WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
31 Jan 2018 | Commentary

January Update: Communities in Colombia Face Ongoing Security Incidents

During the first month of 2018, Colombia’s alarming wave of attacks on human rights defenders, particularly community activists in rural areas, continued apace. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is monitoring these cases closely, and will continue to stand with victims and our partners to ensure that the Colombian government protects these activists from further threats and violence.

In the first installment of WOLA’s human rights update of 2018, WOLA once again details concerning trends that continue to affect social leaders. Specifically, we would like to call attention to the murders of Eleazar Tequía Vitucay and Temistocles Machado, two prominent social leaders who were killed by unidentified perpetrators over the weekend of January 26-28. Vitucay, of the Embera Katio peoples, was a ten-year veteran of the indigenous guard in the Chocó Department, while Machado was instrumental in defending the rights of persons in the port city of Buenaventura. Both were part of the Ethnic Commission for Peace, a platform that has represented the interests of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities since the inception of the peace negotiations.

As mentioned in the last human rights update of 2017, the alarming number of killings, security incidents, and threats involving social leaders, means that it is urgent that U.S. policymakers do their utmost to convince Colombian authorities to take bold, efficient, and constructive steps to address the security crisis facing community leaders and defenders. We will continue to see more killings unless Colombian authorities bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice and provide effective protection to vulnerable communities.

Below is a list of incidents since our last installment in December of 2017. To see past human rights updates, please click here.

