Raising Two Fists
Struggles for Black Citizenship in Multicultural Colombia
Roosbelinda Cárdenas




National Inclusion and Diasporic Belonging


On Saturday May 20, 2017, the city of Buenaventura—Colombia’s blackest city on the Pacific Coast—was convulsing. The day before, a peaceful protest at which tens of thousands of people declared an indefinite general strike, had gone awry as armed men infiltrated the civilian ranks, instigating violence and triggering what the national media reprovingly described as out-of-control looting and rioting (El Espectador 2017c; Semana 2017a, 2017b). When talks between the national government and the civic strike’s Organizing Committee broke down, the day’s outcome became dismal: more than forty people detained, numerous civilians injured, a state-imposed curfew, and a prohibition on further protests (El Espectador 2017b).

Despite escalating government repression, on that Saturday morning Bonaverenses filled the streets for the fifth consecutive day, unequivocally declaring their city in a state of “social, economic, and ecological emergency” (personal communication, May 20, 2017; Proceso de Comunidades Negras 2017).1 They wore white shirts and donned the national colors in flags, hats, and headbands, shouting, “¡El pueblo no se rinde, carajo!” (The people will not give up, damn it!), as one protester emotionally declared, to “show Colombia and the national government that Buenaventura exists” (personal communication, May 20, 2017).2 The government’s hostile response was to increase the city’s police and anti-riot units by more than five hundred men, including soldiers who surveyed the city from helicopters and gassed protesters from tanks.

This powerful mobilization put several ironies on display. Most glaring is that Buenaventura, an impoverished city of four hundred thousand inhabitants with no reliable potable water system or even second-tier hospital, is Colombia’s largest port, the entry and exit point of outrageous economic wealth that circulates in legal and illegal markets.3 How is it that a city from which 60 percent of Colombia’s coffee exports are shipped suffers from a 68 percent unemployment rate (El Espectador 2017a; Semana 2017c)?4 How is it that a maritime port at the mouth of the Dagua, Anchicayá, Calima, Cajambre, Yurumanguí, Naya, and San Juan rivers, all of which run across one of the wettest regions of the world, has daily water rations (Semana 2017c)?5 Bonaverenses raised these questions loudly and clearly with their demands of basic social rights, such as access to potable water, employment, and education. But more than that, Bonaverenses demanded an end to a long history of plunder. Their signs, some of which read “Estamos cansados” (We are tired), were echoed by impromptu testimonies of people on the streets, who stated that Buenaventura was done being “a town where people come to plunder and where/for which nothing is done” (personal communication, May 20, 2017).6 Videos, photos, and audio circulating on social media and in mainstream press outlets assured viewers everywhere that protesters would not relent until the government agreed to draft an economic development plan in which Bonaverenses had a voice and from which they reaped the benefits. Until then, they would continue to disrupt business as usual, halting the port’s vast commercial activity with roadblocks and labor stoppages and generating massive economic costs for port entrepreneurs.7

A second irony is that when the protests in Buenaventura erupted, President Juan Manuel Santos was in Washington negotiating the US foreign-aid package for Colombia’s postwar rebuilding. Following a four-year negotiation that formally ended Latin America’s longest civil war in November 2016, Colombia had begun a long-awaited transition to peace. While President Santos was being internationally recognized for his work to bring peace to Colombia,8 Buenaventura continued to be one of Colombia’s—and the world’s—deadliest places.9 By the time of the civic strike in May 2017, the peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Revolucionarias Armadas de Colombia, or FARC), had been signed, and Bonaverenses, like the rest of their fellow Colombians, were eager to experience the long-awaited peace that Santos’s government touted. Instead, in just the first three months after Colombia’s peace accords, 21 community leaders across the Pacific Region received death threats, 819 people were displaced, and 5 were murdered (personal communication, May 20, 2017).10

A final irony has to do with the date of the protests. May 21 is the commemoration of Colombia’s abolition of slavery, which since 2001 has been celebrated nationally as Día de la Afrocolombianidad (Day of Afro-Colombianness) marked by state-sponsored symposia, book launches, and extravagant cultural events such as gastronomic festivals, dance performances, film screenings, and concerts intended to put Afro-Colombians’ national contributions and expressive culture on proud display (Cárdenas 2012). But rather than spend the day in celebratory events, Bonaverenses—89 percent of whom are self-identified Afro-descendants—commemorated the end of slavery on that first “peaceful” year in more than half a century by doing what they had been doing since before abolition: resisting state repression to insist that they, too, were entitled to full citizenship. To do this, they relied on one another and the communities of resistance they had built from their shared experiences of marginalization.11 But they also relied on a larger community of allies that extended beyond the city, the region, and even Colombia. As they braved the militarized streets on that Sunday morning, the more than fifty thousand bodies on the streets of Buenaventura were joined in remote solidarity by their black brothers and sisters in Quibdó and Cali; in Panama and Brazil; in Washington, DC, and Chicago.12

Buenaventura’s civic strike was an instance of African diasporic resistance, sustained by racial solidarity across the Americas. In Quibdó, another majority Afro-Colombian city in the Pacific Region where a civic strike had preceded Buenaventura’s by five days, locals held a candlelight vigil on May 21. In Cali, a group of black women organized a concurrent protest outside city hall, calling for regional solidarity across the Pacific Region. Their signs used the popular line from Grammy-winning musical group ChocQuibTown’s song “Somos Pacífico” while they chanted, “¡La vida no se vende, se ama y se defiende!” (Life should not be sold / it should be loved and defended). Black activists in Panama and Brazil joined in by using the hashtag #SomosUnSoloPueblo (We are one nation), which was a call to diasporic unity and a strong statement that black people everywhere are part of a single nation. And in the United States, members of the Congressional Black Caucus tweeted messages condemning the Colombian state’s excessive use of force and calling citizens to protest outside the Colombian embassy in DC.13

