WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

2 Apr 2019 | News

Human Rights Attacks Continue in Colombia

Since WOLA’s last update from February 7, at least 31 more Colombian activists or members of vulnerable ethnic communities were murdered; in total, 44 cases of murdered social leaders or members of vulnerable ethnic communities were reported to WOLA so far this year.

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:

Ten Indigenous Guard Members Assassinated During Protests (Cauca)

Currently, indigenous protests known as the MINGA are taking place throughout Colombia to pressure the Duque Administration to fulfill the over 1,000 commitments made by successive governments to the indigenous communities. These protests are being met with excessive use of force on the part of Colombia’s Mobile Anti-Disturbance Unit (ESMAD) and other public security forces. Ten members of the indigenous guards were killed due to violent actions taken by government forces to repress protesters near the municipalities of Santander and Popayán. Eight of the indigenous guards were killed on March 21 after an unknown individual threw an explosive device in one of their homes. The guards had been meeting to strategize responses to the government protest violations. The ESMAD was deployed with the military, police, helicopters, and drones during the March 10 protests. Nearly 51 MINGA activists were injured from pellet fire and tear gas. On March 25, MINGA began de-escalation negotiations with the Colombian government. The organization identified Santander de Quilichao (La Agustina y Mondomo), Caldono (El Pital, Monterilla and the ancestral territory Sa’th Tama Kiwe), Purace (Patico y Paletara), Cajibío (La Pajosa y El Cairo), Rosas (Parraga) y Suárez (Asnazu) as the primary communities participating in the demonstrations and affected by the violence. WOLA urges the Colombian authorities to stop the violent repression of indigenous protests, to bring those responsible for killings and injury to justice and to resolve the differences with the indigenous authorities through dialogue. U.S policymakers are urged to express disapproval of Colombia’s security forces’ attacks against indigenous protestors and to urge Colombia to find non-violent constructive solutions to this situation.

Clashes between Displace Rural Communities in the Bajo Atrato region (Chocó)

Helicopters flew over three communities, including one humanitarian zone in the Bajo Atrato amid territorial clashes between paramilitary groups, FARC dissidents, and the Colombian police force. The Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) documented the escalation of threats to the communities, many of whom have remained restricted to their homes and unable to seek basic necessities. The Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) had previously threatened the Las Camelias Humanitarian Space on March 8. According to Contagio Radio, the National Protection Unit recalled bodyguards that had been guarding 6 land reclamation activists ahead of the incidents without any prior warning. The outbreak of violence and intimidation is especially concerning due to the Bajo Atrato region’s previous history of massive forced displacements.

Indigenous Teen Dies after Injuries in a Military Bombardment (San Juan, Chocó)

El Espectador reported that a 16-year-old indigenous teen died on February 5 from injuries sustained after a Colombian military bombardment. Both her arms were amputated, and vital organs damaged during the January 30 government operation. The bombardment is part of the renewed offensive against the Ché Guevara front of the ELN guerrilla after peace talks between the insurgency and the government stalled in January. The attack took place near the indigenous communities of Santa María Pangala y Estrella Pangala in the Chagpien Tordó reservation in Chocó, where another unnamed indigenous member of the community was also killed. The Ministry of Defense released a statement that the army had followed international humanitarian protocols by avoiding civilian homes and adhering to a five-kilometer perimeter. The military also accused the teen of belonging to the ELN, though indigenous councils denied the allegation. The two communities formally denounced the military operation to Chocó’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Luis Murrillo. The Colombian Attorney General’s Office has since opened an investigation into the military’s conduct during the incident. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has sounded an alert for the paramilitary threat in the Bajo Atrato of Chocó, and the head of Chocó’s Inter-Ethnic Forum (FISCH) has called on the ELN to respect a bilateral ceasefire as part of an agreement with the Colombian people.

