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

WOLA Calls Attention to Human Rights Violations against Afro-Colombian Groups

April 30, 2014
Mr. Oscar Gamboa Zúñiga
Presidential Program for Afro-Colombian, Black , and Raizal Palenquera
Vice President of the Republic of Colombia
Carrera 10 # 24-55, 4th Floor
Bogota, Colombia

Dear Mr. Gamboa,

WOLA appreciates the opportunity to meet with you in Washington, D.C., to discuss the human, labor and humanitarian rights of Afro-Colombian communities. In particular, we would like to talk to you about various issues, situations and cases of particular interest to WOLA, as well as ask questions and suggest some steps that we think might be useful to ensure justice in cases involving the human and labor rights of Afro-Colombians, and the security of afrodescendant leaders and activists working to improve their rights.


The social and humanitarian crisis in the port of Buenaventura remains serious. In August 2013, WOLA accompanied Congressman James McGovern on his visit to Buenaventura, which resulted in the congressional report entitled “The US- Colombia Labor Action Plan: Failing on the Ground.” In that report, Congressmen George Miller and James McGovern make recommendations to the Attorney General of Colombia regarding the violence in Buenaventura and District of Agua Blanca.

What actions has your office taken in response to the recommendations made ​​about Buenaventura and the Agua Blanca District in the Miller-McGovern report?

Since this report was released, it has been reported that more than 13,000 people were displaced in Buenaventura in 2013. Also the media, civil society and religious groups report that dismemberment, homicide, femicide, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and the recruitment of minors remain a daily reality. Sadly, despite all the media attention and military actions ordered by the national government, high levels of impunity continue in these cases.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report in March 2014 confirming many of the concerns that WOLA has expressed to the U.S. and Colombian governments regarding Buenaventura since 2006. HRW confirmed that paramilitary successor groups continue to control many areas of the port, and that residents fear to denounce the atrocities. Even when they decide to take the risk of making complaints, the police and prosecution do not take the necessary action to achieve results. HRW also found that there is only one prosecutor for nearly a thousand cases. HRW also re-affirms that there are not enough services to address the humanitarian crisis faced by the displaced population. On April 22, 2014, Senator Alexander López held ​​a hearing over this alarming situation, where they reported that between 1985 and 2014, almost 700 terrorist attacks, 6,711 murders, and more than 900 forced disappearances have occurred.

The communities—with the support of the Catholic Church, human rights groups, and others—have peaceably organized to achieve a government response to the crisis that does not focus exclusively militarization, but rather solves the structural socio-economic problems that exacerbate the crisis office in the port. Groups have also publicly united to protect against violent actors. On February 19, 2014, over 30,000 people took to the streets to express their rejection of the violence and atrocities that are occurring in Buenaventura. The main social organizations working in the area have collected their concerns and recommendations in the attached document. How are the Colombian authorities working with these organizations to seek the implementation of their recommendations?

April 19, 2014, was the ninth anniversary of the slaughter of 12 young men in the neighborhood of Punta del Este. This is the case where 12 young  Afro-Colombians were offered 200,000 Colombian pesos (about $100) by unknown men to participate in a soccer game. When they arrived, paramilitaries of the Calima Bloc of the AUC murdered and dismembered them. During the anniversary, a march was held in Punta del Este to commemorate the victims. Groups working on this case, including WOLA, are calling on the Colombian authorities to take several actions (see attached) on this case. We want to know what action your office has taken to help bring justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition in this situation. Additionally, we ask that you inquire with the Court of Cali to inform us about the current status of the cases. We also request that you speak with the Ombudsman’s Office (defensoría and personería) to follow up on the case, and with the Attorney General to ensure a comprehensive investigation of these cases.

In another civil society effort, 800 families in the Puente Nayero sector located the La Playita neighborhood are in the process of forming an urban humanitarian zone, similar to those in the Department of Chocó. As a result of this initiative, communities have received several threats from armed groups, saying that “they would not allow the loss of their territory.” On April 22, they received a threat that ordered the assassination of Afro-Colombian leader Orlando Castillo. The same day, the human rights defender Danilo Rueda of CIJP was threatened with a machete by a member of the paramilitary group that entered the Puente Nayero humanitarian area. The same paramilitary also threatened the wife of the leader and human rights defender Luis Yasmani Thick Sinisterra; paramilitaries warned him that she would become military targets if they continue with the humanitarian project.

