Violence and death threats against human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, and other community activists continues at a furious pace. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is monitoring these cases closely and has published information on attacks in various monthly human rights updates.
In this installment, WOLA would like to highlight the case of Sara Quiñonez and her mother Tulia Maris Valencia, members of the Black Communities’ Process (Proceso de Comunidades Negras, PCN), a long-time WOLA partner. Both leaders are falsely accused of narcotics trafficking and working with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN). Quiñonez currently has protective measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) due to death threats against her and the entire leadership of the Community Council of Alto Mira and Frontera, located in Tumaco on the Colombian border with Ecuador. Both Afro-Colombian leaders were arrested on April 20 in a two-day sweep of mass arrests.
WOLA has also monitored with concern developments in the Catatumbo region, in Norte de Santander. Clashes between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL), have led to a serious humanitarian crisis. According to the United Nations, at least 144,000 people face severe restrictions on accessing essential services and basic goods, as well as mobility limitations.
WOLA will continue to monitor the situation in Colombia and will continue to stand with victims and our partners to ensure that the Colombian government protects these activists from further threats. The work of human rights defenders is essential to constructing a peaceful, democratic society and consolidating rule of law.
Below is a list of incidents since our March installment. To see past human rights updates, please click here.
This month, WOLA registered seven assassinations of social leaders or members of vulnerable ethnic communities in Colombia, bringing the total so far in 2018 to 37.
- Human Rights Organizations Denounce Arbitrary Detentions in Southwest Colombia
In a sweep of mass arrests on April 20-22, Colombian authorities arbitrarily detained dozens of elected community leaders and rights defenders in the departments of Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Nariño. Among the charges levelled against those arrested, the detained are accused of having membership in, or being associated with, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN).Two of the leaders arrested are Sara Quiñonez and her mother Tulia Maris Valencia, members of the Black Communities’ Process (Proceso de Comunidades Negras, PCN), a long-time WOLA partner. Both leaders are falsely accused of narcotics trafficking and working with the ELN. Quiñonez currently has protective measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) due to death threats against her and the entire leadership of the Community Council of Alto Mira and Frontera located in Tumaco on the Colombian border with Ecuador. In a letter to Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez, PCN explained that Quiñonez continued to defend the rights of the Afro-Colombian Community Council, even after the high-profile murders of her fellow community leaders Genaro Garcia at the hands of the FARC guerillas in 2015 and Jose Jair Cortés in 2017.
WOLA has closely followed the situation of the Afro-Colombian Community Council of Alto Mira and Frontera since 2005. This community has suffered at the hands of all armed groups in Colombia, from paramilitaries and guerrillas to narcotics traffickers and the military, due to their refusal to cave into illegal armed groups’ demands. This community has received alternative development assistance from USAID and has also won a legal suit against an oil palm company that had illegally usurped their lands. WOLA believes that the charges levelled against these two leaders are likely to be politically motivated. In particular, we find incoherence in the fact that a person living in a city due to forced displacement with a government issued bodyguard who is with them almost 24-7 could be engaged in guerilla and narco-trafficking activities without the National Protection Unit (UNP) having detected and reported such activities.We note that PCN is a national and internationally recognized organization that has worked to dismantle illegal armed groups’ activities in Afro descendant territories and played a key role in guaranteeing the integration of the Ethnic Chapter into the FARC peace accord. Francia Marquez, another female leader from this organization was recently awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize.
- Somos Defensores First Trimester Report Points to Significant Increase in Killings against Defenders
The Colombian NGO Somos Defensores released its first trimester report on attacks against human rights defenders on April 25. The report registered a total of 132 individual aggressions against defenders. Of these aggressions, 66 of them are threats and 46 of them are murders. Compared to the first three months of 2017, Somos Defensores measured a 130 percent increase in killings of human rights defenders.
- Environmental Activist Assassinated in Ituango (Antioquia)
On May 2, the Ríos Vivos Movement condemned the assassination of environmental defender Albeiro George Pérez. Pérez, a member of the Association of Victims Affected by Megaprojects (Víctimas y Afectados por Megaproyectos, ASVAM) in the municipality of Ituango, led a camping to halt the construction of the controversial Hidroituango dam project.The dam has displaced hundreds of families, and the flooding of the river is expected to disrupt fishermen and small-time gold miners who have relied on the river for their livelihood for hundreds of years. Worst, the project will flood thousands of hectares where ASVAM and Ríos Vivos Movement claim that hundreds of unidentified war victims could be buried in mass graves. In late April, 25 members of the European parliament called for developer of the dam to suspend the project, allowing authorities to finish searching for bodies of victims. Flooding of the river is expected to begin in July.
