Last Friday, December 10, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the ethnic groups designated as NARP (Negro, Afrodescendant, Raizales & Palenqueras) are exempt from compulsory military service or for paying compensation to indemnify the military for lack of service.
Colombia maintains a compulsory military draft for male high school graduates, or non-graduates 18 and over. Certain exceptions such as conscientious objection was added in 1991. Orphans, victims of conflict, and parents are also excused. Sometimes on Colombian streets, especially in low-income neighborhoods, military can be seen rounding up young males and herding those into trucks who cannot demonstrate proof of exemption. A lottery system exists that randomly exempts certain youths once the armed forces is supplied with ample recruits.
Most Colombians with partial or even majority African descent do not necessarily self-identify as NARP, but there are certain groups that maintain a distinct ethnicity that has survived for centuries. For example, the Palenqueros are those who can trace their roots through San Basilio de Palenque, founded in the 15th century by escaped African captive Benkos Biohó. The Palenqueros speak a unique language that blends Spanish with an African language that can be traced back to what is now Angola.
Colombia’s Ministry of the Interior operates the “Dirección de Asuntos para Comunidades Negras, Afrocolombianas, Raizales y Palenqueras” (Directorate of Black, AfroColombian, Raizales and Palenqueras Community Affairs)
The Colombian Ministry of Justice defines the Raizal community as the “population located in the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, which has Afro-Anglo-Antillean cultural roots and whose members have socio-cultural and linguistic characteristics clearly differentiated from those of the rest of the Afro-Colombian population.” San Andrés is a popular Caribbean island vacation destination where the local Raizal population speaks English at home and learns Spanish in grade school. Many if not most of the island residents are completely bilingual.
The ministry goes on to identify Afro Colombian communities as those “of Afro-Colombian descent that have their own culture, share a history and have their own traditions and customs within the rural-urban relationship, which reveal and preserve the consciousness and identity that distinguish them from other ethnic groups.”
The court had previously ruled indigenous (Native American) groups were exempt but expanded their ruling to include NARP members in response to a motion filed by ethnic leaders Pedro Alexander Silva, Jeison Eduardo Palacios Robledo, Ramiro Rodríguez Padilla, Rossana Mejia Caicedo, Adelmo Carabali Rodallega, Juan Carlos Ospina, and Libardo José Ariza Higuera.
Judge Paola Meneses of the court indicated that by omitting NARP communities, the principle of equality was violated to their detriment, since the compulsory conscription exemption was intended to “defend the existence and identity of minorities ethnic groups, in order to protect the cultural diversity of the Colombian nation,” and the omission of NARP members “constitutes a negative discrimination or inequality, since it prevents the development of cultural aspects of their life in community.”
Headline photo: Palenquero musical group Kombilesa Mi, based out of San Basilio de Palenque (Photo © Loren Moss)