce an absence of the state, especially in areas such as Orinoco, the Colombian Pacific, and the Amazon, where a large percentage of these ethnic groups live.

CLAUDIA JIMENA PAI: “First, the humanitarian crisis, second the pandemic, and third the cases of gender-based violence, which have also increased. In this area, one sees that this conflict has worsened.”

MESSER: This is Claudia Jimena Pai, indigenous activist of the Awá people in Colombia.

PAI: “The Awá People are geographically located in five municipalities: Tumaco, Barbacoas, Ricaurte, Roberto Payán, and Samaniego. We are a population of approximately 32,000 Awá, counting men and women.”

MESSER: Within her community, Claudia is a counselor for Women and Families. In her role as an activist, she has to witness almost daily murders and other violent acts, which have increased during this pandemic.

PAI: “This humanitarian crisis is also being diverted. […] They try to divert the humanitarian crisis that we are having here, and they try to—well I mean—disguise it. […] I understand that the pandemic is challenging, but for how long has Colombia been waiting for the vaccines?”

MESSER: Claudia says that several families in her community have had to leave the territories due to threats from armed groups.

In her municipality the situation is alarming.

[Noticias Caracol news archive plays]

JOURNALIST: “Confinement due to the pandemic has made social leaders more vulnerable, who, according to the facts, continue to be killed in their own homes.”

[Archive playback ends]

PAI: “Between this year and 2019, more than 32 men and women murdered. […] And in this area the conflict has worsened, with more than 110 threats to leaders and authority figures.”

[Pensive music with violin plays]

MESSER: But what led a country so heterogeneous in culture and biodiversity to shed so much blood in the last decades?

[Music ends, Univision Noticias news archive plays]

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS, former president of Colombia: “We reached an agreement that from any point of view is infinitely better than continuing the war that affected us so much, that broke families, that hit regions.”

[Archive playback ends]

MESSER: This recording covers the historic speech given by Juan Manuel Santos, former president of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

In 2016, the Santos government announced a peace agreement with the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

A chapter in the country’s history was being closed. Colombia had suffered a war that lasted almost 60 years and left more than 260,000 dead. People also disappeared, were displaced, and were considered false positives, as the press called cases of murdered civilians who did not belong to either side of the conflict but the Colombian army passed them off as combat casualties anyway.

[Univision Noticias news archive continues to play]

JOURNALIST: “The conflict in Colombia dates back to the [20]th century, specifically between the ’20s and ’30s, when agrarian conflicts and attempts at liberal reforms began, as well as rivalries between traditional parties.”

[Archive playback ends]

MESSER: Among the most direct victims of the conflict were Iindigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, who in Colombia represent about 14 percent of a total population of 48 million people.

GOURIYU VALBUENA: “After the FARC signed the agreement with the republic, the agricultural expansion immediately began to grow, as did the mining and environmental expansion…the same happened with cattle ranching. So, when the agricultural border grows, the economic system of the nomadic peoples in the Amazon and Orinoco is destroyed.”

MESSER: Armando Gouriyu Valbuena was present in the previous dialogues that resulted in the peace agreement, signed in 2016, in Havana, Cuba.

As a spokesperson for the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, ONIC, he worked on the creation of the ethnic chapter, a document that recognizes ethnic peoples as victims of the armed conflict.

The ethnic chapter establishes some reparation measures, such as a comprehensive rural reform to regulate territorial property.

GOURIYU VALBUENA: “Because in Colombia more than six million people were dispossessed of their land. That is where peace begins, with solving the issue of land ownership.”

MESSER: The document also proposes a greater participation of indigenous and Afro-descendants in civil society, security for the peoples who live under constant threat, and reparations for the damage caused during the internal war.

The peace agreement, which required many meetings, failed attempts, and internal discussions, would be a first step to implement peace in Colombia.

Nevertheless, many challenges remain.

JAIME DÍAZ NOSCUÉ, indigenous leader of the Nasa people, Colombia: “Today there are territories that are totally overrun by the cultivation of drug trafficking, coca, marijuana, or cannabis. And there are no solutions to the situations of internal conflict that are being experienced here in the northern part of the Cauca department.”

