Last week’s tragedy in the department of Choco reopened the debate in Colombia about the lack of investment in the region. With a final death toll of 39 people killed by the landslide on the road connecting the department’s capital, Quibdo, with the city of Medellin, an old debate in the country has returned to the political and social news these days: the important deficit of public investment in one of the departments most historically forgotten by the State.
Choco, mostly inhabited by the black population, is the poorest region in Colombia. The poverty index exceeds 66%, according to official DANE data from 2022, surpassing La Guajira by more than two points. Discrimination and traditional racism of the ruling class towards a territory little known even by the population of the interior of the country, the department suffers the lack of state presence in a notorious way. After the tragedy of last January 12, President Petro announced an investment of 500 billion pesos to complete the work on the road where the tragedy occurred. However, the inhabitants of the region are asking for more from the State.
Victims of historical neglect
The lack of everything in Choco is a recurrent news item on Colombian television newscasts. Similarly, the effects of the internal armed conflict, with the proliferation of criminal gangs fighting each other for control of cocaine routes, have sown the territory with violence for decades. In Choco, the presence of the State is residual. Those who live there say that it has been the sense of community of civil society that has allowed them to survive.
Of the approximately 550,000 inhabitants, 90% are descended from Africans who, in colonial times, were forced to leave their continent to work as slave labor, and indigenous people, who have given the department an important cultural personality, with outstanding contributions to national sports.
All in all, Choco has the worst roads, the worst hospitals, the worst schools… and that is when you find any at all. It borders the two oceans that bathe Colombia and is the border with Panama. It is rich in minerals, mainly gold and platinum, but also copper, zinc, chrome and manganese. A priori, it has all the characteristics to generate wealth. However, it is impossible to reach the municipalities located in a line of more than 1,300 kilometers of Pacific coast by land.
This has favored the preservation of an exuberant, almost virgin, unexplored and, above all, unexploited nature, but it makes the lives of those who live there very difficult. In this sense, for example, the basic services of running water and sewerage are terribly scarce. In the department, running water does not reach more than 30% of the population, while 80% of the inhabitants of Choco do not have sewerage.
The less state, the more crime
Where there is no State, criminality proliferates; illegal armed groups are the real power. The dynamics of drug trafficking have marked this region, as it is a maritime zone and facilitates the enclave of routes for drug, arms and human trafficking. Its geographical position allows connectivity with Panama and Central America, the Darien highlands, the Baudo highlands, the Litoral del San Juan and Buenaventura.
Between the 1980s and 1990s, the Medellín and Cali cartels were present to traffic cocaine to Panama and Central America, and to traffic arms, inputs for drug processing and cash. Ethnic territories have been used as storage and transportation sites by the building of airstrips, and the region’s youth have been used to transport merchandise between the routes established for the commercialization of cocaine.
According to the conclusions of the Truth Commission, an institution created in 2017 after the peace with the former FARC, “after the demobilization of the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, between 2006 and 2020, began the expansion of another paramilitary gang, the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, which have settled in indigenous territories and have control over the trafficking and transport of cocaine from different regions and that converge their transit through the border of Panama and Central America”.
Similarly, one of the most common practices, the result of poverty and the need to survive, is the so-called “white fishing”. It is common among the younger population of the region to go out and pick up bales of cocaine floating in the sea, packages that were abandoned by drug traffickers when they were pursued by law enforcement.
Endemic hospital crisis
Among the few hospitals and health posts that exist in the department, the crisis has been endemic. During the Covid-19 pandemic and the hardest moments of contagions, in 2020, there was evidence of delays in the payment of salaries to health professionals at the San Francisco de Asís Hospital, located in the capital Quidbo and the most important in the region.
At that time there were delays of more than ten months in these payments to workers. The crisis, far from abating, continued to worsen in the following months, reaching a climax in 2022 when the hospital decided to suspend all its services, in protest at the delays in salary payments.
“Resolving the crisis at the San Francisco de Asis hospital is urgent because it is the main referral care center and is the only one that receives cases of patients who require referral to other cities or medical or specialized care centers of a higher level of complexity,” said the Ombudsman, Carlos Camargo.
Education and Communication Deficits
In other key sectors, such as education and infrastructure, the situation is no better. In 2020, only 13% of the department had internet coverage, making it impossible to maintain virtual education for more than 100,000 students, forced by confinement during the harshest months of the pandemic. Although in the last two years, investments in education have improved, the historical deficit is so significant that they do not solve the problem.
“We do not have any educational institution that has permanent drinking water. This has an impact on hand washing, water catchment system and sanitary batteries,” said Hárold Ramirez, Secretary of Education of Choco in 2020.
In terms of road infrastructure, the jungle terrain of the department does not help the building and maintenance of good roads. Thus, the rivers are still today the main means of communication between the villages of the region. In this sense, the isolation and poor connectivity between rural and urban areas to some extent explains the underdevelopment of the department of Choco.
The road network is precarious, with only two main roads: the Quibdo-Medellin transverse road, where the fatal landslide occurred on January 12, and the Quibdo-Pereira road, which is currently being used as an alternative due to the closure of the first road. For internal transportation, the road that connects Quibdo with the municipalities of the San Juan sub-region stands out. It is only possible to connect the coastal municipalities by air or by river.
An example of contempt
Although possibly not representative of the general feeling due to its crude language, some controversial statements made ten years ago by Antioquian congressman Rodrigo Mesa, in which he scandalously despised Choco, illustrate the situation of the poorest department in the country and the way it is seen in other areas.
The then regional deputy of the Liberal Party, in a discussion on the Development Plan of the department of Antioquia, criticized the investments in bordering towns between his department and Choco. In a moment of heated discussion, the political representative affirmed that “the money that one puts in Choco is like putting perfume on a turd”.
With their overtone of racism, the politician’s words provoked rejection among the political class and Colombian society almost without exception. However, in a sense, Mesa’s unfortunate expression reflects a widespread opinion in diverse sectors, not only political, towards Choco, perceived as a complex territory where development is an impossibility.
President Petro promises changes
The current Colombian government of President Gustavo Petro has promised profound changes. As happened with La Guajira, another of the poorest departments and among the most neglected by the state, Petro’s government has assured that the investments that the department needs will be prioritized.
For now, only the 500,000 million pesos guaranteed by the presidency for road infrastructure have been allocated, but the inhabitants expect more, much more, because this is what is needed to correct the historical deficit in public investments.
On the other hand, the solution can only come after a long-term State pact between the different political sensitivities, so that equal opportunities are guaranteed between the Andean center, much more developed, and the peripheries of a country that has never managed to integrate and consider them as a worthy part of itself.