WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
28 Feb 2018 | Commentary

Second February Update: Action Required to Guarantee Rights in Colombia

In this third installment of the human rights update of 2018, and the second of covering February, WOLA observes concerning attacks against social leaders. It is urgent that 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.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) will continue to monitor the situation in Colombia and will continue to stand with victims and our partners to ensure that the Colombian government protects these activists from further threats, and that officials carry out investigations and prosecute those responsible.

WOLA appreciates your attention and steps you can take to improve human rights and labor rights in Colombia. As long time Colombia human rights observers, we think that the only way that the above situations can be improved is if the international community:

  1. Continues to monitor and support full integral implementation of the peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC). A special emphasis must be made to guarantee that the principles of the Ethnic Chapter are adhered to.
  2. Helps to guarantee advancement of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) peace talks in Quito and in the meantime urges the parties to make the Humanitarian Accord Now! Choco a reality.
  3. Works to dismantle the military, social and economic structures of Colombia’s illegal armed criminal groups.
  4. Guarantees that the justice system works by putting the material and intellectual authors responsible for killing activists in jail.
  5. Works to fully implement labor rights in particular the obligations found in the U.S.-Colombia-Labor Action Plan.
  6. Financially supports and advocates for Colombia’s prevention and protection mechanisms for social activists in Colombia to work properly taking into account the recommendations made by the office of the Ombudsman, Inspector General (Procurador General) and Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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

