WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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7 Feb 2019 | News

At Least 13 Human Rights, Social Leaders Killed in Colombia So Far in 2019

Since WOLA’s last update from January 3, at least three more Colombian activists were murdered; in total, 13 cases of murdered social leaders were reported to WOLA in just the first month of 2019. In 2018, WOLA counted at least 123 assassinations of Colombia human rights leaders or members of vulnerable ethnic communities in the country

The assassinations have primarily targeted Afro-Colombian and indigenous rights activists, in addition to rural farmers and landowners in Valle del Cauca, Putumayo, and La Guajira. Human rights defenders and union leaders, especially those in Valle del Cauca, continue to confront a high volume of death threats from paramilitary and dissident guerrilla groups.

Below is a list of the incidents that have occurred since our January update. Together, we stand with our partners in Colombia in calling for justice. We also urge U.S. policymakers and the international community to insist that the Duque Administration prioritize the security of social leaders and that it bring those response for these crimes to justice:

UN Sounds “Red Alert” for Human Rights Defenders in Norte de Santander

The United Nation’s representative to Colombia, Alberto Brunori, has sounded the alarm for Norte de Santander as the most dangerous department for human rights defenders in Colombia. El Espectador reported that Brunori cited the four municipalities of Hacarí, San Calixto, El Tarra and Teorama as the most dangerous in the region. Wilson Pérez Ascania, leader of the Popular Constituent Movement, was assassinated in Hacarí on January 5.

The local office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo) has documented 400 threats to human rights defenders in Norte de Santander alone. Brumori called on the Colombian government to increase its presence in the region. The Ministry of the Interior, the Human Rights Ombudsman, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Ministry of Justice have all announced they will be visiting Norte de Santander to evaluate the situation confronting human rights defenders.

Paramilitaries Assassinate Crop Substitution and Union Activist (Cauca)

El Tiempo reported the assassination of Dilio Corpus Guetio on January 29 in Súarez, Cauca Department. Corpus, an indigenous leader of the local chapter of the National Federation of Agricultural and Livestock Workers, was commuting to work on his motorcycle when he was gunned down by a man in a passing car. Corpus was also a member of the Indigenous Guard, the indigenous communities’ pacific protection network, as well as one of the civilian observers for illicit crop substitution. Corpus, 44, leaves behind his wife, the former Vice President of Community Action United of Santa Bárbara.

Social Leader Assassinated in San José de Uré (Córdoba)

Colombian television news Canal 1 reported the murder of Jorge Castrillón Gutiérrez on January 31. Castrillón, a political leader and human rights defender in San José de Urabá, was reported missing the morning before his body was found suffering several gunshot wounds on the side of the road. Castrillón was campaigning for mayor and was visiting a rural part of the municipality when he was murdered.

Córdoba’s Government Secretary Juan José González condemned the murder and accused the Gulf Clan (Clan de Golfo) paramilitary group of assassinating Castrillón. The murder of Castrillón is one of 28 murders in south Córdoba alone since 2016.

Rural Farmer Found Murdered (Bolívar)

El Tiempo documented the January 27 murder of Alberto Santos Fuentes, a rural farmer and landowner in the municipality of Río Viejo. Santos Fuentes had previously made a report to the National Land Restitution Unit detailing the invasion of his land from armed groups, but continued farming with only a bulletproof vest cellphone as protection measures.

Authorities in the area are investigating the murder, thought to be perpetrated by the Darío Ramírez Castro front of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla. Santos Fuentes’s family told El Tiempo that the farmer was only threatened as a result of is land ownership. He was 54.

Prominent Indigenous Leader Survives Assassination Attempt (La Guajira)

La Guajira Hoy newspaper reported an assassination attempt against indigenous social leader Debora Barros Fince on January 27. Barros is an indigenous Wayúu social leader and was greeting fellow leaders on the street for a meeting when her husband spotted two armed men approaching on a motorcycle. Barros took the opportunity given by the temporary shelter from an approaching truck to run into a neighboring home for shelter.

Barros works for the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF), a governmental agency in focused on the needs of young children. She reported the incident to the local District Attorney’s office the next day. Barros and her husband have three young children.