As I followed the events unfolding in Buenaventura for weeks, I had a growing sense that there was something distinct and important about the civic strike. Initially, what captured my attention was the way Buenaventura strikers combined fury with lucid analysis. While I had seen Afro-Colombians mobilize for resources and labor rights, and against government corruption and corporate-caused environmental degradation, Buenaventura’s strikers demanded all at once, and in doing so, they beautifully articulated an intersectional theory of structural racism. The seemingly disparate list of Bonaverenses’ uncompromising demands was a concerted attack on the many ugly heads of the hydra that is antiblack racism. They denounced economic exploitation, social invisibilization, political marginalization, and the brutal disregard for black lives all in one breath. In a sense, the civic strike was a continuation of many other preceding struggles, an echo of prior voices. But by articulating these demands centrally as Afro-Colombians and members of the African diaspora, Buenaventura was also a loud call to racial justice. In its condensed and eloquent illustration of the mechanisms through which structural racism operates in Colombia today, Buenaventura was unique.

The intensity of Buenaventura’s strike was also remarkable. Protesters flooded the streets for twenty-one consecutive days amid deepening government crackdown. With each passing day, the stakes seemed higher for all involved. The national press ran several daily stories on the civic strike, and although most mainstream international newspapers did not pick up the story, some progressive outlets abroad paid close attention.14 As far as black mobilizations in Colombia had gone, Buenaventura’s strike was on a different scale. But in addition to the scale, there was something else that seemed substantively different and that crystallized when I came across a striking photo published in one of Colombia’s largest newspapers—El Espectador. At the foreground of the photo were two young women—one was cupping a hand around her mouth to amplify her voice and the other was holding a sign. Other people—whose faces are not visible—hold two signs that appear side by side at the center of the photo’s frame. One of the signs reads “Chocó and Buenaventura Are Also Colombia”; while the other, which includes a drawing of a raised fist, reads “Pueblo negro en pie de lucha” (black people standing in struggle) followed by the hashtags #SoyBuenaventura (I am Buenaventura) and #SoyChocó (I am Chocó).15 I was struck by the way the photo captured quite succinctly the distinctiveness that I had been struggling to articulate. The two signs put on display the protesters’ use of a dual strategy, simultaneously demanding full citizenship rights as members of the nation-state (Colombia) while calling for members of a diasporic black nation (pueblo negro) to stand with them in struggle. Buenaventura was not only a protest of disenfranchised citizens clamoring for full inclusion, although it was that. Buenaventura was not only a call to black diasporic solidarity, although it was also that. Buenaventura was a crystal-clear and unapologetic example of a two-fisted black mobilization that demanded rights to national inclusion and made claims to diasporic belonging. This is what I call the struggle for Black Citizenship.


I was not in Buenaventura during this historical uprising. I joined the rest of the international supporters from my home in New York, signing letters, circulating documents, and otherwise spreading the word. However, I have been following black mobilizations in Colombia for nearly twenty years, both from abroad and from up close during the five years that I lived in Bogotá and the decades during which I’ve visited regularly. I have accompanied and collaborated with two of Colombia’s best-known black organizations—the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) and the Process of Black Communities (PCN)—in their high-level work negotiating policy with the national government and in their more local and grassroots initiatives. I have visited villages and rural areas in the Pacific Region and have become acquainted with the struggles of Afro-Colombians in urban areas as well. Over the years, I have collaborated with black activists in Colombia as they shift their political strategies, adapt their discourses, and build new networks of support. This book is a description of that trajectory and a reflection on the limits and possibilities of the various political strategies that I’ve seen Afro-Colombians use in their struggles for justice, which centrally includes demanding rights to the state in the name of multiculturalism. It is also an ethnographic analysis of the multiple forms of violence that Afro-Colombians face today, evidencing how even in a multicultural state like Colombia, structural racism continues to condense historical and contemporary forms of violence that interlock and coproduce one another.

Scholars have been assessing the concrete impact of multicultural reforms across Latin America for at least a decade, trying to explain why in the current post-multicultural moment when black and indigenous people in the Americas have more rights than ever, they continue to be subjected to intense forms of racial violence. They have documented the curious coincidence of multicultural reforms and intensified extractivism across the region (Cárdenas 2012c; Hale 2005; Vélez-Torres 2014), noting how the impact of this increased competition for space and thirst for “natural resources” falls along gendered lines (Goett 2016; Morris 2016; Perry 2013; Smith 2016a) and both builds on and deepens the historical dispossession of black people in the Americas (Bledsoe and Wright 2019; McKittrick 2011; Mollett 2014; Perry 2013). This critical scholarship has outlined the contradictions and exclusions embedded in the liberal notion of citizenship itself (Holston 2009), which drives a wedge between first-and second-class citizens, who are separated by race and its enduring colonial hierarchies (Beltrán 2020; Reiter 2013; Smith 2016b). Scholars have also noted that in practice, the legal reforms brought about by multicultural recognition have been insufficient in effectively interrupting racism (Hooker 2020; Rahier 2020), and that in recruiting black and indigenous activists to work closely with the (neoliberal) state, multiculturalism poses serious risks of collusion and co-optation (see the contributions in Rahier 2012). Most importantly, some of these scholars have insightfully noted that multiculturalism—like the national ideology of the mestizo nation before it—has not precisely “failed” but rather was never designed to dismantle the structures that perpetuate racialized dispossession (Mollett 2016; Vergara-Figueroa 2017).