  • Afro-Colombian Leader shot 7 times and Killed (Nariño)
    On January 22, José Olmedo Obando, a leader in the Nueva Esperanza Community Council, was shot 7 times and killed by hitmen in the Sucumbíos municipality of Nariño. In December, four residents were killed. Community leaders are the targets of persistent threats and intimidations. Efforts to obtain effective protection measures from the local, departmental, and national authorities were unsuccessful.
  • Community Leader Assassinated in Yondó (Antioquia)
    The Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) reported that Victor Morato was murdered on January 17. Mr. Morato, president of the community action board and member of the municipal services committee of Yondó was known for defending the rights of his community. Unidentified men killed him in front of his home.
  • Witness in Extrajudicial Killing Case Survives Attack (Valle Del Cauca)
    Human rights organizations in Valle Del Cauca reported on January 20 that Jose Wilson Giraldo Barrera survived a second assassination attempt. Mr. Barrera is a key witness in the 2006 case of Jose Orlando Giraldo Barrera. Jose Orlando was killed by members of the Colombian armed forces who then justified the death by falsely reporting him to be a FARC guerrilla. Mr. Barrera holds precautionary measures by Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
  • MOVICE Founder is Kidnapped (Cundinamarca)
    On January 13, Blanca Nubia Diaz, one of the Movement of Victims of State Crimes’ (MOVICE) founders was kidnapped in Bogota. Kidnappers called her a “snitch guerilla in a political campaign.” Ms. Diaz was sedated by the abductors who proceeded to cut off her hair. After the attack they left her in front of Bogota’s Center for Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation. For the past 16 years, Blanca has demanded truth for disappearance, rape, and murder of her daughter. She has received multiple death threats due to her demands for justice.
  • Two Killed and another Two Injured (Cauca)
    On January 23 in the town of Buenos Aires armed men attack a car travelling towards Timba. The unknown assailants used explosives and weapons that left two dead and two injured. Fares Carabalí and Diego Fernando Castillo died at the scene. While two others who were present, Álvaro Arará Rodallega and Carlos Mina were wounded. All of the men are connected to an Afro-Colombian cooperative in Santander de Quilichao.
  • Assassination Plot against Social Leader Discovered in Mapiripán (Meta)
    On December 22, Justicia y Paz reported that alleged paramilitaries were overheard talking about their orders to assassinate land restitution leader William Aljure. For the past five years, Mr. Aljure has fought to reclaiming the rights his family’s lands that were violently and illegally usurped by paramilitaries. For the past three years he’s partnered with indigenous community leaders to expose environmental damage caused by oil palm plantations in Mapiripan. Mr. Aljure is spokesman the Network of Communities Building Peace in the Territories’ (CONPAZ) spokesperson in Meta. WOLA has hosted him in Washington, DC.
  • Threatening Pamphlet Distributed in Sincelejo (Sucre)
    On December 22, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) circulated a death threat pamphlet that accuses members of MOVICE and Sembrando Paz to be guerrilla collaborators. Both of these organizations are long time WOLA partners. In the pamphlet, the AGC states that the persons listed are “civilian guerrillas” who wish to deceive the Colombian people and turn the country “mirror of Venezuela.” With this accusation, they warn these leaders that they plan to kill them. This direct threat containing false accusations raises the level of insecurity for these organizations. Such false claims against leaders erode their legitimacy and make them military targets.
  • Paramilitary Incursion Results in Three Dead (Cauca)
    On January 21, the town of El Plateado in Algeria municipality, Cauca suffered a paramilitary incursion which left three people deadLenin Gómez Samboni, Belén Suárez Tribillo and Carlos Muñoz. The Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Justicia y Paz) report that a number of armed men wearing hoods and carrying weapons entered the town. They proceeded to shoot at a crowd that was participating in carnival celebrations in the main square.
  • Mass Displacement of Indigenous People (Córdoba)
    The United Nations Organization for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported the displacement of at least 425 people (estimated 131 families) in San José de Uré municipality. OCHA notes that this displacement was prompted by the January 18 murder of the president of the Community Action Board of San Pedrito.
  • Indigenous Communities Report Persistent Violence (Cauca)
    The Chab Wala Kiwe, Nasa indigenous communities of northern Cauca, reported a series of violent incidents that took place in their territories from January 6 to 18. These include: the excessive use of force on the part of the Colombian military on January 6 and 16; acts of intimidation by illegal armed groups on various days (January 12, 16, and 17) and circulation of death threats by the AGC paramilitary group on January 15. Most importantly, they denounced the murder of German Andres Ruiz Mera, a family member of the community’s representative by unidentified men.
  • Continued Persecution of Land Claimants in Bajo Atrato (Chocó)
    On December 24, Justicia y Paz revealed a plan to assassinate members of the community of Bracitos in the collective territory of Jiguamiandó. The NGO notes that illegal armed groups in the area are falsely accusing community members of being guerilla collaborators. The plot’s ultimate goal is to assassinate Seferino Armanta, one of the community leaders, and two other unnamed residents of Bracitos.On December 23, an armed group raided the nearby community of Bijao Onofre, looking for Rosario Amaya, the leader of a biodiversity zone and a land claimant. According to Justicia y Paz, the group pretended to be members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerilla group but was actually associated with bad-faith land occupants.The security and safety situation for communities and leader of the Bajo Atrato region was at the epicenter of letter to President Juan Manuel Santos by members of the United States Congressional Black Caucus.
  • Afro-Colombian Leaders Urge Colombia to Improve Security (Chocó)
    On December 11, legal representatives of the Afro-Colombian community council of Bajo Atrato and the leaders of the Afro-Colombian communities of Bajo Atrato and Darien region published a document formally denouncing the continued violence against their communities. They cite the murders of two of their citizens and the imminent threat of displacement from their lands. According to the document, these increased attacks and threats come as a reaction to land restitution efforts, and aim to discourage citizens and communities from claiming their land rights.
  • San José de Apartadó Peace Community Threatened by Paramilitary Violence (Antioquia)
    On January 22, the San José de Apartadó Peace Community expressed concern over the ever present levels of paramilitary violence in their community. Incidents involving the paramilitaries include assassination plots against community members, public threats, and acts to provoke a reaction from residents, and a plot to burn down symbolic structures in the community.  These incidents come after the December 29, 2017 assassination attempt on the community’s legal representative, German Graciano Posso at the hands of four paramilitaries. The community notes that in spite of the military presence in the area, paramilitaries are able to enter the community easily. Luckily, the attack was thwarted by the quick reaction of community members who were able to disarm the assailants.
  • Over 70 Indigenous Families in Immediate Danger in Municipality of Caceres (Antioquia)
    On January 19, the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia expressed concern for over 70 Senú families that are at risk of imminent displacement. Armed confrontations between illegal armed groups in Caceres municipality are placing these civilians in harm’s way.
  • Warnings of Social Cleansing in La Hormiga and San Miguel (Putumayo)
    On January 18, flyers circulated in La Hormiga and San Miguel, Putumayo Department that warned of an imminent social cleansing. The perpetrators are threatening to “cleanse” the region of drug dealers, thieves, prostitutes, and rapists. They warn that anyone out past 10:00 pm is a target of their “hunt.” This kind of vigilante violence represents citizens’ general frustration with continued violence in the region, and also represents an additional security risk to citizens.
  • Alleged ELN Guerrilla Killed in Accident after Threatening to Kill Child (Chocó)
    On December 25, the Justicia y Paz reported the death of an alleged National Liberation Army (ELN) member in the Cetino community on the collective territory of Curvaradó, According to the report, the guerrilla, drunk and dressed in civilian clothes, threatened to shoot an 11-year old boy. After being confronted by several adults who urged him to stop, the man fired three shots in the air, took a motorcycle, and crashed into a tree.
  • DANE Fails to Properly Implement 2018 Census in Indigenous Territories
    On January 28, National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) denounced the failure of DANE, the Colombia’s statistics agency, to carry-out the 2018 census in indigenous territories. They warn that DANE failed to work with the ONIC to develop a culturally sensitive and situationally aware approach to determine the number and geographic location of indigenous people in Colombia. The DANE’s failure to do this puts indigenous people at risk, since this could mean effective exclusion of national policies that are sensitive to the needs of Colombia’s indigenous communities.
  • Unions Condemn Systematic Impunity for Violations of Workers’ Rights (Bolívar)
    On December 22, a number of labor organization in Cartagena issued a petition outlining their labor concerns the Bolivar Department’s Ministry of Labor. Their key concerns involve the persistent violation of workers’ rights by a number of companies including:  Biofilm, Seatech, Yara, Sodexo, Tubos del Caribe, Sociedad Portuaria, El Cayao, Puerto Bahia, Sipor, and private ports of Cartagena. Furthermore, they cite a pattern of negligence by the Ministry of Labor and point to the potential sabotage of cases from within the Ministry, using persistent problems of missing paper work and delays as evidence of this. They call upon the Ministry to more thoroughly investigate these cases and sanction companies as required by the law and by the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan signed by Presidents Santos and Obama in April 2011.
  • Workers Denounce Economic Reforms Proposed by the Central Bank (Bolívar)
    On January 12, trade unionists and workers of the central bank in Bolivar conducted a protest to denounce changes in the bank’s labor policies. The workers are asking for increased wages and more opportunities to own housing. They denounced bank’s policies that according to the unions only benefit the economic elites and promote inequality. They also cited concerns over corruption involving the bank’s board, draft policies that would increase the age of retirement and implement different wages based upon region. For 20 years workers have tried to get the bank to negotiate with them and its refused.

On a more positive note:

  • Sanctions Imposed on Biofilm S.A. for Violating Labor Rights (Bolívar)
    On December 26, The Ministry of Labor in Bolivar announced fines totaling over 589 million pesos (≈$200,000 USD) against Biofilm S.A for violating the rights of their workers. The company was fined 368 million pesos for violating health and safety codes, as well as, 220 million pesos for illegally punishing its workers who conduct union activities.