WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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9 Jun 2022 | News

While Eyes Focus on Colombia’s Presidential Elections, Abuses Continue

As presidential elections take way in Colombia, the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) Colombia program has continued to receive alarming information about the ongoing persecution and stigmatization against social leaders, human rights defenders, and civil society organizations in the country.

For more information about Colombia’s 2022 presidential elections, see the following WOLA analyses:

We share with you concerning situations we’ve received that require your attention:

Social Leader Assassinated (Cauca)
On April 30, the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de estudios para el desarrollo y la paz, INDEPAZ) recorded the murder of Yesid Caña, a well-recognized Indigenous leader in Caldono municipality, Cauca department. Armed actors assassinated Caña, a member of the La Aguada reservation and the creator of the world’s largest artisan hand-made backpack that was presented at the 50th anniversary of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, CRIC). The Ombudsman’s office posted an Early Warning Alert 040/20 for the Caldono municipality, which signaled that infiltration was possible since one of the main interests of illegal armed groups is achieving interconnected mobility through the north and east. Caña was a part of a civil movement against illegal armed groups and drug trafficking, and was the 61st social leader to be assassinated in 2022, per documentation by INDEPAZ.

Legal Representative of Human Rights Organization Threatened (Cundinamarca)
On April 29, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (Observatorio para la Protección de los Defensores de Derechos Humanos) and the World Organization Against Torture (Organización Mundial Contra la Tortura, OMCT) called international attention to the threats made against the Intereclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) and their legal representative Danilo Rueda. While visiting the Picota Penitentiary Center in Bogotá, Rueda was accused by the government party of exchanging prison sentence reductions with political votes. The government party alleged that this was instigated by a group of individuals including the brother of presidential candidate Gustavo Petro. Shortly thereafter, videos were leaked to the press that misconstrued Rueda’s career as a human rights defender. In their report, the Observatory issued a call to action from Colombian authorities to guarantee the safety of CIJIP and Rueda and to recognize the importance of all human rights defenders. Moreover, CIJIP described in their official statement how former President Álvaro Urbe Vélez’ personal  accusation of Danilo Rueda put his life in high risk, undermining his career and covering up for a secret criminal operation in Colombia.

Union Members Receive Death Threats (Valle del Cauca)
On April 26, members of Emcali Union (Unión Sindical de Emcali, USE) received death threats in the form of emails by a local gang titled gang 8. On April 8, the members of the gang announced that they will be attempting to kill those in the Nueva Floresta sector of USE. The union notified the Attorney General, who now has the emails in their possession. USE called for the national government, authorities, and police to protect the lives of the union members. The president of USE, José Roosevelt Lugo Cárdenas, announced that he continues to fear for the safety of the union members after a security guard was killed during his night watch shift. He additionally called for rapid action and attention to the situation as the union continues to be threatened.

Family Members Reject Assassination of Social Leader (Antioquia)
On April 22, the Sumapaz Foundation released an official statement from the family members of the assassinated social leader Victor Alfonso Giraldo Valencia denouncing his assassination. Victor was a well-known social leader whose assassination is continuously justified by the state authorities because of his assumed connections with criminal groups and prior police records. The family urged the proper authorities to take action and retract the accusations against him and his family in an effort to protect them from any further violence.

Fracking Project Suspended to Protect Environment Afro-Colombian Communities (Santander)
On April 21, the Afrowilches Corporation (Corporación Afrowilches), represented by the Colombia Fracking Free Alliance (Alianza Colombia Libre de Fracking), the Podion Corporation (Corporación Podion), and the José Alvear Restrepo Collective (Colectivo José Alvear Restrepo), celebrated victory as the local court in Barrancabermeja, Santander department suspended a pilot fracking project. The Afro-Colombian communities of Puerto Wilches municipality have resisted the project for years as it would contaminate the natural water supply and thus harm the environment and communities that depend on it. The continuance of the project would have resulted in violations of human rights and local law, in addition to serving as a primary example of the Duque administration’s duplicitous speeches that call for the protection of the environment yet allow for the implementation of harmful projects. The Puerto Wilches territory is still awaiting official titling and registration as an Afro-Community Council from the Interior Ministry.

President of Human Rights Organization Under Threat (Santander)
On April 20, the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOS) denounced the threats against Lyseth Carolina Agón García, the president and promoter of the human rights committee of CREDHOS in the Puerto Wilches municipality, Santander Department and legal representative of the Association of Women Victims of the Armed Conflict (Representante Legal de la Asociación de Mujeres Víctimas del Conflicto Armado, MUVICO). García is also President of the Association of United Artisanal Fishermen of Puerto Wilches (Asociación de Pescadores Artesanales Unidos de Puerto Wilches, ASOPESUNIDOS) and Vice President of the Federation of Fishermen of Puerto Wilches (Federación de Pescadores de Puerto Wilches, FEDEPUW). Recognized as an environmental social leader, García suffered multiple threats on her life in the previous months including a call that threatened to take her away from her home if she did not meet with the unidentified caller at a certain time, a pamphlet accusing her of extortion, a warning from two armed men that arrived at her home and threatened consequences should she leave, and a shooting as she traveled on a motorcycle among others. CREDHOS called for the proper authorities to protect her life and hold the responsible parties accountable as she continues to face violent attacks.