FARC Dissidents and ELP Kidnap Commit Rights Abuses in Corinto (Cauca)

Contagio Radio reported that FARC dissidents and guerrillas in the Popular National Army (EPL) kidnapped María Evelin Chate Yunda on January 27. Chate is the Vice President of the Community Action United chapter of El Crucedo. According to Gonzálo Guetio, the head of the village’s Indigenous Guard, armed men also entered another home that evening but were prevented from kidnapping their target due to the swift action of neighbors and other inhabitants of the home.

The report references previous kidnappings and disappearances due to the conflict between FARC dissidents and the EPL. Guetio told Contagio Radio that the Armed Forces of Colombia (army and police forces) are guilty of inaction, adding that the government forces are located 10 minutes away from illicit armed forces but have not taken any measures to protect the community of Corinto.

Indigenous Communities Forcibly Displaced and Threatened (Valle del Cauca)

The Association of Indigenous Councils of the Valle del Cauca (ACIVA RP) requested urgent security guarantees from the government following the January 21 displacement of 108 people from the Ipu Euja and Eperara Siapidara villages and threats to those remaining in their homes. On January 21, hooded men threatened 28 families from the two villages, who fled their homes in fear for their lives. The villagers’ restricted movement has prevented them from collecting food according to their traditional way of life, leaving children facing food insecurity.

On January 29, hooded men arrived in the community of Chonara Huena arrived at 10:00pm and spent two hours watching the village. The next day, two men on motorcycles returned to the community of Ipu-Euja and spent half an hour watching the village. The communities of Chonara Huena and those remaining in Ipu-Euja fear they may also need to flee their homes. The ACIVA-RP traced the recent forced displacements to mass displacements in 2003, and called upon the Local Committee for Attention, Prevention, Protection, and Guarantees of No Repetition to ensure the restoration of free movement and territorial rights to the victims of displacement and indigenous people.

Assault by Paramilitaries in Puente Nareyo Humanitarian Space (Valle del Cauca)

Three men from the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group broke into the home of Norbey Gutierrez at 1:00 in the morning of January 26. The men attacked Gutierrez, inflicting a head injury and stealing his computer and $5,000.00 pesos (166.00 USD) in cash revenue from his store. That afternoon, the same three men, two of whom are known by their aliases “Cabeza” and “Jorlen,” entered another home in the community and intimidated its inhabitants.

Two days before the incident, Gutierrez recalls seeing three hooded men from the same paramilitary group occupy the construction lot for the neighborhood community space and watch his store for 15 minutes. The Puente Nareyo Humanitarian Space is a La Playita neighborhood in Buenaventura that has declared itself closed to armed groups.

The community is accompanied by the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP), the author of the incident report, and Peace Brigades Colombia (PBI). The CIJP added that the same paramilitary group caused $22,000.00 pesos (733.00 USD) worth of delays a year earlier by halting the construction of community infrastructure projects. The residents of Puente Nareyo continue to fear leaving the neighborhood due to increased drug trafficking activity.

Civic Strike Leaders Threatened, Extorted in Buenaventura (Valle del Cauca)

The Buenaventura Oversight Committee for the Civil Strike denounced multiple attempts to intimidate its leaders, most recently on January 17. Afro-Colombian rights activist and director of the Territorial Commission Leyla Arroyo Muñoz and two committee members of the Civic Strike Committee, Nicolás Rodríguez Hoyos and Carlos Julio Ramírez, were followed by four men on motorcycles, one of which with missing license plates.

The leaders had been meeting about the civil strike, directed at drawing Colombian government attention to their community’s needs, inside the local church. The leaders’ protection details called the threat in to the local police, who caught two of the suspects while the others. The police found a .22 caliber revolver carried by one of the apprehended men.

The incident follows the home invasion of Juan Rodrigo Machado on January 12 at 10:00 p.m. Machado, the son of assassinated social leader Temístoceles Machado, was threatened at gunpoint while armed men demanded “the 80 million pesos” ($26,000 USD). Machado told the men he only had 150,000 pesos ($50 USD), which he gave them. After confirming with their superiors on the phone, the armed men left but threatened Machado if he pressed his assigned panic button to call the police.

