WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
23 May 2017 | Commentary

May Update: Violence against Defenders Continues

Colombia’s alarming wave of attacks on human rights defenders, particularly community activists continues to have a heavy toll on civil society. WOLA continues monitoring this dramatic situation with our partners to ensure that activist and human rights defenders receive proper protection and those responsible for crimes are held accountable.

This month, we would like to highlight the situation in the Pacific coast, where the dire security situation and lack of state presence, has led people to participate in a peaceful civic strikes in the department of Chocó and in the port city of Buenaventura. Below is a list of the incidents that have occurred since our last monthly update (see April’s update).

  • Civic Strikes Along Colombia’s Pacific Coast  

Tens of thousands of civilians, mostly afro descendants, are engaged in pacific civic strikes in Quibdó and Riosucio (Chocó) and Buenaventura Municipality (Valle del Cauca). They are asking the Colombian government to meet its security and service delivery obligations including access to water, health and education. While the FARC conflict has ended, the residents of the Pacific region are facing security problems and displacement at the hands of other illegal armed groups. Most Afro-Colombians in these areas are suffering from lack of access to basic services, a high level of violence and insecurity (even though public forces are present in these parts), and unemployment is well above the national average. The protestors are also demanding infrastructure development, improvement of services and greater political participation. The civic strikes in Quibdó and Buenaventura came about because the government has not met the promises made in agreements to end the prior strikes.

On Friday, WOLA received numerous reports of excessive use of force on the part of the ESMAD anti-riot police. On Friday, the ESMAD upped their tactics against peaceful protestors in Buenaventura. Gases were thrown at protestors and police eventually fired at the crowds injuring protestors. There are unconfirmed reports of arbitrary detentions of leaders and disappeared persons. The aggressive response of the ESMAD prompted riots that deteriorated into all out mayhem. While the majority of the protestors were and remain pacific, a few persons took advantage of the situation to ransack stores and attack the police. Unfortunately, the mainstream Colombian media has focused on the riots rather than the overwhelming pacific protests. These news reports reinforce already existent discriminatory attitudes towards Afro-Colombians that only making the situation worse. As a result, Afro-Colombian groups including Manos Visible released videos attempting to dispel the false information disseminated by the media.

On Sunday, May 21, Afro-Colombian Day, the Archdiocese of Cali, Diocese of Buenaventura, Diocese of Quibdó, Diocese of Guapi, Diocese of Tumaco, and Diocese of Istmina-Tadó released a statement asking for everyone to exhibit restrain and objectivity to solve the crisis.

U.S. policymakers should send messages to the Colombian authorities that these conflicts must be resolved through dialogue not by utilizing force. Members of the public forces who have committed abuses should be sanctioned. Dialogue should take place with the highest profile authorities possible who have the decision making power to implement what is agreed upon. On the civil society end, it should be with the representatives of the civic strike committees and high level authorities. Inclusion of the Catholic Church, NGOs and independent judicial mechanisms as observers in these discussions is encouraged.

Lastly, the best step the Colombian government can take to build trust with these communities is to prioritize implementation of the Ethnic Chapter of the FARC peace accords and to guarantee their inclusion in the design of legislation and programs developed for the post-conflict.

  • Afro-Colombian Leader Murdered (Nariño)

On May 18, Alvaro Arturo Tenorio Cabezas, member of the Ethnic and Popular Movement of the Pacific, COCCAM and the Patriotic March was killed in Magui Payant, Nariño.

  • Human Rights Defender Assassinated (Cauca)

On May 13, the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Southwestern Network of Human Rights reported the death of Mario Andres Calle. Mr. Calle was shot six times in the municipality of Guacarí, Cauca. He was the President of the Valle del Cauca Peasants’ Association, Guacarí sub-directive, the Valle del Cauca-CCVC Peasant Coalition, the Southern Colombian-PUPSOC Popular Unity Process, and the Valle del Cauca Political and Social Movement.

  • Threats and Deadly Attacks against Youth Leaders (Cauca)

On May 8, the human rights organization Nomadesc, reported deadly attacks and threats against youth leaders in the municipality of Villa Rica, Cauca. They report that on April 20 the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) distribute threatening pamphlet later killing five youth leaders and injuring another five in the first week of May.

  • Threats Circulate while Indigenous Leaders Meet with Vice-President (Cauca)

On May 7, representatives of the Association of Indigenous Reservations of Northern Cauca (ACIN) met with Vice-President Naranjo to follow-up on the implementation of the precautionary measures granted to them by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). During the meeting, the Black Eagles paramilitary organization circulated a death threat pamphlet to the communities. It falsely accused indigenous leaders of being guerilla collaborators that wish to implement “Castro-Chavismo” policies in Colombia. The threat warns that any leader collaborating with the peace process will be killed.

  • Paramilitaries Threaten Afro-Colombian Leaders in Cacarica (Chocó)

On May 6, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission of Justice and Peace (Justicia y Paz) informed that paramilitaries from the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) issued death threats against Afro-Colombian leaders Rosalba Córdoba, Ana Del Carmen Martínez, Edilson Marco Velásquez, Bernardo Vivas, Jesús Palacio, and Edilson Palacios.. Justicia y Paz claim that these leaders were targeted because they all had reported abuses to the police. Although there is military presence in Cacarica, AGC members in civilian clothing continue to exert control of the area.

