WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
28 Jun 2017 | Commentary

June Update: Deadly Pattern of Violence Claims the Life of Respected Colombian Human Rights Defenders

As implementation of the Colombian peace process moves forward, violence against human rights defenders continues. June was a particularly difficult month for Afro-Colombian organizations and their leaders after Bernardo Cuero Bravo, leader of the Association of Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados, AFRODES) was murdered in his home in Malambo, Atlántico. Human rights defenders, trade unionists, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous and other community leaders carrying out vital efforts to secure peace in Colombia continue to be under threat.

WOLA will continue to monitor this situation and calls on the Colombian government and authorities to protect activists from further threats, as well as to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these attacks. Below is a list of the incidents that have occurred since our last monthly update.

  • AFRODES Leader Bernardo Cuero Bravo Assassinated; Others Remain at Risk

    On June 7, Bernardo Cuero Bravo, treasurer of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), was murdered in his home in Malambo, Atlántico. Bernardo received multiple threats for his work as an IDP leader and on one occasion hitmen attempted to kill him. His case was brought to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2013, where the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights and AFRODES detailed the grave security risk faced by Afro-Colombian leaders. Despite this and intervention from U.S. policy officials, Mr. Cuero Bravo never received proper security measures from the Colombian government, specifically the National Protection Unit (UNP). WOLA condemns Mr. Cuero Bravo’s murder and demands that the U.S. Congress urges Colombia to investigate the UNP’s actions regarding AFRODES, Mr. Cuero Bravo’s murder, and sanction all those responsible for wrongdoing.

    WOLA is concerned that Ms. Erlendy Cuero Bravo, Vice President of AFRODES, who faces the same threat level that Bernardo did, has yet to receive adequate protection from the Colombian government. In December 2016, the IACHR issued precautionary measures for Ms. Cuero Bravo who has survived attempts on her life and received on-going death threats. On May 20, 2017 AFRODES-Cali, for whom Cuero Bravo is the most prominent leader, received a package containing a coffin and a death threat pamphlet from the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC). In spite of this, the UNP forces her to engage in bureaucratic processes that do not lead to the provision of proper protection. U.S. policymakers should strongly encourage the Colombian government to implement IACHR Precautionary Measure (658-16). The UNP must expedite Ms. Cuero Bravo’s risk assessment process, and resolve her security gap. At the same time, Colombian officials must investigate and sanction persons responsible for on-going threats against members of AFRODES and guarantee their safety.

Read WOLA’s written statement condemning the murder here

AFRODES Condemns the Murder of Bernardo Cuero Bravo, Treasurer of Our Organization

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemns Assassination of Bernardo Cuero in Colombia

The Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights Holds the Colombian State Responsible for the Assassination of Bernardo Cuero

CODHES Laments and Condemns Murder of Bernardo Cuero

The UNHCR Rejects and Laments the Assassination of Bernardo Cuero

  • Union Leader Assassinated (Cauca)

On June 21, a group of ten to twelve armed and masked men forcibly took Mauricio Fernando López Vélez his family’s farm Buenos Aires, Cauca. Mr. López Vélez’s murdered body was later found. He was the National Vice President of the Union of Workers of Public Universities (SINTRAUNAL) and professor at Valle University.

  • Land Claimant’s Son Killed by Gaitanista Self Defense Forces (Chocó)

On May 31, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission of Justice and Peace (Justicia y Paz) reported that Duberney Gómez Echavarría, son of land claimant Rafael Truaquero, was killed by members of the Gaitanista Self Defense Forces (AGC) in La Nevera community in Curvaradó, Chocó. In the morning the paramilitaries took Duberney from his home by motorbike. His body was later found along a road in the outskirts of town. According to Justicia y Paz, local police refused to collect Duberney’s body or visit the crime scene due to security concerns associated with the AGC. Duberney’s father, Rafael, has received multiple death threats over the course of his legitimate land reclamation process. The paramilitaries who murdered Duberney continue to mobilize freely, despite the fact that the Colombian Army’s 54th Battalion controls the area.

  • Elementary School Teacher Killed in Puerto Escondido (Córdoba)

On June 6, Justicia y Paz’s Contagio Radio reported the murder of elementary school teacher Washington Cedeño Otero in Sabalito, Córdoba. Mr. Cedeño was shot dead as he was leaving school. The Association of Teachers and Educational Workers in Córdoba (ADEMACOR) reported that Mr. Cedeño had not told anyone that he was under threat. Since 2010, seventeen teachers have been killed in Córdoba, giving the department the highest rate of homicide against teachers in the country.

  • Afro-Colombian Leader Attacked and Others Remain at Risk (Tumaco)

The National Conference of Afro-Colombian Organizations (CNOA) reported that Afro-Colombian community leader, Peter William Cortes Mosquera is recovering from an assassination attempt. Mr. Cortes Mosquera, the legal representative for the Palenque Afro Urbano of Tumaco was attacked by unknown men who utilized a baseball bat at his home in Tumaco. He is in a coma after having received various blows to the head and his outer extremities. This attack comes after another leader, Victor Castillo, was shot to death in Panama neighborhood, Tumaco. According to press reports, another six leaders are under threat.