On December 22, activist Hamington Valencia Vivero of the Black Communities Process (PCN) was driving in his neighborhood when he heard glass shatter. Though unhurt, police found a bullet hole embedded in the vehicle. Afro-Colombian and human rights organizations are calling on the government to increase protection for social leaders and to direct the National Protection Unit to draft a full report on the violence in Buenaventura.

Human Rights Defenders Call for Investigation on “Black Eagles” Paramilitary Group

Contagio Radio highlighted the emergence of an unknown paramilitary group, calling itself the “Black Eagles” (Aguilas Negras) that has issued a number of threats at the beginning of 2019. Senator Iván Cépeda is concerned that the group represents “a new generation of paramilitarism” in Colombia. The Colombian Armed Forces has not confirmed any knowledge of the group’s leadership or territorial control.

The “Black Eagles” recently issued threats to over 30 organizations defending human rights, as well as individuals such as indigenous governor Rubén Darío Vélez. Cépeda observed that the group is reminiscent of similar strategies that the Armed Forces used in the 1990s to camouflage their illegal activities under a fictional organization.

The Peace Information Foundation (FIP) identified four threat categories used by similar paramilitary groups. They can threaten human or civil rights defenders to deter them from working; accuse an individual of “collaborating” with a guerrilla insurgency; extort money; or a “social cleansing” when groups target marginalized groups such as LGBTI-identifying individuals, sex workers, those experiencing homeless, or those addicted to drugs in order to force them to leave their community.

Cépeda plans to convene a national conference to discuss potential avenues to combat a new trend of “stealth paramilitarism,” one of which could include increased resources and protection for the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian guards established under the National Guarantees Commission and the Early Alert System.

Paramilitary Threaten Indigenous Leaders and Journalists (Putumayo)

On January 19, the Indigenous People’s Human Rights Commission (CDDHHPI) urged the Colombian government and the international community to respond to a threat issued by the “Black Eagles” (Aguilas Negras”) on January 17. The Black Eagles threatened the lives of 7 human rights defenders and journalists and gave them “24 hours to pay respects to their families.” CDDHHPI called for protection for Robinson López Descanse and Nixon Piaguaje.

López, the Commissioner for CDDHHPI and leader of two other indigenous rights groups, received previous threats in November and December. Armed men repeatedly visited López’s family’s home and asked for his whereabouts. Nixon Piaguaje, a journalist for the Putumayo indigenous radio show Radio Waira. The organization called on the national prosecutor’s office to investigate the threat, in addition to a guarantee of protection services from the National Protection Unit, the Government of Putumayo, the Public Ministry, and the Ministry of the Interior.

Paramilitaries Renew Threats against Indigenous Leader (Valle del Cauca)

The Valle Del Cauca Regional Indigenous Association (ORIVAC) reported a death threat issued by the paramilitary group Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) to indigenous Governor Rubén Darío Vélez on January 26. This latest threat is one of a series responding to Darío’s investigation of the May 2017 “disappearance” of four community members. Darío is also a vocal advocate for his community’s indigenous land rights. Darío encountered the threat when he found a pamphlet outside his home printed on Black Eagles letterhead with the shape of a gun.

Paramilitaries Threaten Indigenous Council Leader and His Family (La Guajira)

Armando Valbuena Vega publicized a death threat received from the “Black Eagles” (“Aguilas Negras”) paramilitary group on January 31. Valbuena, an indigenous Wayuu, is the former president of the Colombian National Indigenous Organization (ONIC), representing 68 different indigenous organizations. The threat called Valbuena, recognized as an indigenous elder by UNESCO, an offensive slur and accused him of “spreading lies” in light of Valbuena’s attempts to raise awareness of municipal corruption. Valbuena has accused the mayor of Manaure de Salinas and his secretaries of seizing public housing on behalf of political allies. The threat gave Valbuena and his family 72 hours to vacate their property or be shot.