The current situation requires immediate action beyond militarization. We support the recommendations of Congressmen McGovern and Miller, and specifically the following recommendations from HRW:

  1. The National Police should prioritize the safety of residents and maintain a presence in the most affected neighborhoods that remain occupied by illegal armed groups.
  2. The government of President Santos should ensure that internally displaced persons are receiving the necessary humanitarian aid, even if local authorities shirk their responsibility to provide assistance.
  3. The Attorney General ‘s Office should create a special team of prosecutors, which focuses exclusively on cases of disappearances in Buenaventura. We understand that this group is in the process of being created and ask your office to follow up and monitor to have concrete results against impunity in these cases.

Additionally, we believe the crisis that exists in Buenaventura cannot be treated in isolation from the major changes that are occurring in the Cascajal Island. There is a great gap between the Port Authority, national and international entrepreneurs, and investors who are benefiting from the port, and the local afrodescendant residents who live in it. As you are aware, they are taking land without respecting the fundamental right of ethnic communities to free, prior, and informed consultation, and freedom from otherwise harming the black communities of Bajamar to expand the port and trade. It is essential that you as a representative of the interests of afrodescendant peoples to the Vice Presidency, work on an emergency plan in consultation with the representatives of the inhabitants of these areas to mitigate the negative impacts of changes in the port and look for solutions that respect the human rights of those persons.

Commission decision on victims of Operation Genesis

In December 2013 , nearly two decades after the painful mass displacement of black communities in northern Choco following Operation Genesis, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) released its decision on violations committed against victims Cacarica River Basin and ordered Colombia to take several steps to remedy these injustices. These include public recognition of their responsibility, assur
ance that the territories of the Community Council of the Cacarica River Basin Communities are fully restored to their rightful owners, and that victims receive reparations.

What advances have been made in implementing the court order? At what stage are the various recommendations of the Court?

Regarding this case, we would like to emphasize that Colombia needs to take effective and decisive action to ensure compliance with the order and ensure non -repetition of violations. It also must protect members of the Cacarica community who are at risk of retaliation for their activism. We have also received reports of a possible paramilitary incursion in the Cacarica area by way of the Salaquí River.

We are also concerned about the recent murder of Adan Quinto in Turbo. We reject both this murder and the baseless and false accusations against members of the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (CIJP) and Peace Brigades International (PBI) for the attack, and note that false information increases the risk of attacks against them. We recommend that you inform the competent authorities and urge them to do a thorough investigation into the murder and false accusations against CIJP and PBI and ensure that those responsible for these acts are brought to justice.

Prior Consultation and Implementation of the Autonomous Afrodescendant Congress

Under the First National Congress of Black Communities, Raizal, and Palenquero peoples, the Federal Government established a set of agreements with the Afro-Colombian Movement, including the regulation of Chapters IV, V, VI and VII of Law 70 of 1993. Progress should be made in concurrence with prior consultation on several bills identified as priorities by the national government. Likewise, the government committed to establish a mechanism with the Afro-Colombian movement to make these commitments viable. The National Congress established the National Afro-Colombian Authority as an autonomous space to monitor and finalize the agreements. After Quibdó, the government, arguing that it was waiting for a pending ruling from the Constitutional Court, has not addressed the so-called Afro-Colombian National Authority to meet the agreements and commitments.

What actions have your office planned to help strengthen the Afro-Colombian National Authority and comply with the agreements and commitments made in August 2013?

According to information received by WOLA, it was not until March 11 and 14 that meetings were held between the Authority and the government, meetings that were ordered by the Constitutional Court to review the results and progress after the First Congress. On April 25, the government established an agreement with the Community Councils of the Pacific region to discuss the agreement to advance the Third National Agricultural Census. With this agreement, on May 28 there will be a meeting to coordinate the process of defining the implementation of Law 70 of 1993.

In line with the government’s decision to limit the implementation of prior consultation, we are concerned that the government has made statements threatening this right and refused to respond to questions related to Afro-Colombians and the realization of the Third Agricultural Census. The three basic demands of the Afro-Colombian movement regarding the Third Agricultural Census have to do with the FPIC, the differential approach, and the status of communities as the census was conducted before there had been community involvement. In areas such as Andina, where the majority of Afro-Colombians live in ancestral territories that haven’t been collectively titled, the DANE rejects community councils and can work directly with the people that will complete the census in their territories. We urge you to take into account and implement the demands made by the Afro-Colombian movement against this issue.

