WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

29 Apr 2019 | News

In Southwest Colombia, Human Rights Crisis is Deadlier Than Ever

Since WOLA’s last update from April 2, at least 3 more Colombian activists or members of vulnerable ethnic communities were murdered; in total, 47 cases of murdered social leaders or members of vulnerable ethnic communities were reported to WOLA so far this year.

The human rights violations targeting human rights defenders and ethnic communities, especially in the departments of Chocó and Cauca, have reached a crisis that has chilling parallels to the worst violence of the Colombian conflict in the 1990s. In light of the forced confinement (restriction of movement) of entire communities in Chocó and the government criminalization of collective protest, international pressure is crucial to ensure that the Colombian government protects populations from armed conflict and abuse of power.

Below is a list of the incidents that have occurred since our last 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:

Organizations in Chocó Issue Red Alert Warning of Similar Catastrophes to the Bojayá Massacre in 2002 (Chocó)

The Diocese of Quibdó, the Afro-descendant council COCOMACIA, and the Indigenous Forum of Chocó have issued a red alert urging the government to take immediate action to prevent another massacre in the region. The alert details a series of escalating violence between the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla and the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) paramilitary group that have resulted in the forced displacement of 5 Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. As a result, nearly 7,000 people have been forcibly confined in Bojayá, where the communities cannot access basic necessities to survive. According to the community organizations, these incidents mirror the events preceding the massacre of Bojayá in 2002, in which a firefight between the FARC and the Colombian military resulted in the deaths of 79 people sheltering in a church in Bojayá. The Diocese, COCOMACIA, and the Indigenous Forum of Chocó concluded by calling on the Colombian government to safeguard the communities in Chocó.

Infant Dies of Starvation from Forced Confinement, 40 More Children Severely Malnourished and at Risk (Chocó)

After the National Liberation Army (ELN) threatened indigenous communities in the Carmen del Darién municipality of Chocó at the end of February, indigenous families are suffering slow starvation due to their inability to engage in their traditional hunting and fishing practices. As a result, an 8-month-old infant died from malnutrition on February 28. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) has stated that 40 other children are also starving. Despite the repeated alerts that the local indigenous council ASOREWA has issued to the Colombian military and other relevant government authorities, the communities remain restricted from exercising their right to freely navigate their ancestral territory.

Awá Indigenous Community at Grave Risk of Forced Displacement (Nariño)

The Indigenous Union of the Awá People (UNIPA) issued an alert to international human rights organizations about the high risk of displacement for the communities in the La Brava, Peña La Alegría e Inda Sabaleta Reservations. The Awá currently living on their ancestral land, near the municipality of Tumaco, are experiencing a territorial struggle between armed groups competing for the territory recently left by the FARC. Despite the presence of the Gualtal Selva No. 53 Batallion from the Colombian military, community members report that armed men are enforcing a “curfew,” forbidding individuals to leave their homes after 5:00pm. UNIPA expressed a grave concern that the affected communities will suffer displacement like the nearby Awá in Llorente after explicit threats from the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) paramilitary.

Imminent Risk of Mass Displacement of Indigenous Communities (Chocó)

Clashes between paramilitary groups and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla forces in Chocó are currently starving nearly 170 families and risk displacing 5,000 indigenous people. The mass displacement warning, sent by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia on March 4, has located the primary threats in the municipalities of Bojayá, Rio Sucio, Bahía Solano, Juradó, and Carmen del Darién. As armed conflict over territorial control has intensified between the ELN, the Gulf Clan, and the Colombian Armed Forces, communities in the region have been unable to sustain themselves or feed their children due to confinement by armed actors. The indigenous communities of Embera Katío, Embera Dóbida, Senú and Wounaan are particularly affected due to their location in the crossfire of groups attempting to gain control over the trafficking route to Panama. ONIC has called for the Colombian government and Armed Forces to prioritize the protection for these communities immediately and facilitate a humanitarian corridor so that they can gain access to food and potable water.

Embera Indigenous Communities Forcibly Confined to their Homes (Chocó)

Nearly 216 indigenous families living in the Bajo Atrato region of Chocó cannot leave their homes to gather food and basic necessities due to the near-constant violent conflict around their communities. The National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla and the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) paramilitary group have skirmished regularly over the territory since February while the Colombian military stationed there has violated the Special Indigenous Jurisdiction judicial system by criminalizing two indigenous activists as “collaborators” with the ELN. In addition, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) along with the local indigenous councils ASOREWA and WOUDEKO have warned of the confinement of 970 people in the municipality of Rio Sucio. The forcibly restricted people identify as members of the Embera Katío, Embera Dóbida, Senú, and Wounaan.

