Getting to know El Carmen de Bolívar
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El Carmen de Bolívar is located in the heart of the Montes de María, on the crossroads that connect the region with the larger cities of Sincelejo to the southwest and Cartagena and Barranquilla to the north. Despite the more than 100,000 people who live here, El Carmen manages to maintain a small town atmosphere with most commercial and social activity happening around the main square. Its large park is always filled with people, there is a bustling open-air produce market nearby, and one of the largest and most ornate Catholic churches in the region towers overhead.
The main economy is driven by agriculture and livestock, and historically was dominated by tobacco and cattle. Currently, El Carmen and the surrounding area are known for its avocado and ñame production. Both industries supply most of the ñame and avocadoes consumed within Colombia, and many avocadoes are exported internationally through major French-owned retailer Carrefour. As a result of the industry’s national and international success, the city enjoys a healthier economy relative to most other communities in the region. However, like most of Colombia, El Carmen suffers from structurally high unemployment and a significant number of its citizens live in poverty. The city also lacks a sewer system and a stable water supply and must rely almost entirely on rainwater, due mainly to government corruption and inefficiency.
For much of the city’s history, El Carmen had been fairly quiet and peaceful. This changed in the early 1990s when the FARC, a left-wing guerilla group, began operating heavily in the Montes de María. In attempting to wrest control over the region from the government, the FARC was responsible for a period of violence and kidnappings that lasted almost a decade. During this same period drug activity increased, specifically coca cultivation and trafficking, and profits from the trade were used to finance the guerillas’ operation. Conservative paramilitary groups began operating in the area in 1999 and were at times backed by government officials. For the guerrillas and paramilitaries the conflict went beyond political ideology as both sought greater shares of the lucrative drug trade. All over the region people and entire towns were made victims of displacements, abductions, and large scale massacres. El Carmen was caught in the middle as violence increased further. In one of the more extreme cases, a bomb went off in the main square behind the cathedral and killed three passing motorists. Also during this time homicide rates stayed consistently high and curfews were enforced by the beleaguered local police force.
The conflict cooled in the early 2000’s after the government’s new security policies drove out many of the remaining FARC and fragmented the paramilitary groups. Peace negotiations led to further paramilitary demobilization and greatly reduced their capacity for violence. Throughout, from the arrival of the guerillas in the 1990s to the conflict’s end, the people of El Carmen had remained largely neutral despite the acts of violence and intimidation against them. For resisting the city was recognized with the government’s National Peace Prize in 2003.
Assisting in the effort to bring peace and healing to the region are asvidas (Asociaciones para una Vida Digna y Solidaria), nonprofit organizations usually affiliated with local churches. There are two in El Carmen, Asvidas El Carmen and Asvidas Centro Familiar Cristiano. All over the Montes de María the asvidas’ work addresses a wide variety of social issues, from youth health programs to political advocacy to farming and small business cooperatives. The asvidas also work with their communities to explain and take advantage of several new laws and government initiatives that address reparations and victims’ rights. The third aspect of their work is simply networking; that is, actively establishing and strengthening relationships with other organizations and communities. Networking greatly improves the asvidas’ ability to advocate for victims of displacement and violence, as well as collaborate and share information on specific projects.
The people of El Carmen continue to build community and shared opportunity in the years since the conflict. The sentiment here is that people genuinely look out for each other, in ways like providing food to those without enough to eat and actively taking interest in their neighbors’ lives. While there are parts of town one wants to avoid at certain times, the heightened community awareness has resulted in a feeling of greater safety and security, and many feel crime is not a major problem in general. In a similar way one is struck by the lack of homelessness in the city – especially if compared to a city of similar size in the global north, where despite greater resources and a better functioning government, there might also be more homeless. One feels optimistic about El Carmen’s future given this attitude of shared responsibility. Together with the work of the asvidas, the community is steadily moving beyond its past as it addresses the challenges of the present.