I build on this critical scholarship to advance a capacious vision of Black Citizenship as a pursuit that is not limited to the nation-state but is anchored in an African diasporic understanding of justice, which centers the care for all life and is so aptly captured by the phrase and concomitant movement “Black Lives Matter.” This insight too is evidently built on the work of others, the great majority of whom are black women (Hernández Reyes 2019; Mollett 2021b; Morris 2012; Perry 2013; Smith 2017). As these scholars note, a diasporic vision of justice emerges from the lived experiences of violence that black people in the Americas have endured, and black women in particular exercise this vision through gendered strategies to survive and even thrive in the midst of multiple and enduring forms of violence. Still, despite their attention to violence, I echo these scholars in focusing less on black victimization itself and more on the ways in which black people harness the accumulated knowledge resulting from these painful and also joyful experiences to envision and put into practice more liberatory futures for all. This is what I call the pursuit of Black Citizenship.

Black Citizenship is thus an incomplete project whose outlines are sometimes clearer and sometimes remain obscured by the categories with which contemporary racial politics are bound—such as those defined by multiculturalism. In the end, my exploration in this book is hopeful, not as a naive celebration of a fait accompli but as a grounded appraisal of Black Citizenship’s possibilities and an exercise in imagining new forms of anti-racism and freedom.

The Multicultural Conjuncture

The multicultural turn of the early 1990s, when states across Latin America began to recognize and legally enshrine differential cultural rights for Afro-descendants, was a critical point at which blackness became visible as a constituent, if still marginalized, element of the Colombian nation (Friedemann 1984; Paschel 2016).16 Before then, black Colombians were ambiguously included in the nation as both racialized (nonmodern) others and fellow (modern) nationals (Restrepo 2004; Wade 1993). Although the pervasiveness of racism had spurred some of the first black mobilizations well before the multicultural turn, the imaginary of the Colombian nation as a product of racial intermixing known as mestizaje, which had been dominant since the middle of the twentieth century, tended to marginalize or discredit them.17 Under the dominant logic of mestizaje, black Colombians were routinely interpellated into disadvantageous racial positions, while the public recognition of those processes of racialization and the denunciation of antiblack racism were nearly impossible.

This was the case until the multicultural turn that swept most of Latin America in the early 1990s. In Colombia, official multiculturalism amounted to designating the nation’s ethnic others, that is, identifying allegedly coherent “communities” with “cultures” that were distinct from the dominant Euro-Andean criollo national culture (Restrepo 2004; Wade 1993).18 In the case of Afro-Colombians, the most sweeping manifestation of state multiculturalism was the passage of Law 70 in 1993, which recognized Black Communities as culturally distinct and granted them specific rights, including the right to collective titling of their ancestral lands in the Pacific Region.19 Afro-Colombians thus went from being primarily conceived of as individuals with citizenship rights commensurate with those of fellow nationals (in theory if not in practice) to being treated as collective subjects of special rights by virtue of possessing particular cultural characteristics. This recognition was modeled on indigenous activists’ understanding of ethnic difference, which emphasized native people’s autochthony and their collective history as a distinct pueblo (people).20 The shift is noteworthy not only because of the profound differences in the ways that blackness was articulated before and after the onset of multiculturalism but also because this was the moment at which the mobilization of organized black politics burgeoned in Colombia. As Paschel (2016) has noted, it was at this point that political struggles began to be explicitly articulated as black struggles waged by black subjects.

Despite its promise to destabilize the notion of a homogeneous national subject and reveal the white supremacist foundations of mestizaje, the turn to multiculturalism has fallen short of delivering inclusive forms of citizenship for black and indigenous people. Several decades after the onset of multiculturalism, the overall balance of its political impact is at best lackluster and at worst perverse. As mentioned earlier, where its radical potential has not been seriously undermined in practice, multiculturalism has been co-opted or altogether retooled for ulterior ends (Hale 2005; Hooker 2020; Lehmann 2016; Rahier 2012; Van Cott 2000a). However, multiculturalism has also been productive in various senses. On the one hand, the sense of national renewal and racial reconciliation offered by multicultural reforms has proved productive for the maintenance of state legitimacy and its associated capitalist expansion. On the other hand, and despite its built-in limitations, Afro-Colombian activists have also found creative and sometimes counterintuitive ways to use multiculturalism to further their political agendas. For example, rather than remaining bound within the culturalist definition of blackness offered by official multicultural reforms, Afro-Colombians have expanded the narrow spaces of multicultural recognition to demand a national reckoning with antiblack racism.

Throughout the book, I assess the political outcomes of this state-led multicultural rights regime, focusing on the political possibilities created by and for Afro-Colombians since the 1990s until the present. While undoubtedly the outcome is far from triumphant, I am still interested in analyzing how multiculturalism has unfolded over the past three decades in Colombia. By looking at both its foretold limitations and its unexpected entanglements, I don’t foreclose the possibility of radical political emergences. To be clear, multiculturalism has not been a very fertile terrain for black freedom, but in it Afro-Colombians have cultivated political visions that hold the promise of future flourishings.

Rights Are Not Enough

This book analyzes struggles for Black Citizenship on the ground—that is, Afro-Colombians’ organized deployment of a dual strategy for simultaneous national inclusion and African diasporic belonging. I use the term citizenship robustly to indicate (1) the legal guarantee of civil, political, and social rights; (2) active participation in political institutions; and (3) membership in a political community that furnishes a sense of identity. By folding in an uncompromising black political perspective, the activists whom I follow in this book are furthering a complex vision of citizenship that accounts for the historical particularities of Afro-descendants’ experience. It is a vision that is both grounded in the territorial contours of the Colombian nation-state and diasporic in scope.

