Since April 28, thousands of people throughout Colombia have exercised their right to protest—triggered by a controversial, government-proposed tax reform plan—and have been met with unacceptable violence by members of the Colombian National Police (Policía Nacional de Colombia). The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is pleased to learn that President Iván Duque has withdrawn the plan, which would have placed a severe burden on the middle class through regressive sales taxes. The legislation’s withdrawal provides the country with an opportunity to build a consensus on ways to address the country’s fiscal gap, without deepening inequalities that were further exacerbated by the pandemic. It is also a victory for the many Colombians who exerted their right to protest in order to guarantee democratic governance in Colombia. Such widespread, multisectoral, and regional protests were extremely rare before Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord.
Despite this victory, WOLA condemns the disproportionate use of force employed by the anti-riot police (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD) and other police units against protestors, as well as the hostile words of high-level officials and influential politicians. Many of these public figures reacted to the protests in ways that escalated violence, stigmatized protesters, and served a larger anti-peace accord agenda, for instance by attacking the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP).
In light of these events, which have left dozens of people killed or injured, WOLA calls on the Biden administration and U.S. Congress to condemn police excesses, distance the United States from officials’ inflammatory rhetoric, and insist that the Colombian government reform the ESMAD and hold accountable those who violated human rights since the protests began on April 28.
On that day, Colombian civil society initiated national protests against a presidential tax reform proposal erroneously titled the “sustainable solidarity law,” (ley de solidaridad sostenible). Divisions existed among multiple social movements whether to proceed with protests in the midst of a grim wave of the pandemic. Ultimately, the government’s brazen efforts to squash the right to protest emboldened thousands of people to take to the streets throughout the country. The police responded repressively using a disproportionate, and in several instances lethal, use of force, with the justification that it acted to restore order and stop looting. According to data compiled by the Defend the Life Campaign (Campana para defender la vida), so far, public security forces are responsible for 21 homicides, several whom were youth; 208 wounded individuals, including 18 cases of serious ocular injuries; 42 aggressions and abuses committed against human rights defenders and journalists; 10 cases of sexual assaults against women; and 503 mostly arbitrary detentions.
The police’s response was particularly brutal in Cali, Valle del Cauca department, where at least 10 individuals were killed by police on Friday, April 30. The Minister of Defense Diego Molano’s problematic tweets equating the Minga, an Indigenous collective peaceful protest action, with terrorists, and former President Álvaro Uribe’s tweets defending police use of firearms against protestors—later removed by Twitter for violating community guidelines that prohibit glorifying violence—fueled the repression against protestors. On Saturday May 1, President Duque announced he would deploy troops into several cities, a move rejected by the Mayors of Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. Given the tax reform’s retraction, we expect militarization will not take place but the announcement itself was concerning as soldiers are trained for combat, not for distinguishing between peaceful protesters and rioters.
The police response to country-wide protests in November 2019, September 2020, and April-May 2021 force us to reexamine the need to apply stronger human rights protections to U.S. assistance that benefit the Colombian National Police. The ESMAD must not receive U.S. assistance, as it has an egregious record of committing gross violations of human rights with impunity. Any assistance to the ESMAD probably is a violation of the Leahy Law—which prohibits U.S. funding to security forces implicated in human rights violations—and should remain so. WOLA strongly recommends that sales of crowd control materials to Colombia be suspended pending evidence of stricter adherence to proper procedures for de-escalation and use of lethal and non-lethal force.
La violencia policial en Colombia es inadmisible, los legisladores estadounidenses deben tomar medidas
Desde el 28 de abril, miles de personas en toda Colombia han ejercido su derecho a la protesta, provocada por una controvertida reforma tributaria propuesta por el gobierno. Pero estos manifestantes han sido recibidos con una violencia inadmisible por parte de los miembros de la Policía Nacional de Colombia. La Oficina en Washington para Asuntos Latinoamericanos (WOLA) se complace en saber que el presidente Iván Duque ha retirado la propuesta, que habría supuesto una grave carga para la clase media a través de impuestos regresivos sobre las ventas. El retiro de la legislación le da al país la oportunidad de lograr un consenso sobre las formas de abordar la brecha fiscal del país, sin profundizar las desigualdades que fueron exacerbadas por la pandemia. También representa una victoria para los muchos colombianos que ejercieron su derecho a la protesta para garantizar la gobernabilidad democrática en Colombia. Tales protestas a gran escala, multisectoriales y regionales, eran muy poco comunes antes de los históricos Acuerdos de Paz de 2016 en Colombia.
