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Border Dispute Divides Remote Colombian States


More than a quarter of Colombia's population lives in poverty. The blame belongs to the usual suspects - corruption, government neglect and Colombia's long guerrilla war that's finally ending. In one Colombian town, though, the troubles stem from an arcane border dispute. Reporter John Otis brings us that story.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Children play soccer in the town of Belen de Bajira in northern Colombia. Lacking a soccer ball, the kids kick around a plastic bottle. At their elementary school a few blocks away, teachers show me around.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: We come upon broken desks, piles of trash and bats fluttering in the hallway. Outside, a recent downpour has turned the unpaved streets into mud. Many of Belen de Bajira's 9,000 residents blame such backwardness on the town's location. It lies in a remote patch of jungle that's claimed by two Colombian states - Antioquia and Choco. Since the 1940s, legal decisions have placed the town first in one state, then in the other. That's given the town a split personality. For example, Belen de Bajira has two police chiefs, one from Choco, the other from Antioquia. But rather than twice as much law and order, there's confusion.

DUBER VENITES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Duber Venites, the police chief from Antioquia, points out that bar owners often lobby to stay open past the normal closing time of 2 a.m. When he turns them down, they go a block and a half up the street to the Choco police chief, who often grants their requests. A bigger problem is that politicians from Antioquia and Choco are reluctant to spend much on public works, like paving the muddy streets, in case the town is suddenly declared part of the other state, which is what happened this month. Colombia's geographic institute published a new map placing Belen de Bajira in Choco. In response, angry Antioquia state officials are urging the townsfolk to resist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At a public meeting, they lead the crowd chanting the Antioquia state anthem. They also launch a petition drive demanding that the state border be redrawn yet again.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).


OTIS: As people add their names to the petition, longstanding divisions come to the surface. Many want to be part of Antioquia because it's one of Colombia's richest states. By contrast, Choco is one of the poorest.

MAGDALENA BABILONIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Magdalena Babilonia, who runs a day care center, says, "I cried when they published the new map. As part of Choco, we would go backwards."

For its part, Choco has a large Afro-Colombian population that's deeply proud of its heritage. Among them is Edison Rivas, one of Belen de Bajira's two police chiefs.

EDISON RIVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Rivas said the mapmakers did the right thing by placing the town in Choco. In fact, he's so pleased that he starts crooning.

RIVAS: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: The song? It's the state anthem of Choco. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Belen de Bajira, Colombia.