Angela Yesenia Olaya Requene: Afro-descendant Migration on the Colombian-Ecuadoran Border: “Spatiality in Armed Violences”

Angela Yesenia Olaya Requene holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She is a research associate in Harvard University’s  Afro-Latin American Research Institute (ALARI), and the academic coordinator of the Centtificate in Afro-Latin American Studies organized by ALARI.


Afro-descendant Migration on the Colombian-Ecuadoran Border:

“Spatiality in Armed Violences”

Por Angela Yesenia Olaya Requene

As an Afro-Colombian woman, I find that investigating the the Afro-descendant community’s migrations in the context of the Colombian armed conflict is an experience that crisscrosses my own history. I was born in the town of Tumaco on the Colombian southern Pacific coast, one of the territories most affected by the violence and where most of the country’s illicit crops are cultivated.  My mother, a black woman who for more than thirty years taught school in different towns along the river, instilled in me the importance of making education a process to reflect on the history of my community.

My mother taught in the poorest communities along the river, precarious places of exclusion. Many of the boys and girls had been displaced from their hometowns by the armed conflict. Some of these young students described how their family members and friends had been killed by the guerrillas or paramilitary forces. I sometimes went with my mother to the schools where she taught. From Tumaco’s urban center, we would take a boat that would out on the ocean and then down the river to get to her work. Extensive jungles and mangrove swamps surrounded us on either side along the way. Some towns were located on the edge of the river; others had been built on small islands of earth left by the water at low tide. Even though I didn’t know it back then, each one of these places defined strategies of organization, appropriation of space and construction of cultures undertaken by local residents.  


On. one of our trips, a masked man with a gun at his waist signaled the boat to halt. The captain immediately obeyed. In a loud voice, the masked man asked the captain to stop the boat at several towns along the river to tell other armed men where passengers were going and why. This experience now makes me think about how the territories of black communities, studied by Colombian anthropologists in the 80s and 90s as sites of black identity and culture, had progressively been transformed into places controlled by diverse armed actors. The control these armed groups exerted over the crews of boats along certain parts of the river demonstrated a type of power which, through fear, sought to control and/or restrict the mobility of the local people. These reflections led me to  do my doctoral research on the mobility of Afro-Colombian communities on the border between Colombia and Ecuador.  

Keeping in mind my mother’s pedagogic practice of making education a constant reflection on the history of my community and with the guidance of Dr. Citlali Quecha Reyna, I designed my research so that, from the vantage of anthropology, I could inquire into the displacements, trajectories and mobilities of the Afro-Colombian communities, as well as the values these mobilities give to the experiences and cultural changes because of the contexts of violence and extreme social inequalities. I would study these changes from the voices of the families and communities about significant moments in the transformation of their spaces, territories, knowledge and cultures. I also analyzed the social and economic implications of the spatial transformations of these communitiess. These include the "radicalization" of the region, the arrival of coca cultivation and the extractive industries, the violence by diverse armed actors and the change in representations that boys, girls and youth of these communities construct about the territory and the border.

The ethnograpic exercise led me to redefine a series of strategies and methods that would let me oberve and “follow” the routes of mobiity of the Afro-Colombian communities in their local-transnational interconnections. I sought to understand the spatial senses of the Afro-Colombian communities, describing in an ethnographic manner the complex experiences of mobility: roots and routes connected in the space of the border.

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I looked in particular at some of the towns along the Mira River in the municipality of Tumaco. This river goes through the border that divides Colombia from Ecuador in the southern Pacific, place of intersection that connects the identities and cultures of the Afro-descendant communities in the Colombian and Ecuadoran south Pacific. From 2015 to 2018, I spent three to four months of the year traveling in the spatiality of the Colombian-Ecuadoran border. My fieldwork allowed to me to delve into themes that had to do with itineraries of pendular mobility, as well as commercial and blood relations in the local space. I traveled in boats and canoes, which allowed me to weave together common points in establishing the processes of spatiality in individuals and communities and how these are expressed in relations among themselves and with their neighbors.  

