Photojournalist Christian Escobar Mora came to Bates on November 9 to present his work covering the nation of Colombia’s five decade-long internal conflict. Escobar Mora was born in the capital, Bogota, and has been published in publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times.
The Colombian conflict is anything but simple. It has involved indigenous people, farmers who grow coca plants, left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary groups, and the Colombian military and government.
“I really think that it’s important, as a photojournalist, that I can talk with people about the conflict in Colombia. Today in the morning, an older woman asked me, ‘Why do you come back to Colombia if it has all this conflict?’” Escobar Mora responded, “‘Because of my wife, because of my country, and because it is the most important thing for me to talk about the conflict and show the conflict to people who think the war is at an end.’”
“In 2012,” he continued, “Colombia was in the midst of a very deep conflict. After the 1990s when all the drug cartels lead by Pablo Escobar were upturned, towns and cities were continually attacked by all kinds of groups. There was a lot of poverty, a lot of need.” He then showed a photo of a woman with an ectopic pregnancy. The hospital took 70 days to come to her aid, and while waiting, she died.
“FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, this year is 53 years old. It is the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America,” continued Escobar Mora flipping the photo slide. “This is a house damaged by a car bomb by the FARC, one and a half hours from my house.” During their reign, FARC used car bombs, cylinder bombs, and other kinds of homemade explosives on the civilian population.
Some of the key players in the Colombian conflict are the farmers, according to Escobar Mora: “Coca leaf growers are regular farmers who have regular farms. There are places in Colombia where you don’t pay with pesos or dollars, you pay with coca grams. So if you want a cup of coffee, you ask how many grams [of coca].”
A huge part of the conflict is that no one can tell if someone else is indigenous, a guerrilla, a paramilitary member, or in the army. “To the army, I’m a guerilla soldier, for the guerrillas I am a soldier, to the indigenous people I’m either a soldier or a guerilla soldier, and to my girlfriend, I’m perfect,” joked Escobar Mora.
The police and military are supposed to protect people in the town and surrounding areas, but in situations involving cocaine, those lines are so thin that the authorities and the outlaws are basically indistinguishable. Once the Colombian army changed their uniform, the guerrillas soon after put on the same attire, causing countless casualties due to confusion. According to Escobar Mora, “you can buy military uniforms in stores and no one will ask you if you are member of the military.”
Next, Escobar Mora showed a slide of a woman whose house was burning behind her. The army had told Escobar Mora that they had burnt her house because they saw a guerrilla walk passed it. “Whenever the military comes to town, the FARC comes in with their homemade weapons to attack and end up killing civilians accidentally,” he elaborated.
The root of the conflict stems down to territorial disputes; farmers encroach the land of the indigenous people to grow drugs such as coca and marijuana. “So the indigenous people say that the farmers own all the land and the farmers accuse the indigenous people that they have all the land and don’t use most of it. The indigenous people don’t like the farmers or the black people. The farmers like neither the indigenous people nor the black people. The black people don’t like the indigenous people or the farmers. The state doesn’t like anybody.”
When President Santos was re-elected in 2014, he started a strong campaign to initiate the peace process that came into effect in 2016. During the talks, some guerrilla leaders were killed and FARC continued to kill indigenous people. Eventually, FARC ordered a unilateral cease fire to celebrate the Christmas season.
However, Escobar Mora worries that the conflict is not over, as other guerrilla groups like the ELN (National Liberation Army) have recently sprung up. For now, no one knows what the future will hold.