WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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4 Feb 2021 | News

Colombia Begins 2021 with Alarming Records of Violence

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace’s (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) January 26 Risk and Security Monitoring report states that: “2021 has been the most violent start of a year seen since the signing of the peace accords in Colombia with 14 armed confrontations between criminal structures and the Public Forces, 14 social leaders assassinated, 6 massacres and 5 assassinations of former FARC combatants taking place between January 1 through 24.” Sadly, the JEP highlights that this translates to one social leader killed every 41 hours.

This alarming situation calls for immediate, bold, and public actions by U.S. policymakers to reinforce the implementation of peace and protection for social leaders. We encourage you to read the steps WOLA recommends the Biden administration should take during its first year on Colombia, which would greatly help reduce the violence and attacks against social leaders.

We also encourage you to join and promote our #ConLíderesHayPaz multimedia campaign that seeks to elevate the critical security situation faced by social leaders who advocate for peace, human rights, ethnic rights, the environment, and land in Colombia. The campaign provides information and recommendations for steps that can be taken to support social leaders and their peacebuilding work. Learn more about the campaign and how you can help here.

Below you will find the incidents received by WOLA in recent weeks:

First Social Leader Murdered in 2021 (Meta)
On January 1, an armed man with a knife assassinated Gerardo León, a social leader and ethno-educator with the Colombian Federation of Educators (Federación Colombiana de Educadores, Fecode). The crime occurred in Puerto Gaitán, Meta department. Reports by El Espectador indicate that, as of now, Meta police officers have ruled out León was assassinated because he was a social leader. Rather, they believe an inebriated altercation resulted in his death. Despite this narrative by the police, watchdog organizations like the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz, Indepaz) continue to record alarming surges of violence against social leaders.

In Less Than Seven Days, Three Indigenous Social Leaders Murdered (Nariño)
According to the Foundation for Development and Peace (Fundación Desarrollo y Paz, FUNDEPAZ), in less than seven days, three Indigenous social leaders—Armando Guanga, Alberto Anay, and Omar Moreno—were murdered in Tumaco, Nariño department. Social leaders and civil society organizations demand that the State guarantee thorough investigations to find the perpetrators of these crimes and provide an assurance of security so critical rights work can continue.

United Nations Condemns Assassination of Journalist (Valle del Cauca)
On December 23, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia condemned the assassination of Q’hubo Cali journalist Felipe Guevara. The UN characterized the murder as a direct attack against freedom of the press and democracy, and urged for prompt and appropriate investigations to punish those responsible.

According to the Colombian Foundation for Freedom of the Press (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP), on December 22, armed men shot Guevara in the chest, stomach and leg outside of his home in the eastern Cali Mariano Ramos neighborhood. He was transferred to the hospital and later died from the injuries sustained. FLIP expressed concern at the police’s premature rejection of any relation between the lethal attack and Guevara’s journalistic activities. Guevara had covered judicial issues and organized crime activities, for which he previously received threats.

Social Leader Murdered (North Santander)
On January 15, heavily armed men in the North Santander department shot and murdered recognized social leader William Antonio Rodríguez Martínez. According to Wildredo Cañizares, Director of the Foundation for Progress, Rodríguez was the manager of a local aqueduct, which provides drinking water to 510 families in a rural area of Cúcuta, the capital city of North Santander department. He was also a social leader and a council member representing rural communities where different criminal gangs are waging armed conflict. Rodríguez had fled a month earlier due to threats and was murdered a few days after his return to the area.

Afro-Colombian Social Leader Assassinated (Bolívar)
On January 15, Afro-Colombian social leader Fredman Herazo Padilla was assassinated in the Bolívar department. Padilla was a lawyer, historian, and advisor on Afro-Colombian legislation who focused his work on empowering and highlighting Black and Indigenous cultures. He monitored the issues of Afro-Colombian communities in Colombia’s Pacific region and fought for the rights of Afro-Indigenous peoples in Palenque, Bolívar. Both Padilla’s brother and FARC party senator, Victoria Sandino, denounced the assassination and called for the national government’s intervention to provide justice for Padilla and all other social leaders who have been assassinated in Colombia. According to INDEPAZ, his assassination adds to a growing list of social leaders and defenders who have been murdered in the first 15 days of 2021. INDEPAZ has figures revealing that 1,124 leaders have been killed in the country since the signing of the peace accord with the FARC in 2016.

