Since our last urgent action on Colombia, WOLA has received reports on the national strike protests, ongoing massacres, mass episodes of internal displacement, threats against and assassinations of social leaders and environmental justice advocates, developments regarding the transitional justice system, and other pressing matters, which we summarize below.
We strongly encourage members of the House of Representatives to sign on to the Dear Colleague letter, led by Representative Hank Johnson addressed to Secretary of State Blinken, urging for the prioritization of ethnic rights amid Colombia’s national strike. The deadline to sign on is Tuesday, August 10 at 2:00 p.m.
We also invite you to watch the July 28 webinar WOLA hosted with activists, scholars, and community organizers in Cali, Valle del Cauca department—the epicenter of the protests—who gave firsthand accounts of the conditions of the protests, their community projects, and their visions for dialogue and peace in Colombia.
Academics Demand Respect for Ethnic Communities and Their Right to Protest
On May 28, a group of national and international academics, who were invited to participate in building public policy inclusive to ancestral and traditional knowledge, sent a letter to the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (Minsciencias) denouncing the brutal repression of nationwide protests. In the letter, the academics underscore the contradiction of working with the government to build policies inclusive to ethnic communities, at a time when the government is engaging in brutal repression against the very ethnic communities the proposed policy making aims to help. The academics argue the government’s intention to advance a policy for the protection of traditional knowledge and ancestral knowledge of the communities in the territories lacks credibility when the government threatens life, allows impunity for military and non-military actors, stigmatizes social mobilization, and violates the fundamental right to protest. They further emphasize that the violence in the territories, the precarious conditions of access to drinking water, health and food, as well as the stigmatization of the organizational processes and ways of life of the communities—most of which are inhabited by Indigenous, Afro-descendant and campesino communities—is a clear expression of the structural racism of the modern colonial world system that the government exercises in the territories. The academics demand the government build policy through a respectful dialogue with the communities from the territories. Guaranteeing ethnic rights is essential to developing policies on traditional knowledge and ancestral knowledge in accordance with the standards established by the Constitutional Court and international law.
Priest Threatened for Humanitarian Work Amid National Strike (Valle del Cauca)
Throughout May and June, several unknown actors threatened Methodist pastor Luis Miguel Caviedes Moreno for his humanitarian work, particularly his support to youth participating in the national strike. As reported by the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP), on May 2, unknown armed actors shot at Pastor Caviedes Moreno as he spoke to youth. On May 11, his relative received a suspicious call trying to identify his phone number. On May 20, a suspicious individual appeared at a shop owned by the Pastor’s relative and remained at the entrance until said individual was questioned for their behavior. On May 28, an agent from the Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol (Dirección de Investigación Criminal e Interpol) requested his identification and examined his church before reporting back to the police station. On that same day, civilians saved the Pastor when they warned of shots fired on the road ahead of him. On May 31, police officers threatened the Pastor after he tried to stop an altercation that broke out between young protestors and the police, in which a member of the riot squadron (ESMAD) threw tear gas directly at a protester. On June 9, the Pastor’s motorcycle was tampered with, and on June 11, an unknown assailant threatened him. On June 19, a suspicious car observed his meeting with other human rights defenders. As noted by the CIJP in its report, the danger in which Pastor Luis Miguel finds himself is evidence of the government’s lack of protection guarantees, even when it has the obligation to protect the Pastor and his community.
