WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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25 Feb 2022 | News

Colombia’s Growing Humanitarian Crises and Violence

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) received numerous reports from Colombia in February 2022 of violence and threats against social leaders as well as humanitarian emergencies, which we summarize below. We ask that you take action to protect the people and communities concerned and help guarantee justice for the victims by urging Colombian authorities to act. 

We bring your attention to two delicate situations requiring immediate action. The first is the safety and security of the Catholic Bishop of Quibdó, capital of the Chocó department, Monsignor Juan Carlos Barreto and other bishops in the Pacific region. Monsignor Barreto’s safety and security are at risk due to claims made in the press by Minister of the Interior Daniel Palacios that the bishops are spreading false information about the grave humanitarian situation facing Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities in Chocó. The Minister of the Interior should be urged to retract the statements made against the Church. Every measure possible should be taken to guarantee the safety and security of the bishops. The international community should encourage the Colombian government to promptly address the humanitarian situation in the Pacific region. 

The second situation involves the obstruction of the Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition Commission’s work. This transitional justice entity set up by the 2016 peace accord, reported that on February 18, unknown individuals entered the residence of Eduardo Andrés Celis Rodríguez, an investigator working with Commissioner Alejandro Valencia Villa. He was interviewing paramilitary leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, alias “Otoniel,” who is being sought for extradition by the United States. Two days prior, digital recorders used in the interview and a computer were stolen. All steps should be taken to guarantee that “Otoniel” is able to provide the transitional justice system with all the pertinent information relating to truth and justice in Colombia prior to any plans to extradite him to the United States. The Truth Commission’s work is crucial to ensuring reconciliation and justice, and its staff should be able to carry out investigations without any obstructions.   


Below you will find the other reports we received:

Violence and Attacks Facing Social Leaders

Illegal Armed Actors Assassinate Indigenous Leader (Nariño)
On February 1, as reported by Colombian daily newspaper El Espectador, illegal armed actors assassinated Julio César Bravo, the President of the Community Council in Córdoba, Nariño department. Bravo formed part of the Indigenous Council of Males and was an active member of the Aico political party. Prior to his assassination, he helped establish an water treatment plant and roads in Potosí and Puerres municipalities. Authorities are investigating the homicide and are offering a reward of USD $7’690.00 (COP 30 million) for information that can identify the armed actors.

ELN Kidnaps and Murders Wounnan Indigenous Leader, Land Mine Kills Youth (Chocó)
On February 9, Indigenous authorities found the lifeless body of Wounnan Indigenous leader Luis Chamapuro with three bullet shots to the chest in Medio San Juan municipality, Chocó department. The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla had kidnapped Chamapuro on February 3 and for days refused to show any sign of his life. Indigenous authorities and communities in Istmina and Medio San Juan municipalities publicly urged  the national government and international community to safeguard Chamapuro’s life. However, their demands to the national government to dialogue with the ELN and support humanitarian initiatives that protect Indigenous lives have fallen on deaf ears. 

The Woundeko Authority Council for the Wounaan People of Colombia heavily condemned the ELN’s assassination of Chamapuro. The Council also denounced the death of 21-year-old Daver Carpio Puchicama. He died after stepping on a landmine installed by the ELN on his way to Chamapuro’s funeral. The Council demanded that the ELN abide by international humanitarian law. It urges the international community to encourage dialogue between the government and the ELN.

Unknown Illegal Actors Attack and Shoot at Wayúu Indigenous Leader (La Guajira)
On February 8, illegal armed actors attacked and shot at Wayúu Indigenous leader José Silva Duarte as he traveled in his car. This is not the first time Duarte was attacked by unknown armed actors. In 2021, he also survived being shot at in the Uribia region. The Director of the Collective Peace Corporation (Corporación Colectivo de Paz) Miguel Macea Martínez urged President Iván Duque to conduct a formal investigation to identify and prosecute the attackers. 

