WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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24 Nov 2020 | News

Colombia’s Female Social Leaders, LGBT+, and Land Rights Activists At Risk

We bring to your attention the following human rights abuses and urge you to take action: 

Civil Society Urges Colombia to Address Paramilitary Phenomenon (Antioquia)
On October 2, the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos, CEEU) and the Social Process of Guarantees for the Work of Social Leaders and Human Rights Defenders (Proceso Social de Garantías para la Labor de Lideresas, Lideres, Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos) condemned President Iván Duque for his failure to control paramilitaries throughout the country. Paramilitaries violently operate with impunity in 125 municipalities in Antioquia oftentimes with tacit complicity or deliberate disregard by State authorities. Between January and August 2020, the Sumapaz Foundation and the Judicial Liberty Corporation (Corporación Jurídica Libertad) found paramilitaries to be responsible for multiple crimes. These include 34 individual threats, 17 homicides, 12 collective threats, 11 forced displacements, 5 individual aggressions, 4 attacks and 3 forced disappearances. In addition, these groups committed 277 other violent incidents against social leaders and human rights defenders. Colombian civil society is urging the Public Ministry to carry out much needed oversight of institutions that continue to refuse to address this phenomena that is generating multiple humanitarian crises.

Violence Against Female Social Leaders a Serious Issue
On September 20, El Tiempo reported that female social leaders were the targets of 1,339 violent aggressions in the past six years, including 84 femicides. According to Diana Dalcedo, director of the International League of Women for Peace and Freedom (Liga Internacional de Mujeres por la Paz y la Libertad, LIMPAL) female leaders suffer sexual violence and threats. The report “Defenders, Voices of Life and Resistance,” by LIMPAL and others found paramilitaries to be responsible for 67% (902) of these agressions. Racial discrimination makes Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women more at risk to becoming victims of this violence. LIMPAL recommends that the National Protection Unit (UNP) develop protection mechanisms that adhere to specificities required by female leaders.

Human Rights Ombudsman Reports Alarming Killings of LGBT+ Persons
On September 15, the human rights Ombudsman’s office reported that as of August at least 63 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons were killed in 2020. The breakdown is 17 transgender women, 12 gay men, six lesbian women and one transgender man. Others who belonged to the LGBT+ community but whose sexual orientation and gender identity are not confirmed make up the rest. The Ombudsman’s office notes that the pandemic has exacerbated violence against this community. During this time, it received 388 cases of violence that include 36 cases of aggression by police officers. It is calling on the government to develop a concrete action plan to stop violence due to prejudice and to fight institutional discrimination that affects the LGBT+ community.

Three People Killed in Rural Massacre (Huila)
On September 22, armed men massacred two male adults and a 17-year-old boy in the Quebradon Sur hamlet of Algeciras, Huila department. El Espectador reported that military authorities identified the victims as Jimmy Betancourt Ortiz, Jimmy Alejandro Betancourt Gómez, and Camilo Rayo. The Technical Investigation Corps of the Attorney General’s Office arrived at the massacre’s site to lift the corpses. On July 16, also in Algeciras, six illegal armed actors assassinated four people and injured two more in another massacre. The September 22 massacre was the 62nd recorded this year by the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ).

Former Indigenous Governor Murdered in Suárez (Cauca)
On October 13, Canal1 reported that unknown armed forces assassinated former governor Fredy Güetio Zambrano and his wife in a rural zone of Suárez. According to reports, Güetio Zambrano was leaving his farm when he was shot and killed. To date, 536 persons were gunned down in Cauca, including 73 social leaders. The Indigenous community denounces these crimes and calls for the heightened protection of their communities. 

Social Leader Assassinated by Paramilitary Group (Chocó)
On October 10, the Gulf Clan paramilitary group assassinated Oswaldo Rojas, a social leader of the Gengado community in the Curvaradó collective territory. According to CIJP, the paramilitary group made public proclamations weeks prior stating, “any leader who has had a relationship with the FARC and does not work with us will be buried.”

Land Rights Activists Suffer Attacks and Threats (Urabá)
On October 24, IPC released a video detailing attacks against land rights activists in the region of Urabá. Rural leaders Alfranio Solano of the Association of Land and Peace (Asociación Tierra y Paz) and Tarcila Sanchez survived murder attempts in the past month. IPC says 25 land rights leaders were killed in this region since 2008. However, physical threats are not the only ways that these land rights leaders are undermined. They are also the targets of internal displacement, intimidation, trumped up charges, stigmatization and campaigns by businessmen opposed to the lands returning to their rightful owners. Nine land rights activists were detained due to questionable charges, a situation that has not been resolved. The video shows authorities intimidating an Afro-Colombian female leader during an interview.  The organizations and journalists who accompany the victims in these processes are also attacked. Cases of returned victims being forced to “share” or given half of their lands by unknown persons, who may be from the Gulf Clan and/or businessmen, are other persistent issues. 