  • Massacre of Wayuu Community in Castilletes Reservation (Guajira)
    The Association of Traditional Wayuu Authorities condemned the February 20 massacre of four Wayuu people by an unidentified armed group. According to their sources, twelve armed men entered the Castilletes Reservation and proceeded to shoot and kill Luz Mila Jarariyu, Enrique Jarariyu, Wilmer Wilson Fernandez, and Johan Enrique Fernandez. The youngest victim, Wilmer, was 14 years old. The attack resulted in the displacement of 30 others. According to Wayuu authorities, illegal armed groups are taking advantage of the lack of civil state presence in this area to traffic drugs while the local authorities turn a blind eye to these activities. For this reason, they ask that any investigation of this massacre is done by external authorities who are independent from the region.
  • Paramilitary Incursion Kills Three Residents of Argelia (Cauca)
    The Intereclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Justicia y Paz) reported that on January 21, a group of armed men claiming for be members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) entered Argelia. They indiscriminately shot its residents who were celebrating a Carnaval. Three people died, including Lenin Gómez Samboni, Belen Suárez Tribillo, and Carlos Muñoz. Robinson Yesid Castillo, Javier Cardoso, Ángel Martínez Muñoz and Segundo Javier Macias were wounded.
  • Social Leader Murdered (Santander)
    On February 17, local police found the body of Elkin Fabián Toro with 7 gunshot wounds. Elkin was a social leader in Catatumbo who worked at his local radio station and held an administrative role in the community action board of the Tarra municipality. The group responsible for this murder is still unknown. In this area, paramilitaries and two guerilla groups –the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) are present.
  • Human Rights Defender Killed (Cauca)
    On February 23, a gunman on a motorcycle shot and killed Flover Sapuyes Gaviria according to the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network. Flover was the treasurer of the Promotion Committee of the National Coordinator of Cultivators of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana (COCCAM), and was working to help farmers transition from illicit to legal crops. He was also a member of the Patriotic March Movement and of the Peasant Workers’ Association of Balboa (ASCATBAL).
  • Two Afro-Colombian Members of COCCAM Killed (Cauca)
    On February 9, Jesús Orlando Grueso Obregón and Jonathan Cundumi Anchino were found dead in the Guapi Municipality in Cauca. Jesús and Jonathan were members of COCCAM, the Ethnic and Popular Movement of the Pacific and the Marcha Patriótica Political and Social Movement. Both men worked on the implementation of voluntary coca substitution programs and participated in election campaigning for the FARC political party. Their murders make part of a larger pattern of political violence on the eve of a national election season.
  • Community Leader Assassinated (Santander)
    On February 9, unidentified assailants killed Deriver Quintero in Catatumbo. Deriver was President of the Sports Committee of the Tarrita Community Action Board. The Marcha Patriótica denounced the murder and asks the Colombian government to take measures to protect community leaders in Colombia.
  • Two Ex-FARC Combatants Killed (Antioquia)
    On February 9, members of the Gulf Clan killed Víctor Alfonzo Sánchez while he was in a training and reintegration territory in the Bagre Municipality. The Next day, the Gulf Clan returned and killed Juan Carlos Castañeda. Both men were FARC ex-combatants. The FARC denounced these murders, citing concern over the extermination campaign and dirty war against them. Since the peace agreement between FARC and the Colombian government was signed in November 2016, 50 ex-combatants have been killed.
  • National Liberation Army (ELN) Murders FARC Ex-combatant (Bolívar)
    On February 6, members of the Guillermo Ariza front of the ELN killed Kevin Andrés Lugo Jaramillo. Kevin was a FARC ex-combatant in the training and reintegration territory in the Montecristo Municipality.
  • Assassination Attempt against Indigenous Leader (Cauca)
    On February 18, two unidentified assailants intercepted and shot Ricardo Gembuel as he rode his motorcycle on the Calí-Popayán road in El Cofre. He survived the attempt on his life and is recovering from his injury. Ricardo is a leader in the Jambaló Reservation and took on an active role in the Jambaló Town Hall Civic Movement after his close friend, Marden Betancur, was killed over her involvement in the organization.
  • Murder Attempt on Community Leader (Caquetá)
    On February 9, two hitmen shot Pedro Guzman four times in his home leaving him gravely injured and recovering. Pedro is Vice President of the Nueva Etapa Community Action Board and Treasurer of the Troncales Guacamayas Association. The Union of Social, environmental, Indigenous, and Peasant organizations of San Vicente de Caguán (UIOS) asks that the Colombian government at all levels take measures to protect the rights and safety of this community.
  • Indigenous Leader Survives Murder Attempt (Cauca)
    On February 19, an unidentified person left an explosive device outside of Enrique Fernández’s home. The device did not detonate, and Enrique and his family made it out safely. Enrique is a survivor of the Naya massacre and the spokesperson of its victims. Prior to the attack, he had denounced threats that he received from the Gaitanista self-defense forces of Colombia (AGC). ACIN notes concern over the increasing presence of armed groups like the ELN, FARC dissidents, and paramilitaries.
  • AGC Threatens Afro-Colombian Leaders that Denounce their Presence (Chocó)
    Justicia y Paz reported that on February 3, AGC paramilitaries entered the Nueva Vida humanitarian zone. The men threatened Afro-Colombian leaders in particular, telling them that they would be killed like rats for reporting on their presence in the region. Justicia y Paz notes that despite the government’s claims, paramilitary violence continues to threaten communities.
  • Human Rights Defender Threatened (Cundinamarca)