FARC Dissidents Threaten Peace Experts
On February 2, the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de estudios para el desarrollo y la paz, INDEPAZ) restarted its work documenting actions by illegal armed groups. This was after Leonardo González, Director of the Human Rights and Conflicts Observatory at INDEPAZ, was threatened to death by FARC dissidents. The intent of these threats is to force him to stop his work and were circulated via pamphlets that listed González by his full name. The FARC dissidents accuse INDEPAZ and the media of solely placing the blame on them for the humanitarian crises experienced in the country. Despite these threats, INDEPAZ and González remain dedicated to revealing the actions of Colombia’s armed groups against civilians and social leaders. Mr. González closely works with WOLA and is the co-author of a publication on peace implementation in the Catatumbo region to be published in 2022.

Dissidents and Guerillas Threaten Journalists (Arauca)
According to a February 1 El Espectador report, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) dissidents and ELN guerrillas threatened and harassed at least 12 media workers for reporting on their illegal actions in Arauca department. Since the 2016 peace accord, journalists in Arauca have increasingly become the targets of the guerilla groups. The groups have continuously issued threats against, harassed, displaced, and even kidnapped journalists. The Freedom of Press Foundation (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP) reported that the rate of these attacks tripled between 2017 and 2019, with a documented 27 incidents in 2019. Journalists released by the FARC dissidents and ELN members await support from the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP).

171 Social Leaders Assassinated in Colombia in 2021
On January 1, INDEPAZ reported that armed actors assassinated at least 171 social leaders and human rights defenders in 2021, raising the number of social leaders killed since the signing of Colombia’s 2016 peace accord to 1,286. The organization documented the killing of social leader María del Carmen Molina Imbachi—a secretary of the community action board in San Pedro municipality, Valle del Cauca department—as the last social leader killed in 2021.


Violence and Humanitarian Crises

Armed Men Assassinate Two Women (Cauca)
On February 15, unknown armed men assassinated Dora Soraida Gilon and Daniela Soto in their homes in Mercaderes municipality, Cauca department. The Women’s Pacific Route (Ruta Pacifica de la Mujer) heavily denounced the assassinations and demanded clear prevention and protection mechanisms for Caucan women. They also called for immediate investigations that secure justice for these egregious crimes. The Women’s Pacific Route reported over 70 femicides in 2021, and five so far in 2022.

Catholic Bishops Raise Alarm to Deepening Humanitarian Crisis (Chocó)
On February 14, Catholic Bishops and Afro-Colombian and Indigenous organizations in Chocó department raised alarm to the deepening humanitarian crisis in the region. The cause of which is the fighting between the ELN guerillas and the Gulf Clan paramilitaries. In a statement directed at President Duque, they urgently requested a meeting with high-level national government officials, the Ombudsman’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, and the United Nations. According to Monsignor Juan Carlos Barreto, the Catholic Bishop of Quibdó, the objective of such a meeting is to present the findings of last year’s humanitarian missions and to discuss the grave situation in the territory. This ongoing violence includes territorial control by illegal armed groups, selective murders, forced confinement, internal displacement, landmines, gender-based sexual violence, and forced recruitment of minors.  

The Ombudsman’s Office issued an Early Warning Alert last year stating that 72% of the population in Chocó department is at risk (396,000 out of a total population of 550,000). Last week, it issued a new alert that stated that all the municipalities in Chocó are at risk and upped the figure to 77%. Further complicating the situation, the state has filed constitutional writs (tutelas) against the Catholic Bishops for alleging collusion between the Army and the Gulf Clan, given the lack of response to the latter’s armed actions in Chocoan territories. The Catholic Bishops expect the next presidential administration to undertake alternatives to military intervention and engage in dialogue with illegal armed actors to ease the humanitarian crisis in the department.

Demands for a Humanitarian Agreement Grow in Cauca and Nariño
On February 13, the Coordination of Community Councils and Grassroots Organizations of the Black People of Cauca’s Pacific Coast (Coordinación de Consejos Comunitarios y Organizaciones de Base del Pueblo Negro de la Costa Pacífica del Cauca, COCOCAUCA) reported that fighting between FARC dissidents and the ELN is generating humanitarian crises in Cauca and Nariño departments. In recent months, fighting between these illegal armed groups has triggered mass internal displacement. According to COCOCAUCA, the situation is affecting far more people than the officially documented figures of 758 individuals and 237 families. 

