WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
18 Jul 2007

NGOs urge action after murder of Colombian peace leader

NGOs urge U.S. officials to act to ensure investigation of the July 13, 2007 murder of Dairo Torres of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó and protection of other peace community members under threat.

In a letter to US officals, a group of non-governmental organizations call for action in response to the murder of the fourth leader of the peace community of San José de Apartadó to be killed in 20 months. Reports from the ground indicate that this murder and other acts of intimidation are the result of collaboration between a paramilitary group and the local public security forces. The letter demands investigations to end impunity in such cases and urges the United States to take these circumstances into consideration in discussions about foreign aid for Colombia. 


July 25, 2007

Jonathan D. Farrar
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Mr. Farrar,

We are writing to express our grave concerns surrounding the recent murder of Dairo Torres, a leader of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Reports from the ground indicate that this murder was committed through tacit collaboration between the Águilas Negras paramilitary group operating in the Antioquia Department, and the Colombian public security forces based in and around the town of San José de Apartadó. Meanwhile, threats against members of the San José de Apartadó peace community continue; despite the international outcry in response to the February 2005 massacre, Colombian authorities have not taken necessary steps to protect other members of the peace community.

On July 12, 2007, two men armed with handguns reportedly boarded a public transportation vehicle traveling along the road between Apartadó and San José de Apartadó, searched it, and made public threats of violence against members of the peace community of San José de Apartadó. The two armed men at that time identified themselves to the passengers as members of the Águilas Negras paramilitary group. The next day, on July 13, 2007, according to witnesses these same two paramilitiaries stopped and boarded the vehicle in which Dairo Torres, a leader of the humanitarian zone of Alto Bonito, was a passenger, ordered him to get off, and then shot him dead and left his body on the side of the road. Dairo Torres, who had a wife and three children, is the fourth leader of the San José de Apartadó peace community to be killed in the past 20 months. The killing occurred just two minutes from the location of a police checkpoint, where hours before the murder of Mr. Torres, witnesses saw the two gunmen sitting and conversing with police.

Meanwhile, although both the incidents from July 12 and July 13 were reported to police, they apparently took no action in either of these cases. To the contrary, the police checkpoint that is normally established in that area (just 200 meters down the road from where Mr. Torres was murdered) has reportedly not been present during the last several days. At the same time, on July 15 and 16, peace community members report that the same two men who killed Dairo Torres, along with other paramilitary members, have stationed themselves at a location just 100 meters from where he was shot. Most recently, on July 20, three members of the peace community report that they were stopped by unidentified men dressed as civilians who asked to see their identification during a visit to the town of San José de Apartadó. When the three members of the peace community refused, police officers allegedly appeared and directed them to hand over their information to the unidentified men, who then reportedly copied down the names and personal contact information of the three peace community members. This runs contrary to a Constitutional Court ruling that public forces cannot take census of people, and raises concerns as to who the men in civilian clothes are that police are sharing information with.

The murder of Dairo Torres comes shortly after a July 9, 2007 FARC attack on a police station in the town center of San José de Apartadó. During this attack, one policeman was killed and two were wounded. After the attack, witnesses state that police made statements to various people in the town of San José de Apartadó that this attack had come from the peace community’s settlement and that “the peace community will pay dearly.” The peace community of San José de Apartadó and its members are located approximately one mile away from the town center where the police post is located. Reports in the Colombian media since the FARC attack have also conflated the town of San José de Apartadó with the peace community. A report in El Tiempo even falsely stated that the attack on the police station occurred within “the peace community of San José de Apartadó.”  These and other false statements conflating the peace community with an armed guerilla group have helped to justify and even encourage violent acts against the members of the peace community, including the murder of Dairo Torres, an apparent attempt to take revenge for the July 9 FARC attack.

In the days following Mr. Torres’ murder, there are also continuing reports of paramilitary groups based between Playa Larga and Nueva Antioquia issuing threats that they plan to “finish off” the peace community and collecting taxes on local timber cutters. Given the public threats issued by paramilitaries leading up to the murder of Dairo Torres, and their demonstrated capacity to follow through on such threats – despite the nationwide paramilitary demobilization – the latest threats against members of the peace community require substantive action in order to prevent further tragedy.

We recognize and deeply appreciate the actions of the Department to date to show concern for the security of members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, including your visit to the community. However, the continuing violence against community leaders, with the apparent complicity of members of the Public Forces (including the National Police), demonstrates that more than symbolic expressions of concern and interest are necessary.

We recommend that the Department of State take the following actions to ensure protection of the lives of members and leaders of the peace community of San José de Apartadó, to assure proper investigation into the case of the murder of Dairo Torres and prosecution of those responsible, and to discourage, sanction, and prevent the occurrence of such heinous acts of violence against members of the peace community:

• The Department of State should make a public statement expressing concern for the safety of the members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó and call for the appropriate measures to be taken by Colombian authorities to protect and guarantee the safety of members of the peace community, as deemed appropriate by the community members themselves.

• The Department of State should call on Colombian government authorities to fully investigate the murder of Dairo Torres, including evidence of collaboration between paramilitaries and  Colombian public security forces, and assure that those responsible are brought to justice.

• The Department of State should investigate all reports of ongoing paramilitary activity in Urabá and recommend appropriate and decisive action on the part of the Colombian authorities to confront and dismantle these groups’ operational structures and sever their links to Colombian public security forces.

• The Department of State should demonstrate its political will to enforce the human rights provisions in foreign assistance legislation by withholding at least a portion of assistance to the Colombian National Police.

We thank you for consideration of our request and look forward to receiving from you updates on actions taken to address this situation.


John Lindsay-Poland and Susana Pimiento Chamorro, Co-Directors
Fellowship of Reconciliation, Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Senior Associate for Colombia and Haiti
Washington Office on Latin America

Norma Lozano Jackson, PhD
Carolina Peace Resource Center

Adam Isacson, Director of Programs
Center for International Policy

Gary L. Cozette, Director
Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America

Robin Buyers, Colombia Team Support Coordinator
Christian Peacemaker Teams

T. Michael McNulty, SJ, Justice and Peace Director
Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Kirsten Moller, Executive Director
Global Exchange

Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director
Latin America Working Group

John Nunes, President
Lutheran World Relief

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach, U.S. Washington Office Director
Mennonite Central Committee

Marselha Gonçalves Margerin, Program Officer
Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights

Father Roy Bourgeois, Founder
School of the Americas Watch

Heather Hanson, Executive Director
U.S. Office on Colombia

Melinda St. Louis, Executive Director
Witness for Peace

Cc:    Charles S. Shapiro, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs
        Ambassador William R. Brownfield