As analysts and activists, we often imagine nation and diaspora as an either-or choice, and there is much at risk in doing so. On one end of this false dichotomy, we risk remaining discursively trapped within the borders of the nation-state and its authority to sanction rights both when trying to understand the structures that reproduce inequalities and when imagining alternative futures. At the other end, we risk arriving at a foregone conclusion that justice for black people is simply impossible within the existent global configuration, which to a large extent continues to rely on state-based recognition of rights. In the first case, we remain unable or unwilling to see that the tools with which we fight for racial justice are limited because they are the master’s tools (Lorde 1984). In the second case, while lucidly aware of the structural impossibility of entirely undoing injustice with rights-based claims, we risk retrenching to a paralyzing state of cynical critique.

I focus on rights and citizenship because these were the terms of the struggles that I repeatedly encountered in spaces of black politics in Colombia. Certainly, justice can be pursued through myriad routes that exceed, escape, or eschew a liberal, state-centric focus on rights. But the struggle for rights and the insistence on inclusion in the Colombian nation as full but differentiated citizens centrally preoccupied the activists with whom I conducted this research, and as such I take it seriously. Rather than offer a theoretical elaboration of these concepts, I take them as categories to be ethnographically explored. Which communities of belonging are black activists claiming in their struggles for ethnic rights, differential reparations, and peace? How do they understand and remake the relationship between black identity, citizenship rights, and the Colombian nation?

Rights-based struggles are both necessary and inherently incapable of fully addressing the multiple forms of violence that Afro-Colombians face today. They are ineffective because they rely on an institution—the Colombian nation-state—that is heir to settler colonialism and whose very ideological foundation is premised on the maintenance of white supremacy for the recognition, implementation, and protection of those very rights. In noting this, I follow the small but powerful scholarship that has recently paid attention to settler-colonial dynamics in Latin America (Castellanos 2017; Loperena 2017; Mollett 2021a; Speed 2017; Ybarra 2018). Like these scholars, I draw attention to the continental continuities of settler colonialism, which have remained obscured because of our insistence on contrasting Latin American racial formations to those of the United States (and Canada) (Mollett 2021a). Rather than see the two as contrasts, I follow the suggestion that Latin America “should be included in the general history of the global expansion of white settler populations from all over Europe” (Gott 2007, 270).

And yet struggles for rights are a pragmatic resource that Afro-Colombians do in fact utilize—sometimes to effectively undermine inequality (see Agudelo 2005; Asher 2009; Escobar 2008; Oslender 2016; Paschel 2016; Vergara-Figueroa 2017). This book illustrates this tension as it is navigated by Afro-Colombians who are engaged in various kinds of struggles, both in organized politics and in their daily lives. Organized Afro-Colombians—whether activists or not—do not limit their strategies of survival and subversion to claims that are legible to or dependent on the state. Instead, they participate in rights-based struggles while also carrying out numerous daily actions that protect their integrity and build the conditions to live flourishing lives without requiring state sanction. This is well illustrated by what Goett (2016) identifies as black cultural practices and vernacular ways of being that function as “powerful sources of oppositional agency” (9). In both these daily practices and organized political interventions, an awareness and strategic deployment of African diasporic belonging and practices of solidarity are key.

A Diasporic Imperative: Against the Politics of Death

The dual strategy that I call Black Citizenship became starkly apparent in Buenaventura, where Afro-Colombians’ demands for basic citizenship rights and denunciation of structural racism bore fruit only after twenty-one days of a fierce struggle with very high costs for demonstrators: one person killed, dozens wounded by live ammunition, and hundreds arrested and severely affected by tear gas (Democracy Now! 2017). After an initial stalemate, various breakdowns in talks, and a final forty-hour meeting between government negotiators and the civic strike’s Organizing Committee, both parties signed an agreement.21 Bonaverenses such as community leader Hamington Valencia celebrated the agreement enthusiastically, hopeful at the promise of fully participating in civil and social life, and proud to have “honor[ed] [their] heroic ancestors who had survived insult, cruelty, and servitude” against “the structural inequities shaped by exclusion, racism, and voracious capitalism” with their strike (Hamington Valencia Viveros, posted on social media, June 6, 2017). Afro-Colombians were joined in this celebration by voices in the diaspora who sent African proverbs and ashe, while reiterating their commitment to bear witness as the implementation of the agreements unfolded.22 Although Bonaverenses were keenly aware of the hard work that lay ahead in holding the Colombian government accountable, the general mood following the end of the strike was triumphant, and Afro-Colombian activists were emboldened by the abundant expressions of international solidarity that poured in. As Charo Mina Rojas, a prominent activist from a major black organization put it, the struggle was not over but its weight was lessened by the feeling that it was shared by black people everywhere: “This is a time for moving from fraternal solidarity to broader movement building with common agendas for the liberation and self-determination of black people. We are one people. My struggle is your struggle” (Latin American and Caribbean Solidarity Network 2017).

In anticipation of the difficult journey ahead, the strikers remained organized in citizen councils to oversee implementation of the agreements. As expected, the limitations of rights-based struggles were soon confirmed by the government’s continued breaches and foot-dragging, and Bonaverenses’ optimism quickly turned to frustration as they realized once more that the state’s promise to extend basic civil rights was no panacea. But the sobering reminder that rights are insufficient in protecting black life struck with full force a few months later when Temístocles Machado, a local community activist and leader of the civic strike, was murdered in cold blood just as the citizen councils gathered in January 2018 to assess the progress made on the implementation of the government’s agreements.