Civilian Population Rejects Violent Massacre (Arauca)
On April 18, the Human Rights Foundation “Joel Sierra” (Fundación de Derechos Humanos “Joel Sierra”) published a public statement denouncing the armed conflict and its creation of fear, displacement, and anguish in the community. The statement opened by rejecting a violent massacre on April 17 by a FARC dissident group in Tame municipality, where six were injured and four died. The victims who were killed included 9-year-olds Delvis Arbey Prada Castro and Brianyis Prada Inmaculada, 4-year-old Brianyis Yelina Prada Castro, and adults Ángel Julián Estrada Godoy and Elison Antonio Portela Flórez. Those injured in the attack include Edwar Felipe Ostos, Durlis Prada, Ingrid Castro, Feliz Arbey Prada Puerta, Andiz Arbey Prada Puerta, and Andreina Laica Perozo. The statement also reported the assassinations of three male victims – two of which were identified as Milton Alonso Ruiz Torra and Jhon Jairo Esquivel – on April 18 by firearm shootings. The Foundation rejected these violent acts, stating that the lives of those in the Saravena should be protected amid the “ongoing genocide against social leaders.” They called on state actors and rebel organizations to cease violent actions against community members and for the proper authorities to investigate these instances and hold the responsible parties accountable.

Teen Activist Dies by Suicide (Chocó)
On April 15, the CIJIP reported the suicide of 17-year-old teen activist Arichidau Rubiano Bailarín. Bailarín, a community leader, mother of a two-year-old girl, and defender of Indigenous territory and life, was pronounced dead the morning of April 14. Bailarín was known for her leadership in environmental defense. In 2020, she led the eradication of 150 hectares of illicit coca plantations and was continuously threatened by the AGC paramilitary group as a result. Bailarín was the third case of suicide amongst Indigenous teen activists in the Alto Guayabal Reservation: 17-year-old Chavaninbi Casama died by suicide in June 2021 and 16-year-old Zaponombi Zapia Cabrera died by suicide in February 2022, both occurred in the Guayabal community. The youth population believe a spirit of death haunts the Alto Guayabal Reservation because of territorial threats, armed violence, and continuous mining. Additionally, multiple women died by suicide in the community in 2009. The lack of response from the state renders the Alto Guayabal community helpless in the face of these threats and self-inflicted harm as a result of pressure and armed violence.

Civil Society Organizations Denounce Threats on Life and Liberty (Caquetá)
On April 14, the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (Comité permanente por la defensa de los derechos humanos, CPDH), the Communal Federation of Caquetá (Federación comunal de Caquetá), and the Departmental Coordinator of Social, Environmental, and Farming Organizations of Caquetá (Coordinadora departamental de organizaciones sociales, ambientales y campesinas del Caquetá, COORDOSAC) issued an urgent denouncement of violent actions against Indigenous social leaders in Caquetá department. The report detailed various attacks on civil and vulnerable populations by armed actors across the Caquetá department, including the presence of armed groups, assassinations, internal displacements, massacres, and threats. It also details the specific date of various instances of violence including the assasination of Alexander Pastrana Losada on March 31 and the kidnapping of Fabinson Ducura, the president of the Horizon Action Board on April 10, who was then killed on April 14. CPDH, the Federation, and COORDOSAC held the Duque administration and its defense and interior ministries responsible, as they have not taken action against the perpetrators, nor have they launched any investigations. The organizations asked for the support of the national government, the United Nations, and other international organizations as they continue to bring attention to these issues.

Social Leader Kidnapped and Assassinated (Caquetá)
On April 14, INDEPAZ reported the kidnapping and murder of Fabinson Ducuara Barreto, the president of the Community Action Board of Cereda Horizonte (Junta de Acción Comunal de la Cereda Horizonte) in La Montañita municipality, Caquetá department. Barreto disappeared on April 10 and was found dead three days later. He was the fifty-fourth social leader to be killed this year. The Ombudsman’s office posted an Early Warning Alert 004/22 that signaled threatening actions and intimidation tactics from armed actors against social organizations and leaders in the region. Community members also denounced possible actors escaping the region in fear of getting caught.