    On January 27, an unidentified man broke into Yanette Bautista’s home in Bogotá. Guards intercepted him and called the local police. The National Protection Unit (NPU) later informed Yanette that the police took the man but immediately released him without questioning. Ms. Bautista is the Director of the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (FNEB) and the 2012 winner of Franco-German Prize for defense of human rights.. Her work to ensure justice for victims of state sponsored forced disappearances makes her a constant target of threats and persecution. To date, there are 14 separate investigations for threats against FNEB members, but no results. She asks that the Colombian government strengthen protection measures for the members of her organization.
  • Buenaventura Leaders in Danger (Valle del Cauca)
    Numerous security incidents targeting human rights advocates in Buenaventura have taken place since the murder of Don Temis, including:On January 30, an unidentified group raided Father Adriel Jose Ruiz Galvan’s home to steal personal documents and information stored on his computer. Jose is the director of the Foundation for Spaces of Coexistence and Social Development (FUNDESCODES).On February 5, a resident of the El Progreso neighborhood reported a suspicious man searching for Father Jhon Reina to attack him. Father Jhon is a priest in the Buenaventura diocese and a member of Buenaventura Civil Strike Committee. After reporting the incident to local police, he now has temporary protection from the National Protection Unit (UNP).On February 10, Maria Miyela Riascos, a human rights defender and member of the Buenaventura Civil Strike Committee, reported two suspicious men outside of her home. According to her report, the men photographed her and sat outside of her home for several hours. When she called the police for help, an unidentified police officer dismissed her concern, telling her, “Call your committee friends to help you, since you seem to be friendly enough.”On February 23, Senator Alexander Lopez Maya, the President of the Senate Human Rights Commission wrote to the U.S. Congress urging that they intervene in the security situation facing Buenaventura’s activists. In particular, he urged U.S. policymakers to 1) publicly denounce the security crisis faced by social leaders in Buenaventura; 2) support Colombia in finding non-military solutions to protect community leaders and to seek justice for Temístocles Machado and other assassinated leaders; and 3) ask the Colombian government why these assassinations occur one of the most militarized regions of the country.
  • Death Threats against Afro-Colombian Community Councils (Cauca)
    On February 17, the Black Eagles, a paramilitary organization operating in 20 departments of Colombia, distributed a flyer threatening to kill members of Cococauca. The pamphlet warned, “You are on borrowed time; leave or die.” Cococauca is an Afro-Colombian organization that works to defend the rights of ethnic communities and advocate for peace. Since 2015, the organization has received many similar threats, and they ask that the Colombian government establish protection measures to protect them and other social leaders.
  • Afro-Colombian Trade Unionist Threatened (Valle Del Cauca)
    On February 6, Aldemar Domínguez used his radio show to make dangerous claims about Harold Viafara Gonzalez, the leader of the EMCALI USE Labor Union and member of the Afro-Colombian Labor Council (CLAF) in Calí. Immediately following the radio program, Harold received death threats to himself and his family posted outside of his home.. He submitted a report to the local prosecutor and the National Protection unit, and he awaits a response.
  • ELN Displaces 19 Embera Katio Families (Chocó)
    On February 15, ninety-four members of the Embera Katio indigenous community in the Bagadó municipality were displaced. According to the Orewa Association in Chocó, illegal armed actors forced these people off their land through intimidations and threats. Reports allege that ELN camps occupy part of the reservation and that ELN forces are threatening other communities in the area as well. The Orewa Association, Inter-Ethnic Forum Solidarity Chocó (FISCH) and Pastoral Afro-Colombiana in the Choco are all urging the international community to support a resumption of peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN in Quito. Further, they ask that the ELN commit to supporting the Humanitarian Accord Now! For Chocó. These communities believe that increasing the war is the wrong way to resolve this situation and to protect civilians.
  • 1,484 People Displaced in Cáceres (Antioquia)
    On February 23, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) expressed concern over increased internal displacement in Colombia. So far in 2018, violence has displaced 3,000 people. NRC reports that in Cáceres, they are working with 1,484 people that have been displaced by violence. NRC highlights a complete failure to protect civilians in the areas still affected by conflict. The organization urges for the protection of communities affected by attacks and assassinations of community leaders and other violations of human rights.
  • Indigenous Groups Denounce Abuses Against them (Chocó)
    The Association of Indigenous Victims of Chocó released a statement denouncing the persistent violence and harassment against their communities. They report numerous incidents including:On December 21, 2017, the presence of armed groups caused the forced displacement of the Uma Community to Quibdó.On December 24, six armed people in police uniform entered the Casimiro community and asked its residents various questions. Days later, they returned, firing indiscriminately. They threatened the children present, telling them that they would be killed if they report what they saw.On January 26, armed people entered the Brisas de Samper Community in Northern Quibdó. The presence of armed groups is frequent in this community.The organization has submitted many petitions directed at the municipal government, the government of Chocó, the National Victims Unit, and the Land Restitution Unit. No institution has addressed their concerns, and these communities remain at risk.