Two Rural Farmers Killed in Their Sleep (Nariño)

At 1:00 in the morning of March 29, three men broke down the door of a rural cabin outside of Tumaco, entering with gunfire. Two farmers, Winston Preciado and Tomas Solís Valencia, were killed instantly. According to the community council representing communities outside of Tumaco, ASOMINUMA, two of the men were dressed in the uniform of the National Police. The men tied the two men’s bodies together and dragged them to a waiting helicopter. The murders took place in front of Preciado’s wife and children, who could not identify a motive for the killing.

LGBTI Activist Killed in Caucasia, Latest in Eight Murders since 2018 (Antioquia)

Liliana Holguín and her nephew were shot and killed by two men on a motorcycle in the municipality of Caucasia on February 26. Holguín was a member of the Mesa LGBTI of Caucasia, an advocacy organization for local members of the LGBTI community. Police linked her murder with micro-trafficking in the region and were not investigating the death as linked to Holguín’s activism. Wilson Castañeda, director of LGBTI advocacy group Affirmative Caribbean (Caribe Afirmativo), stated in an interview with Contagio Radio that Holguín’s murder was the eighth such assassination since 2018, amounting to what he called “the extinction of a social movement.” Castañeda added that members of the LGBTI community are likely to be pressured by local armed groups into engaging in micro-trafficking due to their vulnerability. LGBTI groups have denounced an escalating environment of threats from paramilitary groups such as Los Urabeños, the Gulf Clan, and Los Paisas, and note that the link between social activists and micro-trafficking is a common strategy that armed groups employ to avoid police investigations.

Eight Murdered, Separate Explosive Detonated (Arauca)

The Joel Sierra Human Rights Foundation released a report of an outbreak of violence in Arauca. In addition to the murder of land reclamation activist Alfonso Correa Sandoval (see below), Robinson Orlando Vera Buitrago and Edwar López were killed on March 5 and 6 in the municipality of Tame. Julio César Salgado Rivera and an unidentified woman were also found dead on March 6 in the Saravena municipality. On March 8, Dany Ramón Chacón, a Venezuelan shop owner, was killed in Tame. Five days later in Tame, a young man named Jhorfan Camilo Nuñez Acevedo was found after having been reported missing on February 20. Another young Venezuelan named Josman Josué Archila Tremont was killed in the Santander neighborhood of Tame, with local journalists reporting that his body bore marks of torture. Separately, the foundation reported that an explosive device was detonated in the San Luis neighborhood of Saravena on March 8, injuring four civilians.

Member of the Indigenous Guard Member Murdered (Nariño)

On February 14, María Nelly Bernal Andrade was shot five times while returning to her home in the Samaniego municipality. Luis Eusebio Cadena, governor of the indigenous community, told Contagio Radio that the office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía) had not charged anyone with the crime. Bernal was a member of the Samaniego’s Indigenous Guard, an unarmed self-protection mechanism used by many ethnic minority communities in Colombia. According to Indepaz, 49 social leaders have been murdered in Nariño alone between 2016 and December 2018.

Social Leader Assassinated in Tibú (Norte de Santander)

On February 10, Contagio Radio reported that two unknown men on a motorcycle gunned down José Arquímedes Moreno, leader of the Social Integration Commission (CSI). Arquímedes worked in the “Rio de Oro” region near the Venezuelan border and was walking home when he was attacked. His death represents the third social leader assassinated in Norte de Santander since the beginning of 2019, adding to the nationwide total of 19 assassinated social leaders at the article’s publication date. According to the United Nations representative to Colombia, Tibú, Hacarí, San Calixto, El Tarra, Convención y Teorama in Norte de Santander are the most dangerous municipalities in Colombia for social leaders. The UN issued the alert in response to the 400 active threats documented by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office against social leaders and rural farmers.