Politician Survives Assassination Attempt (Arauca)
On January 16, the Alternative Democratic Pole (Polo Democrático Alternativo) political party condemned an assassination attempt against Jesús Antonio Jaimes. Jaimes is the party’s councilman in Saravena, Arauca department and vice-president of the Municipal Council. The party’s national executive committee demanded immediate protection measures by the regional and national government—specifically by the National Protection Unit—to protect Jaimes, his family, and his colleagues, and to ensure his right to carry out his political work. The national executive committee also demands justice by identifying and prosecuting the material and intellectual authors of this crime.

Armed Men Kidnap Leader of the Union of Education Workers (Cauca)
On January 5, the Union of Education Workers (Sindicato Unitario de Trabajadores de La Educación, SUTEC) in the Cauca department denounced the kidnapping of José Visney Zapata, a professor and municipal board member of the SUTEC in El Silencio, Guachene municipality, Cuaca department. Heavily armed men, wearing military-style garments, abducted Zapata. Two professors have been murdered in 2021 thus far and this crime adds to the wave of terror, violence, and murders suffered by social leaders in the department, which continues in complete impunity. The community demands security and protection guarantees for educators and social leaders.

Former Authority of Indigenous Reserve Survives Murder Attempt (Cauca)
On December 29, Lidera La Vida—a media campaign funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to protect social leaders—published a video of Colombian Senator Feliciano Valencia denouncing the attempted assassination of Rubén Pito, a former authority of the Huellas Reserve and Indigenous social leader. The armed attackers shot directly at his home in Caloto, Cauca department. Senator Valencia stated that 105 Indigenous people were assassinated in 2020, calling the situation a widespread massacre. He acknowledged the dire need for forceful actions by the government to ensure security for the lives of endangered Indigenous people.

Armed Actors Attempt to Assassinate Indigenous Social Leader (Nariño)
On December 24, according to reports by FUNDEPAZ, armed actors undertook an assassination attempt on Awá Indigenous leader Mauro Nastacuas—Governor of the Santa Rosita reserve in a rural area of Tumaco, Nariño department. The armed actors attacked Nastacuas with firearms and explosives in his home, and fortunately he was not harmed. Indigenous authorities demand security guarantees for social leaders in the territory.

Defender Targeted for Her Peace and Ethnic Rights Work (Valle del Cauca)
On January 7, and again on January 29 and 30, social leader María Eugenia Mosquera—who is affiliated with Communities Building Peace in Colombia (Comunidades Construyendo Paz en Colombia, CONPAZCOL) and FOR Peace Presence—received threatening text messages on WhatsApp from an individual alleging to form part of an illegal armed group in Buenaventura. A long time defender who has accompanied numerous civil society initiatives in the Pacific region, her recent work includes accompanying the collective land restitution process for the La Esperanza Community Council, gathering testimonies from the Naya River Black Community Council for a report to the Truth Commission, developing a search strategy for the Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons (Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas dadas por Desaparecidas, UBPD), and documenting cases of forced recruitment in urban areas of Buenaventura.

The January 7 messages declared that three individuals from the armed group are observing her and threatened action against her if she continued to undertake human rights work. FOR Peace Presence, CONPAZCOL, the National Ethnic Coordination for Peace (CENPAZ), and the Convida20 Global Alliance are insisting that the following actions are taken by State institutions:

  • The Ministry of the Interior, the National Protection Unit and the Risk Evaluation and Measures Recommendation Committee (CERREM) need to review and upgrade the current measures provided to Mosquera—a bulletproof vest and a cellphone—in order to prevent irreparable harm to her life.
  • The Attorney General’s office needs to urgently establish the origin of the messages and carry out investigations to identify the material and intellectual authors of the threat.
  • The Ombudsman’s office needs to activate alerts about this case and others in Colombia’s Pacific.

On January 29 and 30—following field work accompanied by FOR Peace Presence, Fellowship of Reconciliation Austria, and the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective—Mosquera received new threats by the same unidentified group from a different phone number. Four hours after reporting the new messages to the National Police and the Attorney General’s office, Mosquera received further threats for “having reported and shared the phone number” with authorities. The armed group continued messaging asking her “to pay a million pesos or her family will face the consequences”. Another statement published on February 1 by the same rights organizations urged action by State institutions:

  • The Attorney General’s office and the National Police need to advance investigations into the case from Bogotá, as it is evident there are no guarantees of an independent investigation in Buenaventura or Popayán.
  • The Ministry of the Interior and the National Protection Unit need to adopt appropriate material protection measures for Mosquera.
  • The Ombudsman’s Office needs to intervene to ensure proper investigations and protection.