Humanitarian Crisis in the Pacific

Last month WOLA conducted a field visit to various black communities in the basins of the Atrato, San Juan, Condoto, and Baudó rivers, as well as various neighborhoods in Quibdó. In the next month, we will release a detailed report on this visit. Attached to this letter you will find a presentation that we made at the Javeriana University containing our preliminary impressions from the trip and some recommendations to the international community and the Colombian authorities. First we have some questions that arose during our visit:

  1. On the issue of attention to victims, in what specific cases of individual and collective reparations and land restitution has there been good progress, in line with Decree 4635, and what was the role of your office in this matter?
  2. On the subject of Afro-Colombian access to and retention in higher education, how does your office does monitor the quality of education in the two public universities that are in the Pacific: the University of the Pacific and the Technological University of Chocó?
  3. Regarding the mining and energy concessions under development, what strategy from your office exists to ensure the right to prior consultation; to ensure the monitoring of economic, environmental, cultural and human rights impacts; and the rights of ethnic communities affected by these projects in the Pacific?
  4. In terms of the many FTAs that Colombia has signed, given that these agreements affect afrodescendant and indigenous peoples, what was the role of your office in defense of the afrodescendant populations affected by the signing and implementation of these agreements? What plan does your office have to mitigate the negative impacts of these agreements?

We would like to highlight our serious concerns about the human rights violations and humanitarian crisis that many inhabitants of the Chocó are experiencing as a result of the combined effects of internal armed conflict, militarization, aerial fumigation, illegal mining and the environmental damage it brings, anti-personnel mines, corruption and the lack of institutions able to provide basic services to local populations. In terms of armed conflict, though, WOLA welcomes the negotiations’ progress in Havana. But we believe that moving forward with the negotiations while military operations and fighting continues is concerning. These actions negatively affect civilians, causing further displacement and humanitarian emergencies. That is why we are supporting European and North American parliamentarians as they urge that the parties negotiating the peace agreement sign a bilateral ceasefire and respect international humanitarian law. It is necessary that Operation Titan and members of the security forces operating in the Chocó respect human rights and that the police located in remote areas become more professional, disciplined, and respectful of ethnic communities. We recommend you to direct your office to:

  1. Work with various Colombian institutions to dismantle paramilitary structures that continue to operate in the region and investigate and punish members of the military, police, politicians and economic interests who work with them.
  2. Take immediate actions to analyze and seek real solutions to the negative impacts of mining on afrodescendant and indigenous communities. Action must be taken to mitigate the serious environmental consequences and human hardships caused by mining. Efforts must be taken to combat the money laundering that occurs with minerals. Efforts are also required to encourage community councils and local authorities to teach small-scale miners how to protect themselves from the occupational hazards of mining, and prevent more deaths and illnesses.
  3. Work with local authorities in the Pacific so that the autonomy of afrodescendant and indigenous peoples is respected and mega-projects driven by FTAs are developed and consulted with community and indigenous councils.
  4. Work at a national level to create a special plan to solve the problems of extreme poverty–and particularly the vulnerable situation of indigenous peoples and meet the basic needs of the population in the Chocó. Efforts to combat corruption and strengthen governance and transparency in elections are necessary.

While our recent visit was concentrated in the Choco, it is important to note that the same humanitarian and social crisis exists elsewhere in the Pacific. In the last 30 days, there have been at least five mass displacements in Guajui – Guapi, on the Pacific coast of Cauca. The underlying causes of these displacements are clashes between the armed forces and illegal armed groups, primarily the FARC. It is essential that you ensure the authorities provide humanitarian support to these communities, and that the armed forces focus their efforts away from areas inhabited by civilians.

The Emblematic Case of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó
As we have discussed with you in the past, the situation for the communities of Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó need more attention at a national level. Several land restitution leaders, including Yomaira Mendoza, Enrique Cabezas, and Leydis Tuirán have received multiple threats which demanded they stop their work or be killed. The militarization of these lands is not an effective response to this situation; the presence of armed forces within the communities themselves has put the communities at greater risk. We urge you to take the necessary steps so the national government devotes more resources to the investigation and punishment of the material and intellectual authors responsible for these crimes. The only way to dismantle the illegal activities of paramilitary groups now grouped into new groups is for the national government to send a strong message that the collaboration by members of the armed forces, politicians and businessmen with such groups will have judicial ramifications.