Land Reclamation Activist Murdered (Arauca)

Alfonso Correa Sandoval was walking to his farm on March 13 when three men who had been waiting in the bushes shot him 20 times. Correa was the president of the Community Action Council of the Cabuya, a rural farmer’s organization dedicated to land restitution. Correa had recently returned to the land he was forced to flee in 1998 following the Cabuya Massacre perpetrated by the Public Force and paramilitary groups. Correa was in the process of fighting for his land to be officially re-titled. Correa had also founded the Farmer’s Environment Association (ASOCAM). He is survived by his two children.

Rural Indigenous Leader and Land Defender Assassinated (Cauca)

Community leader Alexander Cunda was killed on March 9 outside the municipality of Miranda. Witnesses told to the Medellín-based victim’s organization, Sumapaz, that unknown armed men approached Cunda and shot him “without a word.”

Crop Substitution Activist Murdered in his Home (Nariño)

On March 17, two hooded men broke into Argemiro Manuel López’s home in La Guayacana, shooting him three times in the chest. Colombian news outlet La Silla Vacia also reported that López’s wife, a professor named Estela Moreano, and a family friend were also hospitalized following the attack. La Guayacana is a rural zone near Tumaco, in Nariño, where López had been a visible leader of the local crop substitution program (Pnis). Human rights defenders are increasingly at risk as they face FARC dissidents and paramilitary groups competing for territory and drug trafficking routes. The assassination is part of a wider escalation in Tumaco, where two weeks before the incident nearly 270 people fled their communities to seek refuge in Ecuador.

Food Worker’s Union Leader Assassinated (Valle del Cauca)

The National Union of Food Workers (SINALTRAINAL) denounced the assassination of local union leader Brian Eduardo Ceballos Torres in Bugalagrande, Valle del Cauca. Ceballos Torres was the head of the Nestlé workers’ union in the area and was killed during a drive-by shooting by unknown men on motorcycles. SINALTRAINAL condemned the escalation of threatening pamphlets, texts, calls, and emails that union leaders have experienced in the past year. Ceballos Torres is the fifth assassination of a SINALTRAINAL leader in the past decade.

Construction Workers Union Leader Assassinated (Bucaramanga)

José Fernel Manrique Valencia was leaving his home on February 25 when he was shot twice in the chest by two men on a motorcycle. According to Contagio Radio, Manrique Valencia died before he could be taken to the hospital. Fellow union organizer Miguel Sierra told Contagio Radio that Manrique Valencia was an organizer with the Trade Union of Construction Material Workers (SUTIMAC) and had worked for the cement company CEMEX Colombia for 10 years. Manrique Valencia was preparing to return to work after a six-month recovery from losing part of a limb in a workplace accident. Little is known about the motive for the assassination, though more than 40 SUTIMAC leaders have been assassinated since the union was founded in 1972.

Paramilitary Murders Social Leader’s Son over Territorial Dispute (Chocó)

On February 14, Martín Barrios was shot and killed by the neo-paramilitary branch of the Gaitanista Self-Defense (AGC) group. The Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) noted that Martín is the son of Imber Barrios, a prominent social leader incarcerated for “rebellion” after working for land reclamation in the Bajo Atrato region. Martín Barrios, along with his wife and four-year-old daughter, was traveling from their small farm to the nearby municipality of Belén de Bajirá for groceries when he was stopped and murdered. He was 25 years old. The municipality, which remains under AGC control, was the site of a territorial dispute between the paramilitary group and the ELN.

Indigenous Miner Kidnapped and Murdered While at Work (Cauca)

Three men kidnapped and killed indigenous miner Jesús Albeiro Díaz Ulcué on February 9. According to Contagio Radio’s report, Díaz was working at his small-scale mine with his son-in-law when they were attacked by three unknown men. His son-in-law managed to escape during the attack, but community members found Díaz’s body with evidence of 6 bullet holes. Díaz was a member of the Las Delicias reservation community near the town of Buenos Aires, Cauca. The area is known to host ELN and FARC dissidents, although neither claimed responsibility and the human rights representative of Buenos Aires expressed a hope that the murder was unrelated to a resurgence in violence. However, Edwin Capaz, the head of the Association of Indigenous Leaders of North Cauca, said that Díaz’s murder is part of an alarming trend. Capaz stated that 46 indigenous people were murdered across Colombia during 2018, and in the first few months of 2019 have witnessed 6 assassinations of Colombia’s indigenous people. Díaz is survived by six children.

