WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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25 Jul 2019 | News

Social Leaders Remain at Risk as Colombians Mobilize for Their Protection

Since WOLA’s last update on June 21, the killing of social leaders in Colombia has not relented. We usually include a count of how many more cases we have recorded, but there are numerous varying figures and no official or definitive one. Although most tallies range from 479 to 702 social leaders killed since 2016, the Duque administration has cherry picked the lowest of the bunch (289), contradicting the count of its own Human Rights Ombudsman.

While this number is taken from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, it carries a significant caveat. The OHCHR has the most rigorous process to determine if a victim was a social leader, only reporting their murder after lengthy verification. Therefore, this is not a total number, but only those victims who they have ascertained were social leaders killed because of their leadership actions. Using this as the total number is a manipulation of data, ignoring the backlog of cases the UN has not yet investigated. The OHCHR has explicitly stated this in their annual report, reporting a backlog of 76 cases just this year.

From this disingenuous base line, the Duque administration has boasted a 35 percent reduction in the murder of social leaders during his first eleven months in office (68 from August 2018 to July 2019) when compared to the same period of time a year prior during the Santos government (105 from August 2017 to July 2018). Aside from the fact that these 68 cases do not represent the total number in this timeframe which has a higher number of pending cases since it is more recent, this analysis completely ignores political context. The peaks in the number of social leader murdered, many of which are political actors, concentrate in the months surrounding elections, making elections a significant confounding variable in this analysis. In the August 2017 to July 2018 time frame, there were congressional elections in March, and first and second round presidential elections in May and June respectably. There were no elections during the first eleven months of Duque’s presidency. Therefore, not only is the general decrease of murders debatable at best, but attributing it to government action is purposely misleading.

The reality is that areas of historically high conflict are backsliding into violence while the social leaders mending war-torn communities and implementing the peace accords are bearing the brunt of it. On July 26, WOLA will march along with thousands of Colombians in 51 Colombian cities and 43 cities around the world in defense of peace and protection for social leaders. U.S. groups have released a statement in solidarity with this March that can be found here. We encourage you to join us this Friday, July 26 at 5:30 p.m. outside the Dupont Circle Metro Exit and to express your support on social media with the hashtags #MarchemosPorLosLideres and #DefendamosLaPaz.

Please continue to urge the Duque administration and U.S. policymakers to heed our call to protect these leaders. Below is a list of the incidents that have occurred since our last update:

Afro-Colombian Social Leader Murdered In Front of Young Son (Córdoba)

María del Pilar Hurtado was murdered in front of her nine year-old son in the municipality of Tierralta on June 21. El Colombiano reports that the paramilitary group Gaitanistas Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas, AGC) had distributed pamphlets threatening her along with other women activists from the community, some of whom had to flee the region shortly after. María was displaced from her native Cauca three years ago for denouncing paramilitary “chop houses” (houses where paramilitaries cut people into pieces) in Puerto Tejada. María’s nine year-old son witnessed the murder and broke down over his mother’s body in a heart-wrenching video. The video went viral on Colombian social networks, triggering national outrage towards the inaction of the Duque government on the prevention and investigation of the more than 54 social leaders killed just this year.

Land Rights Lawyer and Social Leader Murdered (Santander)

On July 20, Yamile Guerra attended what she though was a meeting to discuss the usurpation of her family’s disputed land only to be ambushed and shot by two men. The accomplished lawyer defended the Santurban moorland and served as Secretary General of the Bogota Ombudsman. Yamile was litigating efforts to recover land violently taken from her father in Zapamanga, Bucaramanga. Her fearless battle to recover her family’s land is suspected to be the motivation behind her assassination, as indicated by El Tiempo.

Indigenous Leader Murdered During a Party in His Honor (Cauca)

Contagio Radio reported the murder of Carlos Biscué on June 23. Carlos was an indigenous leader in the Huellas Indigenous Reservations in Caloto. He was an agricultural producer and community organizer. Several armed men arrived at his village where a party was taking place in his honor and shot him. According to HRD Memorial (Human Right Defenders Memorial) a paramilitary group is presumed to be responsible for the attack.

Community Action Board President Murdered (Huila)

Humberto Diaz was murdered in his home on July 20 in Gigante, Huila. The president of the Guadalupe village Community Action Board was the victim of extortion along with the rest of the Board. The group had no means to pay the armed actors and this crime is feared to be an act of reprisal according to Noticias RCN.

Illicit-Use Crop Substitution Leader Tortured and Killed (Valle del Cauca)

Manuel Gregorio González was missing for 24 hours before being found dead with clear signs of torture. He was leading efforts to implement the peace accord’s illicit crop substitution plan. It appears that he was killed by one of the three paramilitary groups that are battling for control of cocaine production sites in the Valle region. Noticias RCN reported his death on June 28.