Civil Society Group Calls for Dismantlement of Anti-Riot Police Unit, ESMAD (Cundinamarca)
On July 7, the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos, CCEEU), in the context of Colombia’s national strike, published a special newsletter about the anti-riot police (ESMAD), where it characterized the security force as having an “innate vocation for human rights violations and the suppression of the right to social protest.” The newsletter laid out the history of the anti-riot police, how it has gravely abused human rights throughout its existence and in the recent wave of protests, and made an explicit call for its dismantlement. The newsletter outlines patterns of grave abuses and mismanagement like an excessive use of force and highly violent tactics to break up demonstrations, including peaceful ones; the lack of command and compliance with local civilian authorities and exclusive obedience to the Ministry of Defense; an almost complete absence of controls by the agencies under the Public Prosecutor’s Office; the adamant rejection to any requests for accountability; the improper use of the erroneously termed “reduced lethality weapons,” which have resulted in the killings of dozens of protestors; the use of non-conventional weaponry (machetes, firearms concealed in uniforms, and knives) as well as the use of less lethal weaponry contrary to indicated protocols of use; the deliberate targeting of civilians and civil society groups documenting human rights abuses; and the discriminatory practices carried out against women and LGBT+ individuals. The CCEEU called for the complete dismantlement of the anti-riot police, due to its long track record of violating its constitutional and legal obligations.
Human Rights Groups Demand a Condemnation against Brutal Protest Repression
Between April 28, the start of the national strike protests, and June 28, violence and repression against thousands of protestors prompted 300 Colombian human rights organizations and NGOs to request that the UN Human Rights Council denounce the repression and ask the Colombian government to protect civilians’ rights. Through statements obtained from various organizations, Anadolu Agency reported that during the protests, there have been at least 83 reported homicides, 27 of which were attributed to the riot police (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD); 320 disappearances, half of which authorities have yet to recognize; 80 ocular wounds; 114 bullet wounds; 3,200 arbitrary detainments and torture. Most instances of repression and violence are improperly investigated, assigned to the wrong jurisdiction, or not investigated at all.
Police Violence Victims Harassed and Intimidated (Valle del Cauca)
On July 9, civilians, police dressed in civilian clothes, and police in uniform harassed and intimidated victims of police violence and human rights violations as they gave their testimonies to SOSColombia Mission International. The Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) reported that throughout the day, police rode motorcycles and other vehicles while stalking the entrance of the church where victims were giving their testimonies. They took pictures, intimidated victims, and placed their hands next to their firearms. One victim was followed by civilians.
Massacres Continue at Alarming Rates in 2021
Between January and May 2021, newspaper El Espectador recorded at least 35 massacres throughout Colombia. With a monthly average like that of 2020, Routes of the Conflict (Rutas del Conflicto)—the investigative team at the newspaper leading this research—noted how these massacres reflect the increasing violence in the country in recent years, in areas where former paramilitary groups and guerrillas are reshaping themselves. The regions most affected by this violence closely correlate to areas where the government is failing to uphold the implementation of the 2016 peace accord with the former FARC. The team built a database that documents where and under what circumstances these massacres were committed, who the victims are, and the groups that carry out these crimes in each region. Their research shows that, contrary to what the government claims, in most cases victims were not part of criminal organizations. Rather, the crimes are motivated by different interests, such as forced recruitment, so-called ‘social cleansing,’ and territorial control by illegal armed groups.
Armed Actors Massacre Civilians (Caquetá)
On June 26, members of a FARC dissident group, known as the Edison Five Thousand from the Eastern Bloc (Edison Cinco Mil del Bloque Oriental, ECMBO), murdered 5 men in the San Vicente del Caguán municipality, Caquetá department, as evidenced by notes left on the bodies. The Ombudsman’s Office put out an Early Alert warning about the presence of FARC dissidents in the area, including fronts led by alias Gentil Duarte, as well as a faction of the Second Marquetalia. The massacre is the 45th identified by INDEPAZ in 2021.
Territorial Dispute among Armed Groups Results in At Least 25 Civilian Dead (Bolívar)
On July 9, a territorial dispute between the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), a front from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), and the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo), killed at least 25 civilians. The dispute occurred in the Morales and Santa Rosa municipalities of the Bolívar department, as reported by the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos, CCEEU) and the Committee of the Foundation for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Comité de la Fundación de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos, CFSPP). According to INDEPAZ, this is the 51st massacre of 2021 with at least 189 massacre victims documented.