With these continuous trips through mangroves and jungle, I began to identify the itineraries of movility that had transformed the representations of Afro-Colombian places as spaces of cultural and territorial identity. Local residents even referred to “landscapes of terror” as a result of the armed conflict.  Places where residents once farmed and fished became “ghost places” that conjured up memories of plundering of lands and territories, selective assasinations and collective massacres carried out by armed actors during more than three decades of conflict.  Expressions like, “We don’t go that way because it’s haunted” “on the edge of that creek, we found a body” “over there, in the mangroves, you can hear voices” were common, no matter which route I traveled. These expressions illustrate how people have to modify their mobility to protect themseves from the context of violence. Rivers, mangrove and hills, historic formations in the pioneering processes of establishing settlements and the creation of Afro-Colombian cultures are now represented as hostile and dangerous nature. The violence permeating these territories reconfigured the perceptions of these places, generating massive flows of people to seek refuge in Ecuador. In this sense, the history of my community is an invitation to think and inquire about the changes and reconfigurations of these spaces, places, and trajectories of people in the context of the armed conflict.  

This is some of what I found. Ulrich Oslender in his 2008 book, Comunidades negras y espacio en el Pacifico colombiano. Hacia un giro geográfico en el estudio de los movimientos sociales (Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia ICANH) calls this reconfiguration “geographies of terror”


The geopolitical location between Colombia and Ecuador is considered a fundamental cause of the high rates of violences, forced internal displacement and flows of transnational mirgration experienced by the Afro-Colombian communities.  This border extends from the Pacific coast near Tumaco, Nariño, south to the province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. The borderlands are covered by extensive zones of jungle, with mangroves, islands, and rivers that provide a fundamental geo-strategic space for the incursion and installation of illegal armed actors, becoming a space for ecomic crimes such as drug trafficking, arms trade and kidnappings, as well as contraband of people and fuel.  

These violences (plural because it is more than one type of violence) have caused forced recruitment of youth, collective massacres, assasinations of social leaders and forced displacements that mingle with the extreme poverty of the communities. They also introduce new practices in the production of space, new ideas, new mentalities and representations that  locate the border zone as a “spaciality of armed violences,” an expression that refers to the systematic destructiveness and production of a geography of dispossession of the “material and productive” life and the “symbolic and cultural life” that this war has inflicted on the people.

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The border space is one of insecurity and danger, affecting the ways in which people move, organize and represent their local landscapes. The violences that break into the communities’ daily lives reflect the military strategies of the Colombian and Ecuadoran governments against the criminal groups associated with drug trafficking. Both countries have reinforced the presence of military forces  along the border. Thus, people live in the middle of a crossfire since their territories are used as an operating base for military actions. This situation has an enormous impact on the area’s traditional economy because daily movement in some places is restricted to “spaces of confinement.”

Therefore, the Colombian Pacific is not just a place that establishes the physical limits of the border with Ecuador, its meaning, porosities and crossings; the “spatiality of the armed violences” has transformed daily life and places of the communities I’ve studied. As Alejandro Grimsson suggests in his  book, Fronteras, naciones e identidades: la periferia como centro (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Ciccus/La Crujía, 2000), the anthropological question about borders means being able to distinguish between the historical processes of articulation and the way in which social groups produce these borders and assign them meaning in given contexts.  The anthropological approach to unerstanding the border between Colombia and Ecuador incorporates the multiplicity and mixture of settlements, mobilities and Afro-Colombian migratory flows  with its nuances and conflicts.

Journeys and Returns

Afro-Colombians communities are used to going back and forth along the border, Historically, these migration flows are associated with trade and family ties among the Afro-descendant populations of Colombia and Ecuador, producing a mobility of back-and-forth movement across borders. Afro-Colombian and Afro-Ecuadoran communities have constructed multi-residential migration established through the extended family.  The extended family refers to a shared history that is not always composed of blood relations, but which can extend at any time and place because of communitarian or territorial similarities. The extended family can be structured through the basic nuclear family, that is, parents and children, genealogical ties, reciprocal relations of godparents or simply sharing a last name that is common to the home village or along a certain section of the river. In the migratory flows toward Ecuador, Afro-Colombians mention living in the house of their “family,” “relative” or “cousin” (the last two terms can refer to either blood ties or families living together with different last names from the same home village.) 

Understanding the family in this way stems from the understanding that each nuclear family may have homes physically located in the two countries, generating forms of relations and simultaneous ties between both states that transcend the physical border. The Colombian-Ecuadoran border that emerges as a space that through blood ties and socio-cultural relations creates collective memories.  This form of production of the border space constitutes what Brazilian geographer Milton  Santos  has interpreted as “apego aos lugares,” that is the affective  relations of  the subject and place. This attachment results from the socialization and interaction of the subjects with the physical environment. Thus, the creation of these meaningful places emerges in a geographically-based historical, social and economic context, forming a territorial identity that, in the context of forced displacement by armed violences and the global forces of the extractive industries, defines the processes of the struggle for land and the territory of an entire people. I’d like to point out here that these places are not static; they emerge through a dynamic process of cultural change that is continually embedded with new meanings.

