WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
20 May 2014 | Commentary | News

May Afro-Colombian Update

The following update on Afro-Colombian issues was sent to policymakers on May 20, 2014. 

We would like to share with you two recent analyses on Afro-Colombians that WOLA has put together. The first is a presentation made at the Javeriana University on land rights and the situation of Afro-Colombians, and includes findings from WOLA’s recent trip to the Choco Department. The second is the English translation of WOLA’s letter to Oscar Gamboa, Director of the Presidential Program for Afro-Colombians, Raizales and Palenqueros. We hope that you will support the cases and recommendations made in these documents.

We would also like to take advantage of this opportunity to provide you with the following updates on Afro-Colombian, indigenous peoples, and human rights defenders in Colombia:


AFRODES Remains without Adequate Protection for Its Leaders

On May 13, AFRODES reported that the National Protection Unit (UNP) has still not addressed the gaps that exist to guarantee adequate protection for its leaders. This is especially disturbing as armed men have entered the AFRODES Bogota office on four occasions in the past four months looking for leaders. One of the leaders these men asked for is named Tutelar Beytar, a land rights restitution leader displaced from the Uraba, and a survivor of torture and various assassination attempts. The UNP has not even begun the process of re-evaluating the protection schemes for AFRODES’ Vice President, Erlendy Cuero Bravo, who was the target of an assassination attempt and multiple death threats. Jhon Mosquera was forced to flee from Buenaventura due to lack of security, and the UNP has not taken appropriate action on his case. Rather they blame the victim for being hard to reach. Patricia Villalba, whose risk level was deemed to be high, applied for measures in November 2013 yet only received a preliminary response to her request in April 2014. She has yet to receive protective measures. Diego Luis Balanta of AFRODES Cali was forced to leave the city due to recent attacks and threats. While the UNP stated that they would financially assist with his transport, he has yet to receive any funding. Lastly, another leader, Luz Ericka Alegria, was subjected to another attack on April 5. She and her daughter had suffered previous attacks and threats prompting them to displace from Buenaventura. While the UNP eventually granted her complementary measures, it only did so months later and after much persistence from AFRODES.

These above are just examples of where the UNP is not properly addressing the gaps in protection measures for AFRODES’s 140 leaders at risk of harm. The collective measures effort has also not moved forward. In addition, the Colombian authorities have not made any public statements condemning the repeated attacks against AFRODES leaders, which would help send a clear message to the perpetrators nor have judicial authorities advanced in prosecuting the persons behind the threats and attacks against AFRODES.

We recommend that U.S. policymakers continue to monitor the security situation faced by AFRODES leaders and to urge the UNP to address the gaps in the individual and collective protection measures. The UNP should better coordinate with the Integrated System for Attention and Protection of the Displaced Population (including the Human Rights Ombudsman and Early Warning System) to come up with a more integrated vision and plan for protection of Afro-Colombian internally displaced persons. Furthermore, the Vice President should be encouraged to make a public statement condemning attacks against Afro-Colombian leaders, noting the risks faced by AFRODES. In an October 2013 hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, the Colombian government had agreed to make a public statement and take other measures to better protect AFRODES members; this has yet to happen.

Afro-Colombian Leaders Alert Diplomatic Corps of Concerns Regarding Financing in the Choco

The Major Community Council of the Integral Campesino Organization of the Middle Atrato (COCOMACIA), the Community Council of the Popular Campesino Organization of the High Atrato (COCOMOPOCA) and the Inter-Ethnic Solidarity Forum of Choco (FISCH) informed foreign Embassies in Bogota that the social reality confronted in their region should not be addressed utilizing military institutions. They indicate that they are opposed and do not support social projects directed for their communities that are implemented by military institutions. They urge that all these projects are implemented through civilian authorities in full consultation and agreement with the organizations and leaders of the communities concerned. They are willing to accept all support and technical assistance provided by civilian institutions, the diplomatic community, national and international non-governmental organizations. All assistance geared towards supporting their causes, implementing the communities’ development plans and life projects are welcome.

The leaders’ insistence comes after the Joint Titan Forces issued a communique where they indicate that they will be serving as facilitators in the financing of ethnic projects (territorial and others) and that their goal is to direct 60% of their budget to social investment and 40% to military actions. This proposal by the armed forces is not supported or accepted by the Afro-Colombian communities. The reason being that given the on-going internal armed conflict in the Middle and High Atrato River areas, civilians are more susceptible to harm if armed groups are engaged in social projects. Soldiers implementing social projects in a conflict zone blurs the International Humanitarian Law principle of distinction. It can increase the already problematic scenarios whereby innocent persons are deemed to be informants or accomplices to the legal or illegal armed groups and places their lives at risk. The Afro-Colombian communities are calling on the national government and the international community to intervene in this matter so that violence and abuses, which are already rampant in these areas, do not worsen. During WOLA’s recent mission to Choco (see attached presentation) we heard numerous testimonies of Afro-Colombian rural residents who expressed fear about the armed groups not respecting IHL and putting civilians at risk by inadvertently engaging them in non-military activities. We strongly encourage the U.S. Embassy to dialogue with the Colombian authorities about these concerns and to help seek a solution that guarantees that Afro-Colombian communities’ human rights and territorial rights are respected.