AFRODES and security leaders and afrodescendant leaders
We strongly condemn the April 29, 2014 attack on Henry Camacho, afrodescendant spokesman at the agrarian sector and popular roundtable for dialogue and agreement (MIA) who is part of the Community Council “Rescate de las Varas.” Preliminary reports indicate that he received 14 stab wounds and was in critical condition. We ask that you take action to investigate and punish this crime and work to ensure the safety of other members of this organization and communities. Also still pending is progress in the investigation and sanction of those responsible for the murders of Afro-Colombian leaders Demetrio Lopez Community of the Cauca Valley, Miller Angulo Rivera AFRODES in Tumaco and Carlos Arturo Ospina Cordoba, the son of the Ana Fabricia Cordoba leader who was assassinated in Medellin in February 2014.

What efforts have been made from your office to ensure justice in such cases and prevent such attacks are repeated against these Afro-Colombians?

As you already know we are very concerned about the attacks and threats to leaders and leaders of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) and the lack of adequate response from Colombian institutions. When WOLA was visiting Bogotá last month, armed men again visited AFRODES headquarters in Bogota. Several times in recent months these men have sought to walk into the organization, which has been reported to the UNP and Attorney General’s office. This is in addition to the multiple threats and security incidents that have been received by AFRODES members in Buenaventura, Cali, Agua Blanca District, Pasto, and Atlántico.

The development of collective protection measures for members of AFRODES by the National Protection Unit (NPU) is still pending, and the commitments made by the Colombian authorities at the hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in October 2013 have yet to be implemented. There are gaps in protection measures in several individual cases of individual that could result in dire consequences for those leaders. We see it as positive that your office has been accompanying AFRODES in this effort but still insist that beyond more meetings, new decrees, reports, and concrete actions that increase the protection of political leaders are needed. Also important are public messages from your office condemning attacks against members of AFRODES and insisting that investigations of threats and incidents against AFRODES see concrete results. In terms of the NPU, we ask you to intercede to achieve progress securing a special CERREM for AFRODES and to seek solutions for the gaps in protective measures for the over 100 members of AFRODES who are at risk.

Racial discrimination against Afro-Colombians
Linked to the humanitarian crisis and abuses of human and labor rights is extreme racial discrimination. This is remarkable because the problems that arise involving afrodescendants are not given priority until pressure is exerted, often in the form of public demonstrations, protests, or the involvement of international organizations. Instances of racism are too widespread to summarize in this letter. We see it as positive that last year, a high-level meeting was held between the governments of Colombia and the U.S. to advance the Racial Action Plan between the U.S. and Colombia. That was a step forward but we think that further action is required.

We would recommend the following:

1) That future efforts between the U.S. and Colombia to implement the Racial Action Plan include more Afro-Colombian civil society organizations, particularly those who have worked on the issue of racial discrimination as CIMARRONES, PCN, AFRODES, CNOA, Racial Discrimination Observatory/DeJusticia, the Afro-Colombian Labor Council (CLAF), and the Idcarán Research Group at the National University of Colombia and incorporate their recommendations and proposals for action on these issues.
2) That the actions related to the Racial Action Plan include public debates on racial discrimination in different sectors of Colombia.
3) That you work for Colombia to join the Inter-American Convention against Racism and all forms of discrimination and intolerance.

Incident Surrounding the Afrodescendant Seats in Congress
WOLA is concerned that that the two seats reserved in Congress for afrodescendants, which were designed to guarantee direct participation of these groups in Congress, were won by María del Socorro Bustamante y Moisés Orozco, two people who are not afrodescendant, nor do they identify as sharing their cultures—much less advocate for their needs. Also questionable are the manner in which these people secured these votes and the parties which they unduly registered with, as they have ties to groups with questionable financing mechanisms and that may have ties to paramilitary groups.

This irregularity is so atypical that it led to leaders from nearly all Afro-Colombian organizations who seek to solve the problems of these ethnic minorities to publicly demonstrate and show their outrage. These groups feel that their rights have been usurped and are without representation in Congress. Because of this, they cannot continue to expose problems and/or needs, and likewise would lack a way to present projects that seek to minimize their problems and needs.

This is so outrageous and racially discriminatory that the government has allowed this to happen that the Office of the Inspector General, Alejandro Ordóñez , filed for electoral annulment specifically related to this case. Looking at this case in detail, one would see the deeper issue that there is no clear regulation to ensure that those who seek these seats are members of afrodescendant populations and are leaders that represent the needs of these populations. This kind of regulation would avoid the continuation of these situations.

What is your opinion on this situation and what you can do to minimize these situations in the future?