A pesar de esta victoria, WOLA condena el uso desproporcionado de la fuerza utilizado contra los manifestantes por el Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD) y otras unidades policiales, así como las declaraciones hostiles de altos funcionarios y políticos influyentes. Muchas de estas figuras públicas reaccionaron a las protestas agravando la violencia, estigmatizando a los manifestantes y sirviendo a una agenda más amplia contra los Acuerdos de Paz, por ejemplo, atacando a la Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP).
Ante estos hechos, que han dejado decenas de muertos y heridos, WOLA pide al gobierno de Biden y al Congreso de Estados Unidos que condenar los excesos policiales, distanciar a Estados Unidos de la retórica incendiaria de los funcionarios, y exigir al gobierno colombiano reformar el ESMAD y que responsabilizar a quienes han violado los derechos humanos desde el inicio de las protestas el 28 de abril.
Ese día, la sociedad civil colombiana inició protestas nacionales contra una propuesta de reforma tributaria presidencial erróneamente titulada “ley de solidaridad sostenible.” Con divisiones entre múltiples movimientos sociales sobre si las protestas se debían realizar en medio de una grave ola de pandemia, al final, los esfuerzos flagrantes del gobierno por aplastar el derecho a la protesta impulsaron a miles de personas a salir a las calles en todo el país. La policía respondió de forma represiva haciendo un uso desproporcionado, y en varios casos letal, de la fuerza, con la justificación de que actuaba para restablecer el orden y detener los saqueos. Según datos recopilados por la Campaña para Defender la Vida, hasta el momento las fuerzas de seguridad pública son responsables de 21 homicidios, varios de los cuales eran jóvenes; 208 personas heridas, incluidos 18 casos de lesiones oculares graves; 42 agresiones y abusos cometidos contra defensores de los derechos humanos y periodistas; 10 casos de agresiones sexuales contra mujeres; y 503 detenciones, en su mayoría arbitrarias.
La respuesta de la policía fue particularmente brutal en Cali, Valle del Cauca, donde el viernes 30 de abril al menos 10 personas fueron asesinadas por la policía. Los problemáticos tuits del ministro de Defensa, Diego Molano, en los que igualaba a la Minga, una acción de protesta colectiva indígena pacífica, con ser terroristas, y los tuits del expresidente Álvaro Uribe, eliminados posteriormente por Twitter por violar las políticas de la comunidad que prohíben glorificar la violencia, en los que defendía el uso de armas de fuego por parte de la policía contra los manifestantes, alimentaron la represión contra estos. El sábado 1 de mayo, el presidente Duque anunció que desplegaría tropas en varias ciudades, una medida que fue rechazada por los alcaldes de Bogotá, Medellín y Cali. Dada la retracción de la reforma tributaria, esperamos que la militarización no tome lugar, pero el anuncio en sí es preocupante, ya que los soldados están entrenados para combatir, y no para distinguir entre manifestantes pacíficos y agitadores.
La respuesta de la policía a las protestas que tomaron lugar en todo el país en noviembre de 2019, septiembre de 2020, y abril a mayo de 2021, nos obligan a reexaminar la necesidad de mayor rigurosidad en condicionar a la protección de derechos humanos, la asistencia estadounidense que beneficia a la Policía Nacional de Colombia. El ESMAD no debe recibir asistencia de Estados Unidos, ya que tiene un historial atroz de cometer graves violaciones de los derechos humanos con impunidad. Cualquier ayuda al ESMAD probablemente sea y deberá seguir siendo considerada una violación de la Ley Leahy, la cual prohíbe la financiación estadounidense a fuerzas de seguridad implicadas en violaciones de derechos humanos. WOLA recomienda firmemente que se suspenda la venta de materiales antidisturbios a Colombia hasta que se demuestre una adhesión más estricta a los procedimientos adecuados para la desescalada y el uso de la fuerza letal y no letal.
Colombia’s largest port city, Buenaventura, saw a 200 percent increase in homicides in January, compared to the same time period last year. The killings are attributed to deep-rooted problems: state abandonment, systemic racism, and a lack of concerted investments in Afro-Colombian communities.