Displaced Indigenous Community at Risk of “Extinction” from Starvation, Flooding (Vichada)

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) has called on the Colombian government to address the humanitarian crisis affecting the Waüipijiwi community in the Department of Vichada. The community, now numbering just 162 members, has been displaced to an area at a high risk of flooding. Recently, the government resettled 52 of the Waüipijiwi to the Caño Mochuelo Reservation. Those remaining in the La Primavera municipality confront malnutrition, preventable and treatable illnesses such as diarrhea, tuberculosis, and fevers and worry that they may be killed in the thunderstorm-induced flooding that currently affects the entire country.

Nasa Communities Forcibly Displaced (Meta)

On March 5, the Kiwe Fxiw community of the Nasa people reported that 33 people were forcibly displaced from Yopal, Meta to the municipality of San José de Guaviare 100 miles north. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) reported that the community fled Yopal due to threats against its leaders and integrity as a community. Among the 33 displaced are 16 women and 17 men, 11 of whom are minors and 4 of whom are elderly. Two minors and one of the elders’ lives with a disability, further complicating their vulnerable situation in displacement.

Paramilitaries Forcibly Displace Indigenous Communities (Antioquia and Córdoba)

An urgent release from the Human Rights Commission for Indigenous People (CDDHHPI) described the forced displacement of 104 families from two indigenous communities in Antioquia and Córdoba on April 3. CDDHHPI, citing an alert from the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), reported that the displacements came from the communities of Embera Katío and Senú of the Cañaveral Alto San Jorge Reservation, near the municipalities of Ituango y El Libertador. The communities were fleeing 15 days of intense armed conflict between the paramilitary Gulf Clan, FARC dissidents, and the ELN. The 105 families have added to a total of 184 displaced people from Embera Katío and 215 people from the Senú community.

Indigenous Leader Assassinated After Government Inaction and Multiple Community Rescue Attempts Thwarted (Chocó)

On April 12, paramilitaries forcibly removed Aquileo Mecheche Baragón from his home, dragged him across the town to the headquarters of the local indigenous organization, and shot him three times in the head. Mecheche was part of ASOREWA, the local indigenous council, and the leader of Chocó’s indigenous strike, called a Minga, in November 2018. The so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) had previously threatened Mecheche during that period, prompting him to request government protection 6 months ago. He never received the protection. The AGC renewed their threats on March 25 when several men entered his hometown in the Riosucio municipality and issued public threats to the leader’s life. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), in hopes of saving Mecheche’s life, had launched a humanitarian mission to travel to Riosucio and transport Mecheche from the dangerous area. However, the ONIC mission was prevented from reaching the village by an extensive firefight between the AGC and the Colombian military. Mecheche was 52 years old and is survived by his wife and 8 children. Read the past press release below and visit this Colombia Reports story for more information.

National Indigenous Organization of Colombia Prevented from Delivering Medical Aid, Warns of Forced Confinement in Riosucio (Chocó)

Members of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia had been attempting to transport two indigenous leaders in Riosucio to safety on March 27 when they were forced to turn back due to nearby exchanges of gunfire. Julio and Aquileo Mecheche of the Embera Chami people survived an assassination attempt from the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) paramilitary on March 25, prompting the emergency humanitarian mission. Though ONIC had previously warned the local armed actors—fronts of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla and the AGC—of their humanitarian mission, the armed groups ignored the warning. The ONIC representatives were unable to reach Julio and Aquileo Mecheche’s home community of Rio Chintadó, and warned that all 920 residents of the community are at risk of malnutrition and starvation due to the violence forcing the community’s confinement.

Social Leader Assassinated, Motive Remains Unclear (Meta)

Contagio Radio reported that Ánderson Ramiro Gómez Herrera was driving home to San José de Guaviare on April 11 when he was assassinated. Gómez was an engineer who for six years had worked with the Association of Community Action Groups (Asojuntas) on projects for community engagement. The head of Asojuntas, Delio Franco, said that Gómez had not occupied any official positions in the association, but that he had functioned as the “right hand” of the leadership. Gómez had received no previous threats, and leaves a wife and young daughter.