People go back and forth every day on different routes through urban and rural spaces that make up a local and transnational space, allowing them to relate to a system of places. In this regard, Olivier Barbary, Françoise Dureau and Odile Hoffmann observe in Movilidades y sistemas de lugares:Ciudades y sociedades en mutacion : lecturas cruzadas sobre Colombia (Lima (PER) ; Bogota (COL) ; Paris : IFEA ; Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2007) about the Pacific Afro-Colombian communities:

The variety of spaces, practices and challenges (individual, family and social) that are articulated through mobility, show that  these movements of people and goods have determinant and different impacts they have on these places, taken in an individual manner, but moreover considered as part of a system. (p. 96)

The notion of a system of places helps us to better understand migration flows in different scales of space and time produced by social groups.  In the space of the border, the fluidity of journeys and itineraries of people articulate local and transnational  points of reference and identify the fragmentation of these places within a wider regional space, especially if the migration routes result from the processes of exclusion, social-spatial precariousness and armed violences.  

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In the past three decades, the trajectories of Afro-Colombian migration have changed considerably as a result of the armed conflict. Migration is no longer a voluntary decision, but has become a forced one. Over time, in the collective imagination of the communities, displacement down the rivers and through the mangroves represents the challenge of living in a fiercely devastated geography controlled by war and its perpetrators.

Armed Actors

The presence of armed actors in Colombia’s region varies according to the geography and history of each place. In the southern Pacific coast, along the border with Ecuador, a dense jungle area has become the ideal venue for illegal activities and drug trafficking.  From the late ‘90s to the beginning of the 21st century, the mass media has described the border of Colombia and Ecuador as one of the zones most disputed by illegal armed actors, precisely at the time that the impact of the armed conflict was declining in areas such as Magdalena Medio. The 2014 report, “Dinámicas del Conflicto Armado en Tumaco y su Impacto Humanitario” (the Dynamics of Armed Conflict in Tumaco and Its Humanitarian Impact) by the Consulting Firm for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), points to three significant moments in the transformation of the border:

  • The first was in 1999 when the departments (like states in the United States) of  Meta, Caquetá and Putumayo became the state’s principal military targets. The coca crops grown there began to transfer to departments such as Nariño on the Ecuadoran border. In this same context, the guerrillas slowly made their way from the center of the country towards the periphery, looking for zones of refuge.
  • The second had to do with the arrival of the paramilitary  Bloque Libertadores del Sur (Liberators of the South Bloc) to the municipality of  Tumaco, sparking a wave of violence as it disputed territory with the Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
  • The third began in 2009 with the adoption of the FARC’s   Plan Renacer (Rebirth Plan), which made the decision to focus its actions in the periphery of the country, strategic locations for a guerrilla increasingly supported by drug trafficking and alliances with criminal bands.


Several illegal armed actors maintain a presence along the border between Colombia and Ecuador, principally the FARC guerrillas (now the dissidents after the signing of the 2018 peace treaty), the National Liberation Army (ELN), neo-paramilitaries and, in recent years, international drug cartels such as those of  Sinaloa and the Gulf Clan, maintaining constant crossfire in their dispute over land with the aim of cultivating and processing coca and trafficking cocaine. The historic presence of armed actors in the southern Pacific coast can mostly be explained by the state’s abandonment of this territory, which means the armed groups do not meet with significant military resistance and are able to hide their violent actions with impunity.   According to the Latin American Center for Rural Development, (2017), this region has the highest poverty levels and structural underdevelopment in Colombia. This context facilitates the incursion and installation of illegal armed actors and the mobilization of economies connected with drug trafficking, arms running, kidnapping, trafficking of people and fuel. Local communities are at the mercy of illegal activities, particularly drug trafficking.    

After the 2018 signing of the Peace Accords between the government and the FARC, former guerrillas joined dissident bands, among which are the Oliver Sinisterra Front, a group that controls the laboratories and shipment of cocaine in southwestern Colombia and along the Ecuadoran border with strong ties to drug cartels. As a result, the Colombian Armed Forces have stepped up its activity in the region through the so-called ATLAS Operation in the region to combat organized crime and drug trafficking.  According to a report by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, there are 11 criminal organizations in the region, including FARC dissidents, some tied to illegal mining and extortion.  