Internal Displacement Crisis Affects Thousands in the Pacific Region (Nariño)
On June 27, the Human Rights Network of the Nariño Pacific (Red de Derechos Humanos del Pacifico Nariñense, REDHPANA) and the Orlando Fals Borda Socio-Legal Collective (Colectivo Socio-Jurídico Orlando Fals Borda) published an alert notifying the international community of the internal displacement and humanitarian crises occurring in the Roberto Payán municipality, Nariño department. Over the course of June, illegal armed groups operating in the region displaced more than 2,200 families, made up of at least 7,853 people. As of the date of the alert, the individuals affected by the ongoing crises include 5,685 adult men and women, 31 infants, 2,050 children, 2 elders, and 39 individuals with disabilities. At the moment, humanitarian assistance is lacking. The organizations pleaded with the Colombian government and state institutions to ensure protections for those displaced, and with the international community to raise awareness on the crises.
Armed Groups Confine and Internally Displace Indigenous (Chocó)
On June 28, the Ombudsman of Pueblo Rico in Risaralda, Chocó department reported the confinement and internal displacement of hundreds of Indigenous, a result of illegal armed groups, such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), operating in their reservations. The displaced Indigenous from Risaralda have relocated to another reservation in the Chocó department, where armed groups also displace, confine, and terrorize the Indigenous population. . There are at least 510 members from Indigenous communities, who for over a month, have endured the effects of this internal displacement and confinement.
Social Leader Murdered (Antioquia)
On June 14, unknown actors murdered Ángel Miro Cartagena, a campesino leader with Antioquia department’s Territorially Focused Development Plan (Programa de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDET). He went missing and was later found dead on June 20 in a rural zone of Dabeiba, which is known to be controlled by the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) paramilitaries. The Ombudsman’s Office had previously enacted three Early Alerts related to paramilitary violence. According to Liberty Law Corporation (Corporación Jurídica Libertad) and Sumapaz Foundation (Fundación Sumapaz), Miro Cartagena is one of 11 leaders murdered in Antioquia this year, and according to INDEPAZ, he is the 76th social leader murdered in 2021 and one of 1,192 killed since the signing of the 2016 peace accords.
Coordinator Attacked by Armed Actors, Dead from Injuries (Huila)
On June 15, unknown armed actors shot Derly Pastrana, the coordinator for the Victim’s Working Group in the Huila department (Mesa de Víctimas del Huila, MVH). On July 7, UN Human Rights in Colombia announced via Twitter that Pastrana had passed away from her injuries. This was the fourth attempt made against the social leader’s life. According to INDEPAZ, Pastrana is the 87th social leader murdered in 2021 and one of 1,203 murdered since the signing of the 2016 peace accord.
Social Leader and Family Murdered (Antioquia)
On June 18, unknown armed actors murdered social leader Luis Hernando Castrillón, his wife, his son, and a young man with cognitive impairments, in the Yolombó municipality of the Antioquia department. Contagio Radio reported the presence of the Gaitanist Self-Defense (Autodefensas Gaitanistas, AGC) paramilitary in the area. According to INDEPAZ, this is the 53rd massacre carried out this year, raising the total number of homicide victims to 200; compared to this time last year, the number of massacres have only continued surging.
Community Leader Murdered (Antioquia)
On June 20, the bodies of Diana Jaramillo Henao, a leader dedicated to service in her community in the Bello municipality, and two others were found in sealed plastic bags in North Valle de Aburrá, Antioquia department. The Ombudsman’s Office stated that the presence of paramilitary and criminal groups in Antioquia, Gulf Clan and Los Caparrapos, is growing. Their presence threatens the safety and security of communities. According to INDEPAZ, Diana was the 82nd leader killed this year, and one of more than 1,196 killed since the signing of the 2016 peace accord.