Social Leader Killed in Cajibío (Cauca)
On October 3, illegal armed men shot and killed youth social leader Jayder Quintana. Quintana was a member of the Association of Rural Workers of the Cajibío municipality (Asociación de Trabajadores Campesinos del municipio de Cajibío, ATCC), where he was involved in land reservation efforts. INDEPAZ urges the government to increase its presence in this region. A couple was also murdered in the Mercaderes municipality at the same time of Quintana’s death. One of the victims was a minor who was the daughter of a social leader in Popayán.  According to reports, 14 separate assassinations occurred that same weekend in Cauca. 

Female Social Leader Survives Attack (Cesar)
On September 30, two unknown men attempted to kill social leader Eliana Palma Rincones. The suspects put a gun to her husband’s head before a neighbor arrived to de-escalate the situation. Rincones filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office and is currently being patrolled by the police. She faced a similar incident two years prior and is now asking for proper protection from the National Government. 

Afro-Colombian Social Leader Internally Displaced for Crop Substitution Work (Bolívar)
On October 9, the Global Justice Association denounced paramilitary threats made against Jairo Navarro Lastre, an Afro-Colombian social leader committed to manual and voluntary illicit crop substitution in San Pablo, Bolívar department. According to the statement, the Central Bolívar Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) placed a letter underneath Jairo’s front door on October 8. The letter contained hostile language and threatened Jairo for his crop substitution work that helps to advance a key provision of the 2016 peace accord. It also wrongly affiliated Jairo with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) and stated if he did not abandon the region in 72 hours, the paramilitary group would assassinate him and his security detail. This incident is the second time a paramilitary group forcibly displaced Jairo for his work. The Global Justice Association urges the State to adopt protection measures for Jairo and his family and to conduct thorough investigations. The organization calls on the international community to pressure the Colombian government to adopt these measures.

Former Afro-Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba’s Bodyguards Shot At (Cundinamarca)
On September 30, nine to ten unknown persons cornered two of former Senator Piedad Cordoba’s bodyguards while in their car. The armed individuals took their weapons and fired at their vehicle. Cordoba was not with her bodyguards at the time of the incident. The police’s assertion that this incident was a robbery does not fit with the trajectory of attacks and death threats suffered by Ms. Cordoba. Judicial authorities must investigate this incident and bring the perpetrators to justice. The Colombian government must strengthen Ms. Cordoba’s security measures. 

Afro-Colombian Community Attacked by State Forces (Cauca)
On September 22, state forces fired shots at the homes of members of th eLower Saija River Community Council (Consejo Comunitario Parte Baja del Río), a region made up of Black communities in Timbiquí, Cauca department. COCOCAUCA reported state forces also stole the belongings of ten community members. The organization classified these violent actions as a direct infringement of the ethical and territorial rights of their communities. The Lower Saija River Community Council demands respect for the rights of autonomous communities as well as the demilitarization of collective territories. The Community Council urges human rights organizations to condemn and increase visibility of these crimes. 

Afro-Colombian Man Shot by Hitmen in Humanitarian Space (Valle del Cauca)
On September 17, two hitmen shot Crispiano Ángulo—an Afro-Colombian man and resident of the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space—in the stomach. Crispiano continues to receive medical care for the injuries sustained. As reported by the CIJP, the attack occurred in the neighborhood of La Playita, Buenaventura where the organization’s human rights defenders carried out training activities on sustainable agricultural production with women and a dance workshop with children. The organization maintains that although police units were present, the officers allowed the hitmen to walk away from the crime scene unidentified. Despite precautionary measures granted by the IACHR, the CIJP suggests that these crimes occur because no policies or subsequent actions are implemented by the State to dismantle paramilitary structures.

Indigenous Killed in Double Homicide (Córdoba)
On September 22, unknown actors assassinated social leader Santo Manuel Baltazar Peña and farmworker Eduardo Enrique Olea in a rural zone of San José de Uré. The Cordobexia Foundation reiterated a call made by President Ivan Duque which urged for the immediate dismantlement of illegal armed forces. 

International Lawyers Urge Protection for Lawyers, Senator in Uribe Case
On September 4, Lawyers for Lawyers, the Law Society of England and Wales, Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), and the Institute for the Rule of Law of the International Association of Lawyers (UIA-IROL) briefed the UN and the IACHR of recent threats received by lawyer Reinaldo Villalba Vargas, his legal team from the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, and Colombian Senator Iván Cepeda. The legal organizations sent the statement to the Inter-American Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, the Inter-American Rapporteur on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders and Justice Operators, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

The statement expresses alarm at the increasing threats against Mr. Villalba, his legal team, and his client Senator Cepeda. It details how continuing public statements by the current President of Colombia and other State officials in regard to the high-profile case against former President Álvaro Uribe, undermine judicial independence. These behaviors contribute to a growing climate of hostility against members of the legal profession. The organizations called on the UN and the IACHR to urge Colombian authorities to ensure that Mr. Villalba and his legal team can carry out their professional duties without undue external interference, intimidation, or harassment.

