Adversity and violence in Micoahumado ultimately led to community organisation. The community faced an apparent dilemma: either to join one or other of the groups, inviting direct involvement in the confrontation; or to oppose both, almost certainly provoking their own displacement. Instead, they opted for a third alternative: to declare their “civil disobedience” – refusing to support any of the armed actors, assuming a nonviolent stance, and defending a proposal for peace, coexistence and security.
On 14 December 2002, the inhabitants of Micoahumado and representatives of the local Catholic Church held a meeting on the village soccer field. The new priest of the Diocese of Magangué, Fr. Joaquin Mayorga, and the Director of the Peace and Development Programme of Magdalena Medio (PDPMM), Fr. Francisco De Roux, who had begun to provide support to Micoahumado, also attended.
The participants voted to remain in the village rather than abandon it, as had happened previously. The assembly elected a dialogue commission made up of eight to ten people, with equal representation of men and women. Their mission was to talk to the paramilitaries and guerrillas to resolve issues such as drug trafficking and de‑mining. Because many previous community leaders had been accused of collaboration with the ELN and forced to leave, it was vital that the new commission remain anonymous. At the same time each commissioner also had to be an active member of the community – an evangelical pastor or teacher, for example.
The first round of negotiations began in the middle of armed confrontation. The commission initiated contact with the ELN through the milicianos (militias) present in the village and convened a meeting with guerrilla commanders positioned in the mountains.
The paramilitaries moved away from the centre of the village to the neighbouring hills. However, according to a community leader, this was “when the worst fighting started”.
Intense violence continued through Christmas 2002 and the New Year, “which kept us boarded up in our houses from 24 to 31 December. We couldn’t even poke our heads out.” After this, the commission negotiated with the paramilitaries to withdraw from Micoahumado and continued dialogue with the ELN to protect the population from crossfire. “On 17 January , the paramilitaries left with just 150 men, after they had arrived with 600 […] After that, they never came back” (interview with community leader, 2010). The ELN then returned to Micoahumado in order to maintain control of the area.
Community leaders’ accounts reveal the risks involved in engaging with all sides in the middle of armed confrontation. They had to be direct and clear with each party and emphasise the unity and resolve of the community. Although both the ELN and the paramilitaries broadly accepted the community’s proposal to avoid involving the population in the confrontation, adherence to this was not constant, and was dependent on the armed actors’ strategic interests vis-à-vis their adversary a particular moments.
With the withdrawal of the paramilitaries, however, the army intensified aggression against the population. The community insisted the guerrillas abide by previous agreements and not involve the community in the confrontation. The ELN accepted this and decreased their presence. Encouraged by this progress, on 14 March 2003, the community created the Popular Constituent Assembly of Micoahumado as a humanitarian space for “life and peace”. The Assembly was representative of the whole territory – in the preceding weeks 100 delegates drawn from every village in the administrative subdivision had been selected to sit on it.
The Assembly became the community’s main organisational structure, responsible for all major decisions. It ratified the dialogue commission and created further commissions to deal with other community issues. The Assembly met to prepare for the dialogues with the armed groups, defining the main topics to be addressed by the commission and to establish criteria for the commission to take decisions autonomously during the talks. After each round, the results of the dialogues were discussed and ratified by the Assembly.
The Assembly worked collectively, and no one person exercised more power than another. A religious dimension was always present: meetings started with a Bible reading and ecumenical prayer. Both the Assembly and the commission were driven by the slogan: “In defence of a territory for life, without coca, without military operations, without camps, without mines, with autonomy and freedom”. The issue of de‑mining was central to their dialogues with the ELN.