WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

10 Mar 2020 | News

Colombian Social Leaders at Great Risk in Chocó, Arauca, Cauca and Elsewhere

On March 4, unknown individuals killed Afro-Colombian Arley Hernan Chala, the bodyguard of prominent human rights defender and Afro-Colombian leader Leyner Palacios Asprilla. Leyner currently serves as the secretary general for the Interethnic Commission for Truth in the Pacific Region (Comision Interétnica de la Verdad de la Region Pacifico, CIVP) and is an active member of the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) and Ethnic Commission. In our urgent action dated January 9, we urged U.S. policymakers and others to act to prevent harm from being done to ethnic leaders from the Bojayá region of Chocó Department in Colombia’s Pacific. We highlighted the deteriorating security situation faced by Leyner Palacios Asprilla (see below).


Paramilitaries Confine Bojayá Communities and Threaten to Kill Afro-Colombian Leader (Chocó)

On December 31, around 300 members of the AGC (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia) paramilitary group arrived at Pogue and three other communities of Bojayá and confined their population. On January 3, armed actors gave Leyner Palacios two hours to leave the region or die. Leyner became a prominent leader for the Bojayá victims’ movement after the 2002 massacre where he lost 28 family members. Amnesty International issued an Urgent Action in January 3 urging President Ivan Duque and Ambassador to the U.S. Francisco Santos, to provide collective protection measures for Leyner and the communities of Bojayá.

We appreciate all the actions that were taken by U.S. officials and the international community in response to our action. Those efforts led to President Iván Duque meeting with Leyner Palacios and Marino Cordoba of AFRODES. We are, however, deeply disturbed that following those efforts, Leyner’s bodyguard was murdered. Ironically, Leyner was not with his bodyguard at the time of the killing because the UNP had not granted him protection measures for that day. The killing of Arley sends a clear message to Leyner, his family and all other Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders, that they should stop speaking up about the rights abuses taking place in the Chocó.

We ask that further action is taken to guarantee that Colombia’s Attorney-General and President investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime and that they elevate the protection measures provided to Leyner, his family and other members of the CIVP. Leyner is asking that members of the U.S. Congress, State Department and Embassy do their utmost to advance and implement the 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Fuerza Armada Revolucionaria de Colombia, FARC; dialogue with the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación, ELN), respecting while meanwhile advancing the Humanitarian Accord Now in Chocó, and a submission and demobilization agreement with the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) . He urges members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to heed this community’s call for action to “avoid genocide and the extermination of Afro-Colombian and indigenous persons in this territory (referring to Chocó). WOLA echoes these recommendations and encourages U.S. policymakers to take bold action to prevent further killings, displacements and attacks from taking place.

Below you will find the disturbing cases reported to WOLA since our last action:


Disappeared Social Leader Found Dead (Santander)

On February 20, social leader Cristóbal Ayala disappeared. Four days later, his children found his decapitated body. Cristóbal was a member of the Corporation of Survivors of Antipersonnel Mines and Attacks in Colombia (Asociación de Sobrevivientes de Minas Anti Personas y Atentados en Colombia, Csomiancol). The incident took place in the La Estrella hamlet, Lebrija municipality (Santander).


Two Social Leaders Murdered (Cauca)

On February 16, hitmen assassinated human rights defenders Albeiro Silva Mosquera and his brother Luis Silva Mosquera in the La Cilia-La Calera Reservation, Miranda municipality (Cauca). Albeiro and Luis were members of the Campesino Guard, the La Morena hamlet’s Community Action Board (Junta de Acción Comunal, JAC), and the Fensuagro-Cut Cauca affiliate of Miranda’s Campesino Association.


Indigenous Leader Killed (Cauca)

On February 15, hitmen assassinated Emilio Duaquí in the Las Delicias Indigenous Reservation, Buenos Aires municipality (Cauca). Emilio was a Nasa member of the indigenous guard.


