WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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30 Aug 2021 | News

Repression of Colombia’s National Strike Continues Amid Post-Accord Violence

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has received various reports from Colombia since our last urgent action, which include: the repression of the national strike, spates of massacres, mass episodes of internal displacement, plights of social leaders, abuses against labor unions and activists, securing justice for extrajudicial killings, ongoing abuses against ethnic communities, political violence, and other pressing matters. These are summarized below.

We are also grateful to Representative Hank Johnson and the 15 other Representatives who urged the U.S. Department of State—in an August 10 letter to Secretary Antony Blinken—to prioritize ethnic rights and more forcefully denounce police brutality in Colombia. Thank you for taking a stand to uphold the rights of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous persons and work towards addressing racism in Colombia.

Below are the cases brought to our attention in the past weeks:

National Strike

Curfew Targets Political Organizers En Route to National Assembly Meeting (Valle de Cauca)
On July 14, the Valle del Cauca departmental government enacted a curfew, via a decree active between July 16 and July 22, designed to restrict civilian mobility. According to a statement published by the National Popular Assembly (Asamblea Nacional Popular, ANP)—a social movement that arose in large part because of the state repression against protestors in the context of the national strike—the decree sought to prevent ANP members from traveling to the city of Cali to convene their second national assembly meeting. Using the decree as justification, the departmental government in coordination with the national government increased police presence in the region. The ANP documented police abuses against delegations traveling to Cali on July 16 and 17, including episodes of detention, intimidation, and harassment, which ultimately prevented its members from attending the meeting. The ANP called on the Duque administration to ensure constitutional guarantees for free mobility and freedom of association and assembly. 

Professors Threatened for Supporting National Strike (Atlantic)
On July 19, unknown actors, with assumed paramilitary affiliations, threatened a math professor at the University of the Atlantic (Universidad del Atlántico) in the city of Barranquilla for publicly supporting the national strike. In an opinion piece for El Comején, Gary Martínez Gordon described how his wife Mary and him received death threats via WhatsApp for supporting the national strike. Three other professors at the university were also threatened. Martínez Gordon underscored how the university, which he alleges is under paramilitary influence, has failed to provide Mary with needed support and protection. The university suffers the highest rate of fatalities and violence in comparison to its peers, with the murders of 30 people in five years, in large part because of this alleged paramilitary influence. Mary took to the radio to amplify her case, and authorities including the Ombudsman’s Office, the Atlantic department’s government office, the National Police, and the Attorney General’s Office are supposedly investigating the source of the threats made against them. However, the victims of these threats remain concerned about the increasing violence, as well as the lack of concern and solidarity among their university community and others. 

German Tourist Suffers Assassination Attempt and Expulsion from Country for Supporting Youth in National Strike, One Man Died from the Attempt (Valle del Cauca)
On July 22, a hitman tried to assassinate Rebecca Sprößer, a German tourist who openly expressed support to youth participating in the protests of Colombia’s national strike. Jhoan Sebastián Bonilla, a friend accompanying Sprößer, jumped in front of her when the shots were fired, resulting in 13 bullet wounds because the hitman kept shooting until his gun ran out of bullets. After several days in critical condition, Bonilla died from the injuries he sustained. 

On July 8, before the attack, Bonilla testified before the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) to denounce threats, harassment, and attacks against him and his family including threats, stalking, and physical attacks with weapons. The CIJP urged the international community to help address attacks on community social leaders and help incentivize the Colombian state to uphold justice and support victims of this violence. 

Through recommendations by the Germany Embassy, Sprößer reported the assassination attempt against her to Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office. Sprößer had also reported ongoing threats against her for openly supporting youth in the national strike. On July 27, Colombian immigration officials and police officers detained and deported Sprößer for “carrying out activities that had nothing to do with her status as a tourist, and which could affect civil order and peace.”

