WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
24 Oct 2017 | Commentary

October Update: Colombian Community Leaders and Defenders Face an Ongoing Security Crisis

In this installment of WOLA’s human rights update, we would like to highlight the tragic events in Tumaco, Nariño and the recent assassinations of social leaders across the country. WOLA’s October 5 statement on the massacre in Tumaco, where at least six rural farmers were killed while protesting against forced coca eradication, point to troubling reports and on the ground witness testimony indicating that security forces are to blame for these deaths.

WOLA also released a statement on the murder of Afro-Colombian leader José Jair Cortes. José Jair Cortes was a leader of the community council of Alto Mira y Frontera, near Tumaco. Reports from the ground indicate that the leadership of this community council has come under threat after they denounced multiple human rights abuses taking place in Tumaco, including the October 5 massacre of civilian protesters.

Finally, since October 17, four community leaders were killed in different parts of Colombia. The victims are:

  1. Jairo Cortes- Assassinated on October 17 by unidentified gunmen. Mr. Cortes was an Afro-Colombian leader of the community council of Alto Mira y Frontera.
  2. Liliana Astrid Ramirez Martinez- Assassinated on October 19 in Coyaima, Tolima. Ms. Ramirez Martinez was an indigenous teacher and a member of the teachers union in Tolima.
  3. Elicier Carvajal- Assassinated on October 17 in Puerto Guzman, Putumayo. Mr. Carvajal was the leader of the Community Action Councils (Junata de accion communal) of Bajo Cañoavena.
  4. Liliana Patricia Cataño Montoya- Assassinated on October 19 in Medellin, Antioquia. Ms. Cataño Montoya was a known community leader near the Comuna 13 in Medellin.

Given the alarming number of on-going killings, security incidents, and threats, we urge U.S. policymakers do their utmost to convince Colombian authorities to take bold, efficient, and constructive steps to address the security crisis facing community leaders and defenders. We will continue to see more killings unless Colombian authorities bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice and provide effective protection to vulnerable communities.

Below is a list of incidents since our last installment in July. To see past human rights updates, please click here.