Social Leaders Assassinated (Putumayo)

On February 10, armed men forcibly apprehended social leaders Luis Alberto Parra and his son Jader Parra. Two days later, their bodies were found in La Esperanza, Puerto Guzmán municipality (Putumayo). Luis served as the community’s prosecutor and Jader as the coordinator of the Works Committee (Comisión de Obras). Local sources highlight the area where these crimes took place is controlled by a paramilitary group known as “La Mafia” and that this group operates in that region despite the heavy military presence of the Brigada XXVII de Selva.


Social Leader Assassinated (North Santander)

On February 9, La Opinion reported the assassination of Efrén Ospina Velásquez. The crime took place in the Totumito Carboneras hamlet, located in the Tibú municipality (North Santander), where hitmen arrived at Efren’s farm and shot him to death. Efrén was Vice President of his town’s Community Action Board (Junta de Acción Comunal, JAC) where he promoted the substitution of coca crops as part of the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito, PNIS).


Indigenous Authorities Murdered (Caquetá)

On February 9, Ismael Angucho Yunda and his brother Pedro Angucho were murdered in the Belén de los Andaquies municipality (Caquetá). Both Ismael and Pedro were ancestral authorities’ members of the Misak Peoples and founders of the El Águila Reservation. They led efforts against the government and landowners to protect their peoples’ collective land rights. Apparently, a conflict over a land purchase motivated the crimes.


Member of the Indigenous Guard Assassinated (Cauca)

On February 2, a hitman killed Javier Girón Triviño in the El Jagüito hamlet, located in the Santander de Quilichao municipality (Cauca). Javier, a Nasa from the Kiwe Tehk Ksxa’w Reservation, had been a member of the indigenous guard for over 20 years.


Dismembered Body of Humanitarian Space Member Found (Valle del Cauca)

On February 3, the dismembered body of Jeremías Riascos Tobar was found between the Gamboa and January 6 (6 de Enero) neighborhoods in the port city of Buenaventura (Valle del Cauca). Until recently, Jeremías lived in the Humanitarian Space (Espacio Humanitario) in Puente Nayero. The Humanitarian Space was set up by civilians tired of conflict and violence to provide protection for their families. In 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted protection measures to the community of the Humanitarian Space of Puente Nayero given the physical risks they face due to their efforts against violence.


Paramilitaries Kidnap Indigenous Leader (Chocó) 

On February 24, Jose Mielito Cabrera Cuñapa, his wife, and their four children, were traveling by boat along Carrillo village, located in Bojayá municipality (Chocó). Along the way, members of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) stopped them and kidnapped Jose. He is member of the Emberá Dóbida peoples and served as indigenous leader of the Unión Cuity community—which is part of the Alto Rio Napipi Indigenous Reservation.


Increased Stigmatization of Araucan Social Movement, Police Arrests Social Leaders Who Supported Anti-Government Protests (Arauca)  

On February 10, officers from the Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol (Dirección de Investigación Criminal e Interpol, DIJIN) arrested social leaders Wbeimar Alexander Cetina Lozada and Horacio Ramírez. Wbeimar is the president of the Federation of Community Action Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal, JACs) of Arauca and Horacio is a member of the National Campesino Association José Antonio Galán Zorro (Asociación Nacional Campesina José Antonio Galán Zorro, ASONALCA). Officers of the DIJIN also broke into the house of a relative of social leader Juan de Jesús Gómez, president of the Arauquita’s Municipal Association of Community Action Boards. The three men backed last year’s protests demanding labor guarantees, social investment, and environmental compensation from the government, the national petroleum company Ecopetrol, and its transportation subsidiary Cenit. They are also members of Colombia’s Mideast Social and Popular Political Movement of the Masses (Movimiento Político de Masas Social y Popular del Centro Oriente Colombiano, MPMSPCOC).


