Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Groups Under Threat in Chocó Department
Washington, D.C. — Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that have long suffered displacement and violence at the hands of paramilitary groups in Colombia’s Pacific region are reporting a new increase in paramilitary activity, once again putting residents at risk. According to the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP), a Colombian non-governmental organization, 200 armed members of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) are on the move towards the communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó in Chocó department. There has been no effective institutional response to ensure the safety of communities in this region, the NGO has said.
“The Colombian government must guarantee that the rights and safety of these communities in Chocó are protected,” said WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli. “This includes extending effective protection measures to all human rights defenders, social leaders, and other residents in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó. It is unconscionable that 200 armed men are able to enter this territory unscathed, within a few kilometers of the Colombian Military’s 54th Jungle Battalion.”
Between 1996 and 1997, communities in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó were forcibly displaced by military and paramilitary operations. Following their displacement, banana and palm oil companies set up operations in the territory. Attempts by social leaders and communities to return to their land, as laid out in the Victims and Land Restitution Law passed by the Santos government, have been met with intimidation, violence, threats, and harassment.
On December 9, 2017, Hernán Bedoya, a land rights leader based in the area, was killed by the AGC. On November 26, 2017, another local land rights activist, Mario Castaño Bravo, was killed on his own farm. Castaño Bravo was overseeing the drafting of a reparation proposal, which acknowledged the legitimacy of the community’s collective land ownership rights, and which limited company operations without consultation over possible threats to the life, land, and dignity of local residents.
The assassination of Bedoya and Castaño Bravo were an attempt to destabilize an ongoing land rights campaign, meant to safeguard the return of families who were displaced and who are now seeking reparations. The 13 humanitarian zones and biodiversity areas established in this region have been granted protection measures by Colombia’s Constitutional Court. Additionally, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has asked the Colombian government to adopt precautionary measures for five leaders from these areas.
Members of the U.S. Congress have already expressed their concern over the ongoing security threats facing Colombia’s ethnic communities. In a December 2017 letter addressed to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, lawmakers requested that the Colombian government reevaluate the measures employed for protecting threatened individuals from marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. Instead of implementing ineffective protective measures, the letter calls on the Colombian government to adapt a new strategy that fully protects the lives, interests, and safety of these groups.
Aside from the threats posed by the AGC, communities in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó could also face a pending humanitarian crisis should combat initiate against the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, ELN) factions still present in the area.
“It is imperative that the Colombian government implements an effective state response to safeguard the rights of these communities,” said Sánchez-Garzoli.