Illicit Crops and Forced Migration

Tumaco, on the border with Ecuador, currently has the most extensive coca cultivation in the country and in the world. The Integrated System of Monitoring of Illicit Crops (SIMCI),  has registered  57 acres or  16% of the total in the country in 2017, a record-breaking figure in the history of drugtrafficking in Colombia. For local residents, “voluntary” or forced participation in the economies of drug trafficking often is the only real alternative they have to survive in these rural spaces. Or they dedícate themselves to illicit crops and sell them to the groups that control their territories or they must opt for displacement, adding to the thousands of Colombians who have crossed national borders, fleeing from the armed violence.  The subsistence economies of Afro-Colombian families mean they must try to survive in the midst of a spatiality saturated with illicit crops in territories with historic social inequalities, generating progressive impoverishment and transforming the historical meanng that the communities have constructed into experiences filled with fears, anxieties and experiences of war.   

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (ACNUR), an average of 400 Afro-Colombians crossed the border between Colombia and Ecuador monthly in 2016, fleeing from the horrors of war. In 2017, at least 1,500 people in Tumaco experienced forced displacement because of combats between armed groups, according to the United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Concerns (ocha),  In 2018, nine out of every ten members of the indigenous community, Resguardo Indígena Awá de Inda Guacaray, some 451 people, experienced forced displacement, and another 648 Afro-Colombian were displaced from the town, according to OCHA.   However, the greatest number of Afro-Colombians were forcibly displaced in the decade of the 90s until 2004, seeking refuge in Ecuador. The figures are startling: 1,300 to 1,400 people monthly.  In spite of the efforts of international organizations such as ACNUR to keep track of people fleeing armed violence in the border region, the Colombian state maintains very incomplete records on transnational forced migration flows. This situation makes it difficult to identify the effects of the armed conflict in these territories, and to subsequently develop measures of reparation, and not repetition, for the country’s victims.

The spatiality of their land is transformed into a physical witness of war and exile. In the past few years, the towns of Congal, Bocana Nueva and Cacagual have lost much of their population. Other towns like San Jacinto and la Barca have disappeared as a result of floods and river overflow that frequently menace the rainy border zone. There are no contingency plans here, no plans to relocate people. Nature can be as cruel as war.  Displacement can often be a mix of factors—fleeing from the floods and fleeing from the bullets.

And also from the consequences of mining. The extractive economies have reconfigured the spatiality of the border because the mobiity of their capital contributes to the deterioration of natural resources and the socio-territorial organization of the communities. Add to this the fact that gold deposits and oil sources in the southern Pacific Coast have spurred an increase in the exploitation of natural resources, not only as form of fnancing illicit activities, but also as a way of consolidating their power.  Armed actors have entered into the extractive economies, including African palm cultivation and the lumber industry, which increases disputes over territory and their populations.  Community Council leaders from Alto Mira, Frontera and Bajo Mira y Frontera have denounced expropriations and illegal purchase of their territories by palm oil companies to the Cplombian government’s Unit of Land Restitution. They say that from  1995 and 2005, these companies were associated with the drug traffic and were financed by the Liberators of the South paramilitary group.  

The practices of migratory legibility in Colombia do not recognize the impact of transnational forced migration in this territory. The border is visible only when the government carries out military actions against drug trafickers or goes after FARC dissidents, choosing to overlook the faces and trajectories of the migrant population. The question is unavoidable in the processes of border crossing: the constant exit of women, youth and adults who leave the country in search of better conditions of life.  

Summing It Up

As Saskia Sassen notes in her  2015 book,  Expulsiones. Brutalidad y complejidad en la economía global (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Katz editores), transnational migration flows in traditionally poor communities and/or in the context of war transcend the idea of inequality and social inequity and point to the pathologies of global capitalism; our societies face complex modes of expulsion that range from basic policies towards institutions, techniques and   systems that require specialized knowledge and intricate institutional formats. The state, social organizations, community and academics must work on constructing a cartography of armed conflict on the border  between Colombia and Ecuador. Together, they must map out the places of dispossession and the trajectories of displacements and forced migrations and new territorial  roots beyond the national border. This would be a reference point to understand through the voices of the community the transformations they have experienced in the context of the armed conflict and to construct a plan of action for collective reparations for the victims.  Taking into account, moreover, that this forced migration now stretches beyond Ecuador all the way to Chile. Hundreds of Afro-Colombians from Tumaco, Buenaventura and Barbacoas who are fleeing from poverty and conflict in Colombia are now arriving in the Southern Cone country.

The origins of this migration are rooted in the profound social inequalities in the región, coupled with the relentless violence. They result in a reconfiguration of the communitarian contexts, family networks and the ties of people to places—from the border to beyond