  • Territorial Leaders in Belén de Bajirá Threatened (Chocó)

Leaders working to promote the legal association of the municipality of Belén de Bajirá to the department of Chocó have received written death threats. Belén de Bajirá is a municipality that sits near the border of Chocó and Antioquia. Since 2000, the departments of Chocó and Antioquia have been embroiled in a territorial dispute for the resource rich municipality. According to Law 13 of 1947 establishing the official borders of Chocó—recently upheld by the 2017 official maps of Colombia but challenged by officials in Antioquia—Belén de Bajirá is part of Chocó. For a number of years, social leaders within Belén de Bajirá received threats claiming they will be killed and their families harmed and forcibly displaced if they continue to claim that Belén de Bajirá belongs to Chocó.

  • Military Collaborates with Paramilitary Group Threatening the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó (Antioquia)

On June 19, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó reported that officials in the 11th and 17th Brigades of the Colombian Army have met with members of a paramilitary group harassing local communities in the area. The Peace Community reports that since May 27, this unidentified paramilitary group has openly conducted patrols, levied threats against the San José de Apartadó Peace Community, and has tried to kill community leaders.

  • Community Council Leaders in La Toma Receive Death Threats (Cauca)

On June 26, the Black Communities’ Process (PCN) reported that multiple Afro-Colombian Community Council members in La Toma, Cauca received death threats from the Gaitanista Self’ Defense Forces (AGC). These threats, which reference the June 21 murder of Mauricio Fernando López Vélez, arrived via text message to Council members’ phones. Disturbingly it included a security phone provided to an Afro-Colombian leader by the UNP.

  • Local Authorities Delay Rescue Efforts in Deadly Mine Accident (Cesar)

Reports from the city of Chiriguaná, Cesar indicate that on June 18 Germán Garcia, a worker with Drummond, Ltd. mining company, suffered a fatal fall of approximately 100 feet while operating a bulldozer at Pribbenow Mine. Workers indicate that it took four days for authorities to send a rescue team to collect Mr. Garcia’s body. In light of an increasing number of worker injuries, sickness, and over twenty fatalities associated with Drummond, Ltd., leaders of unions SINTRADEM and SINTRAMIENERGETICA have attempted to organize meetings with management at the multinational company to discuss dangerous working conditions in the mine.

  • Union Denounces Labor Abuses in the Flower Industry (Cundinamarca)

On June 24, the National Organization of Colombian Flower Workers (ONOF) denounced actions taken by flower producer Flexport S.A. that jeopardize health and safety conditions for workers, while denying the existence of the ONOF union. According to ONOF, Flexport S.A. has recently begun to ignore obligatory medical restrictions that limit the kind of labor that workers with health issues can undertake.

  • Leader of Wayuu Women’s Force Defamed (La Guajira)

On May 30, the Wayuu Women’s Force denounced acts of defamation against one of its leaders, Jakelin Romero Epieyu. Ms. Romero is being falsely accused of “embezzling money from Wayuu communities.” For over a decade, the Wayuu Women’s Force has worked to increase visibility for indigenous concerns in La Guajira, especially gender-related issues. They strongly reject this claim and efforts to discredit their work.

On the positive side we are happy to report that:
  • Social Leader David Ravelo Released after Seven Years in Prison (Santander)

On June 20, Colombia news outlets announced that David Ravelo, a prominent human rights defender from the Magdalena Medio region, was released from prison after serving nearly seven years for a crime he denies committing. Mr. Ravelo was incarcerated in 2010 for supposedly coordinating the 1991 murder of Barrancabermeja civil servant David Nuñez Cala. Mr. Ravelo’s lawyers reported several irregularities with the handling of Mr. Ravelo’s case, most notably that he was illegally indicted by a Public Prosecutor previously dismissed for his involvement in a 1991 case of forced disappearance. Mr. Ravelo has been released from prison as an innocent person on parole for agreeing to present his case to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). His case is also pending before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. Due to the increasing number of death threats and assassinations of social leaders, international and domestic civil society actors in Colombia are concerned for Mr. Ravelo’s safety following his conditional release. Again, we thank all U.S. policymakers who over the years intervened on Mr. Ravelo’s behalf.

  • Former Steelworker Union Leader Reintegrated into Labor Activity (Boyacá)

On May 23, the Sintrapazdelrio union announced that it will reinstate labor leader Jaime de Jesús Ramirez Marín to his job at the multinational steelwork company Acerías Paz del Río S.A., Votorantim. In 2014, Mr. Ramirez was arbitrarily dismissed without following proper procedures for persons with union standing.

  • Teachers Sign Accord with Ministry of Education to End National Strike

On June 18, after a 37-day national strike, the Colombian Minister of Education, Yaneth Giha, and Carlos Rivera, president of the Teachers Trade Union Federation (FECODE), signed an agreement to end the national teachers strike. Their accord contains 24 points, 21 of which explicitly respond to the teachers’ grievances. Notable points of the agreement include provisions to reevaluate the implementation of the jornada única, or full-day school system, to include expanded school infrastructure and salaries for teachers; increased resources from the Ministry of Education and FECODE for peace and human rights education; and immediate salary leveling and promised salary leveling evaluations for teachers through 2021.

  • Leader of Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres-Putumayo Found After Disappearance (Cauca/Huila)

On June 15, the Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres announced that Adelaida Dávila Estupiñan disappeared between Popayán (Cauca) and Pitalito (Huila), as she traveled to Huila to take part in a working group for proposals to the ELN negotiations in Quito, Ecuador. Ms. Dávila reappeared the following day and was briefly hospitalized. Ms. Dávila was forcibly displaced from her home in Putumayo to Popayán in 2016. Due to the recent level of assassinations of social and human rights leaders, Ms. Dávila’s disappearance raised alarm bells for Colombian civil society.