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Monday, October 3, 2022

Montes de María, Colombia: between voting and death

Mayerlis Angarita Robles, human rights defender in Montes de María, a region that points out "the context in which the elections will take place is not only corruption and vote buying, but also the risk of losing one's life" Photo: Manuel Ortiz. Global Exchange - Peninsula 360 Press

By Pamela Cruz and Manuel Ortiz

Paramilitary groups linked to drug trafficking, corruption and political pressure to buy votes are some of the situations that women and men will face in these elections in Montes de María, a mountainous region of the Colombian Caribbean, between the departments of Sucre and Bolívar.

According to human rights defender Mayerlis Angarita Robles, although Montes de María is a beautiful region, with very happy people, it also has a history of risk, with four early warnings that show the lags of groups such as the 35th and 37th fronts of the FARC, who did not enter the process of laying down their weapons and who began to nurture the groups that are committing crime in the area.

The founder and director of the women's support network Narrar Para Vivir pointed out that violence "today in Montes de María is closely linked to drug trafficking and is much more dangerous. So, this is the context in which the elections will take place; it is not only corruption, vote buying, but also the risk of losing one's life".

Likewise, he said, in this area "there is almost always the issue of vote buying, precisely because of the issue of poverty. There are also many isolated areas and sometimes, every four years, people come to sell their vote for the opportunity to have something".

"So, what we do as an organization is to generate awareness, that people understand what the value of voting is and what it means, because we need education, housing, health for our rights and not to vote in exchange for money."

Also, added Angarita Robles, some institutions in charge of speaking out on behalf of the people insist on denying the presence of groups linked to drug trafficking in the area, and this makes it very difficult to exercise democracy in this context.

"I do not dare to say by whom they influence or not, but we also see situations such as a murder in a village. This causes anxiety, fear and many times it is reflected in the abstention of voting, or in the fact that we end up seeing results that were not expected in certain regions".

"I have been told that there are communities that were ordered not to vote, or to vote for certain candidates," said the human rights defender, "which shows the pressure that has been put on them to vote for X candidate, so that people are now afraid to go out again, because they are afraid of reprisals against the communities."

"And as Montes de María has a history of 157 massacres and more than 4,172 homicides, you can imagine what it is for us to be democracy today in a context where nationally and internationally Monte de María is seen as a territory of reconciliation, of peace. And yes we are, there are very angry people here, I think we are too angry to remain here in a territory, when the price of working for peace is your life".

Ensuring democracy: the work of women and the community

For Mayerlis Angarita Robles Bueno, women have had to prepare themselves to defend their rights, "in fact, we currently have eight Special Peace seats in the Peace Agreement, because we demanded that, just as there were seats for the FARC, we victims should have our own".

And although it was difficult to achieve, after filing several actions and a lawsuit, which were won, it was achieved that through this pronouncement of the Court the seats were given. "We fought for this seat? today we have the seat of Paz de Montes de María," she said.

He added that today, in addition, "we know how to take care of the vote, so we have the electoral witnesses, we have trained the people to go early, to be alert, that if the ballot is crossed out, they have the right to ask for another one, to be very alert at the voting tables, in the scrutinies".

"And the fact is that here, in most cases, elections are won at the Registrar's Office, so that is where we also have to be very attentive. We have to make sure that the votes are not lost, because that is where they can be seen and that is what we all do. We are peasant women, but we are women who have prepared ourselves, who have been trained, who know, who know what is happening in the territory and who are not naïve".

"We know the interests that exist so that democracy does not reign in the country today. And I think there is a cry, there is a general awakening in all Colombia. Colombia wants democracy and wants the people to govern and we hope to have the victory tomorrow".

Narrating for Living, a support network among the women of Montes de María

Finally, Mayerlis Angarita Robles commented that practicing law in Colombia is difficult, especially in the Montes de María region, where there is a patriarchal macho culture and women were repeatedly taken as spoils of war.

"And precisely because we are defenders and women, it is much more difficult for us, because we are also charged for the fact that we are women, we are charged for the fact that we were born women who want to be defenders or leaders," she said.

"In my case I have been attacked three times -2012, 2015, 2019- and I pray to God that another one does not happen, because you really do not know if you are going to get out alive or not", as is the case of many other social leaders and for women in the territory of Montes de María and the whole country.

Narrar para Vivir is an organization composed of 840 peasant women, who have also transcended into academia, and who for 21 years have worked for the reestablishment of their rights.

"We have been able to influence in the spaces where decisions are made that have to do with our local reality and today we are demonstrating that women are not only that history and that resistance when we were taken as spoils of war, but today we are transforming the territories, we are builders of peace, we are exercising democracy and, above all, we are resisting and from the resilience of being born again and rebuilding the territory so that the illegal groups are not with that action they had before."

"We do this through the formation of strength, of the word, of peaceful coexistence, of non-violent conflict resolution, and above all, saying that in this territory we will not be one millimeter or one millimeter to the violent ones," the human rights defender pointed out.

This article was produced with the support of a group of journalists covering the second round of the elections in Colombia, sponsored by the organization Global Exchange in collaboration with Peninsula 360 Press.

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