Temístocles had been granted protective measures by Colombia’s National Protection Unit (UNP) for a short period during the civic strike. These limited measures entitled him to carry a special cell phone and a bulletproof vest, but they were removed soon after the strike ended. Although more visible strike leaders had received more robust protection measures, Temístocles was made particularly vulnerable by a visit from the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (National Center of Historic Memory)—a government agency charged with documenting human rights violations committed during Colombia’s long civil war. The center intended to digitize an impressive file that Temístocles had compiled over the years documenting land disputes in the area and about which he had received numerous threats. In fact, Don Temis—as he was affectionately known—had been very vocal in denouncing public-private collusion to carry out development projects that displaced black residents from now-coveted oceanfront neighborhoods in Buenaventura. His file documented the numerous and violent methods that allegedly politically unaligned armed men—like those who shot him—used to intimidate, displace, and silence community members (Verdad Abierta 2018). Knowing that he treaded in dangerous waters, Don Temis sought out renewed protective measures and even met with Colombia’s vice attorney general just a few days before he was murdered. In the end, although the evidence he had collected was safeguarded, Temístocles’s life was not.

Following Temístocles’s assassination, voices rose again far and wide denouncing untimely death and demanding justice in the struggle to protect black lives. In New York City, the Amsterdam News heeded Afro-Colombians’ request for “an outcry from the African Diaspora” (Carrillo 2018), while in Buenaventura members of the civic strike’s Organizing Committee boldly reminded their fellow Colombians that they would prevail, chanting “Por nuestros muertos, ¡ni un minuto de silencio!” (For our dead, not a minute of silence) (personal communication, January 21, 2018).23 Temístocles’s death, as well as the response that followed from black people across the Americas, suggests that the pursuit of Black Citizenship is sutured together by a diasporic thread, which I identify as the struggle against the politics of death. These politics include projects to displace, disenfranchise, criminalize, and otherwise annihilate life in all its expressions—both human and nonhuman. Of course, Afro-pessimist scholars both inside and outside of Latin America have long paid attention to untimely death as a structuring characteristic of the black experience (Alves 2020; Hartman 1997; Wilderson 2010; Sexton 2008; Vargas 2018), and this book is heir to their insights. At the same time, I focus less on the overdetermined experience of blackness as social death that these authors describe to explore the ways in which Afro-Colombians push against these deadly forces—however (un)successfully. Furthermore, given the context of a prolonged and crude civil war, the Colombian case offers an exceptionally clear opportunity to analyze how the multiple forces of death unfurl both in their daily insidiousness and in their gruesome spectacles. By the same token, by following Afro-Colombian activists’ daily lives and organized responses to these deadly forces, I hope to glean valuable lessons to transform, as the environmental and anti-racist activist Francia Márquez insists, the politics of death into a politics of life.


This book covers the period from the early 1980s to the present. During that period, I trace the emergence and solidification of state multiculturalism, the institutionalization and deepening of a neoliberal national development project, and a series of (seemingly) dramatic shifts in the dynamics of Colombia’s civil war. In terms of the landscape of electoral politics, Colombia has a long history of alternating power between the liberal and conservative parties, both of which remained aligned with neoliberal economic agendas and (nominally) open to multicultural reforms during the period I analyze.24 The arrival of Álvaro Uribe to the presidency in 2002, however, changed this landscape considerably. On the one hand, Uribe and his legacy known as uribismo deepened government commitment to neoliberalism, further exacerbating racial, gender, and economic inequality in Colombia. On the other hand, Uribe and his cronies radically redirected the course of the civil war. In addition to halting prior administrations’ attempts at a negotiated end to the war, Uribe adopted a mano dura (strong-arm) approach determined to eradicate the remaining guerrillas—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, by its Spanish acronym) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—at any cost. Coupled with his now-documented alliance with paramilitary groups that waged a ravaging dirty war against armed dissidents and civilians alike, Uribe’s mano dura resulted in a dramatic intensification of the conflict during his two terms in office, which ended in 2010. Shortly after Uribe’s departure from office, President Santos resumed negotiations with the FARC and succeeded in signing a peace accord in 2016. The story of Colombia’s civil war is, of course, much more complicated than this cursory summary describes. Throughout the book, I trace the vicissitudes of the war and the peace negotiation process in detail, as well as the alleged “postwar” period, paying particular attention to its impact on the Afro-Colombian population. Here, I pause briefly to provide a bird’s-eye view of Colombia’s bloody battlegrounds.

Colombia’s civil war is the longest armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. Although it is difficult to pinpoint when it started, analysts often identify 1948—when the popular presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was murdered—as the beginning of the war and point to the government’s signing of the 2016 peace accords with the FARC as its end. While useful in demarcating the most recent cycle of political violence in Colombia, these bookends fail to capture the complex dynamics of the war—its oscillating intensity, its fluctuating geographies, and the numerous actors (both national and international) that have directly and indirectly shaped it. My purpose in this section is not to make sense of this complexity or to make a direct contribution to the robust literature on the war.25 Instead, I glean the insights of some of these analyses to better understand the context in which Afro-Colombian struggles have unfolded over the past three decades.

