WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
15 Nov 2010 | News

ACSN Letter to Presidential Advisor on Afro-Colombian, Black, Palanquera, and Raizal Populations

Mr. Oscar Gamboa Zúñiga
Office of the Vice President
Carrera 8a No.7-57
Bogotá, Colombia
Fax: (57 +1) 444-2158

November 15, 2010

Dear Mr. Gamboa Zúñiga,

We, the undersigned group of U.S. non-governmental organizations, activists and academics that form part of the Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network (ACSN), write to you today to express our deep concern about recent human rights and territorial rights abuses committed against African descendant citizens of your country. We also wish to inquire about what immediate steps you, as the Presidential Advisor on Afro-Colombian, Black, Palanquera, and Raizal Populations and the Direction for Ethnic Minorities of the Ministry of the Interior plan to take to address the concerns outlined in this letter. Given our partnership with many Afro-Colombian groups and Colombian experts on this subject, we also wish to note recommendations based on our partners and NGOs’ reports for how your government can best address these concerns. Given the large number of questions and concerns we are listing them in terms of category.

Alarming Number of Killings of Afro-Colombians

We are greatly alarmed by the high number of murders of Afro-Colombians and in particular their leaders in recent years. While no systematic documentation of these murders exists, AFRODES and Global Rights recently released a report on the human rights situation of Afro-Colombians and in that context announced that since 1996 at least forty-two Afro-Colombians were killed.[i] Since AFRODES’s report was released in July 2010, we have received reports of several other murders. We understand from our Afro-Colombian partners, NGOs and the victims’ families that the authorities have done little to investigate and bring those responsible to justice. We have also received reports of a high number of threats that illegal armed groups have made either via email, text messaging, and pamphlets or in person against Afro-Colombian leaders, their grassroots organizations and community councils. One of the organizations in our network who works closely with many Afro-Colombian groups, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), received three death threats this year that includes dozens of Afro-Colombian individuals, IDP and community organizations. Since WOLA received the first threat in May, three individuals listed on these threats were killed and at least nine Afro-Colombians murdered.

We are interested in hearing from you on how your office plans to address this critical situation, prevent further killings from taking place, and prosecute those responsible for such crimes. We believe that guaranteeing the fundamental right to life of Afro-Colombians should be the priority of your office. As such, we would like to recommend that the government put in place a mechanism that accurately documents abuses committed against afrodescendants and that you put into place effective protection mechanisms for Afro-Colombian leaders at high risk of death in order to prevent further killings from taking place. Additionally, we encourage that bold steps are taken to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the murders of the 42 Afro-Colombians noted by AFRODES.

While we appreciate President Santos’ public statement condemning the threats against WOLA and Vice President Angelino Garzon’s press statements concerning threats against AFRODES, we very much hope that their condemnations are translated into concrete and effective actions that prevent further murders and threats from taking place. We anticipate that as Presidential Advisor you will also publicly condemn such abuses should they take place in the future and will work to make sure that public policies are changed in order to address these matters.

Internal Displacement and Lack of Implementation of Constitutional Court Orders

As you know, in 2009 the Constitutional Court ordered the Colombian government to take a series of steps that will prevent the further displacement of Afro-Colombian communities and guarantee protection and assistance for the high number of Afro-Colombians already internally displaced through Order 005. It gives the State guidelines on how to increase the participation of IDP organizations in plans and policies that affect them. Additionally, Order 005 orders the Colombian government to come up with a strategy for guaranteeing that the humanitarian needs of Afro-Colombians who are “confined,” in other words unable to flee, are met. Our understanding is that so far, little of this Court Order has actually been implemented.

We wish to stress that Afro-Colombians constituted 16% of those displaced in 2009.[ii] Of the fifty municipalities that are collectively titled to Afro-Colombian communities, over 517,000 persons residing in those territories are now displaced and 49% of those displaced are women and children. Additionally, 15.3% of displaced Afro-Colombians have suffered more than one displacement. Of the 77 massive displacements that took place in 2009, it is reported that 67% of them took place in Afro-Colombian areas including Nariño, Chocó, Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Antioquia. It is quite alarming that 69% of the Afro-Colombian population have not received any immediate assistance after becoming displaced. 76.4% have not received any food, 82% have not received any beds or mattresses to sleep on, more than 80% have not received assistance with integration of self-sustainability projects, and more than 90% have not received identity documents. Currently, 96.5% of the Afro-Colombian displaced population finds itself below the poverty line with 78.4% of these below the indigence line.