Protestor Attacked by ESMAD, the Riot Police (Valle del Cauca)
On July 26, Héctor Manuel Vargas Cobo’s story from the attack he suffered by the riot police—the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (Escuadron Móvil Anti Disturbios, ESMAD)— was featured on Periodismo Libre. On May 17, the ESMAD severely attacked and shot Héctor Manuel Vargas Cobo as he participated in the national strike’s protests on the front lines in Yumbo municipality, Valle del Cauca department. Between May 16 and 17, confrontations with the ESMAD injured 30 protestors and murdered five. As of July, Vargas Cobo has not received aid from his municipal government and does not have the financial means to seek help in Cali, the nearest city that can provide medical support. Despite the injuries sustained, which have kept him bedridden, Vargas Cobo’s spirit is not yet deterred. He encouraged others to go out and peacefully protest if they can. 

Photographer Shot, Freedom of the Press Under Attack (Cundinamarca)
On July 28, the ESMAD shot and severely wounded photographer Andrés Cardona while he was covering the national strike in Bogotá. Unfortunately, this incident is not Cardona’s first. Between the start of the national strike on April 28 and the beginning of August, the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP) has documented 314 attacks against journalists during the protests. The attacks include physical assault, harassment, invasion of privacy, illegal detention, cyberattacks, among others. State security forces are responsible for 195 documented attacks against journalists. The FLIP, Reporters Without Borders (Reporteros Sin Fronteras, RSF) and the International Press Association of Colombia (Asociación de Prensa Internacional de Colombia, APIC) published an alert condemning the attacks and calling on the national government to protect the freedom of the press. 


Illegal Armed Groups Clash and Kill Civilians (Bolívar)
On July 8, the National Liberation Army’s (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) Darío Ramírez Castro front violently clashed with dissidents of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) along the San Lucas mountain range in Bolívar department. Eight individuals from the respective armed groups were killed and many were left wounded. In a different sector, known as the Ye de San Luquitas, the ELN killed three civilians, with the uncorroborated justification the civilians collaborated with the FARC’s dissidents. The Association for Victims of State Crimes (Asociación Víctimas de Crímenes del Estado, ASORVIMM) condemned this violence and asked both the ELN and the FARC dissidents to peacefully disengage to protect civilian safety. 

Three Men Massacred by Armed Actors (Arauca)
On July 28, unidentified actors massacred Jose Nelson Ulejelo, Andres Bustamante, and Andres Cabarca—three members of the same family—in Puerto Rondón municipality, Arauca department in the early hours of the morning. The Ombudsman’s Office published an alert about the rising violence of illegal armed groups in the region, which include members of the Second Marquetalia FARC dissident group, the ELN, and the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo). According to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de estudios para el desarrollo y la paz, INDEPAZ), this is the 59th massacre of 2021. 

Three Men Massacred by Armed Actors (Quindío)
On July 31, two armed men shot and killed three people in Armenia municipality, Quindio department. Among the victims was a 17-year-old Venezuelan minor. According to INDEPAZ, this is the 61st massacre carried out in Colombia this year. The Ombudsman’s Office published an alert warning of the increasing presence of armed groups in the region, like the Gulf Clan.

Five People Shot, Three Murdered At Night (Magdalena)
On August 2, two armed men shot five people and killed three in the middle of the night in Aracataca municipality, Magdalena department. Illegal armed groups are present in the area, including the Gulf Clan. In 2019, the Ombudsman’s Office issued an alert about conflict between armed groups in the area due to drug trafficking. Police began an investigation to track down the material authors. According to INDEPAZ, there have been more than 240 massacre victims in 2021, and this marks the 63rd massacre in Colombia this year alone.

Three Venezuelans in Colombia Murdered (Putumayo)
On August 3, armed actors murdered a Colombian civilian, and two days later on August 5, they murdered three civilians of Venezuelan origin, all between the ages of 21 and 35, in the Putumayo department. The Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) reported that the murders occurred in a region with a substantial presence of the National Police and military security forces. The CIJP also stated that people live in fear of a perilous collapse of peace


Internal Displacement

Internally Displaced People Request Aid (Chocó)
In July, internally displaced Afro-Colombian families in Caldas municipality, Chocó department requested aid from the Ríosucio municipality’s mayor after living nearly five years in deteriorating shelters—where children, the elderly, and the disabled are especially vulnerable to dangerous living conditions. Wooden boards are rotting, gaping holes are scattered throughout, and residents fear that the shelters could collapse at any minute. Families demand the mayor authorize territory allocation to build new shelters and support rebuilding efforts. An organization in Bogotá has offered to fund the construction project, but the mayor must first approve the construction project on the property. The mayor has refused to meet with families, even as they ask not be forgotten and abandoned.