MESSER: This is Jaime Díaz Noscué…

DÍAZ NOSCUÉ: “Indigenous leader of the Tacueyó reservation, Toribio municipality, Cauca department.”

MESSER: Jaime belongs to the Nasa people, which is concentrated in the Cauca department, where more than 80 percent of this population lives.

DÍAZ NOSCUÉ: “One of the characteristics that the north of Cauca has is that it is a territory shared by Indigenous people, farmers, peasants, and the sugarcane agribusiness.

“What happened is that, during the 50-year struggle, the FARC lost that vision of fighting for the peasantry and got involved in another scenario that led them to the point that, as they were cornered, they ended up making a peace agreement with the last government.”

MESSER: In one of the longest internal armed conflicts in Latin America, several actors converge: the state, paramilitary, and guerrilla groups, such as the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

[Mysterious music plays]

MESSER: But drug cartels, illegal mining, the monoculture industry, and FARC dissidents who have not recognized the peace agreement have also been present in this conflict.

These groups only have one objective: to get control of the land.

[Music fades out]

VÍCTOR HUGO MORENO, economist and Afro-Colombian rights activist: “My family lost large tracts of land, and today they are all occupied by sugarcane monoculture. The sugarcane monoculture in our area has more than 100,000 hectares of land, which uprooted and took away the little land that the families previously had.”

“I am Victor Hugo Moreno Mina. I am part of the community council of Black communities in Colombia, an economist, with a master’s degree in government and human rights defense. An activist of the Black people of Colombia.”

MESSER: Mafias that want to exploit the land at all costs have been interested in areas such as the Colombian Pacific, where ethnic peoples of Colombia live.

HUGO MORENO: “Part of the conflict, of which we are victims, is due to the fact that we reside in strategic places, where water and oxygen are produced, where the forests and rivers are, and the economic model established in Colombia seeks to extract and exploit these territories at any cost, no matter who they have to extract or destroy to take their territory.”

MESSER: These are territories that are rich in biodiversity. Colombia has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world: 91 ecosystems of various types coexist in the country.

[Sounds of nature (water flowing, birds chirping)]

HUGO MORENO: “They massacred Black people, sowed fear in Black people, established a credit policy and agricultural development—which was different from the one that Black people dominated, believed, and possessed—and they transformed that into a highway for the economic development of other worldviews and other elites.”

MESSER: Ethnic peoples developed a low-scale economy in these territories, which was different from the Western model, as it always protected the environment, in line with their way of seeing the world.

The communities, especially those from northern Cauca, cultivated coffee, tobacco, and cocoa, which were even traded on the London stock exchange.

[Mysterious music plays]

MESSER: One of the reasons for the murders of ethnic leaders is their defense of the environment.

According to Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization in England, during 2019, Colombia was the country with the most assassinations of environmental leaders.

[Music fades out]

CARMEN LUISA CASTRO, ONIC political activist: “The core of the problem is an elite whose social, economic, and political power has some forms of land ownership. And now, that elite, together with the social phenomenon of paramilitarism in Colombia, produced a perverse effect of redistribution—by fire, blood, and burning of the land—of the elite and a process of dispossession of the land from the peasantry and the ethnic peoples.”

“I am Carmen Luisa Castro. I am an adviser to the senior government adviser of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia.”

MESSER: Carmen Luisa Castro is an activist and has been working for more than 30 years with the peasant and Indigenous social movement in Colombia. She is currently closely monitoring the situation of ethnic peoples and how they are facing the COVID-19 pandemic.

CASTRO: “In the ONIC territorial monitoring system, we had to send the first ONIC epidemiological alert in March, in order to guarantee that a health brigade could enter the community of Peñas Blancas on the river. We sent a health brigade from Riosucio because the paramilitaries did not let anyone in or out, and there were people dying, and we did not know if it was the virus or if it was an acute respiratory disease. We didn’t know anything. The paramilitaries became the biopolitical control. They even threatened people who had the virus, because they were killing them.”

MESSER: The paramilitary or “self-defense” groups emerged to defend private property against the extreme left-wing guerrillas.

Today, in the midst of the political, health, and security crisis in Colombia, paramilitary groups such as the Pelusos and the Caparros continue to control these territories claimed by ethnic communities. They even operate as a kind of health authority.