Continued Abuses in Buenaventura, Choco and Recent Mining Accident

The serious human rights crisis that continues in the port of Buenaventura, security threats against Afro-Colombians and rights defenders and a recent deadly mining accident in northern Cauca prompted U.S. activists to make two public statements this month. New threats and intimidation against activists in the Puente Nayero neighborhood, where communities have set up a humanitarian zone, have also taken place. On May 12, CONPAZ community leader Orlando Castillo received death threats for his work promoting the humanitarian zone. On May 18, paramilitaries threatened to kill one of the leaders, Claudia Mondragón, in the humanitarian zone. Members of the community intervened and surrounded the men thus saving her from harm. Later that day, at approximately 100 meters from the humanitarian zone, a known paramilitary named Ramiro Alto fired four shots at a young man named Jose Miller Sinisterra. Mr. Sinisterra was critically wounded.

A confrontation between the ESMAD (riot police) and Afro-Colombian protestors who were protesting lack of access to water left five people injured and others detained. The protest was made up mostly of students who wanted to raise awareness to the fact that 50,000 families are forced to bathe out of buckets on daily basis and that the community has experienced multiple periods without water lasting as long as five days. Among those injured were three journalists. The protestors were allegedly attempting to block the Simon Bolivar Avenue when the riot police responded with an indiscriminate and excessive use of force. When Alvaro Rodriguez of a local TV station attempted to film the attack against Eider Marines, a journalist with RCN, the police refused to let him film. This greatly angered journalists who refused to cooperate with footage of subsequent police efforts to appease the situation.

Indigenous Communities

Mass Displacement of Indigenous Embera

On May 15, the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, High Commissioner for Refugees and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs expressed their concern for the situation faced by over 2,700 indigenous Emberas in the Alto Baudo region of the Choco Department. This displacement follows a series of prior displacements that have taken place in this area caused by clashes between the ELN guerillas and the neo-paramilitaries Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces. The humanitarian situation faced by the displaced is compounded by the fact that these are remote areas where access is restricted. The UN agencies reiterate that the Emberas are protected under Constitutional Court Order 004 and are in critical need of humanitarian assistance. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) calls for the immediate protection of the Emberas’ human rights and for humanitarian aid for the displaced populations.

Indigenous Teenager Receives Death Threat

On May 5, 15 year old Wayuu Genesis Gisselle Gutierres Romero received a threat via cell phone whereby the victimizers told her that they would kill her and her family. Mr. Gutierrez Romero is an active participant of the Wayuu Women Force movement. Her family is part of the Epiayu clan and lives in the Zahino Wayuu reserve has received multiple death threats from paramilitaries since 2005. Among those previously threatened is leader Sutsuin Jiyeyu, Genesis’s mother. While these threats were repeatedly reported to the authorities, there have been no results in the investigations. Colombian authorities should investigate this threat and take action to guarantee the safety of the Epiayu clan members.

Nukak Community under Threat

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) reports that 37 indigenous members of the Nukak peoples were forcibly displaced in Guaviare after receiving threats from illegal armed groups. They are at risk not only from the armed groups but also due to conflict with “colonos” over the areas where they can hunt. Their goods and animals have also been stolen. ONIC is concerned that unless action is taken to protect the Nukak community, they may become physically and culturally extinct. The judicial and other authorities in Guaviare are called upon to act to help guarantee the safety, as well as human rights and territorial protection, for this group.

Kofan Land Rights Ruling Requires U.S. Monitoring

In May, Colombia’s Constitutional Court made public its decision to overturn two lower courts’ decisions pertaining to the Kofan indigenous people’s land claim in Santa Rosa del Guamuéz (Putumayo). The Court orders the Rural Development Institute (INCODER) to guarantee that the Kofan have effective use of their Santa Rosa territory recognized in 1973. It asks the Human Rights Ombudsman and Inspector General’s office to support and guarantee the full implementation of this decision. This important ruling in favor of indigenous land rights is applicable to other Kofan reserves and to all existing indigenous land claims in Colombia. U.S. policymakers should monitor implementation of this ruling to guarantee that INCODER complies fully with the Court’s decision.

