WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
15 Dec 2017 | Commentary

December Update: Colombia Social Leaders Face Imminent Security Threat from Illegal Armed Groups

Intervention Required to Protect Colombian Social Leaders and Ethnic Minorities

So far in December 2017, Colombia’s Chocó department is facing a serious humanitarian and security crisis due to an ongoing power struggle between guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) and drug trafficking neo-paramilitary group the Gaitanista Self Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC). This conflict has severely affected the security of social leaders based in Chocó.

Communities in Chocó’s Bajo Atrato region have lost two emblematic leaders in the past two weeks. Both men advocated for land reform and for the rights of displaced communities in a region where powerful agribusinesses are active. On December 9, Hernán Bedoya was killed in Pedeguita y Mancilla, and on November 26 Mario Castaño Bravo from was assassinated in his home in La Larga Tumaradó.

The escalating conflict between the ELN and the neo-paramilitaries recently prompted more than 20 social leaders to travel from Chocó to Bogota to request immediate support and security. Concerns over safety are running so high that leaders from Bajo Atrato wore white masks while giving a the press conference, in order to avoid being identified by illegal armed groups. The Inspector General of Colombia (Procurador General de Colombia) urgently called on the government to guarantee security for these leaders.

The Washington Office on Latin America (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, and that officials carry out investigations and prosecute those responsible.

Below is a list of human rights incidents that have occurred in Colombia since our last monthly update.

  • Two Prominent Land Rights Leaders Assassinated, Others Remain at Risk in Chocó
    On December 9, Hernan Bedoya, land claimant leader of the collective territory of Pedeguita Mancilla was shot 14 times by the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) in a location known as El Acopio. Mr. Bedoya was killed after exposing illegal dealings and the presence of paramilitary groups in the area.

    On November 26, Mario Castaño Bravo, leader of La Larga Community Council of Tumaradó, was assassinated by paramilitaries in his home.. Mr. Bravo was working to obtain justice of persons whose territories were illegally usurped by illegal armed groups and economic interests. Prior to his death, he had condemned the presence of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the paramilitary organization AGC in nearby communities. He was also leading an effort to construct a collective reparations proposal for the rightful owners of the territory.

    Both Mr. Bedoya and Mr. Bravo belonged to communities that form part of Communities Building Peace in the Territories (CONPAZ), a network of 140 victims and resistance communities located in 14 departments of Colombia where armed conflict is still present. Both men had been granted a cellphone and bullet proof vest as protection measures from the National Protection Unit (UNP). The later evidences the lack of effective protection provided by the UNP for leaders situated in rural remote communities. NGOs in Colombia, Europe, and the United States condemned Mr. Bravo’s murder, called on the Colombian government to investigate his death and demanding better security for social leaders in the country.

    On December 4, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Justicia y Paz) denounced the presence of members of the AGC in the collective territory of Curvaradó. According to Justicia y Paz, community members reported being forced to attend a meeting where the AGC leadership in the region circulated an execution list. The community members were told that the executions would be carried out if they did not cooperate, and they were warned that no one, including the ELN, would stop the AGC from having a presence in the territory. Immediate action must be taken by U..S. and Colombian authorities to prevent further murders from taking place in this area.