Paramilitary and Guerrilla Violence Internally Displaces Thousands of People (Antioquia)
Since July 19, paramilitary and dissident group violence between the Gulf Clan and former FARC factions has internally displaced more than 3,721 people, who represent 15% of Ituango municipality’s population in  Antioquia department. The region is a strategic location for drug trafficking operations by the illegal armed groups. Unfavorable weather conditions impeded the arrival of humanitarian aid such as medical kits and food. The national government seemingly ignored social groups’ early requests for aid efforts to protect communities facing violence, which they claim is  also a result of the Duque administration’s refusal to fully and comprehensively implement the 2016 peace accord. A Medellín council member has warned the city to prepare for an influx of internally displaced people, to which he pointed to the irony that over half of the population in Medellín voted against the peace referendum. The internally displaced persons arriving in the city mostly voted in favor of the peace referendum.


Social Leaders

Armed Actors Murder Civilians and Social Leader (Cauca)
On July 17, unknown armed actors murdered three civilians inside a public establishment in the Santander de Quilichao municipality, Caucá department, among them a social leader and the husband of the regional community action board’s ex-president. INDEPAZ reported that fronts from the ELN and the Gulf Clan operate in the area. In 2021 alone, this incident marked the 54th recorded murder carried out against a social leader.

Environmental Activist Persecuted by Illegal Armed Groups (Putumayo)
On July 23, assassination plans by the Commandos of the Border—a paramiliatry group also made up of dissidents of the FARC—forced environmental activist Jani Silva to leave the Putumayo department. The group surveilled  Silva’s every move, putting her and close family and friends in danger. The CIJP described how the presence of groups like the CDF speak to the ineffectiveness of Law 975, whose purpose was to discourage and disarm paramilitarism. Since 2020, this pattern of violence has prevented Silva and her organization, Association for the Integral and Sustainable Development of the Amazonian Pearl (Asociación de desarrollo integral sostenible perla amazónica, Adispa), from safely conducting their social and environmental work. Three years ago, the government failed to protect Silva as one of the social leaders of the Perla Amazónica Campesino Reserve Area (Zona de Reserva Campesina Perla Amazónica).

Social Leader Assassinated (North Santander)
On July 25, community members reported the assassination of Jean Carlos Rodríguez Díaz, a community action board president for El Carmen municipality, North Santander department. According to INDEPAZ, his body was found with three gunshot wounds. The Ombudsman’s Office previously warned about the dominant presence of illegal armed groups like the ELN, the Gulf Clan, and FARC dissident groups in the region. As maintained by INDEPAZ, Rodríguez Díaz is the 102nd social leader murdered in 2021, and the 1,218th leader murdered since the signing of the 2016 peace accord. 

Social Leader Framed for Attacks on Military and President (North Santander)
On August 4, the Campesino Association of Catatumbo (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT) publicly declared that Aurelio Suarez did not carry out the attacks against President Duque and the Military’s 30th Brigade on June 15 and 25. ASCAMCAT debunked the media narratives that Suarez is a FARC ex-combatant. They verified his work as the Community Action Board President for the Cañaguatera neighborhood in Gabarra—a small village in the Catatumbo region located in North Santander department. ASCAMCAT affirmed that Catatumbo is a region where judicial set-ups and miscarriages of justice are common against  campesino communities and asked the international community to help ensure due process in any proceedings.