ONIC Sounds Alarm for “Uncountable” Threats to Minga Leaders (Cauca)

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) called on the government to increase protection mechanisms for their regional affiliates who have received an “uncountable” number of death threats. According to ONIC, the Southern Bloc of the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) paramilitary has threatened nearly every member of the North Cauca Indigenous Councils Association (ACIN) and the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIN) since March 20, the beginning of the indigenous Minga demonstration.

Colombian Military Attacks Indigenous Ranch, Injuring 3 Minors and the Governor (Cauca)

At 12:30 p.m. on April 3, the Colombian military opened fire on the farmers working on the Emmanuel ranch in the Morales community of Cauca. Caught in the crossfire, the farmers were unable to seek safety while the military forces entered the land and burned the community’s tents and belongings. After the troops raided several homes, Governor Rubén Cuetia of the Indigenous Community of Cerro Tijeras and three minors were gravely wounded.

Paramilitaries Attack and Injure Indigenous Protesters In front of the Colombian Military (Cauca)

On March 27, the North Caucan Indigenous Council’s Association (ACIN) accused the Colombian military of inaction while a paramilitary referred to as “the Koreans” shot at peaceful indigenous demonstrators of the Minga, injuring 4 and capturing Luis Mario Caviche Ulcue, who attempted to document the incident. The violence took place in the Cerro Tijeras Indigenous Reservation adjacent to the Suárez municipality. The paramilitary attack is one of several against the Minga, a national mobilization of Colombia’s indigenous people to protest insecurity, threats to the environment, and circumstances of deprivation. The Colombian military, though present, chose not to defend the protesters.

Riot Police Use Excessive Force to Repress Indigenous Minga Protest, Injuring Many (Valle del Cauca)

On March 26, indigenous protestors in Buenaventura were taking part in the national Minga—an indigenous collective protest to begin negotiations with the government—when the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) fired tear gas to disperse the peaceful protest. According to the Valle del Cauca Regional Indigenous Organization (ORIVAC), a woman named Sandra López Montes and others were injured.

Attack on Indigenous Headquarters in Popayán (Cauca)

Statements from the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and ONIC accuse the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) of standing by while unknown men attacked the CRIC headquarters in Popayán on April 3 and injured two councilmembers. According to the CRIC, the men were targeting the indigenous MINGA protests, civil demonstrations by the indigenous people in Cauca and Valle del Cauca to demand state peace enforcement.

Indigenous Community Leader Survives Assassination Attempt (Cauca)

On March 5, José Oveimar of the Nasa people was traveling from the San Francisco Reservation to the Indigenous Council’s Association Headquarters when two men on motorcycles overtook him and pushed him to the ground and threatened to kill him. According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and the North Cauca Indigenous Council Association, (ACIN), Oveimar survived the incident with injuries due to the swift action of the Indigenous Guard in Caloto. This incident occurred during an escalating series of threats to indigenous people in Cauca.

Paramilitary Group Seizes Afro-Descendant Farmland (Bolívar)

On April 11, paramilitaries representing the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AUC) seized the Godoy family’s farm outside the Turbana municipality. The paramilitary block, the Montes de Maria, was allegedly acting on behalf of the company C.I. Oceanos S.A, a large shellfish cultivator in Colombia. The Godoy family is part of the Afro-descendant community and has lived on the land for the past 100 years. After years of intimidation and fear of leaving their homes, the family requested a meeting with the company’s regional representative Nicolás del Castillo, who issued a threat of paramilitary retaliation in the meeting. The Godoy family currently confronts a situation of displacement.

17-year-old Girl Shot During Attacks on Indigenous Leaders While Clashes between Armed Groups Threaten Nasa Territories (Valle del Cauca)

Colombia’s military forces clashed with a series of armed groups in the Florida municipality of Valle del Cauca on February 27. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) highlighted a series of violent incidents affecting the communities of San Joaquín, La Esperanza, El Mirador, and Cordillera de Altamira, reported by the Valle del Cauca Regional Indigenous Organization (ORIVAC). The skirmishes took place near the central headquarters of the Kiwe´sx Yu´, destroying much of the natural environment and putting the lives of the local community at risk. This exchange of gunfire comes one month after two people fired shots at the 17-year-old daughter of Governor Clemente Chasoy Chasoy in their home on January 20. The Chasoy family was able to survive due to the neighboring community’s swift action. The attack on the Chasoy family occurred 12 days prior to paramilitary threats to Jaime Ipia and Eugenia Trochez from the Kwe´sx Tata Kiwe seat of the Nasa people.