While four MPMSPCOC have been killed since 2015 (2 in Arauca, 1 in Casanare and another in Bogota), 20 have spurious legal proceedings against them, 9 are in jail and at least 15 have experienced illegal surveillance, intimidation and death threats. So, while attacks against MPMSPCOC members is not new the organization points out that social leaders in Arauca are experiencing increasing repression. They believe it is due in part to two factors: the first is the increased stigmatization/criminalization of social movements in Arauca since Duque assumed the presidency and second the circulation of death threat pamphlets linking social leaders to the ELN and FARC dissidents which began in May 11, 2019. According to such pamphlets MPMSPCOC members are signaled out to:

“have ties to insurgent groups, that spearhead the unjust and manipulative illegitimate social cause of promoting illogical public protests in the municipalities of Arauca department, they are only seeking to strengthen their urban structures that are influenced by the ideology of the ELN and FARC DISSIDENTS”

The MPMSPCOC states that the sole purpose of the public protests was to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis taking place in the department and the lack of effective responses by the Colombian State to stop the “political genocide” taking place and to implement effective protection mechanisms so that social leaders can do their work. Their intent is to get the international community including the UN to act to turn this around. They add that the response of the President, Minister of Defense, members of the Armed Forces and Ministry of the Interior has been to just discredit their organizations further by linking them to guerillas, saying they are criminals and vandals and/or that the public protests are being infiltrated by guerillas. Such public statements make the security situation for social leaders far worse. They note that in Arauca there are examples of massacres like the one in La Cabuya where members of the military were sentenced due to their role in killing social leaders. These members of the military had initially denied wrong doing and placed the responsibility on the AUC.

Currently, six MPMSPCOC leaders are facing trumped up legal charges due to their efforts to advance human rights. These are, addition to Wbeimar and Horacio: Jose Vicente Murillo of the Jose Sierra Association, Hermes Burgos of ASONALCA, Jorge Nino and Reinel Fonseca, presidents of the Comunal Action Board of las Bancas (Arauquita). Juan de Jesús Gómez has a warrant out for his arrest dated December 7, 2019.

19 social leaders in Arauca are facing serious death threats and require action to guarantee their safety. These include Sonia Lopez, legal representative for the Jose Sierra Association, Emiro Goyenche, community radio host for Sarare Stereo (Saravena), Yessid Robles, judicial secretary for Joel Sierra and Pedro Carillo, vice president of the Arauca chapter of the Central Workers Union, Central Unida de Trabajadores, CUT). On March 4, a new death threat pamphlet began to circulate in Arauca that broadened the scope of persons targeted for death to include public officials Mayor Wilfredo Gomez, Councilmembers: Camilo Espinel, Yoner Pinzon, Nelson Diaz, Fabian Mendoza, Deicy Diaz, Yeimer Diaz and Miguel Garcia; Jose Luis Fontecha; public spokesperson: Geovanny Baron; director of ELENAR and representatives of Saravena: Marco Somoza and Carlos Hernandez. The concern here is that everyone who supports the social movement of rights vindication and protection from abuses committed by translational corporations in this area is being accused of being a guerilla. It is a strategy to completely silence and stop all efforts by social movements to speak out and act on concerns taking place in this part of the country.


Indigenous Reservation Bombed by the Air Force (Chocó) 

On January 30, El Tiempo reported that the Air Force, while carrying out an operation against an unidentified criminal group, bombed the indigenous Reservation of Chagpien Tordó in the El Litoral de San Juan municipality (Chocó). The bombing caused a massive displacement of indigenous persons to the municipal capital. One minor also lost her extremities.


Paramilitary Incursion into Indigenous Reservation (Chocó)

On February 11, fifteen Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) entered the Nuevo Cañaveral Reservation, located in the Jiguamiandó territory (Chocó). Once inside, they shot at a group of indigenous persons playing soccer. The Environmental Guard, with the help of the rest of the community, neutralized the aggressors and confiscated their equipment while they waited for state authorities to arrive. The military did not respond until a day later.


Misak Community at Risk of Extermination (Caquetá)

The Movement of Indigenous Authorities from the Southwest (Movimiento de Autoridades Indígenas del Sur Occidente, AISO) released a statement calling for action on the precarious security and humanitarian situation faced by its members in the El Águila Reservation (Caquetá). Most of the leaders of this indigenous Misak community are currently the target of death threats by illegal armed groups. Their reservation is experiencing food shortages and dire health conditions. To address the situation, the government of Caquetá held a security council on February 12 but did not come up with a solution. According to AISO, the inability of the council to agree on a potential solution represents the government’s indifference towards the Misak community.


