WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
6 Feb 2015 | Commentary

Letter to U.S. policymakers highlights violence against Colombia labor, human rights defenders

Dear U.S. Policymakers,

We write you today to ask that you please intervene in the following human and labor rights cases:

Assassination of Activist Carlos Pedraza

On January 21, Carlos Alberto Pedraza Salcedo’s lifeless body was found in Gachancipá (Cundinamarca) after going missing since January 19, 2015. Carlos Pedraza was the social leader of the Congreso de los Pueblos, National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), and the Cumbre Agraria. Mr. Pedraza had a central role in advocating for justice and remembrance in police brutality cases. He was killed by a shot to the head. Similar to his MOVICE colleagues, he was the target of constant death threats in recent months with these escalating in December. U.S. policymakers should urge Colombian judicial authorities to investigate and prosecute those responsible for Mr. Pedraza’s murder and threats against MOVICE defenders.

Killings of LGBTQ Persons in Valledupar

Between January 9 and 25, three LGBTQ individuals were murdered in the Colombia’s Caribbean region. One of the victims, José Joaquín Herrera Utria, was the coordinator of the LGBTQ Brigade (an organization that promotes cultural events for transgendered women in Valledupar). José Joaquín had previously fled the country due to his sexual orientation, and received police protection once he returned to the country. His body exhibited signs that he was tortured prior to being killed. The second victim was Camila Flores, a transgendered woman who led a local project HIV/AIDS prevention project. The third victim was a gay man killed on January 11. His identity and reasons for the murder are not yet publicly available. U.S. policymakers should urge Colombian judicial authorities to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these murders and establish whether or not such deaths were linked to the victims’ sexual orientation.

New Security Incidents against Oil Workers’ Union (USO)

On January 27, Colombia’s Oil Workers’ Union (USO) reported that death threats sent to union members in 2015 are increasing nation-wide. From January 9 to 27, two of their members survived murder attempts and another eight received threats via phone and text. On January 6, Oscar Garcia’s car was shot three times by an unknown gunman. On January 23, Vice-President of the USO-Cartagena Rodolfo Valentino Prada was traveling in a taxi when a man in a motorcycle fired shots at him. The taxi received three bullets and luckily Mr. Valentino was not hurt. The USO has reason to believe that these are linked. U.S. policymakers should urge Colombian judicial authorities to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these incidents and death threats.

Paramilitaries Threaten Presbyterians and Activists

On January11, the Black Eagles paramilitary group issued death threats against various groups including human rights defenders, community activists and members of the Presbyterian Church. Individuals threatened include: Jose Torres, Ingrid Vergara, Nevis Nino, Maria Sedeño, Martha Diaz, Soraya Bayuelo, Rafael Cabarcas, Amaury Padilla, Jerry Garavito, Mauricio Avilez, German Zarate, Jairo Barriga, Mario Redondo, Vicky Canas, Juan Sandoval, Tomas Moro, Julia Torres, Nacido Silgado, Jairro Barreto, Adil Melendez, Fidel Cerpa, Juan Ortega, Candelaria Berrio, Fabian Ollaga, Rosario Montoya, Juan Martinez, Deivis Florez, Eduardo Calle, Nicolas Castro, Agustin Jimenez, Tomas Ramos, Milton Mejia, Ema Doriz Lopez, Sandra Manjarres, Alberto Fernandez and Gary Martinez. The persons listed are members of the Sucre and Atlántico chapters of MOVICE, FSCPP, ADUSODO, churches in Barranquilla and Sincelejo, Agenda Caribe, Infancia Feliz, the Communist Party and CEDERNOS.  The threats were denounced to the Colombian authorities and the U.S. Embassy. U.S. policymakers should monitor this situation to guarantee that effective measures are taken to guarantee the safety of persons targeted and that perpetrators of these threats are brought to justice.