Government Arrests Two Previously Acquitted Social Leaders (Casanare)

The Social Cooperative for Community Management and Empowerment (COSPACC) issued a press release condemning the arbitrary detention of two rural farmer leaders by the government on April 12. Fredy Adolfo Figueroa and Carlos Romero are members of the José Antonio Galán Zorro Farmers’ Association (ASONALCA) had previously presented themselves in court on November 19, 2018 when a prosecutor testified that the two faced “no requirement for justice.” The leadership of COSPACC denounced the incident as part of the overall environment criminalizing social leaders and human rights defenders.

Embera Community Leaders Face Paramilitary Threat (Caldas)

The Totumal Indigenous Reservation and Caldas Regional Indigenous Council reported an escalating series of threats to local community leaders during the first three months of 2019. On the night of March 4, unknown men left pamphlets threatening the community authorities of Totumal on the doorstep of the reservation’s Governor. One week later, the community reported that armed men reappeared to ask for the whereabouts of the community councilmembers. When none of the people they asked responded, the men left a message that the council members “had better take care of themselves.” These events took place two weeks after an unknown armed man stopped his truck next to four boys playing on the outskirts of the community to ask about the village’s directive council. Similar events threatened the nearby municipality of Riosucio in Caldas, and both communities remain fearful that threats will escalate further.

Report Documents Nearly 15,000 Anti-Union Incidents in the Past Three Decades

To commemorate the National Day of Remembrance and Solidarity for Colombia’s victims on April 9, the National Labor School (ENS) released a report documenting 14,858 cases of anti-union violence since data was first collected in January 1973. Of the total incidents, 3,191 were murders while 7,214 included threats and 1,900 represented forced displacements. The report identified the Department of Santander as the most dangerous region for union members in Colombia, home to 1,378 (9%) of total anti-union incidents. ENS also identified that paramilitary organizations had perpetrated the greatest number of violent acts against union leaders, responsible for 3,771 cases in comparison to 1,134 by the Colombian government and 456 by guerrillas. The ENS used the publicity around the report to push for a strong, victim-centered reparations process under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) that President Iván Duque remanded to Colombia’s Congress on March 22.

Águilas Negras Paramilitary Distribute Racist Pamphlet Threatening Ten Nasa Community Leaders (Cauca)

On April 11, the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) paramilitary organization issued a death threat to ten of Cauca’s Indigenous Council leaders. Accusing the leaders of “hampering regional progress with traditional land claims,” the Águilas Negras named Daniel Secue, Germán Valencia, Daniel Valencia, Anadeide Secue, César Holguín, Neis Lame, Orlando Guejia, Sigifredo Pavi, Juan Pablo Camayo, and Jairo Camayo, characterizing them with racist expletives and warning that they would soon engage in a “social cleansing” from which none of the leaders “could hide themselves.” The Águilas Negras is a paramilitary organization that, while operating in numerous rural regions in Colombia, has yet to be investigated on a larger scale by the government.

ELN Guerrilla Threatens 7 Indigenous Leaders for Defending Nearby Community While Colombian Government Denies Protection (Valle del Cauca)

On February 26, the Valle del Cauca Regional Indigenous Organization (ORIVAC) publicized the threat that the “West and South Front” had issued against 7 of its members. The threat, a pamphlet delivered to ORIVAC headquarters in the Ginebra municipality, named Commissioners Enelio Opua Burgará, of the Wounann people, Alex Lúlico Fernández, Arelis Yuliana Cortéz Vitoncó, Ronald Gutiérrez Cortéz; Cristián Andrés Rivera, Linderman Adrada López, and Aida Luz Arcila Patiño of the Nasa people. The commissioners had recently been investigating the threats from the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) paramilitary group in a pamphlet delivered to Rubén Darío Vélez, a leader of the Embera Chami indigenous community. He had been in the course of investigating they investigated the May 2017 forced disappearance of four members of the indigenous community in the El Edén. Amidst this environment of threat, the Colombian government’s National Protection Unit (UNP) has denied local leaders their own protection details.