Paramilitary Threaten Social Leaders (Chocó)

The Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) detailed the simultaneous threats to social leaders in Chigorodó, Llano Rico, and the New Hope Humanitarian Space from the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) on March 10. In Chigorodó, two men on a motorcycle issued threats to social leader Enrique Cabezas and remained in his neighborhood for three hours. In Llano Rico, part of the Afro-Colombian Collective Territories, four self-identified members of the AGC announced to the community that the land was under their control. Leaders of the New Hope Humanitarian Space, a peace community protected by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, reported that nearly 100 members of the AGC passed through the town on their way to Las Menas. According to the CIJP, paramilitary forces had gathered for three weeks in the Bajo Atrato region while civilians have not yet received a response from the Colombian government.

Paramilitary Threatens Nasa Village (Putumayo)

Four armed men on motorcycles entered the town conducted a patrol around the town council headquarters of the Kxsaw Nasa tribe in the municipality of Puerto Asís on February 17. The Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) released a press statement detailing the incident, where two of the men sought out the home of local indigenous community leader Juan Pilcue. After observing the house for approximately 20 minutes, the men left the town. The CIJP identified the men as part of the 25th Jungle Brigade (Brigada XXVII de Selva), a paramilitary group with an outpost just 2 kilometers away from the indigenous community. The Kxsaw Nasa have reported the presence of armed men in their territory since 2017 with no response from Colombian state authorities.

Police Attack on Pro-Peace Demonstration Causes Injuries (Cauca)

The Alliance for Human Rights in the city of Popayán issued a press release denouncing a violent police crackdown on a peaceful protest on February 28. The demonstration was part of a wider civic strike called by members of the Popayán civil society on February 25 to call attention to the Colombian government’s lack of implementation of the peace agreement. Six demonstrators, including a pregnant woman and her two-year-old son, were hospitalized from their injuries and 5 demonstrators were arrested and detained by the police. Many children reportedly inhaled harmful quantities of tear gas. The press release called on the government, especially the local Human Rights Ombudsman, to take measures to safeguard the local population and implement the 2016 peace deal with the FARC.

Bloque Capital D.C. Paramilitary Threatens 11 Human Rights Defenders and 4 Organizations for Displaced People (Bogotá)

The Bloque Capital D.C., issued a threat on February 6 to 11 individual human rights defenders and 4 advocacy organizations for peace, human rights and displaced people. The paramilitary group is infamous for its reign of terror in the Ciudad Bolívar neighborhood and assisting Carlos Castaño as head of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) in the Mapiripán Massacre. The group used “Aguilas Negras” letterhead to print the threat, which gave each person 20 days to leave the city or face assassination in the coming months. The letter also threatened the social leaders’ partners and families as part of its social cleansing effort. The letter includes: Mercedes Piñeros, Rigoberto Piñeros, Rigoberto Jiménez, Alfonso Castillo, Iván Cépeda, Daniel Rendón, Olga Castillo, Piedad Córdoba, Ana Jiménez Bautista, Yeimi Cortés, Luisa Fernando Bello, and Pilar Rueda. The organizations threatened included Fundación Lazos de Honor, a military veterans’ group; REDEPAZ, a network of peace organizations; and the organizations defending displaced people CODHES, the Mesa Nacional de Desplazados, and the Mesa Distrital de Desplazados.

Paramilitary Threatens High-Profile Indigenous Leader (Sucre)

The paramilitary group calling itself the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) delivered a pamphlet with a bullet casing to the home of Juan Francisco Campos Goma and Arelis Uriana Guariyu in the municipality of Sincelejo on February 21. The threat was issued in response to Campos and Uriana’s meeting with indigenous leader Luis Fernando, Council Director of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC). Fernando publicized the threat on Twitter and urged the National Protection Unit to increase protection measures for indigenous leaders.

