WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
30 Mar 2018 | Commentary

March Update: Colombian Civil Society Continues to Be Attacked and Harassed

Acts of violence and attacks against human rights defenders in Colombia continue. In this installment of WOLA’s Human Rights Update, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has registered a concerning number of assassinations, threats, and harassment against leaders. The attacks mentioned in this installment are consistent with the recent report by Colombia’s Ombudsman Office which states that 282 human rights defenders were murdered between January 2016 to February 2018. Those numbers, and the constant threats and harassment defenders face, led the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) to express its concern earlier this month, and to urge the Colombian government to adopt urgent measures to protect defenders and to carry out diligent investigations.

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 democratic society and consolidating rule of law. The Colombian government must investigate and prosecute those responsible.

Below is a list of incidents since our last installment earlier in February. To see past human rights updates, please click here.

This month, WOLA registered 8 assassinations of social leaders or members of vulnerable ethnic communities in Colombia, bringing the total so far in 2018 to 30.

  • Armed Men Assassinate Sons of Murdered AFRODES Leader
    On March 19, armed men assassinated the stepson and son, Silvio Durban Ortiz Ortiz and Javier Bernardo Cuero Ortiz, of murdered AFRODES leader Bernardo Cuero Bravo in Tumaco, Nariño. Two men on motorbikes shot the two men, aged 27 and 32, as they returned to their home. Javier’s wife, who was shot in the shoulder, survived the attack. These murders took place 12 days after the March 6 public hearing on Bernardo Cuero’s murder. During the hearing that took place in the Judicial Services Center of Barranquilla, several protestors gathered for a vigil to raise awareness of the lack of justice in Bernardo’s death. WOLA has alerted U.S. and Colombian authorities of the security situation facing AFRODES’s leaders and their families on numerous occasions. In spite of this and intervention from the international community, AFRODES leaders and their families remain at high risk of harm. We urge U.S. and other authorities to guarantee justice for these three murders. Colombian authorities must be urged to take all steps possible to prevent further assassinations in the AFRODES community from happening.
  • Armed Group Kills 2 Awa Indigenous Minors (Nariño)
    On March 21, Caracol Radio reported that 5 armed men killed Gabriel Pascal Taicus and Reidel Roberto Pastas Chávez in the Buenavista Village of Barbacoas Municipality. The exact date of the murders is unknown, but the community reports that armed people abducted the young men near their homes then shot and killed them in a nearby cemetery. While the motive for this killing is unknown, the Awa Reservation expresses concern for the safety of their children and demand that the government immediately implement the Telembí Zone Collective Reparation Plan.
  • Armed Actors Assassinate Community Leaders (Córdoba)
    The Rural Press Agency reports that on March 6, two hitmen killed Arturo Royet in his home. Arturo was the president of the Santa Isabel Community Action Board. On March 11, armed men assassinated Tomás Barreto on his plot of land. Tomás was a member of the Afro-Colombian Community Council of San José de Uré and the nephew of a local councilman. These killings add to the ever-growing list of community leaders killed in the zone. Earlier in 2018, Plinio Pulgarín, president of the San Pedrito Community Action board and Antonio Madrid, treasurer of the La Ilusión Community Action Board were also murdered. Both community leaders worked on the coca substitution programs in their communities. In the aftermath of this violence, 500 families have been displaced out of fear of the armed groups in the area.
  • Armed Group Kills Indigenous Youth during Raid (Cauca)