Justicia y Paz Activists Declared Military Targets (Bajo Atrato and Antioquia)

The Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP or Justicia y Paz) received a tip on February 1 that several community partners were on a list of military targets. The military justifies the target list with allegations that the social leaders are tied to members of the dissident FARC and ELN guerrillas. Human rights defender Danilo Rueda, identified as a target, is one of several activists working to reclaim ethnic territories. The CIJP notes that the military has employed similar strategies to silence those advocating for legal land restoration, and has referred target lists to paramilitary groups and independent assassins.

The threats follow a letter released on January 23 by notorious drug lord Juan Carlos “El Tuso” Sierra detailing that Rueda, Senator Iván Cepeda, Rodrigo Lara, Senator Piedad Córdoba, and ex-magistrate Iván Velásquez had met with him in 2009 and offered his family asylum in Switzerland or France if he testified against former President Álvaro Uribe. The CIJP has rejected El Tuso’s claims and has urged the government to protect human rights defenders and victims’ rights.

Labor Union Denounces Mass Layoffs by Coca-Cola (Cali, Bucaramanga)

The National Union of Food Workers (SINALTRAINAL) denounced the Coca-Cola Company for a mass layoff of over 300 workers during the week of January 16. The union condemned the latest layoff after 500 workers were dismissed in 2018. SINALTRAINAL denounced the layoff as part of a wider culture of “threats, persecutions, and repression of workers” that have resulted in more than 11 murdered workers, 13 imprisoned workers, and 48 forcibly displaced workers. The layoffs will force remaining workers to work as many as 16 hours a day without overtime pay.

The union identifies “front men” in collaboration with the Colombian police as repeatedly harassing Coca-Cola workers to silence them. SINALTRAINAL also accuses Coca-Cola of releasing contaminated runoff that affects the water supply in Bogotá and other production centers. The union closed by demanding that the Coca-Cola Company adhere to the National Labor Convention and called on all workers to join a national protest in front of Coca-Cola facilities.

Ethnic Groups Urge Colombia to Resume Dialogue with the ELN (Chocó)

The Inter-Ethnic Commission of Chocó (FISCH), in coalition with the Diocese of Quibdó, Istmina-Tadó, the Indigenous Network, and other Chocoan social organizations met on January 26, 2019 to condemn the recent massacre in Bogotá and President Iván Duque’s decision to end peace talks with the ELN. The coalition further called upon the government to respect the human rights provisions in the Humanitarian Accord, and for international governments and organizations to oversee the peace process in Chocó.

Positive developments on the human rights front included the following:

Three Military Officials Sentenced for “Operation Dragon” (Cali)

The Special Fourth Circuit Criminal Court in Cali upheld the conviction of three Army officers for a 2004 plot known as “Operation Dragon” to assassinate a senator and four human rights defenders. This plan formed part of a broader plan to assassinate over 150 activists including trade unionists from SINTRAEMCALI. Senator Alexander López Maya, who was then a Congressman and who was targeted, publicized the plot to silence elected officials and human rights defenders who opposed the privatization of the Cali Municipal Corporations (Emcali). Although the conspiracy implicated more than 8 agencies of then-President Álvaro Uribe, the District Attorney delayed the charging Colonel Julián Villate and Majors Fidel Rivera Jaimes and Hugo Alfonso Abondano until 2013 for the conspiracy to commit murder. The military officers also planned to assassinate human rights defender Berenice Celeita, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Laureate, and union activists Luis Hernández, Luis Imbachi and Óscar Figueroa.

WOLA welcomes the Cali Fourth Circuit’s ruling as a precedent for future prosecution of human rights violations committed by government officials. We think that this is the first step towards justice in this case. However, given that this assassination plot was not created in a vacuum, we urge the U.S. and international community to advocate for a full investigation of Operation Dragon that looks into the role the government played in this case and that brings its intellectual authors to justice. We are, however, strongly discouraged that on January 28, shortly after this ruling was announced that an assassination attempt was committed against Ricardo Munoz, the current President of SINTRAEMCALI. This incident that left one of Munoz’s bodyguards injured, was strongly denounced by the CUT trade union coalition. All efforts must be made to guarantee that others linked to Operation Dragon are not harmed or killed.