Afrodescendant workers
April 7 was the third anniversary of the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP). Sadly, as we stated in a joint statement with the AFL-CIO, CUT, CTC and other labor and human rights groups, the LAP has made progress on paper but has failed on the ground for many Colombian workers. We at WOLA believe that the PAL is an important tool to help transform the labor rights situation in Colombia, where murders of trade unionists occur in total impunity, and death threats and attacks on labor activists, as well as labor subcontracting, remain the norm in all priority sectors of the LAP. For Afro-Colombian workers, the situation is exacerbated by several aggravating circumstances. Racial discrimination remains an obstacle, worsening Afro-Colombian labor rights. We see that, given where a large number of Afro-Colombians live, their historical marginalization, the armed conflict, lack of equal access to education, and socio-economic status, they are employed in jobs that are more physically demanding and have greater occupational hazards, lower salaries, or are less desirable. For the sugar, mining, oil palm and ports sectors, workers experience major obstacles to unionization, resulting in labor rights violations (excessive working hours, lack of proper rest and pressure to work in poor or precarious conditions). Additionally, these workers suffer from job insecurity, with the possibility to be fired without compensation; lack social security and compensation if injured on the job; and lack pensions when they retire. Many Colombian women work in the informal sector as domestic workers and also face obstacle to unionization. They are also at risk of sexual and physical abuse.

In Buenaventura, one can see the negative effects of the privatization of and subcontracting in the port. Many afrodescendants have had to moonlight and those that work in the port under the Labor Action Plan still face subcontracting. Furthermore, many workers who have organized or affiliated with unions in Buenaventura and Turbo have been victims of retaliation. They have been threatened that they would be fired if they did not leave the union, and the Minister of Labor has not taken action so that the companies would compensate or rehire them. These workers suffer not only from labor exploitation but also because they and their families are victims of the disintegration of the social fabric in the port, and thus suffer due to violence, armed displacement and port expansion. As our partners have reported to us, “it is very unfair as port companies invest their various earnings in their operations and modernization, and do not look at the social and working conditions of us as workers, today we have a large number of peers reduced to begging, who have not even a home to sleep in.” In the sugar sector, we see a situation of lack of employment gains for cane cutters, impunity in the murders of leaders, and death threats .

Employment discrimination against afrodesdendants, palenquera, and raizal peoples—both in access to work and in working conditions—remains a matter of concern. In addition to job insecurity and outsourcing, wage discrimination and lack of promotion and career advancement opportunities for the few formal workers continues. The political will of the government and business must be increased, and that specific public policies measures must be taken to eliminate labor exclusion among the afrodescendant population. At the recent UN World Urban Forum held in Medellin, there was no established afrodescendant table. This said to Afro-Colombian activists and others that afrodescendant peoples are not an important part of the cities for the Colombian government. Since a large and growing number of displaced Afro-Colombian population and are located in cities, the omission of these groups is problematic.

We believe that you should support the Afro-Colombian Labor Council (CLAF) in its dialogue with the Minister of Labor and work together in identifying steps to take to increase racial inclusion in the national Labor Coalition roundtable. At this forum, CLAF can work with authorities to more effectively to find solutions to this issue. Additionally, you must ensure that officers address the issue of inclusion of Afro-Colombians in the institutions responsible for these issues. With the CLAF, it would also be important to meet to discuss how to improve the security of afrodescendant trade unionists and labor activists, particularly Jhonsson Torres, Harold Viafara, and Agripina Hurtado. Additionally, we would like to see progress in the investigations in the case of Milton Enrique Rivas Parra, an afrodescendant USO union leader who was killed in Puerto Gaitán (Meta) in December 2012, and sugar sector activist Daniel Aguirre, a member of SINALCORTEROS who was murdered that same year.

It is encouraging that ACDIVOCA , AFRODES , the Minister of Labor and the private sector are working to employ displaced Colombians. Connecting displaced persons with jobs and technical training is essential to help this population to overcome their condition of displacement. But we think that these efforts need to be monitored by your office and other authorities to ensure that they do not result in the exploitation of displaced workers. In other words, it must be ensured that these jobs come with adequate remuneration and working conditions that meet international standards, and that the labor rights and of these people are respected.

We would like to ask: What efforts are being taken by your office to advance the implementation of the Labor Action Plan? They are implementing efforts to combat racial discrimination in sectors such as sugar, ports, domestic employment, and childcare to support direct hiring efforts to protect and enhance trade unionism?

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you and we await your answers and actions to the issues and cases presented.


Gimena Sánchez- Garzoli
Senior Associate
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)