- Land Restitution Leaders Assassinated in Turbo (Antioquia)
On April 20, James Luís Jiménez Estrada was murdered in the town of Santa Rosa, in the municipality of San Pedro de Uraba, in Turbo. Jiménez Estrada served as president of the Community Action Board of Cacahual. He was known for his extensive knowledge and work on crop substitution, and land restitution processes in his territory.
- Assassinations Continue Apace in Chocó and Guaviare
On April 10, Colombian radio station Contagio Radio reported the assassination of Yobany Velasco Ariza in San José del Guaviare. Likewise, Wilson Arnulfo Quetama, a member of the Association of Victims in Palmar Chocó, was murdered in Chocó, according to Contagio Radio. Velasco Ariza’s case was particularly concerning, as he had been an active community leader working with Colombia’s Territorial Renewal Agency (Agencia de Renovacion, ART) on post-conflict projects.
- Community Leader Assassinated in Catatumbo (Norte de Santander)
On April 5, the Campesino Association of Catatumbo (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT) denounced the murder of the social leader Álvaro Pérez, head of the Neighborhood Committee of San Calixto, a Colombian municipality located in the department of Norte de Santander. Pérez died when an unknown man shot him. Since the signing of the peace accords, two leaders of the association have been murdered. At the moment, there is no in-depth investigation to find those responsible for the crimes.
- Social Leader Gunned Down in Front of Family (Cauca)
On April 2, social leader Belisario Benavides Ordóñez was shot and killed when he was with his three-year-old son and a twelve-year-old nephew in the Santander neighborhood of the municipality of Rosas, Cauca. Benavides was a victims’ representative before the Territorial Committee of Transitional Justice of Roses. Benavides additionally led restitution processes in both Rosas and Patía and participated in the coordination of the International Day of Victims.
- Social Leader Assassinated by Unknown Individuals in Mapiripan (Meta)
On March 30, rights group National Coordinator of Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Cultivators (Coordinadora Nacional de Cultivadores de Coca, Amapola y Marihuana, COCCAM) released a statement denouncing the murder of Maria Magdalena Cruz Rojas. Two armed hooded individuals killed the social leader, known as an “untiring fighter” for human rights, in her home. She headed a governmental movement to grow alternatives to coca in Mapiripan, in the central region of Meta.
- Three Afronayeros Members of the Naya Community Council Disappear (Valle del Cauca)
On April 17, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission on Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz) reported that three members of the Naya Community Council (Obdulio Angulo Zamora- 33 years old, Hermes Angulo Zamora- 28 years old and Simeon Olave Angulo- 32 years old) disappeared. The men were last seen traveling by boat in the Puerto Merizalde area on the Naya River. This disappearance took place just days after a meeting took place in Bogota to discuss the status of this community’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS cautionary measures. At that meeting, members of this community expressed concerned over the security forces’ activities in their region, given that this area serves as a narco-trafficking route.
- UN Verification Mission in Colombia Condemns Violence in Catatumbo (Norte de Santader)
On April 28, the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia condemned violence in Catatumbo, a region with 11 municipalities in the department of Norte de Santander near the border with Venezuela. For more than a month, clashes between illegal armed groups in this region are causing serious humanitarian harm. According to the UN, at least 144,000 people face severe restrictions on access to services, basic goods, and mobility limitations; 2,819 people have been forcibly displaced; and 44,829 children have been forced to suspend their educational journey for more than 6 days. Among those affected by the clashes are the Bari indigenous people, who reported confinement to the UN.
- Sinoa Indigenous Communities Alert Authorities of High Risk of Harm (Putumayo)
On April 25, the Association of Indigenous Councils of the Siona People (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Pueblo Siona, ACIPS), the Siona Buenavista Reservation (Resguardo Siona Buenavista), and the Siona Piñuña Blanco Reservation (Resguardo Siona Piñuña Blanco) issued an early warning alert, notifying officials of the presence of armed illegal groups that threaten the safety of their community. The indigenous community points to the rearming of paramilitary groups, the assassination of community members, and curfews imposed by illegal armed groups as growing concerns to their safety.