Indigenous Leader Murdered (Putumayo)
On August 5, unknown actors murdered Miguel Muchavisoy in his home located in Sibundoy municipality, Putumayo Department. Muchavisoy was an Indigenous leader of the Sibunday Cabildo Biya Camensta community. According to INDEPAZ, two days before Muchavisoy’s murder, the Putuamayo Human Rights Network (Red de DDHH de Putumayo, RDDHHP) and Cofania Gardens of Sucumbios-Ipiales Nariño (Cofania Jardines de Sucumbios-Ipiales Nariño, CJSIN) issued a warning about rising threats and fatal violence against social leaders, as well as a rise of megamining projects. The Ombudsman’s Office issued its own alerts about illegal armed groups’ control of the territory. As maintained by INDEPAZ, Muchavisoy is the 102nd leader murdered this year, and the 1,220th since the signing of the 2016 peace accord.


Labor Unions

Union Activist Threatened (Valle del Cauca)
On July 23, an unknown man threatened the life of José Julián Parr Messa, a union activist with the Health and Social Security Workers’ Union (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Salud y la Seguridad Social, SINTRASASS) at Fresenuis, a German healthcare company, in Valle del Cauca department. The regional secretary and director of UNI Global Union in the Americas, which SINTRASASS is affiliated with, published a public statement urging President Duque and the Colombian government to protect the lives of social leaders and unionists like Parr Messa.

Labor Union Leaders Arbitrarily Detained, Reports of Death Threats Against Its Members (Valle del Cauca)
On July 31, the Central Unitary Workers’ Union (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores, CUT) denounced what it deems as a judicial set-up against Epifiano Dominguez and Walter Perez, leaders of Colombia’s National Union of Food Industry Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de Alimentos, SINALTRAINAL). On July 30, agents from the National Police dressed in civilian clothing arrived at Dominguez’s and Perez’s homes, without presenting an arrest warrant, and detained them. The agents also allegedly assaulted people filming the situation. The CUT acknowledges that the leaders were targeted for their participation in peaceful protests amid the national strike. It also denounced general practices carried out by the state against the Colombia people to prevent them from protesting a multiplicity of social and economic woes. It ultimately called on the government to guarantee due process for Dominguez and Perez.

On August 9, SINALTRAINAL condemned the systematic violence and threats targeted against its members, which has further intensified in the context of the national strike. The Union included reports of a pamphlet circulated by supposed FARC dissidents threatening to kill several of its members, and noted that many of these death threats often occur after collective bargaining and organizing efforts by its members with Nestle Colombia S.A. It called on the Colombian government to investigate the threats and to ensure its members have the right to protest and to organize.


Extrajudicial Killings

Attorney General Pursues Charges Under Ordinary Justice System Against High-Ranking Military Official for Extrajudicial Killings (Cundinamarca)
On August 25, Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office formally pursued charges at a Bogotá District Court against former General Mario Montoya for a series of extrajudicial killings—commonly referred to as the so-called ‘false positives’—that occurred between 2006 and 2008. The potential charges maintain that Montoya is responsible for the extrajudicial executions of 104 innocent civilians, five of them minors. The Attorney General’s Office accused Montoya of ignoring directives to prioritize captures over combat deaths, which ultimately fostered a culture that incentivized extrajudicial executions. If the court accepts the charges, Montoya would be the highest-ranking official to face accountability for these egregious crimes. The Bogotá District Court is expected to make a decision on August 30 on whether it may formalize the charges; the charges have yet to be yielded because Montoya would be the first person charged under the ordinary justice system who also appeared before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP), the transitional justice tribunal devised in the 2016 peace accord. While formal charges may materialize, the Attorney General’s Office cannot proceed with a formal trial while the JEP continues to investigate the case. However, formal charges in the ordinary justice system would provide significant evidence to the transitional justice process and impel Montoya to cooperate with the JEP.

On August 5, the Liberty Law Corporation (Corporación Jurídica Libertad) argued that any charges must go beyond Montoya. Investigations into these extrajudicial killings must establish accountability of those most responsible for these crimes against humanity, including politicians from the national government who ordered and issued directives that imposed the practice. They affirmed that victims of state crimes and human rights organizations will continue to demand justice, from both the ordinary and transitional systems, against all those responsible for extrajudicial executions. They continue to ask: who gave the orders?


