BOGOTÁ, Colombia – While recent policies and actions to improve security have been effective in the majority of the country, Colombia’s government is still working to improve residents’ safety in the department of Chocó.
The department’s numerous waterways leading to the Pacific Ocean have made it a hotbed for narco-traffickers and criminal gangs who have unleashed a wave of violence, forcing locals to help them in the drug trade and other criminal activities.
“Only three months ago I became governor of the Chocó Department, and since then I’ve been finding complications at every turn,” Malcom Ali Córdoba said. “The [departmental] government has a financial deficit; the few professionals in the region are not getting paid; the schools show a low level of competence; sexual abuse is very high; and it’s no secret to anyone that the department is one of the poorest in the country.”
Córdoba, who at 28 is the Andean nation’s youngest governor, is charged with looking after the needs of a region with 9.9% unemployment, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics.
Córdoba said Chocó does not have enough jobs to provide income for all of its residents.
“Our biggest problem is the corruption, the impunity, and the indifference,” he said.
Chocó’s high unemployment level has driven residents to engage in criminal activities to earn a living, which creates a vicious cycle, Córdoba said. “All the illegal armed groups working in the region undermine in one way or another the peacefulness and the development of the department.”
He was referring to an incident this past May where a series of attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) along the Atrato River left four dead and disrupted navigation of that river for two days. The attack, officials said, made it clear the FARC’s strategy is to use the local villagers as human shields to protect themselves against the police.
The FARC’s 34th Front blocked the passage of vessels along the Atrato River bound for Quibdó, the capital of the department of Chocó, on May 22.
The Diocese of Quibdó responded by alerting authorities the FARC intended to use villagers from Beté to shield members of the terrorist groups when engaged by the military.
The Colombian Armed Forces and National Amy resolved the situation during a joint operation in which they commandeered the Atrato River so it could be used by civilians. But the operation came with a steep price: The FARC killed three civilians and a police officer during an attempt to take control of the river.
President Juan Manuel Santos said he’s committed to making Chocó safer.
“I’m not [going] to allow the department [to continue] being seen as the poorest in the country,” Santos said in a statement posted on his website, adding his administration would bolster security forces throughout Chocó.
“We Chocoans are used to counting the dead in the news, not a week goes by without [an] incident,” says Rafael Restrepo, who relocated to Bogotá from Chocó a decade ago out of concerns for his safety.
Restrepo added: “I left because I felt my life was threatened – and not because I didn’t believe in the region’s potential. But the truth is that drug trafficking and violence have done a lot of damage to Chocó. They have slowed down the education and prosperity of the region, and looking at the news I can see that little has changed.”
Córdoba said he would like to see Chocó as prosperous as other regions.
“Our region is rich in culture. In natural resources, we’re a work in progress, but we have a lot of potential, and that’s why I’m asking the government to invest – to really invest – in the recovery of Chocó,” he said.
Adm. Édgar Cely, the commander of the armed forces, visited Chocó in May. He’s now working with Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera to devise a strategy to make the department safer.
“The new strategy of prosperity and security will revitalize the Chocó Department and will reinforce security,” Rivera said. “We will invest in the future of the region’s population. The Colombian government will not let any of the country’s departments fall by the wayside, but we will pay special attention to solving and alleviating the needs of Chocó.”
Córdoba added: “My intention is to help and to do everything possible for Chocó to move forward; but you need a 360-degree change to achieve this and in this sense, the help we’re being offered by the government is vital.”