Awá Indigenous Community in Need of Protectionary Measures (Nariño)
On September 26, CAJAR reported that a fatal confrontation took place between illegal armed groups in the Inda Sabaleta reserve of the Awá Indigenous community in Tumaco, Nariño department. According to CAJAR, an armed confrontation between the Bookkeepers (Los Contadores) and FARC dissident group the Oliver Sinisterra Front resulted in five deaths, two injuries, and the internal displacement of Awá community members. Further, the Oliver Sinisterra Front held captive at least 40 Awá persons. On March 16, 2011, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures to the Awá indigenous people in the Nariño due to ongoing threats. CAJAR requests that the necessary parties offer appropriate protection to the Awá people, demand the safe return of any captured victims, and develop a comprehensive security place for the Inda Sabaleta reserve.

Female Social Leader Harassed by Paramilitaries (Putumayo)
On October 10, a rogue member of the illegal armed group Commanders of the Border (Comandos de la Frontera) appeared in the home of local community leader Sandra Lagos in the Puerto Asis municipality. Sandra Lagos is currently president of the Amazon Pearl Peasant Reserve Zone (Zona de Reserva Campesina Perla Amazónica, ZRCPA). This incident took place despite the fact that the Colombian military and police are present in the region.  

Colombia Humana Organizes Peaceful Protests in Response to Violence (Cundinamarca)
On September 28, the Colombia Humana political party condemned the massacres, police brutality, and other human rights violations taking place all over Colombia. To raise awareness of this, they organized protests to urge the government to protect lives and respect civil liberties on September 29. The party affirms that continued stigmatization of those who mobilize to demand peace and social justice undermines Colombia’s democracy. It also denounced the undue pressure officials have placed on the judiciary and encouraged civil society to defend its right to protest. 

LGBT+ Activists Threatened with a Gun (Caqueta)
On September 28, LGBT+ activist Aurora Iglesias who is known as “Zunga, la perra rosa/Zunga de pink dog,” was intimidated and threatened with death by an unknown person believed to form part of an illegal armed group at her home. The aggressor stated that Zunga needed to stop doing her work. 

Journalist Receives a Threat Utilizing Image of Her Minor Son (Valledupar)
On September 21, journalist Katia Ospina received death threat texts that included a picture of her son’s face scratched out. Beneath this, the perpetrators state “it would be a shame for your son to become an orphan.”

Victims involved in the Transitional Justice System Require Protection
On September 16, Peace Brigades International (PBI) Switzerland testified before the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence, about the lack of adequate safeguards for victims’ participation in Colombia’s transitional justice system. According to the testimony, those most affected by the ongoing spate of assassinations are conflict victims and the human rights defenders who accompany them. The organization underscored the need for the Colombian government to give greater political and financial support to its transitional justice mechanisms, rather than discredit and reject them. In order to facilitate the needed civic space to successfully operate, the mechanisms require forceful support from the government and the international community.

The testimony included the September 7 threats against Yeisson Salamanca, affiliated with the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation, after he submitted a report on forced disappearances to the Truth Commission. It also noted the lack of investigations against the army and paramilitary groups in Casanare and continued threats and harassment against the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (Corporación Regional Para La Defensa De Los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOS) for having provided information to the JEP. The testimony also expressed concern about smear campaigns, threats, and the state’s illegal intelligence operations against organizations of lawyers and victims’ representatives who actively participate in truth and memory processes; the organizations include the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo, CCAJAR), the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Comité de Solidaridad con Presos Políticos), and the Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión de Justicia y Paz). 

Buenaventura’s Port Expansion is Affecting Remains of Victims of Enforced Disappearance (Valle del Cauca)
On September 21, PBI Switzerland testified before the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. The testimony highlights the current situation in Buenaventura and expresses concern about the non-enforcement of guaranteed rights in the region for human rights defenders, organizations, and victims of forced displacement. The organization noted that the dredging of Buenaventura’s San Antonio estuary for port expansion, despite indication of mass graves with the bodies of disappeared persons, would result in a definitive loss of all right to the truth. Continuing port expansion without a serious and coordinated search for the bodies of disappeared persons would make it impossible to recover remains and bring closure to the families of victims. Though the 2016 peace accord created the National Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons (Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas), the government’s faltering implementation of the accord has affected the functioning of the unit. The government has also failed to ratify articles 31 and 32 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, despite multiple requests from families of disappeared persons.

