U.S. Must Pressure Colombia to Protect Social Leaders Under Threat
Washington, D.C. — In recent remarks to local media, Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas insinuated that the majority of human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia are targeted and killed not because of their activism, but because of problems in their personal lives, such as quarrels with their neighbors or romantic partners. He later cited statistics that he said originated from the police, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Attorney General’s Office. At a time when the Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia has expressed concerns over the current safety of Colombia’s social leaders, and given reports by Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office that 204 social leaders have been assassinated in the past two years, Villegas’ comments demonstrate a poor understanding of the threats facing social leaders, and further highlights the urgent need to provide threatened leaders in rural areas with the protection they currently lack, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“Minister Villegas’ remarks were not only insensitive and inaccurate, but a slap in the face to all Colombian activists who place their lives on the line every day to build peace and improve their country,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA’s Director for the Andes.
Villegas said that he would be “first to denounce a systematic pattern” to the killings of activists in Colombia, adding, “If I had any information that there is an organization, a person, a body dedicated to killing leaders in Colombia, I would be the first to come out and say it.”
“Minister Villegas’ comments call into question his ability to do his job as a top protector of the Colombian people. His insistence on the lack of a single ‘organization’ or entity that might be behind the killings reveals a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the threats facing Colombian activists,” said Adam Isacson, WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight. “Rather than a single body dedicated to killing leaders in Colombia, it is a loose network that often includes powerful business interests, landowners, and others who may receive political protection.”
Human rights defenders, advocates for land restitution, Afro and indigenous leaders are facing an increasingly critical security situation in Colombia, as recently documented by WOLA. In particular, communities along the Pacific coast, especially residents of the Bajo Atrato region in Chocó department, are in immediate need of heightened physical protection. Four human rights leaders from this region were killed by illegal armed groups in 2017, including Porfirio Jaramillo Bogallo (January 29), Jesús Alberto Sánchez Correa (August 19), Mario Manuel Castaño Bravo (November 26) and Hernán Bedoya (December 8). In another case, indigenous governor Aulio Isarama Forastero was killed by guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) in Chocó’s Alto Baudó municipality in October. Other human rights defenders in the Bajo Atrato region have had their security measures lifted, or have been provided with inadequate protection. Concerns over safety are running so high that leaders from Bajo Atrato wore white masks while giving a recent press conference, in order to avoid being identified by illegal armed groups.
“U.S. authorities must insist that Colombia’s political leadership treat the issue of threatened social leaders with utmost seriousness,” said Sánchez-Garzoli. “Denying the scale of the threats faced by defenders of human rights and falsely blaming victims is not going to make the problem go away. That Colombia’s defense minister should say such things suggests that Colombia is deeply uninterested in protecting its social leaders.”