Anti-Personnel Mine Explosion Kills Indigenous Person (Chocó) 

One man is dead anti-personnel mine went off at the Alto Baudó Chori Jurubida Reservation, Alto Baudó municipality (Chocó). The bodies of this man’s wife and children have disappeared, and it is unclear what happened to them. The incident took place on March 5 when the Emberá Dobida family was walking to the Alto Munguidó river.


Civil Society Concerned Over Upsurge in Violence (North Santander): 

On February 20, the Commission for the Life, Reconciliation, and Peace of Catatumbo (Comisión por la Vida, la Reconciliación y la Paz del Catatumbo) released a statement on the alarming increased armed conflict between the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL) in the region (North Santander). According to the statement, this armed conflict is causing an increase in human rights abuses and violations to International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Moreover, the state (whose lackluster provision of basic public services compounds the crisis) has only responded by militarizing the region and refusing to fully implement the Peace Accords. In this context, the people of Catatumbo suffer severe restrictions to their mobility and the social organizations in the area are victims of assassinations, threats, and stigmatization.


Attacks against Union Leaders Increase

On February 19, the National Labor School’s labor information agency reported an increase in attacks against union leaders during the first months of 2020. Recently, hitmen attempted to murder Jonathan Urbano Iguera and Willian Manrique. They escaped the attacks thanks to their security detail. Jonathan is president of the Workers Union (Unión Sindical Obrera, USO) in Puerto Gaitán (Meta), and William is president of the Colombian State Union (Sindicato Colombiano Estatal, Sincoest).


Human Rights Lawyers Harassed by the Government (Antioquia)

On February 18, three men arrived at the head office of the Judicial Corporation Liberty (Corporación Jurídica Libertad, CJL) in Medellín (Antioquia). There, the individuals took pictures of the building’s entrance as well as the entrance to CJL’s office. Afterwards, one of the men left the building walking and the other two left in a motorcycle with a plate number later found to be owned by the Ministry of Defense. The lawyers at the CJL have participated in general Mario Montoya Uribe’s case before the Especial Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial Para la Paz, JEP) and have asked for the general to be removed from the system of transitional justice. Also, given the constant persecution against the CJL by members of the Armed Forces, in 2007 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted the organization Precautionary Measures.


Human Rights Defenders Harassed (Cundinamarca)

On January 20 and 24, members of the NGO Colombian Commission of Jurists (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, CCJ) saw a drone hovering over the Commission’s headquarters in Bogotá (Cundinamarca). During the first incident, a drone shortly appeared outside the window of a room where a group of human rights defenders were meeting. Four days later, another drone flew irregularly over the building’s backyard for about 10 minutes.


Military Destroys Legal Alternative Crops (Nariño)

On February 9, soldiers from the Cobra brigade entered Adrián Lanzaduri’s farm in the Pital Río Mira hamlet, Tumaco municipality (Nariño). There, they destroyed close to 500 cacao trees to clear the zone for the landing of a military helicopter carrying supplies for the troops. Adrián had received the trees in 2018 as part of the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illegal Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito, PNIS). The area where the incident took place is notable for the recent eradication of coca crops and the Zonas Futuro projects and Development Plans with Territorial Focus (Planes de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDET) underway.


Floricultural Workers’ Labor Rights Under Assault 

On February 14, the Workers Confederation of Colombia (Confederación de Trabajadores de Colombia, CTC) and the National Organization of Colombian Floricultural Workers (Organización Nacional de Obreros Trabajadores de la Floricultura Colombiana, Onof) celebrated the International Day of Flower Workers. In this context, the organizations highlighted the violations to labor rights that the 90,000 employees of this industry currently suffer. Despite the Free Trade Agreements signed between Colombia and the U.S., the EU and Canada, the workers’ freedom of association is severely limited by companies’ contractual and labor practices. By outsourcing labor and not fulfilling their duties under collective bargaining agreements made with the unions, companies in the flower industry are advancing anti-unionization policies. Moreover, workers suffer grave inefficiencies in the health system which makes it difficult to properly diagnose and treat labor-related illnesses.