Gaitán’s murder in 1948 unleashed a period of intense partisan violence known in Colombian historiography as La Violencia. This bloody period was poorly resolved through a power-sharing agreement between leaders of the Liberal and Conservative Parties known as the National Front (Frente Nacional), designed to alternate their respective candidates in the presidency. Some analysts have suggested that the National Front created a closed political system overseen by a tight elite, which, rather than ending the violence, paradoxically created the conditions for its subsequent phases (Leal Buitrago 1986; Pécaut 1988; Sánchez 1992). This helps explain the emergence of Colombia’s oldest and largest leftist guerrilla group, the FARC, which traces its origins to campesino self-defense forces that predated La Violencia.26 In the 1950s, these poorly trained groups went from being dispersed armed enclaves to adopting a Marxist platform with a strong agrarian component, and by 1964 they had declared themselves an insurgent army.27

The success of the Cuban Revolution inspired and aided, in some cases, the emergence of the next generation of guerrilla groups in Colombia. This was the case with Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, which was also linked to the liberation theology movement that inspired members of the Catholic Church across Latin America to adopt “a preferential option for the poor” (Gutiérrez 1988). While many of the groups that emerged during this period laid down their arms in the 1980s—including the Movimiento 19 de Abril, or M-19, whose members were targeted for assassination after they went through an amnesty to form the Unión Patriótica Party—the ELN survives to date.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, as both the FARC and the ELN continued to grow thanks in part to their increased involvement in illicit activities, the military employed a strategy of containment. This involved waging low-intensity warfare while limiting open combat. A corollary of this strategy has been the use of paramilitary forces that work covertly with the military in counterinsurgency operations. This was made possible by the prior existence of extreme-right militias; they were created as vigilante groups to protect the interests of large-scale capitalists and to eradicate leftist guerrillas. During the 1990s, these groups emerged as a united and mighty armed group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC). Specifically, the leaders of the paramilitary group known as Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (ACCU), which had been operating in the northernmost portion of the Pacific Coast since the 1980s, promoted the creation and alliance of paramilitary groups throughout the country and in 1997 formally consolidated into a nationwide coalition.28 While the stated purpose of the AUC was military in nature, it is well documented that the group was involved in very lucrative capital-generating endeavors. These included both the illicit coca economy and large-scale development projects such as oil-palm plantations and mining—sometimes through covert alliances with entrepreneurs and government officials.29 After securing its stronghold through both economic power and terror-inducing tactics in the northwestern region of the country, the AUC coalition grew and expanded across the entire national territory.

The conflict was also deepened by US foreign policy in Colombia, which exchanged direct aid for diplomatic and military allegiance. Most significantly, in 1999 Colombia’s president Andrés Pastrana and US president Bill Clinton signed a collaborative agreement known as Plan Colombia. Although this was presented as a comprehensive aid package that included institutional, social, and economic development, its allotment for military assistance and training oscillated between 76 percent and 99 percent of the total (Tate 2007). This figure peaked in the year 2000, when the US government destined $765 million for the war against drugs and counterinsurgency in a single year. With this robust financial and military backup from the US government, the Colombian army escalated its attack against the drug trade and associated illegal armed groups. The emergence of organized paramilitarism in conjunction with the state-sanctioned military escalation spurred by Plan Colombia significantly changed the dynamics of Colombia’s civil war and escalated the competition for territorial dominance nationwide. The result was a period of intensified conflict that enveloped the entire country, folding in areas like the Pacific Region, which had remained on the margins of the war’s geographies until then.

While some of the figures associated with the war—like forced displacement and massacres—peaked in the early 2000s, armed violence in Colombia has not meaningfully abated in the past twenty years. This has unfortunately continued to be the case even after the signing of the peace accords in 2016. President Duque’s administration, which immediately followed the signing of the accords, lacked the political will to implement them, leaving the underlying causes of Colombia’s conflict largely unchanged. In some cases, in fact—as is the case with the number of human rights activists murdered, which I outline in chapter 4—the violence has actually increased. Despite a remarkable negotiation process and a globally celebrated document that outlines a robust plan for national renewal, a distinct environment of peace is not yet fully palpable in Colombia. Since the signing of the peace accords, new dissident groups have emerged, old ones have morphed into seemingly novel criminal configurations, and the politics of death continue unabated.


1. This quote was taken from a video caught by an observer who witnessed as NTN24 news channel interviewed protesters on the street. The video was uploaded to a WhatsApp chat on the day of the events.

2. “[De]mostrarle a Colombia y al gobierno nacional que Buenaventura existe.” This quote was also taken from a WhatsApp chat created by an important Afro-Colombian activist as the strike erupted to garner international support for the strikers.

3. The following quote from an article titled “Buenaventura’s Metastasis” conveys the magnitude of public and private investment that has been undertaken in Buenaventura, which is commensurate with the economic profits that are generated there: “Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo would envy Puerto Aguadulce [in Buenaventura]. . . . In all truth, Buenaventura’s three ports evoke the most modern maritime terminals of the Asian tigers, on the other side of the Pacific. Measuring up to this level meant undertaking a 107,000 million [Colombian pesos] dredging works and a two-lane road that is still under construction. . . . It is not coincidental that half of all of Colombia’s international commerce goes through there” (Semana 2017d). My translation. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

4. According to Colombia’s governmental statistical center, DANE, Buenaventura’s poverty index, known as Pobreza Multidimensional, is seventeen points higher than the national average of 49 percent. Further, the unemployment rate in Buenaventura, published by the government’s planning department (Departamento Nacional de Planeación) is 62 percent, while the informal employment rate is estimated at 90 percent (Semana 2017c).

5. While every year different towns receive recognition for having the largest average rainfall in the world, the Pacific Region of Colombia as a whole is identified as one of the world’s wettest areas (Sharp 1981).

6. Quote taken from the same protester being interviewed by NTN24 on May 20, 2017. The video was taken and uploaded to social media on the same day.

