Afro-Colombian culture is under siege as armed conflict rages on
The remote Colombian city of Quibdo was home to the country’s only museum dedicated to the history and culture of Afro-Colombians — until the museum closed its doors last month.
Although nearly a quarter of Colombians identify as either Black or mixed race, the African diaspora and Colombia’s deep roots in the slave trade are conspicuously absent from official narratives about the country’s history. When Muntú Bantú opened in 2009, the museum was wholly unique in a country with one of Latin America’s largest Black populations yet no institutional centers or museums dedicated to their history, culture and heritage. The name is a tribute to the region’s African roots, referencing Bantu, a family of languages spoken across the African continent. According to the museum, Africa’s Bantu diaspora has a strong linguistic and cultural presence in the Chocó region, where it is located.
“Sometimes people enter as one person and exit as someone else,” Sergio Antonio Mosquera, an Afro-Colombian historian and the museum’s founder, told me in Spanish over a shaky WhatsApp connection.
Visitors would pass through the building’s yellow facade and descend into the bowels of a ship, meant to evoke the transatlantic slave trade, and then be immersed in exhibits about African history and biodiversity, Black achievements in cinema and Afro-Colombian feminism. Some left transformed.
“They found themselves with their history, their ancestors,” Mosquera added. “It’s a huge experience, understanding the world in Afro-diasporic thinking, not Eurocentric, Christian and white as we were taught.”
But no one is walking through the museum now. A few months back, a local armed group set its sights on Muntú Bantú and sought to extort Mosquera and his colleagues, threatening violence if they didn’t pay up. The harassment led them to shutter Muntú Bantú in January, forcing the museum’s vast archive of Afro-Colombian history underground.
In Chocó, the impoverished region in Western Colombia where it’s located, Muntú Bantú was a revelation — a gateway to an archive of repressed national memory. It had become a hallowed space in the community — so much so that for years, it was able to stay open despite the violence and instability plaguing Chocó.
Rich in natural resources like coca and gold, the Pacific Coast province is in the crosshairs of a violent battle for control between criminal groups lured by illegal mining and drug trafficking. These groups prey upon local businesses and organizations through extortion and harassment, and Muntú Bantú was no exception. When death threats and so-called extortion “war taxes” landed in front of Mosquera and his colleagues, they saw no option but to close up shop indefinitely over concerns for their safety.
The closure highlights the increasingly precarious position of activists working in the country’s conflict zones, particularly in the years since Colombia’s 2016 internal peace treaty, which is now faltering. It also comes less than a year after the inauguration of Vice President Francia Márquez, the first Afro-Colombian to hold such a high office.
Violence against activists and community leaders has reached record levels in Colombia as criminal organizations and armed groups fight to control territories and drug trafficking routes. Gangs threaten, harass and murder local leaders, activists and anyone they see as a threat to their power. Last year, according to government officials, at least 215 Colombian activists were murdered, the highest number ever recorded.
The violence has been especially pronounced along Colombia’s Pacific Coast, where Chocó is located. According to Gimena Sánchez, an expert on Afro-Colombian issues at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group, a disproportionate number of the 1,200 human rights workers assassinated in the country since 2016 were of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous backgrounds. “Up until now, they’ve respected the space, which is seen as a source of pride,” she told me. But the winds seem to be shifting. In the city of Quibdo, the home of Muntú Bantú, the situation has “turned into a nightmare,” Sánchez said. “There are shootings every day. [Paramilitaries] extort absolutely everybody. It’s out of control.”
And then there’s Márquez, whose ascent has brought increased visibility of Afro-Colombian history, memory and culture in public life. Márquez herself — who before entering politics was an outspoken activist fighting against illegal gold mining — has been a top target of racist trolling, death threats and harassment. In January, Márquez denounced the threats against Muntú Bantú on Instagram, calling the museum a “sacred temple” for the Afro-Colombian community. Mosquera explained to me that this racist backlash has trickled down to the Afro-Colombian community as a whole, reaching public figures and everyday people. The threats aimed both at Márquez and Muntú Bantú seem to be a byproduct of this volatile and historic political moment: an era of increased exposure, and danger, for Afro-Colombian leaders as parts of the country remain locked in conflict.
All the while, Colombia’s 50-year civil war looms in the background. The conflict between the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (also known as FARC) left 260,000 Colombians dead and 8 million displaced. It officially ended in 2016, after the two parties brokered a historic peace agreement that was supposed to finally put an end to the bloodshed. The complex and wide-ranging treaty established a ceasefire and created a pathway for FARC militants to reintegrate into Colombian society in exchange for laying down their arms and demobilizing. The deal was also supposed to address the structural issues fueling the conflict — poverty and inequality — by investing in the economic development and security of long-neglected parts of the country that bore the brunt of the violence. But in places like Chocó, this redevelopment never happened.
After the accord went into effect, thousands of guerrillas turned in their weapons and the FARC withdrew from Chocó, bringing several months of relative peace and stability to the region. But in less than a year, it all came crashing down. New armed groups rushed to fill the void left by the FARC’s exit and the ongoing absence of the state, thrusting Chocóans into yet another cycle of violence and terror.
There are versions of this scenario across the country, where peace remains elusive seven years after the agreement was signed. Critics say the treaty failed to live up to its lofty promises. Various armed factions, from paramilitary organizations to drug cartels and rival guerrilla groups, have muscled their way into territories formerly held by the FARC, holding a vice-like grip on local communities. Experts say these gangs recruit impoverished youth and threaten, harass and kill anyone they believe poses a danger to their economic and political interests, including activists and teachers.
“They’re seen as a threat by illegal groups because they’re educating people, so they [the armed groups] think that they’re educating people against them,” explained Sánchez.
María Fernanda Parra, the museum’s director, believes that Muntú Bantú may have been targeted because of the alternative vision it shares with the youth sought for recruitment by criminal groups. The center, she explained, provided activities to prevent young people from joining gangs. “We are teaching them another path and that there are other choices [one] can make,” Parra said, “So we are a target. But we didn’t think the aggressors would fight against culture. We thought culture was untouchable because it nourishes education and it shouldn’t be censored.”
Muntú Bantú’s closure threatens the fragile preservation of a history that’s long been ignored by the state. “We are paying a huge cost,” Mosquera said, “because our knowledge is not circulating.”
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