    The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) reported that on March 5, armed men killed Eider Campo Hurtado during a raid to “rescue” three prisoners held by the Pioya Traditional Authorities. Eider was a young journalist with the Pelsxhab Stereo Communications Collective and a member of the Páez indigenous group. The Indigenous Authority detained these men for being undercover police informants and the authority asserts that one of the men had admitted to being a military informant prior to the raid. Under Colombia’s 1991 constitution, indigenous communities have the full right to maintain legal jurisdiction over crimes committed on their territory. This raid and the subsequent murder of Eider constitute a serious violation of that right.
  • Community Leader Assassinated by Armed Criminal Bands (Chocó)
    On March 18, armed men shot and killed Juan Mena, a community leader and merchant in Quibdó. According to the community, a criminal band targeted Juan for his refusal to pay their “taxes.” Juan previously a denounced threat made against him, and was previously displaced because of them. Juan’s assassination marks the 15th social leader murdered in this zone.
  • Paramilitaries Attack Indigenous Leader (Cauca)
    On March 9, a paramilitary organization known as the Aguilas Negras shot Nelson Pacue in his home near Cali, Valle del Cauca. Nelson is the former governor of the Huellas Reservation and the current Director of the Arrayán Educational Institution. Nelson survived the attempt on his life and is recovering.On March 14, as the Aguilas Negras threatened the Tóez Reservation Indigenous Authority and the Indigenous Guard, as well as The Association of Indigenous Chiefs of Northern Cauca (ACIN), Senator-elect Feliciano Valencia, and Presidential Candidate Gustavo Petro. The threatening flyer called for, “Death to the guerrillas camouflaged as indigenous chiefs and guards,” and boasted about the Aguilas Negras’ assassination attempt against Nelson Pacue.
  • Unionized Sintrabiofilm Workers Denounce Attack against Them (Bolívar)
    On March 11, unidentified people attacked a vehicle of workers in the Policarpa neighborhood as they headed home. The assailants threw blunt objects at the bus, breaking the windows and injuring four workers. Two of the workers are members of the Sintrabiofilm Workers Union. The union points to previous attacks against them, which the Ombudsman’s office included in a May 2017 report on threats against social leaders. They urge Sintrabiofilm to protect their workers by providing safe transportation to all their workers, especially those in Turbaco and Arjona.
  • Families of Forcibly Disappeared Embera Indigenous People Face Threats (Valle Del Cauca)
    On March 8, 2017, Julio César Vélez Vásquez, Luis Adrián Velez Restrepo, Brayan Stiven Vélez Restrepo, and Luis Sebastián Namundia Vélez, members of the La Esperanza Indigenous Community disappeared during a fishing trip near the Alcalá Municipality. One year later, the public prosecutor has not reported any progress on the investigation. This is troubling because the victims’ families experience persistent threats and are now forcibly displaced, despite their protected status issued by the Inter-American Human Rights Court issued on July 30, 2017. The Indigenous Authority of Valle del Cauca insists on safety measures for these families and urges the General Prosecutor to expedite the investigation. They ask the international community to pressure Colombia to protect the rights of its indigenous communities.
  • Persistent Security Threats in Peace Community of San José de Apartadó (Antioquia)
    On February 5, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights passed a resolution urging the Colombian government to immediately implement measures to protect the residents of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. They point to documented threats against the community and the persistent presence of paramilitaries in the community who verbally issue death threats against the following members of the community: Germán Graciano Posso, Gildardo Tuberquia, Cristóbal Meza, and Jesús Emilio Tuberquia. Furthermore, they worry about similar threats by soldiers in the 12th Brigade of the Colombian military and denials about the presence of paramilitaries by the military and the police. Since the CIDH passed this resolution, the Peace Community has reported the following threats against them:On February 18 and 19, residents saw paramilitaries wearing camouflage and carrying assault weapons pass repeatedly in front of their settlement the Aldea de Paz. This was interpreted as a threat against the Peace Community.