  • .Substitution Leader Killed in Bajo Cauca (Antioquia)
    On October 23, armed assailants killed Afrodescendant Miguel Perez, member of the Association of Campesinos of Bajo Cauca (Asocbac) and of the Coordinator of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Cultivators (Coccam) who was leading the voluntary coca substitution in Taraza municipality. According to reports, paramilitary groups had made campesinos involved in crop substitution efforts military targets claiming that they were “sapos” or informants disrupting the drug trade. The remaining 9 members of the board of Asocbac are at high risk of suffering the same fate as Mr. Perez. They have received messages from paramilitaries stating that they need to cease doing outreach on the peace process and substituting coca for other crops. Five voluntary crop substitution agreements were signed with the Colombian authorities in Taraza, Cacares, Anori, Ituango, Campamento and in the North and Lower Cauca region of Antioquia. While some of the smaller scaled promised items were delivered, the main problem remains the overall need for infrastructure, social services, markets and other bigger items required to make the substitution of crops sustainable for the local campesinos.
  • Paramilitaries Kill Man in Cacarica and Take over Afro-Colombian Territory (Chocó)
    On October 14, the lifeless body of Jose Merlin Murillo was found floating along the mangroves in Cacarica collective Afro-Colombian land territory. The Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP) and WOLA has denounced paramilitary activity in this region of northern Choco since last year. Paramilitaries are exerting control over 17 of the 23 communities in this region. They restrict freedom of movement, intimidate and harass locals, and threaten the lives of leaders and human rights defenders. ICJP regularly reports on paramilitary activity in the area. On October 18, 7 paramilitaries belonging to the AGC were spotted traveling in a white and red boat just fifteen minutes from the Colombian Marine military checkpoint of la Travesia. In the boat rest point of La Tapa (Cacarica) paramilitaries are constantly threatening leaders and defenders. Despite repeated denouncements to Colombian authorities little is being done to address this situation and protect local Afro-Colombians.
  • Indigenous Leader Killed by Paramilitaries (Chocó)
    On October 7, indigenous leader and former governor Esquivel Manyoma, was murdered by paramilitaries. His family and community members watched when he was forcibly taken from his home the night before. Witnesses identified the Gaitanista Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) to be his attackers. La Mesa Indigena del Chocó asks that the Colombian government and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office investigate this murder. Members of the Medio Baudó remain frightened and urge the Colombian authorities to protect them from the paramilitary groups.
  • Bus Conductors Receive Death Threats for Union Activity (Medellin)
    On October 23, the National Labor School (ENS) reported that John Fredy Pulgarin of Sintraplus (trade union for bus conductors in Medellin) has suffered multiple security incidents and death threats in the past three months. Mr. Pulgarin is under attack for advocating for improvement of bus conductors’ labor rights. Despite the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan that does away with “labor cooperatives”, third party contracting remains the norm in this industry. The illegal subcontracting and resulting worsening of labor protections that began in 2013 led bus drivers to unionize and initiate protests. Sintraplus has filed claims against the Metroplus Company. This effort has resulted in attacks against Mr. Pulgarin and other union members including John Fredy Zabala.
  • Soldiers Kill Indigenous Community Member and Wound Others (Cauca)
    According to the Human Rights Network of Southwestern Colombia, on September 21 Colombian Army’s High Mountain Battalion No. 8 murdered Jose Adalberto Torijano and wounded three other indigenous persons in Corinto, Cauca. The soldiers entered the area to burn down drug labs and to detain persons suspected of illicit criminal activity. As locals approached the first group of soldiers, others began to shoot, threaten the indigenous and dispersing tear gassing. The result was Mr. Torijano killed and three other indigenous persons wounded. This incident should be thoroughly investigated by the Colombian authorities.
  • CEEU Finds Paramilitaries to be Most Responsible for Killings of Defenders
    The Coordination of Colombia-Europe-United States (CEEU), a coalition of 269 national organizations that reports on the political impact of human rights violations throughout Colombia, claim that paramilitaries are the principal cause of deaths of human rights defenders. Many of these killings are taking place formerly controlled by FARC. Particularly hard-hit by this phenomenon is Antioquia where violence against trade unionists, organized crime and corruption are high.
  • Communities in the Chocó and Antioquia Face Violence, Intimidation and Displacement
    The Jesuit think tank -Center for Research and Popular Education, Institute for Training (CINEP) and the Association of Afro-Colombian Community and Organizations of the Bajo Atrato (ASCOBA) report that in the months of September and October communities including la Larga and Tumaradó have come under attack by illegal armed groups. These communities are experiencing violence, threats, and forced displacement. On October 2, a community leader in Villa Eugenia was threatened while at home. This leader (whose name is not disclosed) has not received sufficient measures of protection from the government despite being victimized in the past.  That same day, Blanquicet community leaders were told by these groups that they would face execution if they did not abandon their lands. These men began to burn down there homes and death threats are circulating within this community. During this time period, farmers in La Madre Unión also received death threats. They were told that they must give up a percentage of their crops to these groups. CINEP and ASCOBA call upon the Attorney General’s office to investigate all the crimes leading to displacement in the Lower Atrato, Chocó and Uraba, Antioquia.
  • Unidentified Gunmen Physically Attack Two Landowners (Antioquia)
    On October 3, armed men kidnapped Fidencio Calle from his home in Turbo, took him to a farm and proceeded to beat him with a pistol and tree branches. The men threatened Mr. Calle that i if he reported the incident “he knew what would happen.” Shortly after, the same attackers stopped Juan Viloria who was going home on his motorcycle from a meeting. They forced Mr. Viloria to the ground where they kicked and beat him to the point of unconsciousness. They also gave him the same message that Mr. Calle received. Both men form part of the Land and Peace Association and have previously received threats. Additionally, the area in which the attacks took place is within the territory of the Community Council of La Larga and Tumaradó where the collective restitution process for Afro-Colombians is advancing. Council President, Pablo Antonio, denounced these crimes, called on the authorities to protect the community and for institutions responsible for these land claims to complete the restitution process.