7. During just its first day, the economic costs associated with the civic strike were estimated at 10 billion pesos—approximately US$3.4 million at the time (El Espectador 2017a). The port was privatized during the government of César Gaviria in 1994, leaving a tremendous amount of wealth in the hands of a miniscule circle of megarich, none of whom live in Buenaventura (Las2Orillas 2014).

8. President Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for his successful negotiation of the peace accords with the FARC.

9. Violence in Buenaventura has been endemic and persistent. Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, entered the region in the 1980s and by the 1990s had attained hegemonic status. But by the end of the 1990s, the AUC, an extreme-right paramilitary organization, had gained formidable strength and dispersed its militias across the country. In Buenaventura, the AUC’s Bloque Calima terrorized the population, carrying out twenty-six massacres in four years and indiscriminately murdering civilians in what has been referred to as “the period of a thousand deaths” (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica 2015). Even the so-called demobilization of paramilitary groups, which formally dismantled the Bloque Calima in 2004, did not stop the murders, disappearances, and death threats that ravaged Buenaventura. Instead, the disarticulated wings of the AUC vied among themselves to maintain territorial control of the area to oversee the lucrative arms and drug trade. As a result, numerous groups of heavily armed men, whom the government bluntly called Bandas Criminales, or BACRIM, formed everywhere. While the government sought legitimation of the peace process by marking a substantive difference between the violence of the AUC and that of the BACRIM, signaling a shift away from political violence and toward common crime, the change for Bonaverenses was irrelevant. During this post-AUC period, Buenaventura became known for its infamous casas de pique (cutting centers)—clandestine centers where people were tortured, murdered, and subjected to unspeakable forms of bodily degradation. In the period after the formal demobilization of paramilitary groups like the Bloque Calima, the number of illegal armed groups in Buenaventura skyrocketed, accompanied by a horrific degradation of their repertoires of violence. At this time, casas de pique surfaced as a phenomenon associated with Buenaventura’s intractable lawlessness. In them, the dismembered bodies of unidentified victims of torture were left as ghastly evidence of the city’s unabated horror (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica 2015; Human Rights Watch 2014; The Economist 2014).

10. This text was written on a banner carried by a protester outside the Colombian embassy in Washington, DC. The protesters were convened by the Washington Office on Latin America, which shared photos of the event on social media on May 20, 2017.

11. The civic strike’s Organizing Committee is an example of one such community of resistance. In fact, Buenaventura had two previous civic strikes in 2014 and 2016 and had organized in citizen groups for many years before that, like a group that in 2010 mobilized to demand uninterrupted water service (Semana 2018).

12. As I detail in chapter 1, the use of kin terms to refer to fellow Afro-descendants is common in Colombia as in other parts of the African diaspora.

13. Some of the Congress members who responded to the strike in Buenaventura through their Twitter accounts were Hank Johnson (D-GA), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), and Keith Ellison (D-MN).

14. For example, while Buenaventura had been virtually invisible in the United States, during the civic strike I was surprised to hear news of the strike make headlines five times in two weeks in the left-wing outlet Democracy Now: May 23 and 30, and on June 2, 5, and 7.

15. It is important to explain that the term Chocó—which formally refers to an administrative unit similar to a state—is used in common parlance to refer to the entire Pacific Region from the border with Panama to the border with Ecuador. Also, the term chocoano is often used as a euphemism for “black.”

16. Elsewhere I offer a detailed overview of the place of blackness in Latin American colonial and national formations (Cárdenas 2012). Here I focus on the multicultural moment and its immediate precursor, mestizaje.

17. In essence, mestizaje is an inversion of the eugenicist idea that miscegenation—or racial mixture—results in degeneration. In efforts to cast the futures of their nations in a more favorable light vis-à-vis their European colonizers, criollo nationalist thinkers throughout Latin America reinterpreted miscegenation as a quintessentially Latin American contribution to humanity and as a national asset rather than a liability. Taking the indigenous, black, and European elements as constitutive building blocks, mestizaje extolled the virtues of each while claiming that their conjoining would result in a far improved subject that had shed the original “vices” of its components. It bears noting, however, that the mixture championed by mestizaje did not equally valorize the components that made up the mestizo. As López Rodriguez (2019) has shown in her analysis of whiteness in eighteenth-century Colombia, mestizaje became a compelling national project because it offered a viable route to whitening, as mestizos gradually became seen as white.

This positive reinterpretation of miscegenation, championed by immortalized scholars like Brazil’s Gilberto Freyre (1933) and Mexico’s José Vasconcelos (1925) at the beginning of the twentieth century, allowed Latin America to become a potential candidate for modernity at a time when European fascism and its eugenic ideas raised new concerns about white supremacy’s global impact. Having turned scientific racism on its head, mestizaje made an important and provocative political contribution to the global scenario of the 1930s (Skidmore 1992). Furthermore, mestizaje offered a virtuous reinterpretation of Latin America’s violent history of racial mixing, which was proudly propped against the United States’ white supremacist values expressed in its foundational myth of manifest destiny. Thus, by solidifying a sense of nationalism that refuted accusations of racial inferiority and revalorizing Latin American cultural uniqueness (Euraque, Gould, and Hale 2005), mestizaje also functioned as a powerful response to US hegemony.