    On February 19, paramilitaries held a meeting with the ranchers of the rural district of Currulao in the Turbo municipality, saying they will regulate the buying and selling of cattle and that all transactions will be done under neo-paramilitary control. They denied responsibility for the attack against the Peace Community on December 29, 2017, despite the presence of known neo-paramilitaries alias “Felipe” and alias “El Gato” during the attack itself.

    On February 22, while most members of the Peace Community were in Mulatos for the commemoration of the 2005 massacre, various residents in the San Josesito settlement saw a drone flying through the settlement. The Community believes this is a form of espionage to prepare for a new attack.

    On February 23, paramilitaries convened a meeting with residents of Mulatos in which they insisted on the forceful displacement of the Peace Community from the Aldea de Paz.

    On March 2, the paramilitaries forced civil society members to attend a meeting in the La Unión neighborhood. They warned the residents that if they did not attend, they would be forced to pay a fine equal to $70 USD. The Ombudsman’s office alerted the military of this extortion, and they arrived after the conclusion of the event. The soldiers reported that the meeting never occurred.

    On March 5, a paramilitary alias “Felipe” stopped a group of residents as they traveled to the San José village. The paramilitary called his superiors and let them continue.On March 10, residents reported armed paramilitaries drinking alcohol in the San José town center as police and military forced looked on. These paramilitaries frequently ride their motorcycles, shooting their guns in the air. State forces do nothing to stop or disarm them even though this constitutes a clear threat against the community.

  • Human Rights Organization Reports Troubling Acts against Civilians (Cauca)
    According to the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network, various actors are responsible for several troubling incidents against civilians in Cauca:On February 22, residents of Popayán Municipality gathered for a peaceful demonstration. Police and ESMAD, Colombia’s anti-riot police, arrived and started verbally abusing the protesters. They called them criminals and pushed them. The police detained Anselmo Andrés Pérez and then Víctor Andrés Gutiérrez and Jhon Mario Aguilar Rojas for filming the encounter. Also on February 22 in Corinto Municipality, 20 military personnel entered the home of Orfa Edilia Rojas. According to the reported information, they forcibly used her home to store their personal items until February 26. Orfa contacted Colonel Castro, the commander of the Alta Montaña Battalion, to inform him of the situation. He has not responded. Orfa is a social leader and the former President of the Peasant Association of Corinto. In the context of broad violence against social leaders, this abuse by the military could make her a target for retaliation by other armed groups.

    On February 26, unidentified people spray painted the initials “AGC,” representing the Gaitanista Self Defense Forces of Colombia, on various town buildings and structures. The graffiti are a direct warning to the town’s residents, particularly those who are members of the Popular and Peasant Network of La Vega (PCPV), the Popular Unity Process of the Colombian Southwest and the Marcha Patriótica.

  • Militarization of Morales Municipality Threatens Citizen Security (Bolívar)
    On March 7, troops from the 58th Jungle Battalion of the Colombian military settled near the a town in the Morales Municipality, in Bolívar department. The next day, on March 8, a confrontation between the military and the ELN endangered the lives of the community. According to residents, combat reached La Capilla, a neighborhood 5 minutes away from the Micoahumado city center. After the crossfire, the soldiers invaded the home of a local resident for shelter. There, they inquired about Pablo de Jesús Santiago, a community leader and the prosecutor of the Agro-Mining Federation of Sur de Bolívar. This is concerning given the documented links between military forces and paramilitaries in attacks against community leaders. Furthermore, these military confrontations and forced military occupations endanger civilians and place them at risk of retribution by other armed groups.
  • Victims of the 12 Apostles Paramilitary Group Express Concerns Over Impunity (Antioquia)
    On March 15, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Justicia y Paz) released a statement expressing concern over the recent decision of a Judge in Antioquia to release Santiago Uribe Vélez, brother of former President Alvaro Uribe, on bail. Since February 2016, Santiago Uribe has been held in the Juan del Corral de Rionegro military battalion while he is under investigation for his role in murders committed by the 12 Apostles between 1992 and 1994. According to Justicia y Paz, the victims of this paramilitary organization fear that Uribe’s release from prison signals a lack of will to adequately investigate and prosecute these murders. Furthermore, they fear attempts to discredit their testimonies and the use of false witnesses against them.
  • Afro-Colombian Labor Council Urges the OAS to Act on Labor Rights (Cundinamarca)
    On March 5, the Afro-Colombian Labor Council wrote a letter to the OAS’s Inter-American Human Rights Commission expressing their concern over the systematic violation of labor rights in Colombia. They cite illegal retributions for labor organizing, exploitative sub-contracted employment, labor exploitation, impunity, and the failure of the Ministry of Labor to address these violations. In all of these issues, Afro-Colombians are disproportionately impacted, leaving them unable to achieve full economic, social, and political equality. The organization urges the international community to pressure Colombia to act on these problems. They ask for consultative aid and recommend that the Human Rights Commission create a permanent committee of experts to monitor labor conditions of Afro-Colombians in Colombia.
  • European Parliament Expresses Concern for Social Leaders in Colombia (Luxembourg)
    On March 16, members of the European Parliament expressed concern over the increase in assassinations and aggression against human rights and environmental defenders and social and community leaders in Colombia. They reaffirm their support for the peace agreement and urge the government to improve its efforts to protect civil society leaders, investigate the crimes against them, recognize the dignity of human rights work, and to resolve troubling links between paramilitaries, security forces, and economic and political elites.