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Why the Mocoa disaster shouldn't have happened

More that 300 people died in a landslide. Local corruption, incompetence and abandonment by the State means there is the potential for many more Mocoas in Colombia. Español

A resident of San Miguel looks down on two dolls, her daughters having died in the landslide on 1 April, 2017. Photo by Aitor Sáez/¡PACIFISTA!

This article is published as part of the partnership between democraciaAbierta and ¡PACIFISTA! You can read the original here.

In early April, heavy rains led to landslides and floods in the region of Mocoa, Colombia. Over 300 have been killed, 92 of which were children. Yet this is not only an incident of a destructive natural disaster, but rather a more common story of the Colombian government not providing sufficient support to the country’s outlying regions, many of which are still ravaged by decades of violent conflict. You cannot understand what has happened in Mocoa without seeing its link to violence, corruption and inequality. And what is far worse, the inhabitants of these regions themselves seem, to a large extent, acceptant of such tragedies – they have become tolerant of this endless cycle of brutality and abandonment.

Maria Adarme had not used the road between Pitalito and Mocoa for 12 years. Following the landslide, she had to go to find the missing members of her family. “My sister has survived, but her two sons are still missing”, she tells me. Her voice doesn’t tremble at all, not even by the bumps in the road as we share a van to the affected area.

Violent conflict has affected many in Colombia. Maria’s husband was killed by paramilitaries in 2000. “At that time, they were cut into pieces and disappeared in rubbish bags”, she says. During the first few months after his murder, Maria confronted the paramilitaries several times, but after being directly threatened by them, she decided not to go down that route again.

Her sister Berta moved from Villagarzón to San Miguel, the neighbourhood most affected by a similar landslide in 2001. In the June of that year, having instilled panic in the area for two years, a group of paramilitaries killed 17 people nearby. A week ago, Berta returned to Villagarzón in a wheelchair to recover from her injuries at her brother´s house. She saw her old house had been completely destroyed, and she is one of the hundreds displaced, first by Colombia’s domestic conflicts, and now revictimised by this natural disaster.

There is an expression that water has memory, and that it always returns to its original place. And so it happened at the beginning of April, in the capital of Putumayo. The water returned to its river basin, where huts huddled together – the majority of which were homes of those affected by previous conflicts. Hours after the disaster, the mayor of the city, José Antonio Castro, acknowledged that the settlement should not have been set up there, since it was surrounded by 10 tributaries.

“En Mocoa, there was a perfect storm: the natural disaster, the legacy of the conflict and a general absence of the State in the area”, says Francisco Barbosa, a teacher at the Universidad de Externado, who stated that “the most affected neighbourhoods were the illegal ones. The State never established basic public services there, but the local authority did. The State didn’t sanction, or prevent this”.

The data supports this claim. The Victims Unit has accounted for 24,667 displaced people in Mocoa. The Government had subsidised 53 houses in total, contributed towards the acquisition of 1,142 and only provided funds for improvements in 18 homes. The same report looks at 300 houses with serious dificiencies, or in need of urgent attention. This accounts for only a fifth of the displaced (an estimate based on the assumption of 5 people per household) who would have received housing aid, despite being in a disaster zone. Nine months ago, several studies warned of the potential for such tragedy.

For decades, Mocoa has suffered from flooding. The difference this time was that it occurred where a sizeable population was living, and where the water destroyed everything. “Disorder in the region, partly due to corruption and incompetence of the officials responsible, can be seen throughout the country. In Colombia, there is the potential for many more Mocoas”, explains Barbosa.

 But it wasn’t only that the water overpowered entire neighbourhoods. San Miguel was also devastated by immense rocks and sediment carried by the water. Several experts have pointed out mining and deforestation have contributed towards magnitude of the landslide. Since oil drilling began in Bajo Putumayo in 1965, not far from Mocoa, the region has fallen apart as the State has abandoned it.

“We are the tail of Colombia”, complained some residents from Mocoa. Three days after the tragic event, some of the affected returned to their homes to guard them against looting. From the look of it, outsiders had come to the epicentre of the disaster to steal the few belongs of the areas inhabitants that had survived. Victims of Colombia’s long-standing conflict had become the target of thieves. The following week, after the disaster, the government eventually strengthened security.

“We have to organise the neighbourhood, and if we see a stranger, we kick them out”, stated one of the residents of San Miguel. After the impact of the conflict and State-abandonment, the response has historically been one of violence: a brutality that has sadly followed the lives of the inhabitants of Putumayo until the point of death.

In the same van in which Maria Adarme travels to Mocoa, Diana Ruiz has just learnt that they have found the bodies of her two cousins. During the four hour journey, the initial feeling of dismay soon gave way to stories and laughter about experiences of a turbulent past. None of them wonder where their affected relatives will live. For most of them, it will be the second or third time that they’ve had to flee and start from scratch elsewhere.

And nor do any of them expect the State to help them.

About the author

Aitor is a Spanish journalist based in Colombia. he is interested on Social and Political issues. 


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