Work-Place Harassment of Union Workers at Nestlé Factory (Valle del Cauca)

On February 6, the National Union of Workers in the Agroindustrial, Agricultural, Agri-Food, Beverages, Related, and Similar Sectors (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores del Sector Agroindustrial, Agropecuario, Agroalimentario, Bebidas, Afines y Similares, Sintraimagra) addressed a letter to Nestle Colombia S.A. informing on the work-place harassment and discrimination suffered by their union members. At the Bugalagrande factory (Valle del Cauca), Sinaltrainal union members are harassing those part of Sintraimagra, pressuring them to leave the union. The management officers at the factory are complicit to this treatment, in violation of their legal obligations.


National Educators’ Union Announces Strike 

The Colombian Federation of Educators (Federación Colombiana de Educadores, Fecode) announced a two-day strike from February 20 to February 21. Nelson Alarcón, Fecode’s president, listed the recent assassinations and forced displacement of educators as central reasons for the strike. He also added the high number of death threats to such professionals—at least 77 nationwide—and the recent assassination attempt to former Fecode president and current executive Carlos Rivas. The strike will demand security measures from the government, union guarantees, and an audience with President Iván Duque.


Victims of the Conflict Seek Negotiated Peace with Armed Groups 

A coalition of civilian groups—historic victims of the internal conflict—sent letters to the three main non-state armed groups seeking a negotiated end to their belligerent activities. This coalition includes Afro-Colombian communities, indigenous reservations and cabildos, humanitarian and biodiversity zones, victims’ groups, and campesino organizations. The letters addressed separately to the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC), the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional, ELN), and FARC dissident groups, propose the negotiation of a Simultaneous Global Humanitarian Accord. The coalition’s objective is to ensure the protection of basic human rights and humanitarian law in their territories. Additionally, they addressed a letter to former United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) members expressing willingness to collaborate in a truth-seeking and reparative process. (See letter to AGC, letter to FARC dissident groups, letter to ELN, letter to former AUC members).


NGO to Remove Catatumbo Files from the National Center for Historic Memory 

On March 3, Noticias Canal 1 reported that the Minga Association (Asociación Minga), a human rights NGO, decided to remove more than 30,000 documents from the National Center for Historic Memory (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, CNMH). The NGO submitted the documents voluntarily to provide information on the impact of the armed conflict in the Catatumbo region. The decision, according to Minga’s director, is a symbolic act to reject the views of CNMH director Darío Acevedo. Different social sectors criticize Darío for apparently denying the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia.


Metropolitan Police harass Labor Rights Activists (Bogotá D.C.)

On March 4, 2020, the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee (PCASC) released a letter expressing concern with recent cases of police harassment against injured General Motors’ (GM) workers. Since August 2, 2011, an encampment has been in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá protesting non-compliance to the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan. Following GM’s recent illegal dismissal of dozens of additional injured workers, the Metropolitan Police of Bogotá has focused on restricting worker solidarity on the issue and intimidating supporters of the encampment. In a instance, police threatened Alberto Pérez – a 73-year-old man who has helped maintain presence at the encampment – with detention and accused him of being a member of the guerilla. PCASC is demanding that the local government protect the GM injured workers’ fundamental right to protest.


In addition to the above situations, we share with you the English translation of three statements from Colombian civil society requiring your attention:

Declaration of the High-Level Special Instance with Ethnic Peoples (IEANPE) concerning the Ethnic Chapter of the Peace Accord, three years after the peace accord, February 27, 2020

2019 National Colombian Human Rights Winners statement “For the Protection of Social Leaders in Colombia”, March 1, 2020

Colombian Human Rights Movement supports the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Office in Colombia, March 2, 2020

We thank you in advance for your attention to these most important matters. Please contact us should you need any further information at (202) 797-2171 or [email protected]

Gimena Sanchez
Director for the Andes

March 10, 2020