WOLA is very concerned about the regression in labor rights taking place in Colombia. We urge that the U.S. Department of Labor take swift action to address the following cases:

  • Report Shows that Anti-Unionist Violence Persists in Colombia
    On February 12, the National Unionist School (ENS) published a report titled:  Anti-Union Violence, Impunity and Protection for Unionists in Colombia, 2012-2017. The report highlights that despite minor gains in the safety of trade unionists, broad violence and impunity remain. In 2017, 19 trade unionists were killed in Colombia and in 2015, 95% of criminal acts against trade unionists went unpunished. The ENS contends that the measures to protect trade unionists are flawed and are not clearly articulated in a public policy for the protection of trade unionists. 
  •  Airline Exerts Revenge on Unionized Pilots
    This week, Avianca airlines initiated disciplinary proceedings against over 200 pilots that form part of the ACDAC aviation union for engaging in a strike to improve their collective labor rights from September 20 to December 12, 2017. Despite having publicly stated they would not engage in reprisals against the pilots in the media when this was hot news topic, they are firing and taking steps against pilots in order to make the point that independent unions will not be tolerated by this company. The airline is justifying its actions based upon a questionable decision made by the Supreme Court that declared the ACDAC strike to be illegal. The Ministry of Labor is shunning its responsibilities by basing its inactions on the same decision. It is worth noting that in spite of past repeated sanctions from the Ministry of Labor and Supreme Court relating to bad labor practices by this airline, the company continued to act the same way. Hence this is why the pilots were forced to engage in a pacific civil strike.
  • Unionized Childcare Workers Continue to Have Their Rights Violated
    According to a report issued by the National Union of Community Mothers, their labor rights are not respected. These women head the government’s community homes for orphaned children and live in vulnerable conditions due to systemic poverty. Furthermore, subcontracting, a form of contracting that impedes unionization that is still prevalent in the labor system despite the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan explicitly obliging Colombia to end such practices makes it nearly impossible for these women to improve their labor rights. Despite several rulings by Colombia’s constitutional court, community mothers still do not receive their labor payments of earned pensions from the state. This is particularly serious, given that most of these women are over retirement age and, “are dying without the recognition of their rights.”

Lastly, we thought you might find the following of interest:

  • Human Rights Organizations Condemn Indifference of the Colombian Government (Valle Del Cauca)
    On February 22, over 30 social and human rights organizations issued a statement expressing their outrage against Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera. Minister Rivera was to attend an event to honor the work of human rights defenders in Cauca, but cancelled at the last minute citing personal reasons. In the context of repeated assassinations and violence against human rights defenders and the great lengths that the defenders travelled to attend the event, this sudden cancellation shows the general indifference of the government when it comes to human rights defenders.
  • Outrage over Ministry of Defense’s and Armed Forces Presence at Apology Ceremony for Murdered Indigenous Leader (Cauca)
    On February 23, representatives from the Ministry of Defense and the military were expected to attend an event at the María Piendamó Reservation in Cauca to apologize for the death of prominent indigenous leader José Edwin Legarda. Members of the military killed José in 2008, and early statements from the military denied any involvement in the murder. Aida Quilcué, José’s wife, expressed her outrage stating, “This isn’t just about Edwin. It is about the state’s unwillingness to fulfill its promises to its victims.”
  • Marcha Patriótica Urges Government to Implement Peace Agreement (Cundinamarca)
    On February 18, members of the Marcha Patriótica issued a statement demanding the Colombian government fulfill its promises under the 2016 peace agreement signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). They urge the government to focus on implementing the agrarian reform program and dismantling paramilitary groups. Since the signing of the peace agreement, 250 social leaders have been killed and violence against them will not improve until the government fulfills its promises to resolve the root issues of conflict in Colombia. Furthermore, they ask that the government renew talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Quito.
  • Social Organizations Unite to Celebrate the International Day of Flower Workers (Cundinamarca)
    On February 15, the National Organization of Colombian Flower Workers, along with other social organizations and labor unions gathered in Facatativá to celebrate the International Day of the Flower Worker. This celebration is held to draw attention to the plight of Colombian flower workers, who during the Valentine’s Day season are expected to work up to 20 hours a day without overtime pay.