AGC Circulates Propaganda in the Urabás
On October 1, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) disseminated propaganda in lower Atrato, North Chocó, Urabá antioqueño, Urabá Cordobés, Montes de María, Sucre, Bolívar, Magdalena y Guajira. They circulated pamphlets justifying their actions by claiming alliance with recent social protests against police abuse. They also denounced illegal armed groups ELN and FARC dissidents. This type of activity is concerning because it is a show of force in order to exert control over these territories.

Coal Workers’ Strike in Cerrejón (La Guajira)
On October 3, the Labor Information Agency (Agencia de Información Laboral, ENS) reported on an ongoing strike against the company Sintracarbon in La Guajira. Sintracarbon refuses to make any changes in this matter. Igor Diaz, president of the labor union, affirms that the union issued a statement that outlined over 100 points in this case. Sintracarbon denied the accusations and published a counter statement. The ongoing strike poses a crisis and implies the future loss of 1,200 workers. Diaz urged the La Guajira community to begin preparations for the future closing of Cerrejón. The union urges Sintracarbon to negotiate a settlement to end the strike.  

Sugarcane Production Trends Increase Risks to Workers
On October 2, the Agency of Laboral Information (Agencia de Información Laboral, AIL) reported on the risks sugarcane workers face in Colombia. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística, DANE) , the agricultural sector was classified as the second largest economic branch in 2019, employing 15.8% of Colombia’s population. The Workplace Accidents and Occupational Diseases (Accidentes de Trabajo y las Enfermedades Laborales, ATEL) has reported that a significant number of agricultural workers in the sugar cane sector suffer work-related incidents. A notable trend in the growth of sugarcane companies exists and it is leading to increased occupational risks. The AIL claims urges companies to develop plans that examine working conditions so they can be improved to protect the wellbeing of their workers. 

Extortion a Problem that Impacts Human Rights in Medellín (Antioquia)
On September 27, the Peoples Training Institute (Instituto Popular de Capacitacion, IPC) reported on extortion in Medellín and its negative impact on human rights. According to statistics from the Information System for Security and Cohabitation (Sistema de Información para la Seguridad y Convivencia, SISC), 80.2% of Medellín suffers from extortion despite minimal complaints. Additional investigative research shows that city traders raise over $28 million pesos in extortion a year in La Candelaria and Guayabal, Medellín. Denouncement of extortion is faltered by fear of criminal gang retaliation, lack of confidence in the state, and the effective control of the general public. Criminal gangs in the area control the population through extortion and cause citizens to report less incidents. Ongoing presence of the Medellín cartel and paramilitary groups contribute to these conflicts. These conflicts jeopardize citizen rights to personal security and freedom. Extortion direcly affects public transport, housing, local businesses, social leaders, street vending, homeless, and sex work sectors. Investigators demand for the proper protection of citizens from outward extortion.  

95% of Afrodescendant Lands are in the Hands of 8 Businessmen in Northern Chocó
On October 5, the Center for Investigation and Popular Education (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular, CINEP) released a report on the internal displacement of the Afro-Colombian Community Council of La Larga and Tumaradó, Chocó department. CINEP reported to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) that over 5,000 persons became internally displaced in the Chocó during the internal armed conflict. CINEP also reported that entrepreneurs who overpower land also contribute to mass displacement. Eight entrepreneurs occupy over 100,000 hectares of land in the northern region of the department. The investigator confirms that the population of Urabá is threatened by displacement, homicides, and confinement. They demand that precautionary measures are put in place to protect the Community Council of Urabá in their fight for human rights. 

Supreme Court Upholds Colombians’ Right to Protest
On September 22, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of Colombians to protest free from the threat of violence and police abuse in response to their claims. This decision came as a result of legal action placed by DeJusticia, CAJAR, Colombian Commision of Jurists, Foundation for the Freedom of the Press (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP), Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos, CSPP) and others in relation to the abuses that took place during the November 21, 2019 National Strike Mobilizations where protestor Dilan Cruz was lethally injured due to excessive use of force on the part of the police. The decision asks that the Minister of Defense publicly apologize for the excessive use of force employed by the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD) during the protests. It also orders that members of the Government maintain neutrality when non-violent demonstrations take place, even if they are aimed at questioning their own policies. The government is asked to:

  1. set up a working group to restructure the guidelines on the use of force in demonstrations with citizen participation and issue regulations on the matter that are in accordance with international and constitutional standards
  2. design a protocol of preventive actions, accompaniment and monitoring of the reaction, use and verification of the legitimate force of the State and the protection of the right to peaceful citizen protest, including public and supported reports when attacks on life occur and personal integrity
  3. issue a protocol that allows citizens and human rights organizations to carry out verifications in cases of arrests and transfers of people during protests and,
  4. suspend the use of twelve-gauge shotguns for intervention in protests

The international community should insist that Colombia follow through on these orders.