Armed Men on Motorcycles Infiltrate Indigenous Community (La Guajira)
On April 13, multiple organizations including CINEP, Program for Peace (Programa por la paz), the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (Colectivo de Abogados de José Alvear Restrepo), and CENSAT Agua Viva published an official statement denouncing the infiltration of the Wayúu community by unidentified armed men on motorcycles. On April 12, three of these men circled the community in the Albania municipality, searching for a specific person. The men came to a stop in front of the home of Luis Miseal Socarrasa, the Wayúu Indigenous leader and territorial defender, and were overheard stating that this is “where it had to be”. Earlier, on April 8, 8 armed men kidnapped a son of Socarras and interrogated him for personal information such as his address. The statement issued a public call for the protection of Luis Miseal Socarrasa and his family, who have been consistently intimidated and threatened by armed actors. Socorrasa is under protective measures by the Wayúu community and the National Protection Unit, however the only protective measure given to him was a bulletproof vest. In response, there will be a reconsideration of Socarras’ status and new requests for further protection provisions. The Wayúu community is protected under law, yet have faced increasing harassment, threats, and persecution in the past years as mining industries infiltrate their territory.

Homophobia-based Homicides (Antioquia and Cundinamarca)
On April 11, NGO Temblores reported six homicide cases against gay men in Medellín and Bogotá between January 11 and March 31. The lifeless bodies were found in sexually inferior positions that emphasized their sexual orientation and genital areas. Temblores rejected the violent attacks on gay men in Chapinero, Bogotá, including two assassination attempts and verbal degradation.

Afro-Colombian Communities Displaced by Illegal Armed Groups (Valle del Cauca)
On April 10, the CIJP condemned the internal displacement of the Black community of San Isidro due to armed confrontations between the ELN guerrilla and the AGC paramilitary in the Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca department. Between the months of November 2021 and February 2022, the Commission accounted for 151 internally displaced families, 516 of them from the San Isidro and Río Calima communities. On April 10, armed confrontations began near the community that forced community members to abandon their homes, where they have stayed paralyzed in fear from the ongoing conflict for the last five months. The report stated that these new actions showcase the grave humanitarian crises at hand in Bajo Calima and Bajo San Juan. It also called for all national and international organizations, human rights defenders, and actors to join the Humanitarian Verification Mission in May, and for accountability on behalf of the national government to guarantee the safety of the community members.

Death Threats Against Senator-Elect of Indigenous Movement Continue (Cauca)
On April 9, according to Contagio Radio, the Colombian government decreased protection measures for Aida Quilcue, Senator-Elect of the Special Indigenous Constituency of the Indigenous and Social Alternative Movement (Movimiento Alternativo Indígena y Social, MAIS). Quilcue publicly denounced on Twitter that the lack of protection measures continued despite the hundreds of death threats she received after her election as Senator. Quilcue is only one of the many social leaders who armed actors have threatened in the Cauca department. Indigenous social leaders from organizations such as the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, CRIC) and the Association of Indigenous Cabildos of Northern Cauca (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca, ACIN) are under attack and have faced several massacres.

Violence Persists Five Years Post-Peace Accord (Chocó)
On April 8, the Interethnic Solidarity Forum in Chocó department (Foro Interétnico Solidaridad Chocó, FISCH) posted an infographic on Twitter describing the violent events that have occurred over the past five years since the ratification of the 2016 peace accord. According to their data, 109 armed events caused the forced displacement of 40,696 people – about 8.89% of the population. The majority of the victims were of ethnic origin, with 56.5% of them being Indigenous and 25.1% being Afrodescendant communities. In a geographic breakdown of the attacks, the Litoral of San Juan, the Alto Baudó, and the Medio San Juan municipalities in Chocó department have suffered the highest number of violent outbreaks, with a combined total of 22,904 victims. In addition to ethnic and racial persecution, there is also gender persecution – 10 attacks on 9 ethnic female leaders during these past five years. The FISCH concluded the report by announcing that the cause for the violent attacks is a dispute over land that rightfully belongs to the ethnic peoples of Colombia.

Military Raids Community Homes (Putumayo)
On April 7, the CIJP reported that military units illegally entered and searched two households in the El Remanso community of Puerto Ospina. CIJIP stated that the presence of the military increases fear and anxiety of community members, especially with a previous military attack that allegedly extrajudicially killed eleven people in Puerto Leguízamo. The CIJIP condemned the abuse of power the military exerts against families of social activists and community leaders.

Illegal Armed Groups Threaten and Confine Civilians (Putumayo)
On April 7, the CIJIP reported on the presence of illegal armed groups in the Nasa Juan Tama Cabildo territory. This invasion has led to civilian killings, internal displacement, and confinement. The Border Commandos (Comandos de Frontera, CDF) moved into the territory to remove the Carolina Ramírez FARC dissident group from the region. These confrontations have prevented Indigenous communities from practicing spiritual and cultural customs. According to the CIJIP, the Ombudsman’s Office previously issued warnings for the Puerto Guzmán and the Puerto Leguízamo municipalities, but violence has persisted and deepend in spite of the Global Humanitarian Agreement signed by over 160 communities.