Other Concerning Matters

Governor Flees Country Due to Paramilitary Assassination Plan (Magdalena)
On August 25, the Colombian Commission of Jurists (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, CCJ) requested precautionary measures before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for the Governor of Magdalena department, Carlos Caicedo. According to officials from the Governor’s Office, Caicedo allegedly received credible information about plans by the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC)—a paramilitary group commonly referred to as the Gulf Clan—to assassinate him. After informing the military and local police, Caicedo fled the country on August 19 to ensure his safety due to a weak institutional response and a lack of political will to address the matter. Caicedo is a left-leaning governor in a coastal department traditionally ruled by the conservative establishment and where paramilitary operations abound.  Far-right political operatives trying to spawn fear and instability during the pre-electoral cycle are allegedly behind the assassination plot.

A group of 22 members of Colombia’s Congress sent a letter to President Duque asking him to provide immediate and effective protection to the Governor. As maintained in the letter, President Duque is responsible for adopting measures to clarify the circumstances of this assassination plot against Caicedo, as well as for identifying, prosecuting, and convicting  the perpetrators. They also requested that authorities provide all necessary guarantees so Caicedo may safely return to Colombian territory.

Indigenous Man Injured by Landmine Explosion (Antioquia)
On July 13, Indigenous Emberá Daniel Bailarín suffered severe injuries from a landmine explosion. The explosion occurred as he worked to cultivate the land his family relies on in the Indigenous community of Turriquitadó Alto del Resguardo Río Chageradó in Murindó municipality. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, ONIC) noted that Bailarín is the tenth person in Antioquia department injured by landmine explosions this year; in 2020, at least 10 people died, among them four children. Doctors and Indigenous leaders could not transport Bailarín to receive further care due to the ELN’s  presence, which foments fear among the Indigenous communities. The ONIC condemned violence by all armed groups and requested immediate help from the government to help transport Bailarín to Medellín to receive the medical care required. It also called on the United Nations, the High Commissioner for Peace, and National Government institutions to accompany Antioquia’s Indigenous communities, as violent armed conflict has intensified since the signing of the 2016 peace accord.

Streak of Assassinations (Valle del Cauca)
Between July 17 and 21, the CIJP recorded a streak of six assassinations by paramilitary and organized crime groups operating in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca department. Those assassinated include Jhon Jairo Montaño Rivera, Omar Garcés, Cristian Valencia, Luis David Orobio Rojas, Alfredo Colorado Rivas, and William Enrique Valencia Díaz. The CIJP indicated these assassinations occur because successor paramilitary groups exercise social and economic control in Buenaventura, especially in low-lying neighborhoods. The absence of a human security response with an effective and transparent state security force, as well as business operations that fail to recognize the rights of ethnic and rural communities, fosters this insecurity. Despite international verification missions corroborating the current security situation, the CIJP maintains that the Colombian state has failed to provide an adequate institutional response to these grave matters.

Police Violence Against Indigenous and Fishermen Protestors (Santander)
On July 23, the National Police violently attempted to evict the Black, Afro-descendant, Raizal and Palenquera population (Negra, Afrodescendiente, Raizal y Palenquera, NARP) and the Artisanal Fishermen of El Llanito hamlet in Barrancabermeja, Santander department. On July 24, another armed attack followed with threats and recurrent stigmatization and criminalization. The Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (La Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOS) affirmed the local population’s claim to their ancestral and collective territory. The hydrocarbon industry has damaged food and water sources in the region, which may result in an environmental liability for the oil company Ecopetrol since its operations are directly harming the wellbeing of these individuals and their families. The NARP and the Artisanal Fishermen are in urgent need of access to housing for 350 families, currently protesting eviction attempts. CREDHOS denounced the police aggression, the abuse of authority, and called on the international community to protect these communities.