  • ACIN Reports That Indigenous Communities Are at Risk (Northern Cauca)
    The Northern Cauca Indigenous Council Association (ACIN) issued an urgent action on August 25. In it they call on authorities to guarantee the safety of indigenous communities in the Northern Cauca area. They report that on August 10, two non-indigenous people were killed in the dwelling of Huellas Caloto Palomera. This incident followed the murder of another non-indigenous man in Las Delicas on August 15. On August 24, an armed confrontation took place between the ELN and Colombian Army in Caloto. This combat and increased militarization has placed the indigenous community was put on high alert. On August 27, handmade explosives and weapons were discovered in Corinto. These incidents and increased death threats place these indigenous communities at risk of harm.
  • Paramilitaries Threaten Union Patriotica Party
    On September 6, it was revealed that the AGC paramilitaries are circulating a death threat targeting members of the Union Patriotica political party that includes former Presidential candidate Aida Avella. The pamphlet threatens that if they do not drop out of the next elections by October 20 that they will suffer the consequences.
  • Colombia’s Ministry of Labor Fails to Address Unjust Dismissal of Port Workers
    As WOLA has repeatedly denounced the issue of dismissal of port workers for union activities and arbitrary reasons continues to take place without appropriate action on the part of Colombia’s Labor Ministry. On October 15, the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee (PCASC) sent a letter to President Santos that includes a list of 22 por workers who were unfairly fired by the various companies operating in the ports. According to PASC, the number of fired workers could be as high as 200. We remind U.S. authorities that ports are a priority sector in the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan where subcontracting should be eliminated. These workers are being fired precisely due to their union activity and efforts to do away with subcontracting. Strong actions must be taken by the U.S. Department of Labor to address these firing and to protect union activity in the ports.
  • Labor Union Denounces Poultry Production Company (Bolivar)
    The National Union of Food Workers reports that Avicola de Madrono workers are facing poor working conditions. This precariousness is leading to occupational diseases. As a result, workers are forced to relocate more than once without an explanation and/or experience a decrease in salary. In a recent meeting with administrators, unionists asked for these conditions to improve.
  • Manuelita Oil Dismisses for Engaging in Union Activity (Meta)
    On September 19, Orlando Florez, a representative of Manuelita Oil stated at a meeting with unionists that there are no persecutions taking place against unionists. Workers, on the other hand, report recent harassment, persecution, and mistreatment from the company’s managers. Manuelita Oil dismissed two workers following after they participated in labor rights trainings run by Sintraimagra (the National Union for Food Workers). The union points out that Eduardo Castillo, Hector Rodriguez, Jorge Aldana, and Axcel Martinez were all subject to harassment.
  • Campaign to Lift Sanctions against Union Leader (Bogota)
    On October 10, 6,609 people signed a petition in support of Carlos Castaneda Ravelo, president of the National Unitary Union of State Workers (SUNET) and director of the Bogota- Cundinamarca CUT section. The campaign led by the International Federation of Public Service Employees calls upon Colombian Attorney General, Fernando Carrillo Flórez, to review Ravelo’s case and drop the sanctions against him. In 2006, Ravelo was fired and sanctioned for a 10 year period as part of a political reprisal. The Attorney General filed to lift Ravelo’s trade union immunity and the case will be heard before the Supreme Court of Bogota in November.
  • Order of Contempt Filed against the Attorney General re: Extrajudicial Killing of a Minor in Cali (Valle del Cauca)
    On September 28, the Corporation of Justice and Dignity filed an order of contempt against Cali’s Attorney General’s office due to noncompliance regarding the case of murdered 17 year old Diego Alonso Castiblanco Aguirre. On April 9, 2008, Aguirre left his house in the early evening to buy fruit from someone who was later identified as recruiter for “false positives” (extrajudicial killings) for the army. Gunshots were heard 10 minutes later. The military later claimed that Aguirre’s killing was justified because he formed part of a criminal gang and worked as a drug trafficker. Five members of the Battalion of Engineers No.8 were later found responsible for the murder. After nine years, the case is still in the preliminary stage, with no witnesses or responsible officers who devised the crime called to testify in spite of overwhelming evidence provided by CJD. As a result, a Court in Cali has placed sanctions on the Attorney General of the Nation for defying the orders of a constitutional judge in this case.

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

  • Ethnic Commission meets with U.S. Ambassador and USAID Director (Bogota)
    On September 27, the Ethnic Commission for the Defense of Territorial Rights met with U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker and USAID mission Director of Colombia, Lawrence Sacks to raise awareness of the fact that Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders are not being consulted in the decrees, legislation and other efforts being put in place to implement the FARC peace accord. The constructive dialogue with U.S. authorities covered issues such as exclusion on the formulation of a plan with a territorial approach for the eradication of illicit crops, the need to include ethnic indicators of management and impact in the Plan Marco (accord to implement peace accord), and the need to guarantee a differentiated gender approach. Ambassador Whitaker advocated for the strengthening of the inclusion of the ethnic and gender approach in implementing the peace accord. The Ethnic Commission is grateful for the role the U.S. Embassy has played in supporting the inclusion of ethnic minorities in the peace process and its implementation. It urges the Commission for Monitoring, Impulse and Verification of the Final Agreement (CSIVI), to make ethnic minorities a priority in this process.