We understand that the government is limiting its consultation and work on implementation of Order 005 to the High Consultative group. Such a restricted and non-transparent consultation will not be effective in guaranteeing the rights of Afro-Colombian displaced. Your office should take steps to make sure that the 60 key Afro-Colombian internally displaced organizations represented by AFRODES, as well as CNOA, PCN, Asomujer y Trabajo, Ceuna, Foro Inter-Etnico Chocó, COCOCAUCA, RECOMPAS, COCOMACIA, ASCOBA, ADACHO, CIMARRONES, leaders of the worst affected community councils and other key groupings of Afro-Colombians, many of whom are noted in the Court’s order, that deal with displacement are properly consulted in the steps to be taken to diagnose and implement this Court Order. 

As such, we would like to underscore our partners’ recommendations that the Colombian state implement a differentiated approach to programs for IDPs that takes into account the special concerns and cultural identity of Afrodescendants. Last week, at a conference on the regional humanitarian situation in Quito, Ecuador, Acción Social noted that they are implementing a differentiated approach for Afro-Colombian internally displaced persons. We are most interested in knowing what this approach is, with whom it was designed, and whether it was put together in consultation with Afro-Colombian displaced organizations. Also, we would be interested in knowing how much of a budget has been allotted to this effort. We strongly suggest that your office guarantee the creation of the Working Table on Afro-Colombians, as was indicated would be done in the State Department’s memo for certification, and that this entity meets before the end of 2010.[iii] The purpose of this Table, recommended for years by Afro-Colombian groups, is for there to be dialogue between the government and Afro-Colombian organizations that form part of the various Afro-Colombian grassroots “processes” to guarantee effective implementation of a differentiated approach to Afro-Colombian IDPs. We think that this can serve as an important step forward in meeting displaced Afro-Colombians’ needs.   

Afro-Colombian women bear the disproportional burden of internal displacement as single heads of ho
useholds. They are also highly vulnerable to sexual violence and must deal with triple discrimination—for being women, displaced and afrodescendant. As the main breadwinners they must confront, often alone, many forms of insecurity (physical, food and employment) and attempts by illegal armed groups (paramilitaries and insurgents) and criminal gangs to forcibly recruit their children. Given the particular hardships faced by the large number of Afro-Colombian displaced women, we also suggest that you urge others within your government to properly implement Court Order 092. Again, we would highly recommend that such efforts are done in direct consultation with Afro-Colombian IDP and grassroots women organizations like the Red de Mujeres Chocoanas, Asomujer y Trabajo, AFRODES and others. We would also like to know how your office plans to guarantee that Afro-Colombian women’s rights are respected.    

Afro-Colombians’ Right to Be Previously Consulted

We are troubled by the recent statement[iv] made by the National Conference of Afro-Colombian Organizations (CNOA), the National Organization of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), the National Cimarron Movement (CIMARRON), the Black Communities Process (PCN), the Afro-Colombian Students Collective (CEUNA) and the National Network of Afro-Colombian Women (KAMBIRI) concerning the government’s approach to Afro-Colombians’ right to previous consultation on key proposed laws (victims law and land law) and the National Development Plan (PND). As such, we support our Afro-Colombian partners’ recommendation that these consultations follow the processes mandated by the Constitutional Court’s multiple judgments such as sentence C-175 in 2009 by which it declared that the Rural Development Statute is unconstitutional and it established a precedent as to what issues are prohibited to consult within a consultation. We also wish to recall that Afro-Colombians have consistently provided consecutive governments with the Long-Term Integral Plan for Black, Afro-Colombian, Palanquera and Raizal communities (their vision of an economic development plan) that previous governments have not taken into account when developing economic development policies in Afro-Colombian areas. We hope that your government will change these past practices by accepting, supporting and funding this plan.

We expect that you will take steps to rectify this matter and guarantee the inclusion of the recommendations made by the national Afro-Colombian organizations on how best to proceed with the previous consultation process. We would also add that not only should national Afro-Colombian organizations be consulted about implementation of all legislation and programs that affect them as mandated in ILO Convention 169 and Law 70 of the Black Communities, but they should also be consulted about proposed projects linked to the US-Colombia Racial Action Plan. In this vein, we would like to know more about efforts by your office to consult with these groups on the implementation of this plan.   

Particular Cases Requiring Urgent Attention

The human rights and humanitarian crisis affecting Afro-Colombians is so large-scale and all-encompassing that government programs must address their structural inabilities to address the situation.  Nevertheless, there are communities that are more acutely affected by the crisis. We would like to highlight the need for immediate and effective emergency attention to guarantee the human and territorial rights of Afrodescendants residing in Buenaventura, Guapi, Timbiqui, Northern Cauca, Acandi, Atrato River area and San Juan River basin, of the Chocó and Nariño require immediate attention. As such, we are only highlighting situations of an emergency nature and not protracted human rights or territorial rights situations that also require attention such as that of Alto Mira y Frontera, Curvaradó/Jiguamiandó, La Toma and the case of poor labor conditions of Afro-Colombian sugarcane workers.

