During the internal armed conflict in Colombia, Urabá was targeted by different armed groups, making it one of the country’s longest suffering regions. For more than 50 years, guerrilla, paramilitary, and other illegal armed groups have established bases in the area, which they favor for three reasons. It is an arms and drug trafficking corridor; its lands are suitable for extensive agriculture, cattle ranching, illegal crop cultivation, and mining; and it has been neglected by the state for decades.

Cacarica is located in the Northwest region of Colombia, in the department of Chocó. To get there, visitors must cross the Urabá Gulf and then venture down the Atrato River for more than two hours. (IGAC 2010-2011. Incoder 2012. Made by Fidel Mignorance.)

The municipalities in the Bajo Atrato region and on the border between Chocó and Antioquia were hardest hit by the clashes between armed groups. According to the Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia, more than 15,000 people were displaced in 1997 from the Bajo Atrato area in Chocó as a result of these confrontations.

The Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in Cacarica, located in the Riosucio municipality of Chocó, bore the brunt of this violence during a historic military offensive by the army, coordinated with United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries on the pretext of removing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas from the area.

Operation Genesis and Operation Cacarica

Operation Cacarica and Operation Genesis began simultaneously at 5:30 am on February 27, 1997. The first was carried out by the Elmer Cárdenas Division of the AUC, and the second by the 17th National Army brigade led by General Rito Alejo del Río Rojas.

According to a 2003 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the armed forces used bombs and machine guns against the inhabitants of the Cacarica river basin during a weeklong offensive. At the same time, members of the Elmer Cárdenas Division threw grenades and shot at the villagers’ houses, claiming they were looking for guerrilla fighters hiding among the civilian population.

Shacks along the Atrato River serve as homes to people of Chocó, but they also harbor illegal armed groups that still roam the area. (Maria Margarita Rivera/ICTJ)

During the incursion, paramilitaries killed Marino López Mena, a peasant leader from the small village of Bijao, accusing him of being a guerrilla before capturing and beheading him. The violence and subsequent threats forced the communities to leave the area. More than 3,500 people from the Cacarica river basin fled in terror to Turbo, Bocas del Atrato, and Panama.

Two years after their displacement, the communities of Cacarica obtained collective ownership of their lands, to which they returned in 2000. There, they established the Community of Self-Determination, Life, and Dignity of Cacarica (CAVIDA).

Truth, liberty, dignity, fraternity, and solidarity are the values of CAVIDA. (Maria Margarita Rivera/ICTJ)

Cacarica covers an area of more than 25,000 acres, bordering Los Katíos National Park to the North, the Salaquí Community Council to the South, the Atrato river to the East, and Panama to the West. Home to more than 2,800 people, the territory comprises 23 communities and two humanitarian zones located in five sub-basins.

The Nueva Esperanza en Dios Humanitarian Zone, located in CAVIDA territory, is an ecologically sustainable village committed to peace that refuses entrance to any armed individuals. It is governed according to the values of justice, truth, liberty, solidarity, and fraternity—in homage to the more than 86 local residents who were disappeared or killed.

Approximately 120 people participated in the fourth edition of the Festival of Memories. (Maria Margarita Rivera/ICTJ)

Festival of Memories: “We Are Genesis”

Eighteen years after the traumatic displacement of the residents of the humanitarian zone, the Festival of Memories was held for the first time to bring healing to the community. The fourth edition of the festival recently took place from February 25 to March 4, 2019, with the theme “We Are Genesis.”

Around 180 people, including victims from different regions, perpetrators from the conflict in Bajo Atrato, and representatives from civil society and NGOs, attended the event. Notable individuals included Ubaldo Zúñiga (also known as Pablo Atrato), former guerilla commander of the FARC’s 57th Front, and Óscar Monterrey, a demobilized member of the AUC. In a panel discussion moderated by Lucía González of the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition, these ex-combatants explained why they are taking part in reconciliation processes. Their comments were addressed to victims from Chocó, Antioquia, Putumayo, and Cauca.

During the festival, the University of Peace inaugurated its first module in Cacarica. More than 16 community councils are interested in establishing University of Peace campuses in their territories. The goal of the university is to create a physical space for transferring local and ancestral knowledge and convening acts of truth-telling and acknowledgment of responsibility between victims and different groups of ex-combatants.

During the 4th installment of the Festival of Memories in Cacarica, Colombia, victims, excombatants and members of the mechanisms of the Comprehensive System of Justice, Truth, Reparation and Non Recurrence got together to witness the inauguration of the first module of the Peace University in this territory. (Maria Margarita/ICTJ)


The festival concluded in a hearing officiated by two magistrates from the Chamber for Recognition of Truth and Responsibility of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), who travelled to the territory to carry out JEP’s first consultation in a rural area. Their aim was to collect testimonies from victims related to JEP Case 004, which is focused on events that occurred in the Urabá and Bajo Atrato regions.


Mr. Isabelino, from Naya, is one of 16 members representing other communities that are seeking to build a Peace University in their territories. (Maria Margarita Rivera/ICTJ)

Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-Repetition 

The presence in Cacarica of mechanisms of the Integrated Justice, Truth, Reparation, and Non-Recurrence System, established by the Peace Agreement with the FARC, strengthens the resolve and commitment to justice in the country. However, the ongoing war, which still affects Bajo Atrato, casts a cloud over the progress made thus far. Today, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the criminal organization Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces threaten the survival of the local population and continue to cause mass displacement.

Despite these setbacks, many resilient communities in the territories are dedicated to peacebuilding, convinced that reconciliation, complicated though it may be, is the only way to end the cyclical wars that continue to tear at the social fabric of Colombia. Cacarica, which celebrates 22 years of resistance this year, is one of them.

Title Photo: A child looks into the flames of a recently made bonfire, while other children play nearby. (Maria Margarita Rivera/ICTJ)