  • Sinaltrainal Union-Zarzal Chapter Reports Death Threats (Cauca)

On May 5, Sinaltrainal-Zarzal trade unionists received death threats from paramilitary organizations after various workers affiliated to the union. Various pamphlets have appeared throughout Zarzal warning workers to not join the union. The union’s president reported being followed by unknown men on a motorcycle.

  • Sinaltrainal-Barranquilla President Receives Death Threat

On April 28, Sinaltrainal-Barranquilla released a statement describing a new death threat against Enrique José Arévalo de Oro, the organization’s president in Barranquilla. A cardboard box containing a funeral crown, the photo of Enrique José Arévalo de Oro, his two daughters and his mother was found at the entrance of the organization’s office. The box contained a message made out of cut-out newspaper letters that threatens Mr. Arévalo de Oro’s family.

  • Colombia’s Largest Union Federation Condemns Threats against Union Leader

On May 11, the Central Union of Workers (CUT), Colombia’s largest union federation, condemned threats against Francisco Ramírez Cuellar, a trade unionist and human rights defender of workers in the mining-energy sector.  For years, Mr. Ramírez Cuellar has been the target of constant threats by paramilitary groups.

  • Armed Men Attack a Community in Buenaventura (Valle del Cauca)

On April 27, the community of the Isla de la Paz in Buenaventura reported that their community was attacked by armed men. These men destroyed a community project and pointed a gun at several people. No arrests after the community reported the incidents to the authorities.

  • Paramilitaries Take Over the Municipality Of Vegas Piñuña (Putumayo)

On May 3, Colombia’s Contagio Radio reported more than 300 members of the AGC took control of Vegas Piñuña municipality. The AGC are prohibiting residents from interacting with the police. They stated that they will kill anyone presumed to be a FARC collaborator or works toward implementing of the peace accord.

  • Paramilitaries Harass Rural Workers and Community Leaders (Antioquia)

On May 15, the Instituto Popular de Capacitacion (IPC) reported that paramilitaries were harassing community leaders located near the FARC’s Transitional Point of Normalization in Carrizal, Antioquia. These men burned down a local business and damaged the community’s electric network.

  • Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces Strengthen Their Control in Jiguamiandó (Chocó)

On May 6, Justicia y Paz reported that the AGC is gaining strength and control in northern Chocó. There are now sixteen checkpoints where these armed men exercise control over this area. As a result, several Afro-Colombian leaders are under threat. They also note that this group is forcing rural farmers to cultivate coca in this region.

  • Human Rights Defender Followed by Unidentified Individuals (Cauca)

On May 9, Justicia y Paz reported that Carlos Fernández, one of its staff in Popayan, Cauca was followed by unidentified individuals who took pictures of his car and home. The National Protection Unit assigned bodyguard contacted the police, who later intercepted the individuals,

  • Paramilitaries Rob Afro-Colombian Community Council (Valle del Cauca)

According to Justicia y Paz, AGC paramilitaries boarded and robbed a boat belonging to the Afro-Colombian Community Council of the Naya River. An estimated d twenty thousand dollars’ worth of food and provisions were taken. Despite the area’s military patrol, the paramilitaries were able to board this boat at 5:30am and steal all of the community’s merchandise.

  • 20 Years Later the Assassination of CINEP Researchers is declared a Crime against Humanity

On May 11, the Attorney General’s Office declared that the homicides of CINEP researchers, Mario Calderón, Elsa Alvarado, and Carlos Alvarado Pantoja, as well as the attempted murder of Elsa Chacón de Alvarado constitute a crime against humanity. The Attorney General’s Office underscored that “the crimes were committed within the context of a systematic and widespread plan against the civilian population.”

  • Police Officers Attack Sinaltrainal Unionists in Colombina Factory (Cundinamarca)

On May 12, members of Sinaltrainal, Colombia’s largest foodstuff union were attacked by the police in Cota while visiting a Colombina S.A. factory. The unionists went to there to distribute information to other trade unionists. Sinaltrainal states that the police falsely accused them of obstructing worker’s entry to the company’s facilities, forcing workers to read their materials, and haranguing and taunting the company’s directors.

  • Patriotic March Political Union Medellin Headquarters Broken Into (Antioquia)

On May 9, members of the Medellin chapter of Marcha Patriotica reported a break in whereby office equipment was robbed. The Patriotic March has been the target of constant harassment and assassination of their members by paramilitaries.

  • Unions Denounce Judicial Decisions in Cartagena (Bolivar)

On May 6, leaders of the Ustrial and Sinaltrainal unions denounced the decision of labor judges in Cartagena to not review cases of injured workers under the judicial format of “denuncias.” According to the union leaders, despite numerous sentences by the Constitutional Court favoring “denuncias,” judges continue to refuse taking up cases resulting in indiscriminate firings of injured workers.

  • Two Members of the Military Sentence to Prison for Sexual Assault (Valle del Cauca)

On May 2, the Justice and Dignity Corporation reported that Popayan’s Highest Court increased to sixteen the current thirteen year sentence granted to two members of the military involved in a high profile sex abuse case. According to the judge, the sentence was increased given the pain and harm done to the victim.