Washington, D.C.—Victor Carlos Meriño Pereira, who three years ago was detained for allegedly killing social leader Bernardo Cuero Bravo, was set free on June 2, 2020 for “expiration of terms” (vencimiento de términos)—a feature of the Colombian legal system in which those being accused of a crime can be freed from detention while they await trial if the Court hasn’t received a written accusation in a hearing. Meriño Pereira’s freedom is the latest troubling act in a trial that’s been plagued with inconsistencies. Though Meriño Pereira has been on trial since April 9, 2019, the Court delayed hearings where he could be formally accused on three separate occasions for questionable reasons that need justification.
Two others, Humberto Luis Hernández Estrada, alias El Pollo and Duván Piñeres Rubio, alias Duván, were also detained for the murder of Bernardo Cuero Bravo. Both were charged with aggravated homicide after the prosecutor presented evidence before a municipal judge.
Bernardo Cuero Bravo was an influential local and social leader in Malambo, a community in the Atlántico department in northern Colombia that’s home to Afro-Colombians, displaced individuals, and victims of the armed conflict. He was president of the local community action board (junta de acción), a group of local leaders invested in strengthening and developing their communities; as well as a member of human rights organization the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados, AFRODES). He was killed in his home by multiple armed assailants, effectively silencing his work developing better representation and support for victims of Colombia’s armed conflict, and advocating for displaced communities.
Setting one of Bernardo Cuero Bravo’s alleged murderers free is the latest act of impunity plaguing investigations and hearings for those accused of killing social leaders. Since the signing of Colombia’s peace deal in November 2016, hundreds of social leaders have been killed by armed actors. The vast majority of these cases have yet to see any perpetrators arrested—let alone convicted. This fuels a deadly cycle of impunity in Colombia: because convictions of those who kill or order the killings are so rare, it sends the message that Colombian authorities will tolerate violence against those trying to build peace and address historic grievances.
It’s of urgent importance that the Court provide immediate information explaining the irregularities in the case against Victor Carlos Meriño Pereira. Specifically, they must provide answers explaining why the terms were allowed to expire and more clarity on why hearings have been delayed so many times. The Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la Nación) must also provide an update on the status of trials and hearings of the other two men detained in connection with the murder of Bernardo Cuero Bravo.
More broadly, the Colombian government must take immediate steps to prevent these acts of impunity from happening. This includes prioritizing rigorous, impartial investigations that result in convictions for crimes against social leaders, practicing greater transparency on how investigations are proceeding, and building stronger capacity for investigation and prosecution at the departmental level.