  • Civil Society in Chocó Demands Respect from Armed Actors and Fulfillment of Peace Accords
    On December 11, the Inter-Ethnic Chocó Solidarity Forum (FISCH), the Dioceses of Quibdó, Apartadó, Istmina-Tadó, and the working roundtable of indigenous people in Chocó, expressed concerned regarding the lack of implementation of the Ethnic Chapter of the peace accords, and the growing presence of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and paramilitary organization in collective ethnic territories.As members of civil society and representatives of various organizations, the groups demanded greater security for the civilian population, implementation of the Ethnic Chapter in peace mechanisms, and a permanent extension of the bilateral ceasefire between the ELN and the government with a formal inclusion of the Acuerdo Humanitario, ¡Ya!, plan developed by Chocó’s civil society.
  • Social Leader Murdered near FARC Demobilization Encampment (Putumayo)
    On December 4, Colombian outlets reported the murder of Luis Alfonso Giraldo, president of the Community Action Board of the La Brasilia, by unknown men in La Carmelita, Putumayo. Mr. Giraldo’s murder is concerning because his death occurred very close to the Territorial Area for Training and Reincorporation (TATR) of La Carmelita where former FARC combatants are concentrated. It is also a place where the police and National Army are present.
  • Social Leader Assassinated in Mapiripán (Meta)
    On December 2, Justicia y Paz reported the death of social leader Carlos Arturo Mena Rentería in the hamlet knows as El Rincón del Indio in Mapiripán, Meta.  According to Justicia y Paz, FARC dissidents left a note next to his body saying “we killed him for being a snitch and an informant.”
  • Leading Indigenous Leaders Murdered (Caquetá)
    On November 25, the National Organization of the Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC) reported the death of indigenous leaders Mario Jacanamijoy and Dubier Prietro Coro. Their bodies were found in rural Belén de los Andaquíes days after they were reported missing in mid-November. According to OPIAC, Mr. Jacanamijoy and Mr. Coro were recognized for their leadership and work in defending the rights of their community. At the time of this death, Mr. Jacanamijoy was the Departmental Health Counselor in Caquetá.
  • Troubling Murder of Tumaco Resident in FARC Demobilization Encampment (Nariño)
    On December 2, Colombia radio outlet RCN reported the murder of Richard Paui Canticus in the Territorial Area for Training and Reincorporation (TATR) Ariel Aldana near Tumaco, where former FARC combatants are concentrated. The young man was shot to death while he met with demobilized FARC members in TART. According to witnesses, shots were heard about thirty meters from where the meeting was taking place. In a statement, community leaders expressed concerned and frustration over the lack of security even in areas like TART where the police and military exercise control.
  • Fuel Workers Disappear (North Santander)
    On November 21, the Fundacion Progresar reported the recent disappearances of four fuel workers who had been travelling from El Tarra to Tubú. According to the organization, members of the paramilitary group Los Rastrojos approached the workers and abducted them. 
  • ELN Breaks Ceasefire and Kills 13 in Magüí Payán (Nariño)
    On November 27, 13 people were killed in the municipality of Magüí Payán, in the southeastern Colombia department of Nariño, after an alleged confrontation between the Comuneros del Sur faction of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and dissidents from the FARC’s 29th Front according to Colombia’s weekly Semana. The Mayor of Magüí Payán, who has dubbed this act a massacre, explained that among the dead are a community leader and legal representative of a local community council. His brother, who was injured, remains in detention, apparently at the hands of the ELN. The territory, currently under dispute between dissidents from FARC’s 29th Front and the ELN, is a strategic location for drug trafficking routes.
  •  Combat Operations between EPL and FARC Dissidents Endanger the Indigenous in Cauca
    On December 9, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and the National Indigenous Council of Cauca reported combat operations between the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and FARC dissidents in the Suarez municipality in Cauca. So far six casualties have been reported, and given the intensity of combat operations about 120 families are currently confined to their territory. Meanwhile 48 families from the community of Aguablanca, 82 families from the community of Robles, 60 families from the community of La Cabaña, and 63 families for the community of Olivares have been displaced.
  • Community Members Threatened (Valle del Cauca)
    On November 2, the Ministry of National Defense reported that four paramilitaries entered the area of Buenaventura to threaten Jeisón Valencia Sinisterra. Sinisterra had been attending meetings with international NGO’s and was told to stop his involvement or he would be killed. In addition, earlier in July, the organization Witness for Justice and Peace found evidence of the illegal environmental exploitation of Afro-Descendants in the Buenaventura area. Residents and Afro-Descendants have been receiving verbal and physical threats.
  • Colombia’s National Labor School (ENS) Reports Concerning Number of Threats
    On November 28, Colombia’s National Labor School (ENS), a Colombian labor research group, published a worrisome statistic regarding threats to members of the Colombia’s branch of the UNI Global Union. According to ENS, in 2017 12 members affiliated with UNI in Colombia have received death threats. Threats have taken place during collective bargaining with employers, and following labor organizing to demand higher wages.
  • Displaced Citizens Face Humanitarian Situation (Chocó, Valle del Cauca)
    On November 20, the Ombudsman’s office released a statement describing the serious humanitarian situation faced by the displaced Wounaan indigenous population in Buenaventura. According to the Ombudsman’s office, approximately 370 people Wounaan were displaced from San Juan region in Chocó to Buenaventura due to presence of illegal armed groups.The displaced communities are staying in two locations in Buenaventura, where the Ombudsman reported rodent, cockroach, and mosquito infested living environments. Within the two locations, there are four confirmed cases of tuberculosis and people lack an access to clean drinking water and food. Currently, the communities do not have access to basic health treatments or medicine, and a plan to return to their territories has not been discussed with local authorities.

On the more positive side we inform you of the following:

  • Vice President of AFRODES honored (Valle del Cauca)
    On November 16, the Vice President of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), Erlendy Cuero Bravo, was recognized by the Municipal Table of Victims for her dedication and commitment for the work she conducts for displaced Afro-Colombians.