Indigenous Councils Denounce Detainment of Governor by Colombian State (Caquetá)
On April 6, the Traditional and Ancestral Authorities of the Indigenous Cabildos of San Vicente del Caguán issued an official report denouncing the second capture by the state in the last six months of Reinaldo Quebrada Quilcué, Governor of Cabildo Nasa La Esperanza. The Governor has previously denounced state public security forces for their abusive role in advancing so-called Operation Artemisa, a military operation supposedly combating deforestation.  The report by the ancestral authorities detailed various violent actions taken against community members including multiple assassinations and the capture of José Mestizo and Julián Ordoñez Pino of Cabildo Nasa La Esperanza. The Authorities also urged President Iván Duque to guarantee the safety, fundamental human rights, and ancestral territory of the Indigenous Peoples of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá department, their local governments, and Indigenous leaders.

Afro-Colombian Communities March to Reject Violence (Chocó)
On April 6, the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council  (Consejo Nacional de Paz Afrocolombiano, CONPA) issued a statement in support of communities in Chocó department as they hosted a march for life, human dignity, and peace in response to ongoing violence in the region. On April 5, a conflict between members of the GDCO Los Palmeños and the GDCO Mexicanos resulted in the death of two individuals, and the Ombudsman’s Office reported 67 civilian deaths this year alone. CONPA called on the national government to act on these events by protecting Afro-Colombian lives and working with civil society organizations and local churches to guarantee the safety of vulnerable populations.

Illegal Armed Groups Prolong Confinements and Humanitarian Crises (Chocó)
On April 6, the Consultancy for Human Rights and Forced Displacement (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, CODHES) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) circulated an infographic detailing the reality of the humanitarian crisis in Chocó caused by illegal armed groups. The chart echoed a report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Issues (Oficina de Naciones Unidas para la Coordinación de Asuntos Humanitarios, OCHA) that reported, to date, 42, 272 people from 94 different Afrodescendent and Indigenous communities are confined in Chocó department by the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla and the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) paramilitary, also referred to as the Gulf Clan. CODHES also reported 691 families were forcibly displaced in the region, along with the identification of four assassinated social leaders and twelve specific events that led to confinement in eleven different municipalities in the past three months.

LGBTQ+ Youths Assassinated (Antioquia)
On April 4, El Espectador reported that the Mayor’s office in Medellín, Antioquia department increased the reward for information related to the assassinations of LGBTQ+ youth in Medellín to 40 million Colombian pesos. Among the victims was 27-year-old Hernán Macías whose lifeless body was found in a hotel with both his hands and feet bound. The majority of the assassinations were traced back to a dating app that lured the youths to residences and hotels across the city. Additionally, the Medellín Council created a working group that monitored prejudiced threats against the LGBTQ+ community.

Judge Orders Land Restitution to Afro-Colombian Community (Cauca)
As per an April 4 El Espectador article, a judge sentenced in favor the Black Community Council of Pílamo El Palenque in a land restitution case after they were displaced by paramilitary, guerrilla, and cartel violent confrontations. The community requested the court order since they were forced to abandon their land over decades by members  of the FARC, the Calima paramilitary, and the Cali cartel. These groups displaced more than 226 people as a result of illicit gold mining. The ordinance issued immediate investigations to determine the victims of the community, quarterly reports describing the investigation process, and guarantees for the safety of Council members in addition to arranging a public event to return the territory to the community after three decades of ongoing internal displacement.

Peace Community Faces Continued Violence by Armed Actors (Antioquia)
On April 1, the San José de Apartadó Peace Community (Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó) published a statement describing the multiple violent attacks, persecution, kidnappings, internal displacements, and robberies that have occurred throughout the community dating back to late February 2022. 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 leaders began to form communal projects. Despite these mechanisms, paramilitary—and alleged collaboration by state forces—continues to plague the region. In this latest statement, the SJA peace community held the Colombian state responsible for recent abuses because, despite multiple warnings from the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, it has not taken action to deter these instances of violence. The statement describes instances of physical extermination, ideological stigmatization, media degradation, legal criminalization, and social exclusion.

Indigenous Leader’s Body Found in River (Chocó)
On March 29, community members in Medio Atrato municipality, Chocó department discovered the lifeless body of Sercelino Lana in a river. Sercelino was an Indigenous leader who was kidnapped on March 25 by men from the Gulf Clan paramilitary. Human Rights Watch called for the protection of Sercelino’s family and other Indigenous leaders. The Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de estudios para el desarrollo y la paz, INDEPAZ) also tweeted that Sarcelino, the governor of the Tamandó reservation, was the 48th leader to be assassinated in 2022.