The armed groups took advantage of the pandemic to impose control on these lands, abandoned by the state, far from the cities, and generally intended for agricultural or livestock use.

GOURIYU VALBUENA: “In Colombia, certain decisions have ordered the land to be handed over, but this land is still owned by the paramilitaries, and the executive power does nothing. So, in order for this issue to be resolved […] they are murdering the families to whom the land should theoretically be returned.”

MESSER: To stop the murders and, at the same time, control the pandemic, the ethnic communities began to organize themselves.

In the Cauca department, for example, and to contain the attack of the mafias or the control of paramilitary groups, the native peoples chose to implement an Indigenous guard. Jaime Díaz explains it:

DÍAZ NOSCUÉ: “The indigenous guard is an early warning system that was created by the national Indigenous organization to respond to the armed conflict. With them we have been allowed to have a strategy of visibility, resistance, and communication with human rights organizations at the national and international level. This has prevented the displacement of a large Indigenous population to the big cities.”

MESSER: The Indigenous guard is made up of men and women of different ages. It is peaceful, unarmed, and functions more or less like this:

DÍAZ NOSCUÉ: “A result of the Indigenous guard is to summon the community when an armed group intends to assassinate an Indigenous community member. On occasions they have been captured and brought to trial, and their weapons have been destroyed.”

MESSER: In the community where Jaime Díaz lives, the Indigenous guard has been operating since 2002, when the conflict in the Cauca area intensified.

Today the community organization protects families, territory, and saves lives.

[Sounds of nature (birds), then mysterious music plays]

LUZ MARINA BECERRA, activist Afrodes association (national association of displaced Afro-Colombians): “Colombia is a country that, since its formation, since its independence, has been plagued by different wars, different forms of violence with different dynamics. So, we believe that this is part of the reason why violence in this country has become normalized.”

[Music ends]

MESSER: Luz Marina Becerra is an Afro-descendant and activist in Afrodes, the national association of displaced Afro-Colombians in Colombia.

Afro-Colombians represent about 10 percent of the population in Colombia. That is equal to a little more than 4 million people.

Like the Indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians are concentrated in rural areas, although due to the internal armed conflict they also suffered the dispossession of their lands and were forcibly displaced to urban areas of the country.

BECERRA: “The state has totally abandoned our territories, and this is a historical act, because the state has not considered Black peoples and Afro-descendants as a part of and as an important sector of this society. We are an important sector because of the role we have played in the construction of the nation.”

MESSER: A social gap has historically existed between two classes in Colombia: on one side, a large landowning elite, which is very powerful in several regions and has monopolized activities such as agriculture or cattle raising, and on the other side, groups such as Indigenous people, Afro-descendants and peasants, who historically have had almost no access to the same property rights or to the services provided by the state.

This struggle, being fought over by multiple actors to monopolize land, has been marked by daily killings and massacres.

[El Tiempo news archive plays]

JOURNALIST: “Attention, because a few minutes ago a new massacre was confirmed in the country. The second in less than 24 hours in the department of Valle del Cauca.”

[Archive playback ends]

MESSER: Luz Marina Becerra experienced this reality up close in the early 2000s, when the internal armed conflict worsened in some areas of the country.

BECERRA: “My older brother had two of his sons murdered, his two oldest sons, because we were opposed to them being recruited into the ranks of the armed groups. […] One of my nephews was tied to a tree, they sprayed gasoline on him and set him on fire. They burned him. And the following year, my other nephew was killed with a coup de grace.”

HUGO MORENO: “The reality is that there cannot be peace in Colombia if these causes are not challenged. This is part of the things we have requested in the collective protection and reparation measures, because the government is not interested. And because if the causes are not challenged and the government only focuses on the consequences, there will never be peace in the country, and even less in the territories to which we move as ethnic peoples, as peasant communities.”

MESSER: The peace agreement also did not guarantee that the murders or massacres in the territories, where these ethnic communities live, would end.

A recent report issued by the Organization of American States [OAS] analyzed the first six months of 2020 in confined areas of Colombia, some inhabited by ethnic communities.