Five Nasa Community Leaders Threatened by Águilas Negras Paramilitary (Cauca)

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and the North Cauca Association of Indigenous Councils (ACIN) issued an emergency alert on April 8 that five members of the Huellas Caloto Reservation had been threatened. The Águilas Negras, a shadowy paramilitary group, delivered the pamphlets threatening Hector Casamachín, Arcadio Trochez Secue, Oscar Eduardo Escue, Gloria Esperanza Conda, and Luis Carlos Cruz to the community’s central gathering space at 6:00am on the morning of February 26 with a note saying that anyone who passed on the information about their leaders would be offered a monetary reward. Both ONIC and ACIN are particularly concerned because of the escalating number of assassinations of social leaders in the region. They have called upon the National Protection Unit, the local Municipal Government of Caloto, and the Colombian national government to prioritize protection for indigenous communities.

Indigenous Minga Leaders Receive Death Threats in Phone Messages (Cauca)

The Huila Regional Indigenous Council (CRIHU) and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) publicized two threatening phone calls made to leaders of the Minga in the Caldono municipality. The Minga, a nationwide series of indigenous strikes and demonstrations, calls on the government to come to the negotiating table to fulfill its legal obligations to the Colombian indigenous community. Throughout the course of the Minga, protesters and leaders have been harassed, threatened, attacked, and killed. On March 19, María Beatriz Vivas and Jesús Reinel Torres, who direct the CRIHU, received phone calls with death threats from unknown actors. The two leaders are members of the Yanacona tribe from the Nasa people.

FARC Dissidents Threaten Indigenous Guard Coordinator (Cauca)

José Oveimar Tenorio received death threats from FARC dissidents who had found his personal phone number and relayed the threats in text messages. Oveimar, of the Nasa people, is the Indigenous Guard Coordinator for the North Cauca Indigenous Councils Association (ACIN), who publicized the threats. The Indigenous Guard is a self-protection mechanism that Colombia’s ethnic minorities have developed as a form of unarmed resistance. The latest threat to Oveimar comes after he was targeted in an assassination attempt on March 5, surviving due to the efforts of his fellow indigenous guard members.

Two Union Leaders Receive Threats (Norte de Santander)

The Labor Information Agency (AIL) published threats to the presidents of an oil worker’s and the Military Family Insurance Group on April 8. Jorge Luis González, who is in his fourth year as president of Sintradrummond, the Union of Drummond Workers, received a threatening message while leading a union meeting on April 4. Johnathan Díaz, the director of Comfanorte, the Military Family Insurance Collective, received a threat on the instant messaging service WhatsApp from a Mexican area code threatening his life and his family. Neither González nor Díaz have received government protection, prompting the National Workers’ Federation of Colombia to denounce the threats and lack of government response on Twitter as part of an overall anti-union environment in the country.

Palm Oil Company Targets Union Workers with Mass Layoff (Santander)

After refusing to recognize a petition signed by workers to form a union in November, the Labor Information Agency has reported that the palm oil company Agrounión declined to renew the contracts of each of the 20 workers on March 26. The workers, who grow palm for Agrounión in the municipality of Puerto Wilches, Santander, have spoken out through their lawyer to denounce the anti-union harassment and now economic punishment they have received for attempting to organize.

Company Forges Union Leader’s Letter of Resignation (Cartagena)

The Cartagena Company Zima Security Ltd. forged the signature of union leader Nathalia Camacho Meriño in the end of March. The Trade Union of Biofilm Workers (SINTRABIOFILM) issued a statement in solidarity with Camacho, who is the local chapter leader of the National Union for Transportation and Logistical Support Industry Workers (SNTT). SINTRABIOFILM condemned the incident as a “gross violation of basic labor rights.”

Acandí, a Transit Point to the United States, Controlled by the Gulf Clan (Chocó)

La Silla Vacía wrote a profile on the municipality of Acandí, in Chocó as a major tourist draw and paramilitary-controlled transit point between South America and Panama. The journalists detailed the conflict between members of the community who oppose the migrant crossing and the guides who navigate between the Gulf Clan paramilitary (Clan de Golfo) to lead the migrants to Panama in safety. The complex situation has been compounded by the monopoly on violence by the Gulf Clan, as 7 guides have been killed in the past year. The most recent murder occurred on April 12, when a guide and the son of one of the community councilmembers was killed by the Gulf Clan for leading a group of migrants to Panama on along a route commonly used for drug trafficking.