Report Analyzes Risks Faced by Social Leaders and Human Rights Defenders During Pandemic (Cauca)
On June 25, the Colombian Commission of Jurists (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas) published a report outlining the situation of social leaders and human rights defenders during the pandemic in the Cauca department between March 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021. At the onset of the pandemic, President Duque declared a public health emergency, ordering mandatory preventive isolation measures throughout the country. Despite these isolation measures, armed actors continued to target social leaders and human rights defenders because of the work they undertake. During the analyzed period, armed actors assassinated at least 84 social leaders in the Cauca department.
Murdered Young Man Found (Antioquia)
On June 28, the body of a young man named Calen Álvarez López was found with six gunshot wounds from unidentified armed actors between the municipalities of Remedios and Yondó in the Antioquia department. The Humanitarian Action for Coexistence and Peace Corporation in Northeastern Antioquia (Corporación Acción Acción Humanitaria por la Convivencia y la Paz del Nordeste Antioqueño, Cahucopana Nordeste) expressed concern with the increasing violence in the area and lack of rights protections for rural farming communities.
Illegal Armed Groups Murder Social Leader (Nariño)
On July 28, illegal armed groups murdered Danilo Torres, a social leader and legal representative for Manos Unidas Community Council in the Patía River (Consejo Comunitario Manos Unidas en el río Patía, CCMURP). RCN reported that a member of the Gulf Clan kidnapped Torres on June 26 Two of Torres’s brothers were also kidnapped and murdered at separate times. The Ombudsman’s Office published an alert about the activity of dissident groups from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC); similarly, the Human Rights Network of Pacific Nariño and Coastal Foothills (Red de Derechos Humanos del Pacifico Nariñense y Pie de Monte Costero, ReDHPaNa) expressed security concerns. According to INDEPAZ, Torres is the 82nd social leader murdered in 2021, and one of 1,198 killed since the signing of the 2016 peace accord.
Armed Actors Abduct Social Activist (Nariño)
On June 29, unknown armed actors abducted a father and social activist, Flavio Riascos, in the city of Tumaco, Nariño department. NGO Justice for Colombia notified the public about the abduction via Twitter and stated that human rights groups are calling for the activist to be returned safely. Nearby communities remain vulnerable.
Bomb Thrown, Murder Attempts Made Against Environmental Leaders (Chocó)
On June 27, a homemade bomb was thrown at the home of Leovigildo Cabrera, in an attempt to kill him and three other Indigenous members of the Environmental Humanitarian Protection Guard (Resguardo Humanitario Ambiental, RHA), among them a child. Fortunately, the victims survived. Evidence left behind by three attackers was found near the Biodiverse Humanitarian Reserve, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) reported. After September 2020, the Embera community was targeted when they drove away drug traffickers and their armed supporters from the Gulf Clan by eradicating coca plantations. The community has also been threatened after their efforts to protect the sacred Cerro Cara de Perro from an exploitative and extractive multinational metal mining company. The community has demanded help from the Colombian government to no avail.
Environmental Social Leaders and Land Defenders Assassinated while Congress Failed to Ratify Environmental Justice Agreement
On June 20, the Escazú Agreement failed to pass during the Colombian Congress’ legislative period and was ultimately tabled. The agreement is an environmental framework, ratified by 12 other Latin American countries, which seeks to guarantee access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making processes, and enact provisions to advance environmental justice. Although the Colombian government committed to ratifying the agreement during international forums, conservative politicians in Colombia actively opposed, sabotaged, and blocked the legislation formally introduced in July 2020. According to newspaper El Espectador, while the agreement remained stalled in Congress between July 2020 and April 2021, at least 44 environmental leaders and land defenders were assassinated because of their environmental justice work. El Espectador obtained the figure after a case-by-case review of the NGO We are Defenders’ (Somos Defensores) database tracking social leaders murdered. Data for May and June 2021, when the legislation’s ratification was formally blocked, is not yet available. Of the 44 environmental defenders killed, almost half—21—were Indigenous authorities or guards. The Awá peoples in Nariño department were the most affected, with nine murders in their reserves. Leaders who promoted voluntary coca crop substitution and alternative agricultural activities were among the many land defenders killed.
