From the Choco War Zone

“This is the red zone,” told us Fr. Alvaro, a Colombian missionary who lives and works in one of the most dangerous areas in Colombia, in the Riosucio settlement of the Chocó province.

Bloody Conflicts

The news of the twenty years’ war between the illegal guerrilla soldiers and the state army and police does not catch the interest of our media. However, this region of South America is plagued by bloody conflicts, especially in the areas of Rainforest cohabited by the indigenous Natives and the Colombian black residents.

Ilegal guerrilla controls a part of the Chocó province and is at war with the state army and police. Source: France 24

The latter arrived in Chocó as slaves centuries ago. Their descendants who live here today are not better off than their ancestors.

The war and terror in this area has drawn the attention of the United Nations, Amnesty International, Red Cross, and other important humanitarian organizations. But there is not much they could do, because active clashes hinder the beginning or development of every new charity project.

The conditions in Riosucio and the rainforest communities have drawn the interest of many humanitarian organizations. However, these are leaving as well, because war hinders their efficiency. The missionaries persist! Source:

The main cause of war is the fight for the land. What else could it be! As far as earth riches and minerals, especially gold, are concerned, Colombia together with its neighbor Venezuela is one of the richest countries in the world.

This is the greatest paradox concerning the countries in this region of South America.

People literally live on the gold, but they are trapped in such great poverty that sometimes they cannot even afford lunch. Venezuela is the most evident contemporary example of this paradox, but Chocó is actually based on the same foundations.

Fight for Gold

This is what greed and corruption do. Where there is gold, there is usually war as well. War leaves behind devastation and dispair. Infinite riches and infinite poverty are not nearly as close here as anywhere else in the world!

If you control a land rich with gold, you actually control more than that.

In Chocó, on the one side, there are illegal Marxist guerrilla who strive for a revolutionary change to the left, but in reality, they fight for the rich soil and open routes to Panama where they can massively sell the drugs produced.

On the other side, there are the state army and police who, having similar motives, fight the guerrilla under the pretext of peace and the protection of people, at the same time pushing them away from their territory.

The Chocó province marked on the map. Riosucio is located in the north close to the Panama border

As a result, the jungle of Chocó by the rivers Atrato and San Juan is full of fighters and soldiers who have been fighting, shooting, and bombarding each other for their own piece of the golden paradise already for the twenty years.

The Casualties of War

The worst casualties of war are not the soldiers. The communities of Natives and the so-called Afro-Colombians living in that area are hit worst.

Every day, new victims are reported in these areas. Illegal troops drive the Natives away from the forests they live in by burning their homes, killing men, raping women, bombarding houses to force them to withdraw from that territory and move elsewhere – there, where the land is barren and the living conditions are harsh.

They Have Lost Their Hope

From Medellin in Colombia we arrived to the Riosucio settlement, one of the villages by the Atrato River directly at the rainforest, that is in the war zone.

Muddy roads, wet grounds, and wooden shacks in the village

Countless times have the casualties of war and terrified people left their jungle homes, drove across the river and moved to this village. They waited here until the things settled down and then went back.

They have performed this maneuver so many times that they do not even return to their homes any more from the Riosucio. They lost the hope of ever living on their own land, in peace and prosperity offered to them by the rich and fertile nature of their jungle homes.

Thousands of Casualties

From a small village, Riosucio eventually grew into a real town, the town of the desperate, traumatized migrants, especially black migrants. Today, it has more than 20,000 residents.

One of the alleys in Riosucio

“There are victims on both sides,” says Fr. Alvaro. “Still, the Natives make the better of it in this chaos. They know how to live in a community and are better organized than the black people. This is why significantly less Natives live in the Riosucio. However, this does not mean that they are not victims in their own territory as well. There were thousands and thousands of dead among both, the Natives and black people, in the last twenty years!”

At School

After we finished our mission in Atalaya and returned to the Claretians in Lima, we started planning our next journey.

We did not exactly know where God would take us this time, but we knew it would be a place where would sit in the school bench and learn about the world, people, their habits and culture, but especially about the beauty which shines the brightest after it has been hidden in the dark and suffering for a long time.


The Claretians put us into contact with their fellow friars in the neighboring country of Colombia. The missionaries own several houses there, although the house in Chocó has the greatest needs.

The cheapest ride from Peru to Colombia was a low-budget airplane. After a three-hour flight we landed in Medellín, one of the most beautiful and modern cities in Colombia.

Post-Escobar Era

Not long ago, the city was under the strong influence of drug cartels and widespread political corruption which they say it is still present.

Medellín, far away from Chocó, a beautiful and modern city

Since the assassination of Pablo Escobar, the leader of a large drug cartel who intimidated the city (actually the entire country) with killings and terror, peace returned to Medellín, at least on the outside.

