Choco, mired in conflict for over 50 years, is a resource-rich, cash-poor region, and is again in spotlight, with by capture of prominent Colombian general by FARC guerrillas.
The densely forested department, which sits on the country's Pacific coast, is a microcosm of the problems fueling Latin America's oldest conflict.
AdvertisementThe poorest region in Colombia, it languishes at the margin of the government's control, a haven for numerous rebel groups and drug gangs.
Las Mercedes, the small village where General Ruben Alzate was captured Sunday with a corporal and an adviser -- throwing Colombia's peace talks into crisis -- is a tropical paradise covered in lush vegetation but lacking running water and electricity.
Locals have been surprised to find themselves thrust into the center of a peace process they say is far removed from their daily reality.
"In Choco, we're living a different situation than the rest of Colombia. We don't even realize there are peace negotiations happening," said Juan Barreto, the Catholic bishop of the regional capital Quibdo.
"It's an isolated region that's very vulnerable to violence because of its poverty and abandonment by the state."
The population of Choco is mostly black and more than 60 percent live in poverty.
They mostly survive on fishing, farming and small-scale gold mining.
The dense tropical terrain has made the region a haven for rebels. That plus the proliferation of illegal mining and the good climate for growing coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, also make it attractive to drug gangs.
Choco has been particularly battered by the five-decade conflict that has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced more than five million since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia's foundation as a Marxist rebel group in 1964.
In 2014 alone, 8,000 residents have been forced to flee their homes because of violence, according to officials.
- 'Afraid to go out' -
"We know how to survive without much here. But now people are afraid to even go out and get food. They're afraid we'll be displaced again like in 1999, when the whole village emptied out and we all went to Quibdo," said Las Mercedes resident Senen Mosquera, 51.
Mosquera was referring to the time an official publicly thanked the local community for helping the military capture nine members of one of Colombia's since-disbanded right-wing paramilitary groups.
The comments sparked attacks by the captured fighters' comrades that forced the entire village to flee.
Villagers are nervous this history could repeat itself, since the government has said that General Alzate was ambushed by armed guerrillas hidden inside people's houses.
In Las Mercedes, as in other villages in the area, people interrupt their conversations whenever a motorboat approaches on the river.
In this region of few roads, the Atrato River is the main highway, and attacks, when they come, tend to come from the water.
General Alzate, the head of a task force charged with fighting rebels, drug traffickers and illegal mining in the region, was visiting a civilian energy project by boat when he was captured.
His supporters in the region said Alzate had shown an interest in more than just the military side of the job since being named to the post last December.
"Since then he had been traveling around the region and getting to know our reality from the inside," said Quibdo Mayor Zulia Mena -- who said the general could often be seen wearing civilian clothes for such visits, as he was at the time of his capture.
"He said his biggest contribution must be to fight injustice."
But that is a tall order in Choco, where "whoever has a gun faces off against whoever doesn't," said Fanny Salas, a local resident and community leader.
"You can't stop a bullet with words."
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