Social Leader Murdered in El Copey (Cesar)

Tatiana Paola Posso Espitia was murdered by armed men when leaving her home to go to work on July 3. Taxi driver, Wilson Antonio Ortega Palomino, was also wounded in the attack. According to El Espectador, the perpetrators were two unidentified men on motorcycles. Tatiana received 3 bullet wounds while Ortega, received four. The social leader was an aspiring member of the Community Council and dedicated her life to the defense of human rights in her neighborhood. Her death was denounced by the National Network for Peace and Democracy (Red Nacional en Democracia y Paz) who called out the lack of action from the Colombian government to protect the lives of social leaders.

Victims Leader Shot Dead (Valle del Cauca)

José Arled Muñoz formed part of the Victims Table of Valle del Cauca since 2017, an entity designed to incorporate victims’ perspective on peace accord implementation. José was shopping in broad daylight when he was shot and killed by an unidentified man.

Murder of Young Afro-Colombian Displaces 74 families (Valle del Cauca)

On June 1st, Juan David Vivas Ramirez was murdered in Buenaventura. His death was the result of confrontation between different paramilitary groups that exercise control in the Lleras neighborhood. CONPAZ reports he was killed by a stray bullet. On June 2, confrontation between the groups escalated into a shootout, causing 74 families to flee Lleras for safer neighborhoods. More families are expected to leave. If they are not able to move, they will remain confined in their homes.

State Forces Persecute, Criminalize, and Stigmatize Social Leaders (Bolivar)

The Peoples’ Congress (Congreso de los Pueblos) denounced the ongoing persecution of their leaders and members. On July 15 at 2:00 a.m. military and police forces terrorized the community of La Plaza by kicking in doors, using tear gas, firing shots in the air, and beating men and women arbitrarily. Among the victims was the president of the La Plaza Community Action Board, who was pregnant and severely beaten. Nine people were captured during the raid, all deemed as judicial “false positives” by the Congress of the Peoples. Members of the group have been falsely accused of being ELN members for sympathizing with leftist ideals and organizing protests across the country.

Paramilitaries Occupy and Terrorize San Jose de Apartado Peace Community (Antioquia)

Since May 2019, the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado has reported the arrival of paramilitary groups into their territory claiming they plan to stay. Reports indicate they coexist with police and the military, holding meetings and throwing parties in the military base of San Jose.  In the village of La Union, paramilitary alias ‘Ramiro’ threatened his step-father, forcing him to leave the area. The community also reported the following other incidents:

-On June 25, there were reports of a suspected murder, later concealed as further information was withheld.

-On June 29, paramilitary alias ‘Rene’ held a party, in which he threatened multiple villagers there present, including a family which was later displaced. Military and police were both present at the party and stood there in silence.

-On July 2nd, paramilitary Elkin Ortiz and his son damaged various agricultural products produced by farmers on the Roncona farm, which legally belongs to the Peace Community. Witnesses tried to take pictures and video but were later threatened by Ortiz. The same sort of incident happened at the beginning of the year. The Peace Community notes that Mr. Ortiz has made consistent use of children and integrated them in the paramilitary practices.

-On July 7th, Yeminson Borja Jaramillo was murdered by paramilitaries. He had resisted recruitment, suffering a common fate that anyone resisting oppression by these illegal armed groups faces.

-On July 8th, the community of Peace was commemorating the events of July 8th, 2000, where 6 of their leaders were murdered by Paramilitaries and the Colombian military in the village of La Union. As the group was walking back towards San Jose, they received threats from Elkin Ortiz, promising to “fill their heads with lead.”

Human Rights Defender Threatened and Harassed (Putumayo)

On June 26, Carlos Fernández, of the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) received threats via text message in Puerto Asís. The Commission reports that Fernández was also the object of previous intimidations and harassment because of his work in human, environmental and territorial rights for the Indigenous Nasa people. In WOLA’s past urgent action, we reported an incident in which the military had threatened Carlos and his state-issued bodyguard for carrying his standard issue weapon, stating that they had orders to shoot anyone who was armed. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has required more protection for Carlos Fernandez.

Afro-Colombian Human Rights Defender and Family Surveilled (Valle del Cauca)

Amnesty International put out an urgent action calling attention to the threats made against Danelly Estupiñan, a member of the Black Community Process (Proceso Comunidades Negras) organization working in Buenaventura. During the week of June 27, Danelly and her family experienced increased surveillance from unknown individuals. Whereas before the men would only linger outside her home, Danelly is now being watched everywhere she goes all day at all times. The men have taken pictures of her and her family. The Public Prosecutor’s office should launch an investigation and Colombian authorities guarantee her and other members of PCN’s protection.