In Cauca, residents located in the municipalities of Guapi and Timbiquí are at high risk of harm. They face grave threats including massacres, murders, getting caught up in crossfire ammunition, landmines, repression, disappearances, kidnappings, threats, and intimidation at the hands of armed actors. In Nariño, residents of El Charco municipality were forced to shut down all activities in late January 2022. The lack of an effective institutional presence in the area makes matters worse for civilians. COCOCAUCA echoes civil society calls for a multilateral humanitarian agreement between the armed groups that respects international humanitarian law.

Illegal Armed Groups Escalate Violence Along Pacific Coast (Valle del Cauca)
On February 13, the Humanitarian Board for the Peoples of Buenaventura (Juntaza Humanitaria por los Pueblos de Buenaventuraissued a statement about the escalating violence along Colombia’s Pacific coast and its impact on ethnic groups. The statement highlighted the recent killings at the hands of the ELN of Indigenous leader Luis Chamapuro and Indgienous youth Daver Carpio Puchicama. The Humanitarian Board also underscored the recent disappearance by the Gulf Clan paramilitary of Luis Alberto “Vásquez” Tovar, a 49-year-old father of three and member of La Nueva Esperanza community. Tovar had recently been internally displaced from the region for his safety. On February 11, the paramilitaries intercepted Tovar on a boat and forcibly disappeared him. The Humanitarian Council noted that there is no concerted effort by the state to prevent this violence against Indigenous community members, the extinction of their culture, and the dispossession and looting of their territories. The Council asked that adequate measures be taken to investigate the disappearances.

Thousands of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Persons Internally Displaced (Valle del Cauca) 
On February 5, Communities Building Peace in Colombia (Comunidades Construyendo Paz en Colombiareported that armed conflict between the Gulf Clan paramilitary and ELN guerrillas has forced the internal displacement of over 5,000 individuals and 1,000 families since November 2021. Despite the ongoing humanitarian crisis in one of the largest episodes of internal displacement in the Pacific region of the last 20 years, the District of Buenaventura has yet to install a shelter or protection program to safeguard these Black and Indigenous communities. Additionally, any forcibly confined individuals are unable to contact the Public Prosecutor’s office as doing so would draw attention to the community and trigger internal displacement. According to Communities Building Peace in Colombia, this lack of humanitarian support is largely due to a neoliberal model in the port city that incites territorial dispossession for economic gain, specifically for mining and energy resources. The systematic violence suffered by ancestral and native territories and communities places these populations at high risk, causing the dispute of the territory and the separation of the people from their land. 

Hundreds of Displaced Indigenous in Need of Medical Care (Chocó)
On January 5, Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office warned of the precarious medical conditions hundreds of internally displaced Indigenous communities in Chocó department have been subjected to for several months. 205 individuals were affected by an ongoing bout of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases with the most drastic symptoms affecting children and adolescents. Nine individuals died, pushing the Ombudsman’s Office to file a constitutional writ (tutela) demanding urgent humanitarian and medical support. Since September 2021, armed confrontations among ELN and other illegal armed groups triggered the internal displacement of more than 980 Indigenous people from the Union Chocó and Union Wounaan communities.

Afro-Colombian Leaders Create a National Board to Address Violence in Meta and Arauca
On February 3 and 4, the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council (Consejo Nacional de Paz Afrocolombiano, CONPA) met with several civil organizations from Casanare, Meta, and Arauca departments to join forces and create an Afro-Colombian National Board at the departmental and regional level. The organizations elected departmental and regional delegates to work towards creating a united front in defense of Afro-Colombian peoples. CONPA underscored the disproportionate impact of ongoing humanitarian crises in local communities located in these departments. The state has failed to adequately and sufficiently address and respond to these crises. The National Board discussed the impact of forced confinement, internal displacement, assassinations, threats, violence by armed actors, persecution against social leaders, and the lack of implementation of the 2016 peace accord and its Ethnic Chapter.

Afro-Colombian Youth Flees Country After Death Threats (Valle del Cauca)
On February 2, musical student Álvaro Herrera fled Colombia due to threats against his life following his illegal detainment at the hands of police officers and armed civilians during Colombia’s National Strike in 2021. On his way home from a musical symphony in late May 2021, Herrera recorded a series of gunshots going off in a shopping center with armed civilians and the police stationed on the street. One armed civilian saw him recording and called attention to the others, who shortly thereafter circled Herrera, beat him, and harassed him verbally. They took Herrera to a police station and after torturing him physically and verbally for days recorded a coerced “confession” of him stating he forms part of a local vandal group. Upon his release from detention, he and his family have continuously received death threats and are under surveillance, which caused him to flee the country. 