“Aguilas Negras” Threaten Investigative Journalist in Buga (Valle del Cauca)

Contagio Radio detailed a threat that the “Aguilas Negras” paramilitary group issued on February 1 against local independent journalist William Vianney Solano. Vianney Solano’s father originally opened the threatening package, which he said smelled like blood and used letters cut out of a newspaper to warn Vianney Solano that he had been declared a “military target” for spreading “lies” against the Buga mayor’s office. This is the second death threat the journalist has received after working in the area for 18 years. He is in the process of investigating corruption, contract “cartels,” and resource mismanagement by the Buga mayor’s office. Vianney Solano’s case has been referred to Álvaro Duque, the head of the District 32 Public Attorney’s office. Duque is also the husband of the district judge and father of one of the contractors he is investigating. The journalist has filled out a protection request form for the National Protection Unit and stated that he has been stopped twice in public by unidentified armed men. However, he said that he will continue his investigation because “to stay silent is to accept what is happening.”

Reports of “Suspicious and Threatening Activity” Near Headquarters (Popayán)

The Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) published an online press release denouncing a March 16 threat outside its affiliate branch in Popayán. A large white van with tinted windows was seen parked outside of the building. The van drove away after the protection detail for human rights defender Carlos Fernández arrived. CIJP added that this incident is only one of many escalating threats related their work and urged the state to increase protection services for human rights defenders.

Union President Fired Ahead of Collective Bargaining Negotiations (Meta)

José Orlando Peña, president of the Trade Union of Agro-industrial and Food Industry Workers (Sintramaiga), was fired by the corporation Unipalma on March 11 in the beginning stages of collective bargaining. In a press release from the Labor Information Agency, Peña stated that he had followed Unipalma’s policy to petition for the absence, but was only granted one day out of a five-day request. Peña referred to his firing as a “reprisal” from Unipalma for his years of activism against the erosion of labor rights and the institution of temporary workers. The union is currently suing Unipalma for unlawful termination under the Colombian constitution.

Biofilm Workers Calls on Board of Directors to Respect Human Rights (Bolívar)

The Trade Union of Biofilm workers (SINTRABIOFILM) released a statement on January 30 calling on the leadership transition in the Qatari company Taghleef Industries to respect human and labor rights. Since buying the biofilm company, Taghleef Industries attempted to suppress union activity in October 2018 by firing union leaders without justification. SINTRABIOFILM also accused the company of hiring men to assault a bus carrying union workers. In their January 30 statement, union president Wuiemar López Muñoz called on board of directors’ president Donald Sturgeon to issue new worker protections and work with the union to guarantee the workers’ human rights.

Colombian Government Must Release Afro-Colombian Women Activists (Cali, Tumaco)

In an op-ed published in Truthout, J.M. Kirby of MADRE detailed how Afro-Colombian activists are increasingly criminalized under the Duque administration. The piece told the stories of Sara Quiñones and Tulia Maria Valencia, two Afro-Colombian human rights defenders from Tumaco who will mark one year of wrongful incarceration this April. Kirby writes that government authorities have linked human rights activists they see as “dissidents” to the ELN guerrilla in order to suppress their activism. Kirby, MADRE, and the Afro-Colombian organization PCN held a strategy summit in Cali to discuss the injustices facing Quiñones, Valencia, and their own communities. WOLA fully echoes MADRE’s concern and recommendations concerning these two activists and calls for U.S. pressure to get them released.

Report Finds Female Social Leaders Targeted with Disproportionate Cruelty

The Institute for the Study of Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) released a report finding that female social leaders have a 66 percent higher risk of being sexually assaulted or tortured than their male counterparts. The research team compared patterns of violence between social groups, and concluded that 51 percent of murdered female social leaders are ethnic minorities or from rural communities.