Human Rights Defender and Lawyers Attacked (Santander)
On July 23, a police officer assaulted the head of Communications Director of the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOS) and his lawyers. They were attacked while documenting police abuses in an attempted verifying the eviction of 350 homeless families in a human from a settlement in the town of El Llanito, in Barrancabermeja, Santander department.

Young Man Disappeared Amid Increasing Paramilitary Recruitment (Valle del Cauca)
On July 24, a 20-year-old young man named Kevin Andrés Valenzuela disappeared in the early hours of the morning as he was headed to work. On July 25, he was spotted in the Alfonso López neighborhood of the Buenaventura municipality, Valle del Cauca department with a couple men. Community members speculated these men killed Valenzuela and disposed of his body, given that Buenaventura has a high presence of criminal groups responsible for murdering, disappearing, and displacing people on a daily basis. On July 15, paramilitaries identified as the Spartans threatened to kill six young men if they failed to follow them, which speaks to the violent recruitment efforts of illegal armed groups to obtain young members. The Spartans released the young men after the community rallied around them, but not before the paramilitaries extorted them.

Illegal Armed Groups Inflict Violence Against Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Communities (Antioquia)
On July 28, the CIJP amplified a statement by the Mother Laura Missionaries of the Province of Medellín (Misioneras de la Madre Laura de la Provincia de Medellín) that underscores how armed conflict between the ELN and the Gulf Clan continues to gravely affect ethnic communities in Antioquia department. The ELN and Gulf Clan are inflicting violence against ethnic communities by forcibly recruiting minors, installing landmines in their territories, threatening and killing their social leaders and community members, internally displacing them from their ancestral territories, forcibly confining them because of armed confrontations, and sexually abusing their peoples. The CIJP requested humanitarian presence in western Antioquia, particularly the municipalities of Dabeiba and Frontino, to help provide aid amid these ongoing humanitarian crises. They called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Verification Mission in Colombia to establish presence in the affected territories.

Young Man Allegedly Killed by National Police (Valle del Cauca)
On August 3, National Police officers allegedly shot and killed 23-year-old Huber Samir Camayo in a rural area of the Cajibío municipality, Cauca department. Community members claim the Colombian National Police shot the young man and left the crime scene. 

Woman Murdered (Putumayo)
On August 9, unknown actors murdered a woman in the Putumayo department. Her throat was slit near the National Police Headquarters inPuerto Leguizamo, the CIJP reported. There is heavy presence and conflict between the CDF and the FARC’s dissidents. Surrounding communities are living in fear.

Indigenous Community Threatened to Leave Ancestral Territory (Nariño)
On August 11, the Organization of the Indigenous Guardians of the Awá People of the Pacific (Organización de Resguardos Indígenas del Pueblo Awá del Pacífico, ORIPAP) reported that the Indigenous Awá peoples in Tumaco municipality continue to suffer from violence by illegal armed groups attempting to occupy their ancestral territory. These unidentified armed groups threaten the Awá to leave the territory. Since April, different factions have fought among each other, placing the communities at dire risk. Currently, Indigenous individuals are obstructed from  traveling outside of Tumaco. The ORIPAP urgently requested the national government protect the rights of Tumaco’s Indigenous population.

Rural Peace Community Reports Ongoing Paramilitary Activity (Antioquia)
On August 11, the San José de Apartadó (SJA) peace community published a bulletin outlining reports of ongoing paramilitary activity in their territory. They describe the paramilitary presence as “increasingly dramatic,” and point to an “evident fusion of paramilitarism and the state.” The SJA peace community was created in April 1997 when rural leaders came together to implement international humanitarian law and the principle of distinction for non-combatants in the territory, designating the area free of all armed groups, including legal public security forces. Local forums helped establish rules that asked community members to disengage from violence, and also leaders began to form communal projects. Despite these mechanisms, paramilitary—and alleged collaboration by state forces—continues to plague the region. In this latest bulletin, the SJA peace community warned that many campesinos are opting to sell their land and leave the region, similar to the worst moments of armed conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. The SJA peace community’s members fear there are ongoing judicial plans to displace them from the territory.