Suicide, another form of genocide against the Embera people

(Castellano) (Português)

The situation of the Embera Chamí people in Colombia was one of the first denouncements we made as A Planeta three years ago, in April 2020. These years have been characterised by the alleged Peace Process in Colombia, the pandemic and now, by a new government that gives hope but whose process is going to be very slow.

Meanwhile, the alleged Peace Process did not include all armed actors, much less those linked to power, the state or oligarchs. Likewise, the pandemic sadly helped to disarticulate and facilitate the expansion of the control of some of these groups in areas with little state presence, such as the Colombian Chocó. This situation is proving impossible for indigenous peoples, who are victims of the invasion of their territory, of crossfire, of the effects suffered in any war. Either forced to take sides, or, as of late, to join the rival forces, the ELN (National Liberation Army) or the AGC (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia) also known as the Clan del Golfo (Gulf Clan). Thus, their resguardos, the territories that in theory should be protected, become cages for them from which they cannot escape.

In this situation, the only solution found by many of the Embera people has been the most desperate and drastic one: suicide. So far this year, 22 people belonging to the Embera people have committed suicide. It is striking that most of them are women and many are minors: of these 22 suicides, 15 are women and 7 are minors. These seven are in addition to another 50 children who committed suicide between 2019 and 2022. Last year (30 April 2022), the suicide in Bojayá (Chocó) of a girl, Eva, only eight years old, who took her own life to avoid being recruited by the AGC, caused an uproar. The AGC is a paramilitary group, which has spread along the Atrato river, the Middle San Juan and the Baudós, and which imposes itself through violence and pressure on the communities. They are made up of ex-military personnel.

The situation also affects the Embera people in the neighbouring department of Risaralda. As the Embera and linguist Adriana Walker explains, «The young people prefer to commit suicide rather than be recruited by armed groups. The victims’ unit has not been very effective in helping people from these regions who have been displaced to the municipal capitals or to cities such as Pereira, Medellín or Manizales, in search of a place to live. Institutions such as ombudsmen’s offices, mayors’ offices and other bodies are also unclear about the differential route with an ethnic approach. They throw the problem to the indigenous organisations and if they don’t, they evict them. The situation of my Ēmbērã sisters and brothers is very painful».

Adriana also told us about a whole family that was murdered. Only the grandmother and one granddaughter and one grandson survived; they live displaced in Pereira and the grandmother now survives by selling necklaces that her granddaughter makes.

To these reasons we must add male violence, with rape as the most violent and traumatic form. It was also three years ago that we denounced another case that caused outrage in Colombia, with protests in all Colombian cities over the kidnapping and rape of an Embera girl by soldiers – Dai kakua uadaibayu («our body is respected»). This rape was not exceptional, but was all the more notorious because of its scale, because it was committed by seven people and because they belonged to a state institution, which is supposed to safeguard the integrity and rights of its citizens.

As Adriana Walker adds, «many of the suicides of women are also due to the systematic rape of my colleagues by armed actors in these regions, as there is an invisibilisation of this, because there is always a condition that the Indians are the ones who provoke the soldiers, the paramilitaries or the people there. So the institutions, by circumscribing suicide only as a matter of mental illness, are making it invisible; in a way also racialising the discourse when they are telling you that a person who has been raped, why would they commit suicide?»

Obviously, we are facing another form of the same genocide that these indigenous peoples have suffered, and also, due to the large number of women who opt for such a drastic formula, another form of feminicide. Infanticide. Ethnocide.

Adriana Walker herself adds another element to the equation: displacement, the result of the same action and pressure from armed groups in Embera territories, in the resguardos, and their need to leave the territory. Added to this is the indaptation, and racism inherent in Colombian society, which adds fuel to the fire. «There is the eviction, the dispossession of the land, which is very important to us as Emberas, because when we are uprooted from the land it is like literally uprooting a plant: if you take it out of its habitat the plant dies», Walker explains to A Planeta. «Going to join the misery belts of the big cities; boys and girls are also harmed… there are many factors that cannot simply be limited by institutions to mental illnesses».

«We are also very concerned at the moment in Risaralda and Caldas, because this suicide is also reaching our spaces, almost always of displaced boys and girls who arrive in this territory. When they arrive here, they are confronted with another vision which is the one of the Paisa colonisation, which is very abrasive, very devastating and also very strong. So boys and girls who normally did not have such a clear notion of being Indians or of being ugly from an aesthetic point of view, arrive here and are confronted with it, and it is very hard. It is very difficult work. It is also very difficult to realise that they had also been violated by contact with other indigenous institutions that are already a little more advanced», continues the Embera activist.

«When they realise that they had been violated, they realise how serious the violence was, because being in the territories there is also a normalisation. It is when they are here that they realise this, and it is a very deep crisis. I can tell you that the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare, the ombudsman’s offices, the mayor’s offices and all those who should be setting off the alarms on the roads don’t do it, because they don’t know how to do it. We have had Katio companions displaced here, and there is so much ignorance that they believe that the Embera Katio speak like the Embera Chamí, but they are two totally different groups. Although they are Embera, the Embera nation is made up of five peoples. So in the end they threw the whole problem to the organisation here in Ríosucio and they had no competence with these people, because there are also rules. Everything possible was done, but what the mayor and the others wanted was to take the children away from the mothers. And we said «how are they going to take the children away if they are not mistreating them, they are displaced, we need to know in what conditions they come from this part of Baudó». There is a very serious lack of knowledge about us, and there are also some abuses on the part of the institutions, which are throwing the ball at each other and not doing much».

Displaced Embera women (Photo: Personería de Juradó /

Gabriel Marrugo, Embera Chamí from the municipality of Riosucio and a member of the organisation CAMIZBA (Cabildo Mayor Indígena de la Zona del Bajo Atrato) is currently in Europe trying to raise awareness about the situation of his people and to raise funds for essential projects to deal with the isolation to which they are subjected.

In an article on the subject in EL COLOMBIANO, Paulina Mesa Loaiza reports:

«The truth is that the war seems to suffocate their lives, their culture and even their spirituality. For Hugo Neth, regional youth commissioner and member of the indigenous roundtable, the community can no longer walk freely as they did before, they cannot forage for food and are subjected to extreme confinement or forced displacement. In that sense, the seriousness of the matter is that people are becoming separated and «we can no longer communicate with nature and we are losing everything that has to do with culture, the way we dress and think». We no longer have so much spirituality to protect ourselves», Hugo Neth explained. In response to this call, the Ombudsman’s Office has launched at least six alerts so far this year so that the competent authorities can provide the necessary support to these victims of the conflict who, in the words of Hugo Neth, no longer know what to do because «every day more and more people commit suicide, it seems like a pandemic». According to the entity, suicide cases have been registered in six municipalities in the department: Bojayá, Alto Baudó, Quibdó, Bahía Solano, Bagadó and Lloró».»

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