WOLA has worked closely with Mosquera for over a decade and urges the U.S. Embassy to meet with Mosquera virtually to determine the best steps it can take to guarantee her safety and security.

Six Assassinations in Less than 24 Hours by Criminal Gangs in Buenaventura (Valle del Cauca)
On December 30, several heavily armed criminal gangs killed six people in violent attacks on communities in the port city of Buenaventura. The armed individuals on motorcycles split up in different low-income communities known as comunas and allegedly shot indiscriminately. The victims include a 17-year-old minor from comuna 12, a 41-year-old from comuna 12, 25-year-old Jeferson Fajardo Riascos from comuna 5, 28-year-old Dennis Mauricio Sánchez Ortiz from comuna 5, 48-year-old Reinaldo Restrepo Vélez from comuna 6, and 20-year-old Andrés Riascos Aguiño from comuna 9. Authorities are trying to determine if all the cases are connected and are attempting to identify the material and intellectual authors of this violent streak.

Social Leaders and Local Community Receive Death Threats (Bolívar)
On January 18, in El Salado, Bolívar department, menacing flyers circulated in the community of Los Montes de María. The flyers signed by the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras) threatened community social leaders including Yirely Velasco and Luis Torres. Photos of the social leaders were printed on the flyers and are accompanied by quotes such as “People who appear on this list, and whose photographs and names are here, will leave or we are coming for you at any time”. The Victims of Carmen Bolívar Working Group (La Mesa de las Víctimas del Carmen Bolívar) demand guarantees for both the threatened social leaders and civilians in the community. They request the government provide territorial protection and ask that the United Nations observe and acknowledge the lack of peace implementation in the community, where civilians live in constant fear. The Secretary of the Interior of Bolívar, Carlos Feliz Monsalve, stated that the flyers are being openly investigated and a plan of protection for the community has been activated.

CREDHOS Condemns Human Rights Violations by Paramilitary Groups (Antioquia)
On January 14, the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (Corporación Regional para la Defensa de Los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOSpublished a statement that condemned illegal paramilitary groups for recent human rights violations and infringements of the International Humanitarian Law committed against social leaders, ex-combatants and the population at large of Magdalena Medio. They demand all armed groups to comply with protocols that are in place to protect civilians and to respect all human rights. They hold authorities accountable for the lack of justice and protection for human rights.

Leaders Forced to Lower Their Profile Due to Presence of Illegal Armed Groups (Sucre)
On January 3, Peace on the Ground (La Paz en El Terrenopublished a report that identifies the under-publicized and dangerous security conditions that force community social leaders in the Sucre department to carry out their work under the radar of illegal armed groups. According to data collected by the consortium, since the ratification of the 2016 peace accord, investigators registered at least 47 attacks by illegal armed groups against social leaders in eight different municipalities in Sucre. Social leaders who defend land and environmental rights, victims’ rights, women and LGBT+ rights, the right to an education, and coca crop substitution are among the most targeted by armed groups. Rural farmers and indigenous are most affected by the increased incidences of silent and violent land dispossession.

The report points to Sucre’s abundant access to waterways and the Caribbean, as a strategic drug trafficking area for illegal armed groups such as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) paramilitary. The Los Caparros paramilitary group is also active in the southern part of the department and are believed to have an alliance with the Gulf Clan and the Sinaloa Cartel, who control large-scale coca cultivation in Colombia. Social leaders also identified the transitory presence of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) as a lethal risk. These armed groups harass and intimidate the communities they operate in through social control, economic sanctions, and restrictions on mobility, among other tactics. Social leaders who defend human rights feel that they are fighting this situation on their own.

Defender Threatened (Cauca)
On January 2, armed men accosted a young man with a gun to his head and asked him if he was Leider Valencia, a prominent human rights defender. Valencia is a municipal delegate member of various social organizations in Miranda, Cauca department. He has toured the U.S. as a speaker for the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective. Authorities should publicly denounce this incident and take steps to guarantee Valencia’s safety and physical integrity.

Armed Men Invade Humanitarian Space to Recruit Young People (Valle Del Cauca)
On January 8, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz) announced that six armed men from the paramilitary group La Loca entered the Humanitarian Space Puente Nayero in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca department and remained without any intervention from the military or police. This group extorts money from local merchants, commits murder, internally displaces, and intimidates residents. It also recruits young people from the Humanitarian Space for 600.000 COP pesos (about USD $170). Residents in Buenaventura denounce the alleged complicity of the police with the paramilitary actors, and although the inhabitants of the humanitarian area have been granted precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACH), they continue to be dismissed by the State, violating the rights of Afro-descendants.