Massacre in Eastern Colombia (Casanare)
On January 6, according to INDEPAZ, armed actors massacred three people and injured one other in Maní municipality, Casanare department. One of the victims was 17-year-old Gustavo Soto Berrío, along with his father Vicente Soto Berrío and Alfonso Sandoval. Unlike in other municipalities such as Aguasul and La Salina, the Ombudsman’s Office has not reported on the growing presence of armed actors — including dissidents of the FARC, the ELN guerrilla, and the Gulf Clan paramilitary. Local community members are afraid to report armed activity due to fear of violent retaliation tactics, though local authorities are aware of these dynamics.


Other Concerning Reports

Recent Revelations Allege Links Between Military Officials and Illegal Armed Groups
On February 16, the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos, CCEEU) raised deep concern about human rights guarantees in Colombia in light of recent revelations of alleged links between military officials and illegal armed groups. In early February, Colombian media outlets reported that authorities captured Army Colonel Róbinson González del Río for his alleged membership in a drug trafficking criminal structure that operates in Nariño department. Shortly after, leaked audios emerged that also implicated former commander of the Army’s Sixth Division, General Jorge Hernando Herrera Díaz. On February 15, the Attorney General’s office made a confidential document public that revealed that retired General Leonardo Alfonso Barrero Castillo, former commander of the Armed Forces, and General Wilson Neyhid Chawez Mahecha, head of Joint Operations of the Armed Forces, were also investigated for possible collusion with the Gulf Clan paramilitary group. According to the document released by the Attorney General’s office, at the time of the events, General Chawez oversaw joint operations in Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Nariño departments. 

The CCEEU emphasized that these relationships between military forces and illegal armed groups exist in regions where the most violence occurs and where the most social leaders are assassinated. This pattern provides evidence as to why criminal groups—which the administration of President Iván Duque and the Attorney General’s office hold responsible for the murders of social leaders, human rights defenders, and former combatants of the FARC—are growing exponentially. Many of these military officials form part of state mechanisms designed to protect social leaders and human rights defenders, rendering such initiatives corrupted. The CCEEU called for thorough and public investigations into these alleged links between state security forces and illegal armed groups, structural reforms to state security forces, and the strengthening of civil oversight mechanisms. Additionally, it demands that the state implement the 2016 peace accord, especially since the accord seeks to dismantle paramilitary groups.

Attorney General’s Office Falsely Accuses Social Leaders of being FARC Combatants (Chocó)
On February 14, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission on Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) denounced the Attorney General’s office for its false accusations claiming well-known social leaders from the Jiguamiandó community in Carmen del Darién municipality, Chocó department are FARC combatants who refused to demobilize after the signing of the 2016 peace accord. The accusations against Erasmo Sierra, Félix Alvarado Zabaleta, Wilson Mena Romaña, Ovidio González Cabrera, and José Yesid Guzmán Rodríguez lack substantial evidence and are based on claims that stigmatize the work they carried out to create humanitarian zones for the civilian population during the internal armed conflict with the FARC. The CIJP also noted that both the FARC and various paramilitaries opposed the efforts by these leaders to confront the abuses carried out by the palm oil and cattle industries. Hundreds of testimonies as well as their families attest and prove that none of these leaders have formed part of or collaborated with the guerrillas. The CIJP finds it absurd that the state is judicially persecuting these leaders rather than tackling the systematic impunity of powerful criminals and their business interests that displace people and steal land.

Anti-Narcotics Police Unlawfully Eradicates Coca Crops on Indigenous Land (Putumayo)
On February 13, Colombian police officers from the anti-narcotics unit entered the Selva Hermoso Reserve of the Nasa Indigenous in Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo department and unlawfully began spraying glyphosate to manually eradicate over a hectare of coca crops belonging to two families. The uniformed officers refused to listen to the families after they explained that the officers are required to abide by the constitutional decisions that protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples in these situations. According to the CIJP, the Colombian government continues to ignore the autonomy and rights of Indigenous peoples, as evidenced by the complicit silence of state institutions.