Human Rights Defenders and Community Activists

Four Young Men Affiliated with Fundaprogreso (Fensuagro) Killed

On May 16, Deivi Lopez Ortega, Jose Antonio Acanamejoy, Brayan Yatacue Secue and Jose Yiner Esterilla were meeting at the home of Leonardo Obando in Sucumbios to plan their Mother’s Day activities. On May 17, around 1:30 p.m., helicopters began to fly over this area and members of the armed forces disembarked in the area. The groups were part of the 13th Mobile Brigade and the Energy and Route Battalion No. 9, both forming part of the Sixth Division of the National Army. Under the rubric of Military Operation Nemesis Mariscal Three, they began combat operations in the areas. This allegedly included indiscriminate land and air attacks against the civilian population, house searches, arbitrary detentions, and threats, as well as physical and verbal aggressions towards the locals. Reports include soldiers verbally assaulting locals including women and children and forcibly entering the homes of campesinos and afrodescendants.

At around 4am an explosion, voices and shots were heard coming from Mr. Obando’s house. The four youth’s lifeless bodies were later found. Despite testimonies from the locals to the contrary, the Armed Forces are presenting these four men as FARC guerillas killed in combat. One was indigenous, one an afrodescendant and two were campesinos belonging to Fundaprogreso which is affiliated with Fensuagro (National Agro fisheries Labor Union) that is part of the CUT labor federation.

U.S. policymakers should call on the Colombian authorities to investigate these incidents.

Prominent Rights Lawyers Temporarily Suspend Work

Human rights lawyer Jorge Molano, and his colleague Germán Romero, announced late Thursday that they were suspending their work due to lack of security guarantees from the Colombian government. The Colombian authorities had not provided the lawyers with adequate protection despite their having reported attacks against their family members, break-ins at their homes, and cyber-attacks. Several days later, authorities provided some of the necessary protections to continue their work, though much needs to be done to guarantee their safety. In January 2013, the UNP deemed the men to be under extraordinary risk and it promises to act at the Inter-American Commission in March 2014.

Mr. Molano and Mr. Romero work on high profile human rights and labor cases including the San José de Apartadó 2005 massacre, the Palace of Justice disappearances, extrajudicial execution cases, and Operation Dragon (murder plot against trade unionists and human rights activists in Cali). U.S. policymakers should urge the Interior Minister to make a public pronouncement supporting their work and guaranteeing their safety, and urge the UNP to grant the lawyers all the physical protection measures they are asking for and ask for advancement towards justice in the cases they work on.

ASOGRAS Leader Threatened

On May 12, Maribel Quintero Garcia, the Treasurer and Secretary of the Agrarian Association in Santander (ASOGRAS) found a manila envelope containing a death threat that declared her to be a military objective of the Urabenos paramilitary group. ASOGRAS has been denouncing the negative effects of large-scale economic projects in their region including the Hidrosogamoso dam in the Lebrija River and mine exploitation in Café Madrid. They received prior threats in late 2013. Colombia’s judicial authorities should be asked to investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of the threats against members of ASOGRAS.

AHERPAMIGUA Activist Receives More Threats

On April 27, Yeimy Rodriguez, member of the Board of the Association of the Network of Agroecological and Mining Groups (AHERPAMIGUA) in Guamoco received a new death threat via telephone. The next day she received a text stating “in good or bad death you will leave (the area).” U.S. policymakers should highlight this case with the Colombian authorities, ask that Ms. Rodriguez is protected, and insist that these threats be investigated and perpetrators brought to justice.

Last Friday, May 16, we circulated an update on the labor rights situation in Colombia. Sadly, since we have learned of additional attacks against trade unionists:

USO Directive in Barrancabermeja Survives Assassination Attempt

On May 15, Alexander Castro Penaloza of the Oil Workers’ Union (USO) Barrancabermeja (Santander) office suffered an assassination attempt. At around 7 p.m. after he finished working, Mr. Penaloza headed home on his motorcycle along with his UNP assigned escort, Oscar Nino de Parrillero, when they were subjected to gunfire. They lost control of the motorcycle and while the escort responded with gunfire, Mr. Penaloza managed to run away and find refuge. While the police and Ecopetrol were called right away, it took the police 35 minutes to arrive on the scene. In May 2013, another USO unionist, Rafael Rodriguez, was also shot while on his motorcycle but luckily the four bullets only hit the bike. In February 2014, Mr. Penaloza and the entire USO- El Centro office were the recipients of death threat pamphlets signed by self-denominated Commanders of the Self-Defense Groups of Medellin which ordered them to leave town within 24 hours or else they and their families would suffer the consequences.

CUT Secretary in Bolivar Target of Murder Attempt

On May 16, a hired assassin or sicario fired shots at the truck where the CUT Secretary General in Bolivar was traveling along with his escorts in Cartagena. The CUT’s escorts returned fired and shot and killed the sicario.

Colombia’s Ministry of Labor should publicly condemn these attacks and the judicial authorities should be urged to investigate and bring the intellectual authors behind these two attacks to justice.

We thank you in advance for your intervention. Please feel free to contact us for any further details at (202) 797-2171.


Gimena Sanchez