WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
18 Oct 2017 | WOLA Statement

Colombia Must Protect Community Leaders in Conflict Zones like Tumaco

Washington, DC — On October 17, unidentified perpetrators killed José Jair Cortes, a prominent leader of Afro-Colombian community groups in Tumaco, Nariño department, one of Colombia’s most conflict-ridden areas. Cortes was one of the leaders of the Afro-Colombian Community Council of Alto Mira and Frontera, and also helped support work that the Colombian Catholic Church’s social welfare program conducted in the area. Reports from the ground indicate that the leadership of this community council has come under threat after they denounced multiple human rights abuses taking place in Tumaco, including the October 5 massacre of civilian protesters.

Colombian authorities must guarantee the security of the remaining 14 members of the Community Council board and their families. This means strengthening security measures for those who are already receiving some form of protection and immediately grant measures for those who are not. The killing of Cortes increases the risk that the entire community of Alto Mira and Frontera will flee the area due to safety concerns, and thus become internally displaced. While Colombia has begun an investigation led by the Attorney General’s Office and has so far suspended four police officers since the October 5 massacre, authorities must do more to prioritize the protection of threatened community leaders and other civilians in Tumaco. The government’s ability to protect defenders of human rights— particularly those in areas that have been hit hardest by the conflict—is a critical test for the long-term success of Colombia’s peace process.

On October 5, anti-narcotics security forces killed at least eight civilians in addition to wounding many others in Tumaco. The protesters were expressing their discontent with the way the Colombian government is forcibly eradicating coca without meeting the terms found in the drug chapter of the peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Three days later, police shot at a Humanitarian Commission— which included representatives from human rights and religious groups such as the Intereclesial Commission for Justice and Peace— who entered the area in order to investigate the massacre. Today, WOLA received reports of another possible massacre of six to eight people in El Charco region of Nariño. As of yet, it is unclear what occurred and whether this incident is related to the Oct. 5 massacre or other reported human rights abuses in the area.