A Return to Bahia Portete

November 1, 2011 | Lena Shemel

Colombia’s long and violent conflict has made it home to the second largest internally displaced population in the world. Caught between right-wing paramilitary groups and left-wing guerrillas waging war in rural areas, Afro Colombian and indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by the war. Armed groups have systematically targeted and terrorized these minorities, murdering tens of thousands and displacing millions in their quest to gain control of valuable, resource-rich land to help finance their activities.

Colombia’s largest indigenous population, the Wayuu, have lived in the country’s northern province of La Guajira for over 500 years. Though the land is arid and desert-like, its strategic ports and natural resources have made indigenous communities vulnerable to paramilitary violence.

Seven years ago, the Wayuu village of Bahia Portete fell victim to paramilitary interests. Situated on a natural bay on the border of Venezuela, Bahia Portete’s port is an ideal hub for drug trafficking and international commerce. Its land is also rich in coal, attracting mining interests for the paramilitaries to exploit.

On April 18, 2004, at around 6 a.m., the paramilitaries attacked Bahia Portete. Armed men ravaged the village for nearly 12 hours, killing women and children, as hundreds fled in fear never to return.

Out of these tragic events, Debora Barros and Telemina Barros have emerged as leaders of the community. They have fought tirelessly to raise awareness about the atrocities that occurred in Bahia Portete, serving as the voice of their people and leading the Wayuu’s fight to return to their ancestral land.

Although most of the community is displaced between the nearby city Riohacha, Colombia, and Maracaibo, Venezuela, Debora insists that they are more united than ever in their fight to return. To demonstrate their solidarity, each year, on the anniversary of the massacre, the Wayuu return to Bahia Portete to commemorate the lives of those killed, and ensure that their ancestral traditions are kept alive.