80 Families at Risk of Displacement (North Santander)
On December 28, the National Commission for Human Rights and Peace of the Petroleum Industry Workers’ Union (Comisión Nacional de Derechos y Paz de la Unión Sindical Obrera de la Industria Petróleodenounced an incursion by alleged Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) paramilitaries in La Silla hamlet in Tibú, North Santander. Heavily armed men entered an area locally known as Cerro Mono, where armed confrontations with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla group have increased. At least 80 families in the area are at risk of displacement, according to the Catatumbo Campesino Association (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT). The State has not appropriately responded to the security threats despite previous alerts to authorities about the imminent danger, including an alert from the Ombudsman’s office. ASCAMCAT is calling for immediate state action and an investigation into why preventative actions were not taken.

Armed Confrontations Put Afro-Colombian Civilians at High Risk (Valle del Cauca)
On December 28, ELN guerrillas attacked and killed 7 members of the Jaime Martínez structure of the former FARC, who were transiting through the Yurumanguí River. The attack occurred close to the San Gerónimo hamlet—a rural area outside of Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca department—where corpses have since appeared on the shore. The ELN warned community members that the attack against the FARC dissidents was in retaliation to a previous confrontation and ordered the community not to move beyond their immediate living spaces since they installed several landmines. According to a statement by the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council (Consejo Nacional de Paz Afrocolombiano) and CODHES, guerrilla operations and attacks put the ethno-territorial rights of these communities at immense risk and violate their community guidelines. The rights organizations called on the guerrilla groups to respect International Humanitarian Law and respect the communities. The statement also called on the National Government to comply with the 2016 peace accord and establish a working group with the Yurumanguí River Community to ensure their security and territorial rights.

Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Disproportionately Suffer Mass Displacements (Nariño, Choco)  
On January 7, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, civil liberties and human rights organization, reported that in 2020 the number of people displaced and kidnapped by illegal armed groups increased drastically. There were 90 massive displacements throughout the country, mainly due to clashes between armed groups, intimidation, and the murder of social leaders. The majority of incidents occurred in Nariño and Choco. Of the 90 displacements, 71 occurred in ethnic territories, meaning that 85 percent of individuals displaced are Afro-descendants and Indigenous. Further, given that these occurred during a pandemic the humanitarian situation IDPs are facing is particularly grave.

Outrage Over Rape, Torture, and Murder Of 11-Year-Old Afro-Colombian Girl (Cauca)
On January 11, local authorities found eleven-year-old Maira Alejandra Orobio Solís dead near the “Monica Home (Hogar Monica), a home for vulnerable children and property of the Apostolic Vicariate of Guapi, Cauca department. Trauma marks on her body show an indication of rape and torture.  Bishop Alberto Correa Martinez vehemently condemned the torture, rape, and murder of Orobio, who is the third victim of femicide in 2021 in the Cauca department. The local community expresses their pain and indignation at the horrendous acts through social media and have taken to the streets to protest the recurring acts of gender-based violence as evidenced by rising cases of femicide. Along with the Mayor, social leader Paulino Riascos denounced the situation and called for immediate investigations to capture those responsible for the heinous crime. Similarly, Claudia Quintero Rolon, who manages a shelter for victims of gender-based violence, noted that racial discrimination plays a role in these women’s victimization. She encourages leaders and officials to address these crimes taking into account race and gender when constructing environments to keep women and girls safe.

Three Violently Murdered and One Person Severely Injured (Valle del Cauca)
On January 12, an unidentified man murdered three people and severely injured another in an attack in the Santa Elena neighborhood of Cali, Valle del Cauca department. The three victims are Luz Edilma Castadeña, Leniz Calvas, and a man who is only identified by appearance and not name. El Pais, a Colombian newspaper, reports that from January 1 to January 11, authorities have registered 33 violent murders in Cali.