Unknown Armed Actors Intimidate Participants of Environmental Wetland Sit-in Protest (Cundinamarca)
On July 5, unknown armed actors fired shots into the Tibabuyes Wetland, where ongoing sit-in demonstrations against proposed work by the Water and Sewage Company of Bogotá (Empresa de Acueducto y Alcantarillado de Bogotá, EAAB) have taken place since November 2020. The members of this peaceful protest, called “Permanent Camp for Life and Territory,” (Campamento Permanente por la Vida y el Territorio), found bullet shells around their encampments. They called on Bogotá’s Mayor’s Office to reinforce security in the area.
Medic, Environmentalist, and Social Leader Murdered (Caquetá)
On July 3, unknown armed actors shot and killed Fernando Vela—a social leader, medic, and environmentalist—near Florencia municipality, Caquetá department. According to El Espectador, Vela created a natural reserve where he worked with campesinos and producers to find alternatives to deforestation and coca cultivation practices. He also spent years researching and addressing the Amazonian environmental conflict, deforestation, the contamination of water resources, among other items, and planned to release a documentary that included 40 interviews he had conducted in the Amazon region.
Fisherman Murdered (Valle del Cauca)
On June 18, unknown armed actors murdered Gustavo Solís Ramos, a fisherman and member of the Mayorquín River Community Council (Consejo Comunitario del Río Mayorquín, CCRM) in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca department. The Black Communities Process (Proceso de Comunidades Negras, PCN) has denounced the murder and called for an end to ethnocide.
Transitional Justice Tribunal Indicts a General, Army Officers, and Private Citizen for Extrajudicial Killings (North Santander)
On July 6, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP)—the transitional justice tribunal devised in Colombia’s 2016 peace accord—indicted a general, six army officers, three non-commissioned officers, and a private citizen for their alleged responsibility in a spate of extrajudicial killings, also known as the so-called false positives. The indictment, a part of the tribunal’s macro-case 003, charges the 11 individuals for their decisive participation in the murder of at least 120 defenseless people in Catatumbo between January 2007 and August 2008. The JEP collected evidence through victims’ and human rights groups, witnesses, and state documents. The killings were presented as combat casualties in efforts to demonstrate the effectiveness of military tactics. The JEP recognized in its indictment that this systematic practice of extrajudicial killings would not have occurred without the culture of incentives and constant pressure exerted by commanders on their ranks, as well as the harmful stigmatization of the civilian population.
The JEP identified the accused through their positions of leadership at the time the egregious practice took place, whether they actively participated or tacitly ignored the systematic killings. The accused individuals include General Paulino Coronado Gámez who was the commander of the 30th Brigade; Colonels Santiago Herrera Fajardo and Rubén Darío Castro Gómez, former commanders of the 15th Mobile Brigade; Lieutenant Colonel Álvaro Diego Tamayo Hoyos, former commander of Infantry Battalion No. 15 ‘General Francisco Paula Santander’ of Ocaña; Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel Jesús Rincón Amado, former commander of the 15th Infantry Battalion of Ocaña; Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel Jesús Rincón Amado, former operations officer of the 15th Mobile Brigade; Major Juan Carlos Chappano of Ocaña; and Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel Jesús Rincón Amado, former operations officer of the 15th Mobile Brigade. The JEP also charged former intelligence officers of the Ocaña Intelligence Center (CIOCA): Captain Daladier Rivera Jácome; Staff Sergeant Rafael Antonio Urbano Muñoz, Staff Sergeant Sandro Mauricio Pérez Contreras, First Sergeant Néstor Guillermo Gutiérrez Salazar, and civilian Alexander Carretero Díaz.