Victims’ Leaders of Cundinamarca Face Protection Issues

On January 29, Carlos Sanchez, coordinator of the Working Table for Victims of Cundinamarca, was informed by the National Protection Unit (UNP) his protection mechanisms could be reassigned or removed.  The alleged reason given was that Mr. Sanchez visited dangerous areas. If these reasons are true, then they contradict the purpose of such measures. Such measures are necessary because on January 13, Mr. Sanchez and Cundinamarca Victims’ leaders (Maria Ismelda Ramirez, Dolly Johana Castillo, and Aaron Torres) were attacked in Girardot, Cundinamarca. U.S policymakers are encouraged to ask the UNP to clarify the reasons why the measures were lifted and to guarantee the safety of persons concerned.

Protection Measures Halted for CENAFRO

On January 23, the UNP informed Afro-Colombian leader José Fernando Tapia Acuña, Director of the Center for Afro-Colombian Self-Recognition (CENAFRO), that his protection measures would be halted. Mr. Tapia, received such measures after being the target of security incidents by the paramilitary group Los Urabeños beginning on December 20, 2013. U.S policymakers are encouraged to ask the UNP to clarify the reasons why these measures were lifted and to guarantee the safety of Mr. Tapia and CENAFRO.

SENA Still Refuses to Respect Basic Labor Rights

On January 28, SINDESENA (the union for employees of the SENA) reported that the SENA is reluctant to accept and promote basic labor rights despite multiple actions taken by the union. SINDESENA representatives state that corruption and political ties between the SENA and certain labor unions, some unions receive better treatment and higher standards for their members than others. There exists an inferior delivery of labor rights for members of SINDESENA. For example, SINDESENA members are impeded from requesting information regarding their jobs, having spaces to congregate, and accessing social security benefits. U.S. policymakers should encourage the Director of the SENA to reevaluate such practices and guarantee equal labor rights and conditions for all of its workers.

Port Workers Union Reports CARGOBÁN´s Continuing Exploitation of Workers

On February 1, the Port Workers Union reported that CARGOBÁN’s refusal to negotiate to guarantee the safety and proper treatment of its workers. The Port Workers Union has tried to settle an agreement with CARGOBÁN that would grant workers basic labor rights including 48 hour workweeks, stable job contracts, and a minimum wage. However, these efforts have failed because of CARGOBÁN refuses to cooperate. If this continues workers are likely to go on strike. U.S. policymakers should intervene with the Ministry of Labor and urge that they mediate this situation so that labor rights can be improved for these workers.

Afro-Colombian Land Restitution Process Requires Monitoring                                                         On January 28, the specialized land restitution judge in Quibdó accepted the first Afro-Colombian demand by the Land Restitution Unit (UTR) inChocó. This step benefits the Mayor Community Council of the Popular Rural Farmers Organization of the High Atrato (COCOMOPOCA) that consist of 73,000 hectares of land belonging to 43 communities including over 2,300 families including more than 12,000 families. For over twelve years, these communities have been fighting for their land rights, been subjected to reprisals and illegal encroachment of economic projects, most recently illegal gold mining, in their territories.

Given t
he importance of this case, U.S. policymakers are urged to follow the process and intervene to guarantee that these land rights are fully realized on the ground. In particular, the Police should defend the territory from illegal activity that is causing severe environmental damage. The Mayors concerned must prevent further illegal machinery from entering the area and if they do not comply with this, such authorities should be sanctioned. The UNP must fully put in place the order to provide effective protection measures for COCOMOPOCA’s leaders who are under death threat.  The Human Rights Ombudsman and Victims Unit must grant priority attention to the victims of confinement in these territories that are facing a humanitarian emergency. The orders to demine areas like Piedra Honda should be applied.  A moratorium on mining in this area should be applied until the land rights are fully restituted to the Afro-Colombian owners of these lands and proper mechanisms are in place for realizing a proper previous consultation processes in this territory.

In closing, we reiterate our requests that U.S. policymakers insist that the Colombian authorities comply with the commitments made to the Afro-Colombian communities of northern Cauca (La Toma) and guarantee that all measures required to protect Afro-Colombian leader Luis Ernesto Olave are put in place. In both cases, Colombian authorities should show investigate those responsible for death threats and security incidents against these leaders and sanction the perpetrators responsible.

Thank you in advance for your ongoing work to strengthen human rights in Colombia.
Gimena Sanchez