One of the Claretian houses for novices stands not far away from the place where Escobar was cornered and killed.

The Claretians and other friends in the novices house at Medellín

We stayed in this house almost two weeks, because we waited for the best time to depart for Chocó.

Christmas, new year, and the staffing changes in the Claretians community forced us to take a rest and spend perhaps the most beautiful holidays since we got married.

Journey to Riosucio

When the time came, we took the bus and drove to the west part of Colombia. We had six hours of pretty uncomfortable night ride along numerous curves when we crossed the mountainous area and then descended into the town of Belén de Bajirá.

Carlos Andrés accompanied us to Riosucio. Taking the boat to the mission

Early in the morning, we were welcomed by Carlos Andrés, a young man employed at the Riosucio parish where Fr. Alvaro works.

Just like we drove from Satipo to Atalaya, it took us three more hours riding in a four-wheel drive jeep across holes and unpaved road to the outskirts of Riosucio. From there on, we travelled along the Atrato River all the way to the Claretians mission.

View from the boat. The Atrato River is all people have in Riosucio

There is no other way to the mission. They say Chocó is the most remote region of Colombia. You cannot access the villages and communities in any other way but by boat. Another option is a small private airplane that visitors sometimes use to land on the clearings of the rainforest.

Life in Poverty

Observing from our boat the wooden shacks by the river set on high pillars that keep their homes safe from floods and the people sitting by the riverside, washing their clothes, fruits and vegetables as well as dishes in the river, drinking the water from the river, and bathing in the river, it became clear to us why Riosucio is known as the place of the broken-hearted.


The faces of these beautiful black people are sad. How else could it be – they live a life they do not wish to live. And they live in conditions that are unworthy of human beings!

Poverty is severe. All they have is the Atrato River, dirty, troubled, and muddy, but still a source of life for them.

Many have no electricity nor toilets in their shacks which is why they relieve themselves in the same water they use for washing, bathing, and drinking.

They live of fish, rice, and green bananas (platano) that they use for baking, cooking, or frying.

Children and Youth

What brings the joy to the village are the children and youth. There are so many of them! They seem carefree, enjoying the things they have without worrying about the war that is going on only a couple of dozen kilometres away.

View from the mission. Wooden planks offer work to the women by the Atrato River

But the looks can be deceiving said the missionary. What you see on the outside does not necessarily reveal the real picture. There are a lot of drugs, alcohol, and especially abuse in Riosucio.

We have not seen or experience this, but the missionary told us that the village is full of young girls aged ten or more that offer their bodies even for a dollar, just so they can by some sweets or a lunch for their family.

Another alley in the settlement

Diseases are a reality here. Malaria, dengue fever, Zika, and AIDS. Promiscuity is widespread. Young women often get pregnant already at the age of thirteen and mostly stay alone with their children after their partners abandon them and leave with other women.

This is another sad peculiarity in this region of Colombia. It is not unusual if a man has children with more than one woman, whereas women know about each other and even live under the same roof sometimes.

View from the mission

We are staying in a mission house with a view of the Atrato River.

The Claretians mission is located right beside the Atrato River

From our window, we can observe the wooden fishing boats that leave for fishing trips or return home, and see the vivid riverside where people are sitting and performing their tasks. We can observe the children who play and jump into the river from the wooden planks.

This is the time of school vacations which is why the riverside is crowded with children every day.

We Are Not Going to Run Out of Work Here

Since we arrived at Riosucio, no practical tasks have been assigned to us yet. But we fear not that we will run out of work.

Fr. Alvaro is a keen missionary. This is how he outlined the conditions at Riosucio

“There are many needs and works to be performed so it is difficult to determine which ones are the most important,” Fr. Alvaro told us. We were sitting next to a large blackboard in the mission saloon as he introduced the situation of this place to us.

Just as I have noted, we are sitting in the bench and we are learning.

Claiming the Rights

He told us about the large material needs that the mission has in order to function successfully and effectively.

What is important to us,” said Alvaro, “is to give people hope and faith. Prhaps the most important thing is to help them understand the political context of this region of their country and help them gain the strength and courage to withstand the injustice. We help them to stand up for themselves and claim back what has been taken from them.”

Library, Workshops and Car

The missionaries have a long way to go, because the end of the war is nowhere in sight.

To help these desperate and broken-hearted souls, they develop different projects. For example, one of them is the mission library where the youth can find a place for themselves and cultivate their talents, capabilities, their language and culture.

One of the families from the village. Refugees plagued by war and violence

“We want to organize music and theater workshops for them, because these are deeply rooted in their tradition and culture. Above all, at the mission we have been trying for years to obtain a car that would enable us to reach the remote communities in the surroundings of Riosucio to meet people who do not know us yet.”

Operando – God works right now!

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