The report states that the pandemic influenced the increase in armed violence, murders, and massacres, especially in areas where the state is absent, in addition to a delay in the implementation of the agreement signed between the government and the FARC four years ago.

[Univision Noticias news archive continues to play]

JOURNALIST: “Colombians have received with enthusiasm and a good dose of uncertainty the announcement of a bilateral ceasefire between the government and the FARC. The majority of Colombians have not lived a single day of peace since they were born, and they really hope that this is the end of the war.”

[Archive playback ends]

CASTRO: “We have a 10 percent implementation of the agreement and not from the point of view of the implementation route. We cannot say that this implementation route has been successful, and the responsibility for the nonimplementation has been on Duque’s government.

“The government has left. The reality is not only that it hasn’t tried to solve the conflicts, it’s that it has tried to dismantle the peace agreement.”

MESSER: Despite the devastation caused by the pandemic, Indigenous and Afro-descendants from different municipalities mobilized through national strikes and protests in 2020, which they called mingas.

[Protest audio from AJ+ Español news archive plays]

MESSER: The demonstrations are referred to as minga because it is a task in which the community participates as a whole and invites the rest of the country to join.

With these actions they want to denounce before the Colombian society and the international community the increase in massacres and murders in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to demanding compliance with the ethnic chapter that is part of the peace agreement and that recognizes ethnic peoples as victims of the internal armed conflict.

PAI: “Well, we know that the structure that we have now is a model of savagery, where they only think about extractivism, where they think about building a solvent economy, and not about the needs of the Afro people, the peasant people, the Indigenous people.”

CASTRO: “Peace becomes a process of peace building, of constructing a new society, of new social relations. […] Because the problem is not obedience to the modern state but rather dialogue between the ancestral forms of territoriality, of self-government, and law, and these imposed forms of the modern state.”

GOURIYU VALBUENA: “We have never believed in the state. We have had a very disastrous experience for two centuries.”

MESSER: The situation of ethnic peoples in Colombia is also not very different from other minorities in Latin America. Demands for collective rights, such as self-determination, prior consultation, territory, welfare, education, work and health with a multicultural perspective, are also present in some ethnic peoples in countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Panama and Venezuela, among others.

Part of the ethnic and cultural richness of Latin America is due to the contribution of its ethnic peoples and their view of the earth as a protective mother who suffers from violence. Because when there are deaths, the rivers dry up and the trees stop blooming.

PAI: “We are not asking for anything but to be allowed to live in our territories, to continue weaving the igra, to continue weaving baskets, to continue weaving hats. To continue sharing, which is what makes us, the Awá, people of the water, people of the mountains, people of the jungle, unique.”

[Ethereal music plays]

MESSER: The postconflict stage in Colombia will pose more challenges than the conflict itself. It will be a long process with many obstacles if we want to achieve harmony between two completely different ways of seeing the world.

The pandemic certainly made things worse. In 2020, the number of social leaders assassinated, including Indigenous and Afro-descendants, was the highest since the peace agreement. That year, 251 people died.

It is alarming that during this global pandemic, the ethnic people of Colombia not only have to face the latent risk of the disease but also the systematic violence and the armed groups that have taken advantage of this emergency by continuing to impose terror in these communities.

This podcast was made possible by support from the Stanley Center for Peace and Security through Red Flags or Resilience? COVID-19’s Impact on Atrocity Risks.

[Music ends] [End of transcript]

Music sources in this podcast:


Natalia Messer
Freelance Journalist

Natalia Messer is a Chilean freelance journalist living in Bonn, Germany. She studied journalism and social communication at Universidad Católica de la Santísima Concepción in Concepción, Chile, where she graduated top of her class with honors in 2014. She contributes regularly for Deutsche Welle. Her work has appeared BBC Mundo, the podcast Radio Ambulante, distributed by NPR in the United States, and WDR Cosmo, the public radio of Germany. Her investigative areas focus mainly on cultural, historical, human rights, and indigenous topics, such as the so-called Mapuche Conflict in Chile. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in international media studies at DW Akademie in cooperation with Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg and the University of Bonn. She speaks Spanish, English, and German. For more:

Red Flags or Resilience?

COVID-19’s Impact on Atrocity Risks