In the period after World War II, mestizaje reigned supreme across Latin America as the foundation of national identities. In some places, such as Mexico, the mestizo was imagined as the offspring of only European and indigenous ancestors, while in others, such as Brazil and Cuba, blackness was recognized and valorized as part of that mixture. In some places, mestizo nationalism was taken up by the state in both its rhetoric and its policies (Vinson and Vaughn 2004), and in others it became sedimented into common understanding as an antiestablishment revolutionary idea (Gould 1998). Despite these differences, mestizaje acquired a number of common characteristics that included the celebration of a homogeneous, mixed-race national subject, a rewriting of colonial history that tended to erase the memory of racial domination by emphasizing harmonious interracial convivencia (coexistence), and nurturing a profound sense of racial exceptionalism that cast Latin America in a favorable light when compared to its neighbor to the north (Segato 2007).

Most important, as revisionist critics of mestizaje have shown, this nationalist ideology is founded on indigenous genocide and antiblackness. By celebrating the gradual whitening of black and indigenous people through race mixture and cultural assimilation, mestizaje, in its elite and state-sponsored iterations, has amounted to a Latin American variety of white supremacy. Black scholars in particular have shown its deleterious effects on black subjectivities and black political mobilization across Latin America. There is a rich scholarship that shows how mestizaje simultaneously depreciates or erases blackness and indigeneity (Dinzey-Flores and Lloréns 2020; Lloréns 2014; López Oro 2016; Pinho 2009) while denying accusations of racism altogether (De la Cadena 2001; Moreno Figueroa and Saldívar Tanaka 2016; Twine 1997). While a deep engagement with this body of work is beyond the scope of this work, it is important to acknowledge the nuanced ways these authors have traced the gendered (Gilliam 1998; Lloréns 2013), sexual (Allen 2011), and political (Hanchard 1998; Hooker 2005a; Rahier 2003) dimensions of mestizaje across the region, remarking on the particularities of their specific contexts while converging on the observation that in their obsessive pursuit of whiteness, mestizo nationalisms have historically sought to erase blackness.

18. Criollo, sometimes translated as “creole,” was the colonial term used for children of Spaniards born in the Americas. Although the term has a wide array of meanings across the Americas, for the purpose of this text, I use it as a racialized term that signals European descent and, by extension, whiteness.

19. The blanket ethnicization of difference was derived from a long history of ethnicizing indigeneity. By the 1900s, the indio was already conceived as the quintessential ethnic subject, and therefore served as the model for ethnic difference during the Constituent Assembly of 1991 that formally identified Afro-Colombians as ethnic subjects for the first time in Colombian history (Bocarejo 2008). Although an analysis of the ethnicization of indigeneity is beyond the scope of this work, it bears highlighting that this, too, has been produced and is neither natural nor necessary (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009).

20. I have chosen to capitalize Black Communities, because this was the legal term for the collective subject of rights designated by Law 70 in 1993. In other words, Black Community refers to a concept that did not exist as a juridical category prior to the passage of Law 70. Because Black Communities are legally entitled to collective territories, I have also opted to capitalize the terms Black Territories and Black Territoriality..

21. The local government committed to immediately opening two water treatment plants to solve the city’s meager water supply of fewer than ten hours every two days. A common fund of more than US$500 million was destined to be spent during the course of the incumbent governor’s administration on housing, health, employment, water and sanitation, education, energy, and justice. Finally, the government committed to drafting a ten-year development plan in collaboration with members of the civic strike’s Organizing Committee as well as representatives of previously existent black and indigenous governance units. The plan was to be jump-started by a seed fund of US$76 million that would be supplemented by 50 percent of all tax income generated from commercial port activities (Semana 2017e).

22. The Yoruba concept of ashe refers to the power to command authority and the ability to make things happen, to produce change.

23. This quote was taken from a video circulated by a member of PCN in the aftermath of Temístocles’s murder in a private WhatsApp chat. The video depicts Don Temis’s compañeros making a statement of grief and solidarity in front of the camera.

24. In fact, until the very recent election of Gustavo Petro in June 2022, Colombia had never had a left-wing president in power, and thus the differences in prior administrations’ approaches to racial, gender, and economic equality were more of degree than substance.

25. It is beyond the scope of this work to thoroughly review the robust literature on the Colombian conflict. Instead, I point to a few scholars whose excellent works on memory and resistance I find particularly enlightening (Uribe Alarcón 1990, 2004, 2009; Riaño-Alcala 2006; Ramírez 2001; Jimeno 2010, 2011; Castillejo Cuéllar 2014 2000). For other discussions of the war, see Bejarano Ávila and Díaz Uribe (1985); Bolívar Ramirez (2003); Guzmán Campos (1963, 2005); and Sánchez G. and Aguilera Peña (2001).

26. I have chosen to maintain the term campesino in Spanish to signal the differing genealogies and contemporary usage of the terms campesino and peasant. While a thorough history of these terms is beyond the scope of this explanation, it is important to note that campesino is a current identity that signals particular relationships to land and labor relations in Colombia and in Latin America more broadly. The term has been used as a self-ascribed marker of political identity and gained further currency with the rise of transnational agrarian organizations in the 1990s. The choice is therefore not simply a matter of refusing translation but of signaling a particular genealogy and political content. For more on this, see Edelman (2013).

27. For more on the emergence of the FARC, see Tate (2007). For more on Colombia’s exclusionary democracy and “failed state,” see Bushnell (1993); Palacios (1983).

28. For an in-depth ethnographic account of paramilitaries, see Civico (2015).

29. The links between paramilitary forces and elected officials—in particular those allied with Uribe—have been well documented since the early 2000s thanks to the bold denunciations made by Gustavo Petro and Clara López. The phenomenon, known as parapolítica, or in some cases parauribismo, was so deep that by 2013, more than sixty members of Congress and other elected officials had been convicted for their links to these illegal groups and many more were under investigation.