First Alert of 2021 by Ombudsman’s Office Emphasizes Critical Security Situation (Caquetá, Cauca, Putumayo)
On January 8, the Ombudsman’s office issued its first early warning alert in 2021. The alert underscored the risks, owing to the continued presence of illegal armed groups, faced by residents of Piamonte, Cauca department; Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo department; and San José del Fragua, Curillo, and Solita in the Caquetá department. At least 73,141 people are at risk including children, Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, women, LGBT+ persons, and social leaders and human rights defenders, and former combatants. Among the different armed groups who operate in these areas include the Carolina Ramírez Front of the FARC’s dissidents, the Sinaloa Cartel, and the Comandos of the Borders (Comandos de la Frontera). This environment has allowed for the inception of new, smaller organized crime groups like the Blues (Azules), the Scorpions (Escorpiones), the Niches, and the Cobra. A successor paramilitary group from the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) known as the Constru has partnered with the Sinaloa Cartel in cocaine production and trafficking. These illicit activities have led to violent attacks against residents, terror and intimidation, as well as displacement and forced recruitment.

Petroleum Company Allegedly Paid Armed Group To Continue Its Operations (Putumayo)
On December 23, displaced families from the Putumayo department denounced a series of threats against environmentalists in the region by the paramilitary group Commandos of the Border (Comandos de la Frontera). According to CIJP, the families fled the region after paramilitaries warned of consequences for anyone opposing Amerisur’s extractivist operations in Bloque Put 8. A man from the paramilitary group told community members that the company is enraged with the Perla Amazónica Campesino Reserve’s demands for environmental protection. The paramilitaries allegedly negotiated with the company to ensure its extractivist activities continue. Within its strategy of territorial social control, the paramilitary group also stigmatizes and deliberately conflates environmental activists with the Carolina Ramírez Front of the FARC’s dissidents. This logic of associating activists with guerrilla groups coincides with that of military units. Despite years-long complaints about environmental damage by extractivism and ensuing retaliation for speaking out, judicial processes fall through. Fear and anxiety are taking hold in the community due to a longstanding lack of State action to guarantee their rights.

DeJusticia Takes Legal Action to Guarantee Land Rights (Cundinamarca and Meta)
On December 16, DeJusticia—along with four other rural farmers; organizations and the Prosecutor-General’s office—presented a constitutional writ (tutela) seeking to have the National Land Agency(Agencia Nacional de Tierras, ANT) establish three Campesino Reserve Zones (Zonas de Reserva Campesina, ZRC) that have complied with all legal protocols and remain unjustifiably stagnant. The three zones include Sumapaz (Cundinamarca department), Losada-Guayabero (Meta department), and Güejar-Cafre (Meta department). The communities began the process to establish themselves as ZRCs in 2011 but have not seen any progress in the last four years. Only one additional step is needed to advance the process of equal land distribution and ensure due process is granted. It is up to the government to promote the ZRCs, taking into consideration that Campesinos are subject to constitutional protection. The ZRCs are important to peace, as they address longstanding issues with lands and agrarian reform like state abandonment, land grabbing, and the armed conflict.

Journalist Granted Precautionary Measures by the IACHR (Cundinamarca)
On January 14, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued Resolution 6/2021, thereby granting precautionary measures to Ricardo Calderón Villegas. The Commission requested that the Colombian State adopt the necessary measures to protect Calderón’s life and grant him safe conditions to carry out his press work. According to the request, Calderón is at serious and urgent risk due to threats, surveillance, and monitoring by those he identified as State agents and other third parties. This surveillance stems from his work as a journalist. Calderón, the former director of the investigative team at the weekly news magazine Semana, was among the at least 130 victims of surveillance by the Colombian military in an episode unveiled in May 2020. Calderón has faced serious risks when denouncing alleged irregularities committed by members of the military on issues of national importance such as the “false positives” extrajudicial killings saga, “profiling,” or allegations of military corruption, which have had a high impact in Colombian society.

Organizations Denounce Coal Mining Company Before the OECD (La Guajira)
On January 20, GLAN, Christian Aid, the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CAJAR) and CINEP/PPP announced they are bringing the Cerrejón coal mining company before the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in connection to the damages it has caused in La Guajira department. Several investigations and court rulings attest to the systematic rights violations by companies extracting coal in La Guajira, including more than 14 court rulings that affirm Cerrejón and the Colombian State violated territorial rights. In Cerrejón, the largest open-pit coal mine in the world, mining operations use 24 million liters of water per day, enough to feed 150,000 people. Mining activity has depleted 40 percent of the water sources in the department, increasing water stress and the crisis of water access in a department experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, further aggravated by the pandemic. More than 25 communities have been displaced, confined, and dispossessed from their ancestral territories, and more than 17 tributary streams of the Ranchería—the only river in the department—have been polluted and/or diverted, among the many effects of extractive activity in La Guajira.