- ONIC Warns of Humanitarian Crisis for the Awá people in Tumaco (Nariño)
On April 24, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, ONIC) reported that illegal armed groups were carrying out concerning combat operations near the Awá indigenous reservations of Piedra Sellada, Quejuambi Feliciana, Inda Sabaleta, Hojal la Turbia, and Chinguirito Mira. According to the ONIC, the presence of these armed groups, combats, and patrols in Awá ancestral territories has increased concerns regarding the potential forced displacement of these communities.
- Communities in Puerto Asis Report Security Situation (Putumayo)
On April 21, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission on Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz) denounced a serious humanitarian situation reported by communities in Puerto Asis, Putumayo. According to Justicia y Paz, communities are experiencing increasing insecurity due to the presence of illegal armed groups and FARC dissident groups that have threatened and harassed the communities that work for the voluntary substitution of illicit crops. Local leaders Saul Luna and Hugo Miramar were the target of recent threats and harassment of these groups.
- Paramilitaries Threaten Ethnic Communities in Areas Hard-Hit by Colombian Conflict (Chocó)
On March 30, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) released a statement expressing concern over the presence of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) in the communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó in the Chocó department. According to information received by WOLA, 200 armed AGC members had a presence in an area controlled and patrolled by Colombian Military’s 54th Jungle Battalion.Between 1996 and 1997, communities in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó were forcibly displaced by military and paramilitary operations. Following their displacement, banana and palm oil companies set up operations in the territory. Attempts by social leaders and communities to return to their land, as laid out in the Victims and Land Restitution Law passed by the Santos government, have been met with intimidation, violence, threats, and harassment.
- Report to Assist in the Identification of Patterns of Assassination of Social Leaders
Prompted by the sharp rise in assassinations of social leaders, and debates in Colombia about the existence or lack of patterns in the assassinations, the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz, INDEPAZ) published a report in April to address this issue. The report answers questions such as: What does it mean to say that attacks are systematic? Who are the victims of aggressions? Who are responsible for murders and threats? The report is available here.
- Sintrabiofilm Union Expresses Concern for their Safety (Bolivar)
Following a March 11 attack to Sintrabiofilm members traveling in a Biofilm operated bus, members of the union continue to engage with the Labor Ministry to secure safety measures for their members. Although the Labor Ministry has been quick to answer Sintrabiofilm concerns, no concrete investigations or safety protocols have been enacted for the union. According to the Ombudsman Office, Sintrabiofilm is one of eight at-risk unions in the department of Bolivar. For more than three years, the union has been engaged in a labor dispute with Biofilm S.A. to guarantee fair labor standards.
- USME Afro-Colombian Leader under Threat of Harm (Cundinamarca)
WOLA remains concerned for the safety and security of Afro-Colombian leader Arley Estupiñan, who was forcibly displaced to Bogota from Buenaventura in 2014 due to death threats. Late April, he was intimidated by illegally armed persons who oppose his leadership efforts in Bogota. Mr. Estupiñan is engaged in helping the 300 plus members of the impoverished San German community improve their dire circumstances so they can live a more dignified life. This effort includes an attempt to obtain legal titles to the lands they reside in.
- WOLA Rejects False Accusations Made by Vice Presidential Candidate Juan Carlos Pinzon
On April 7, current vice presidential candidate and former Ambassador of Colombia to the United States Juan Carlos Pinzon falsely accused current Gender Advisor to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Pilar Rueda, as having “affinity towards FARC.” Ms. Rueda is an internationally-recognized gender expert, who provided her expertise to the gender sub-commission during the peace negotiations. Her knowledge, deep understanding of the conflict, and expert recommendation to providing a gender focus to the implementation of the peace accords are important contributions that cannot be overshowed by this false claim. We urge U.S. policymakers to ask Mr. Pinzon to retract these statements.
- Afro-Colombian Leaders Call on Authorities to Regulate Law 70 of the Black Communities
On May 3, prominent Afro-Colombian leaders sent a letter to President Juan Manuel Santos and the Minister of the Interior, Guillermo Rivera Florez, urging them to fully regulate Law 70 of 1993, of the Black Communities. They note that the lack of regulation of Article 57, “constitutes an unacceptable situation given the absence of specific policies, indicators, and resources, which has resulted in the violation of our recognized rights, including the right to culturally specific development. This led to the mobilizations that then resulted in a commitment to the regulation of Law 70, putting it on the public agenda.” The Colombian government is urged to fulfill the promises it made to Afro-Colombians by fully regulating Law 70 of 1993 before August 7, 2018. Further, it should take urgent steps that enable the formulation of the National Plan for Black Communities ordered by Article 57 of 1993 and include specific policies for our peoples in the National Development Plan.