CIJP Experiences a Rise in Threats (Antioquia)

CIJP has noted a rise in threats and increased surveillance. On July 4, members of the CIJP were followed as they were headed to Mutatá. Reports state that the Aguilas Negras (AGC) have installed a checkpoint on the road between Chontadural and Pavarando, where they constantly threaten drivers, including members of the Commission. After crossing the checkpoints, CIJP members are tailed. On three separate occasions, National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Proteccion, UNP) security details were followed and harassed by members of the AGC.

Displaced Indigenous Community Living in Precarious Conditions (Chocó)

The Pichima Quebrada community was first displaced in 2016. Shortly after, they were allowed to return to their land, a respite that would not last. On June 2, they were once again displaced by fighting between the ELN and the AGC. The 417 people, of whom 186 are children, live in precarious conditions with no running water, electricity, and little food. They fear the loss of their culture and traditions, closely tethered to their ancestral land, now used as a base for the Colombian Navy.

Families Threatened by Local Government Seeking to Displace Them (Chocó)

On June 25, Heber Rentería and Luis Emilio Mena, President and Prosecutor of the Community Council of Curvaradó, threatened Jesús María Hoyos and members of the CIJP. Rentería and Mena were intimidating Hoyos to abandon his land or face the consequences. The threats took place after a report was published by the CIJP denouncing the efforts made by the community council to engage in deforestation and dispossession of lands belonging to the Hoyos Family. According to Hoyos during the incident, certain paramilitary groups have expressed their discontent with the report and the fact that it was made public. These threats follow series of efforts by a member of the Community Council of Curvaradó in collusion with illegal armed actors to get rightful owners of these territories to abandon their lands so that large scale agribusinesses can develop in the area.

Extension of Natural Park Causes Forced Displacement (Guaviare)

The National Army is forcibly displacing people living in the Chiribiquete National Natural Park (Parque Nacional Natural, PNN). According to Contagio Radio, army personnel destroyed the work tools of two families and burned their houses down. The group of inhabitants was forced to leave under the pretext that they were living on an area where the National Park would be extending. The Prosecutor’s Office and the local authorities have not yet addressed the situation. The government is expected to relocate these people who were forced to sign documents prohibiting their return to their land.

Paramilitary Incursion in Humanitarian Space Worries Peace Network (Valle del Cauca)

The network Communities Building Peace in the Territory (CONPAZ) reported that four alleged paramilitaries entered the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space on June 19. The space was created to implement community building initiatives in an urban context free of armed actors since the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary protection measures to 302 families who live there. The four paramilitaries stationed themselves by the houses of social leaders Yampier Valencia, Orlando Castillo and Nora Isabel Castillo, all part of CONPAZ’s victims network.

Scholars Demand the Duque Government Halts the “Systemic Bloodshed” of Social Leaders

On May 21st, more than 260 academics and scholars sent a letter to Duque calling out his administration on the lack of action towards the rising levels of attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders. Academics from 13 countries point out it is “worrying that it was only when an attempt was made on the life of Francia Marquez , an Afro-Colombian leader known internationally since she was the winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental prize, who was with other well-known leaders at the time, that you chose to make a public pronouncement.” The letter also underlined the harmful impact of the extractive industry in Colombia, specifically calling out their role in the displacement crisis: “we have noted that nefarious links have developed between legal and illegal forces in order to expel the local population from their territories.” They go on to express frustration with the state’s silence in the face of attacks on minorities and vulnerable groups but also the will of the Colombian government to immediately repress any form of protest or grassroots organization. The authors of the letter have called for investigation to identify the intellectual perpetrators of the various attacks on human rights defenders. They’ve also called on the international community to react, specifically asking Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to create a Verification Commission meant to monitor and provide accurate information on these issues.

Environmental Organizations Resist Stigmatization (Antioquia – Santander)

A coalition of environmental rights organizations known as Defenders of Nature and Defenders of Human Rights in the towns of Barrancabermeja and Magdalena Medio are denouncing the continuing stigmatization of their work. They have been branded as “environmental terrorist” by those who oppose environmental conservation. Underlining the collaboration between social organizations and researchers to advocate for the right to clean water, they resist this label. The coalition has worked to produce technical and documented evidence to support their claims that water conditions in Ciénaga San Silvestre are extremely poor. This was done as collaboration between the organization and the Secretary for the Environment in Barrancabermeja. In turn this led to their push to get legal action started for retribution for those responsible for the degradation of water conditions in this area. Stigmatization of social leaders makes them more vulnerable to attacks and impedes them from carrying out their work.

For further information please contact [email protected], [email protected] or call (202) 797-2171.