13 Years Later, Military Murder Investigation Continues (Cauca)
On July 8, a hearing was held in Cauca department at the Piçkwe Tha Fxiw reservation to proceed with the case of José Edwin Legarda Vázquez, the husband of Indigenous leader Aida Marina Quilcué, murdered by the Colombian military under the Democratic Security (Seguridad Democrática) doctrine 13 years ago. Last year, a report related to the case was presented to the Truth Commission (Comisión de Esclarecimiento de la Verdad, CEV) and to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP). The JEP has allowed military officials implicated in the case to remain conditionally free. Contingent on the evidence found and presented for this case, the legal process could last another five to ten years. Vázquez’s family seeks to hold high-level military officials involved in the murder responsible. They also seek reparations for Vázquez’s murder.
Bodies of Four Disappeared Civilians Found (Meta)
On May 27, four members from a land restitution commission in the Meta department, including two land claimants, an official from the Land Restitution Unit (Unidad de Restitución de Tierras, URT), and a van driver, disappeared as they were on their way to aid in a farm property’s land restitution process. El Espectador reported one of the land claimants was threatened for claiming the land, and she depended on basic security and protection from the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP). On July 6, four decomposed bodies were turned into the forensics office (Instituto de Medicina Legal) in Villavicencio . Although the bodies had yet to be identified as the four missing persons, the Ombudsman’s Office claimed that no other people near the borders of the Uribe and Mesetas municipalities had disappeared. FARC dissident groups, such as the 40th Front, led by alias Gentil Duarte, and the Second Marquetalia, led by Iván Márquez, are present in the area, according to El Espectador. Disputes amongst themselves over control of the territory continue to occur.
Armed Actors Kill Police Officers and Attack Civilians (Cauca)
On June 4, unknown armed actors attacked and killed members of the National Police in the Santander de Quilichao municipality, Cauca department. Two police members were killed, and of the Indigenous civilians caught in the crossfire, six were injured. Two women, including a child, were taken to Cali to treat grave wounds. The Network for the Defense of Life and Human Rights (Tejido de Defensa de la Vida y los Derechos Humanos, TDVDH) published an alert detailing the situation, and condemned and called for an end to the violence.
Shots Fired by Illegal Armed Youth Groups Near Humanitarian Area (Valle del Cauca)
On June 4, five young men from the “Spartans” (Espartanos), one of two illegal armed youth groups that have inherited La Local’s paramilitarism in the Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca department, fired nine gunshots near the Puente Nayero humanitarian space. On June 5, five more gunshots were fired. As reported by the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP), the gunshots pose a threat to the community given that the bullets can easily pass through most of the wooden building structures. According to the CIJP, the formation of groups like the “Spartans” and the “Chotas” have led to an increase in territorial disputes, homicides, disappearances, displacements, threats, and youth recruitment in the region.
Thousands of Venezuelan Refugees Murdered, Injured, and Disappeared in Colombia (Cundinamarca)
On June 19, the NGO Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (ONG Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, CODHES) reported that between 2015 and 2020, at least 1,933 Venezuelan migrants and refugees were murdered and 836 were disappeared in Colombia. According to CODHES, the murder rate for Venezuelan migrants is 2.8 times higher than that of Colombians. At least 2,319 Venezuelans, the majority women and minors, were victims of sexual violence. Diario Las Américas also reported that 30 countries—led by Canada, Germany, and the United States—pledged millions in aid to address the Venezuelan migration crisis.
Colombia Categorized as One of the Most Dangerous Countries in the World for Labor Unionists
On July 1, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released the eighth edition of its Global Rights Index, a document that lists the main violations of workers’ rights in the world, and Colombia appears as one of the top ten countries in the world where labor rights are least respected. According to their data, 22 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia between April 2020 and March 2021, which makes the country the deadliest for labor leaders in the world. Most crimes remain unsolved, as the government continues to fail to allocate the necessary means to carry out a timely investigation and prosecution of those responsible. By failing to grant them adequate protection, the lives of trade unionists and their families remain permanently threatened. In addition to murders and impunity, there are also anti-union attacks and dismissals in the country. Trade union activities are hampered as employers regularly infringe on the right to form unions and remove workers’ representatives through dismissals or by not renewing their contracts.