The human rights crisis affecting Afro-Colombians in Colombia’s port city and municipality of Buenaventura is of much concern. We were horrified to read last week’s articles in El Pais[v] on the four graves found in Yurumangui, Buenaventura municipality and relatives attempting to located their disappeared family members. We have received reports from religious and secular organizations on the ground that an average 500 violent deaths were registered in the port of Buenaventura in recent years. The municipal human rights ombudsman office reported that 357 forced disappearances have taken place in the past three years. We are aware that since 2007 forced disappearances have become the new modality to politically and socially control communities.[vi] This serves as a way to do away with persons’ bodies in order to do erase evidence needed for the reporting of homicides. We have received countless reports of persons being cut up into pieces and dumped in the estuaries surrounding Buenaventura. El Pais reported in late October that in 2010 at least 13 women were killed and that domestic violence against women is skyrocketing. Near Buenaventura on the road to Cali in Zaragoza a similar human rights calamity is unfolding surrounding the areas where alleged paramilitary-controlled illegal gold mining is taking place.

Human rights violations leading to displacements and killings are also particularly acute at this time in Chocó, Guapi and Nariño. Many of these abuses are taking place at the hands of paramilitary groups including the Black Eagles and Rastrojos. However, there are also reports of military abuses. The lack of security for Afro-Colombians in the urban areas of Tumaco and in rural areas inhabited by afrodescendants in Nariño remains critical. According to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), “official data shows that in Nariño department the rate of displacement per 100,000 inhabitants is three times higher than the national rate.”[vii] In the municipality of El Charco alone, three displacements have taken place so far this year with the last one occurring on October 20. A recent visit of some of our partners to Quibdó found that there is a large number of unrecorded selective assassinations taking place within the city and that paramilitary threats against leaders remain a constant. While the situation remains precarious for all Afro-Colombian communities living along the Atrato River basin, members of communities residing in the San Juan and Baudó River Basins (Chocó) are particularly affected. COCOCAUCA has documented a large number of killings, threats and other forms of intimidation by illegal armed groups operating in Guapi, Cauca.

Given the large scale military and police presence in some of the areas listed above i.e. Buenaventura, Tumaco and Quibdó, we would like more information on what steps you will take to guarantee that the armed forces protect Afro-Colombian citizens situated in these areas. We think that your office should work with other Colombian institutions concerned to guarantee that paramilitary and insurgent groups and their operational structures which are a major threat to the lives and safety of Afro-Colombians are being dismantled and that the security forces respect international humanitarian law.

In closing, we look forward to learning about your plans for addressing the critical issues affecting the lives and livelihoods of Afro-Colombians. The responsibility you have been granted on behalf of your people is a very large one. It is our sincerest hope that you will take your newly granted responsibility to act in order to address some of the critical human rights concerns affecting the Afro-Colombian people. We look forward to dialoguing with you on t
hese important matters.


Gimena Sanchez and Anthony Dest
Washington Office on Latin America

Kelly Nicholls
U.S. Office on Colombia

Charo Mina Rojas
PCN International

Nora Rasman
TransAfrica Forum

Prof. Joseph Jordan
Department of African/African-American Studies
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill 

Prof. Arturo Escobar
Department of Anthropology
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

Carlos Quesada
Global Rights

Roland Roebuck
Afro-Latino Activist

James Vondracek
Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America (CRLN)

Eunice Escobar
Board Member of Witness for Peace and CRLN

[i]“Bicentenario: ¡Nada que celebrar!: Informe de los derechos humanos de las Comunidades afrocolombianas en el marco de la “celebración” de los doscientos años de vida republicana en Colombia,” by AFRODES and Global Rights, July 2010, Anexo 4 Casos de asesinatos contra lidérezas y lideres del movimiento étnico-territorial afrocolombiano contains a partial listing of the 42 leaders killed since 1996.

[ii]The statistics in this paragraph come from AFRODES’s report. 

[iii]Memorandum of justification concerning human rights conditions with respect to assistance for the Colombian armed forces, U.S. Department of State,September 9, 2010, p. 130.

[iv]Statement by National Afro-Colombian Organizations on Previous Consultation and General Laws (Victims’ Law and Nacional Development Plan), October 26, 2010.

[v]“Hallan cuatro fosas en Buenaventura,” and  “Desaparecidos siguen aumentando en el puerto,” El Pais, November 11, 2010.

[vi]“Buenaventura: Caught between War and Despair” by the Black Communities Process (PCN), Pastoral Afrocolombiana, Fundemujer, and Rostros y Huellas del Sentir Humano with the support of WOLA details the tolls of the internal armed conflict, human rights abuses, abuses linked to economic interests and narcotics trafficking in Buenaventura (Valle del Cauca) and provides policy recommendations, August 26, 2010.

[vii]OCHA, Colombia: Humanitarian Bulletin Issues 43/20-26 October 2010.