These conditions have allowed illegal armed groups—who seek to control the Afro-Colombian civilian population—to violently dispute territorial control in efforts to advance illegal economies. These conditions work to serve powerful political and economic interests. While the state heavily militarized Buenaventura, this violence continues to take place due to corruption within the public forces, and among other local actors. Armed groups terrorize communities, many made of displaced persons from surrounding rural areas, by recruiting children, extorting local businesses and informal workers, and threatening or killing those who don’t follow strict curfews or “turf borders” (líneas invisibles). Recently, at least 400 people became internally displaced due to a lack of effective response by the national government to protect them.
Residents in the Buenaventura neighborhoods severely impacted by the armed groups’ horrific violence and restrictions are speaking out. Protests have taken place in the port city and in nearby Cali, with more planned in the coming weeks. The Colombian state has neglected to bring basic services—drinkable water, reliable electricity, adequate housing, health care, and schools—to Buenaventura.This neglect has long driven citizen responses: in 2017, a general strike paralysed all activity in the port for nearly a month, amidst a brutal deployment of the ESMAD (anti-riot police) to forcibly repress the peaceful protests. During that civic strike, all sectors of civil society demanded that the national government care as much about the Afro-Colombian citizens of Buenaventura as it does for the economic benefits that port brings to the country’s commerce. Shortly after the strike, there was movement in implementing the agreements with the Civic Strike Committee (the civil society body representing protestors’ demands), but this slowed after the Iván Duque administration took power.
Local authorities in Colombia must respect the right to peaceful protest, as communities continue to take to the streets to call attention to Buenaventura’s crisis of violence and poverty. Recent history shows that sending in the military to patrol the streets is not a sustainable, long-term solution for Buenaventura. What’s needed is a deeper reckoning with the wealth, housing, security, and many other disparities that affect Afro-Colombian livelihoods.
President Iván Duque’s administration and future administrations need to prioritize investing in Buenaventura’s future in a way that is equitable and just. The government neglect, poor living conditions, and insecurity that affect Buenaventura are a longstanding expression of the structural racism that persists in Colombia.
U.S. policymakers have a role to play as well. The 2012 U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) helped drive massive construction projects to Buenaventura, but this has not benefited the city’s Afro-Colombians who continue living in extreme poverty. The U.S-Colombia Labor Action Plan, put in place to advance the FTA, includes ports as a priority sector whereby both countries agreed to improve labor rights and strengthen trade unions. In Buenaventura, the initial steps to improve port workers’ rights were quickly forgotten once the FTA came into fruition. The U.S. government should advocate for upholding port workers’ labor rights as committed in the FTA labor action plan. Additionally, to better protect Black and Indigenous lives in Colombia, the U.S. government should push Colombia to fully implement its 2016 peace accord, which contains commitments meant to address the country’s ethnic minorities that are entrenched in inequality and inequity.
In Buenaventura, “the people know how they deserve to be treated as a people, they know what their collective dreams are, and they are working towards a collective and dignified life project,” said Danelly Estupiñán, a social leader with the Black Communities Process (PCN) who documents violence in the city and advocates for the rights of Afro-Colombian communities. Across Colombia, social leaders like Danelly are fighting for transformative change in Buenaventura and beyond.
Support their work and protect their lives. Join WOLA’s #ConLíderesHayPaz campaign:
WOLA’s Adam Isacson had a conversation this week about peace and security in Colombia with Juan Sebastián Lombo, a reporter from the Colombian daily El Espectador. That newspaper posted an edited transcript of the interview to its site on the evening of November 26. Here’s a quick English translation.
“Measuring the drug trafficking problem by cultivated hectares is a mistake”: Adam Isacson
For Adam Isacson, head of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), we must also talk about the absence of the state, poverty, inequality, corruption, and impunity.
Last Monday, Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo again referred to drug trafficking as “Colombians’ main enemy” and asked to restart glyphosate spraying to avoid clashes with growers protesting forced eradication. Amid many different responses, from the United States came a questioning of Trujillo’s position, pointing out that the Colombian government should see the real causes of drug trafficking.
The criticism came from Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). For most of Isacson’s career, he has focused on Colombia as a subject of study and has even accompanied several peace processes with different organizations, including that of Havana with the FARC. In an interview with El Espectador, Isacson discusses his criticisms of the Defense Minister’s position, gives WOLA’s perspective on human rights in the country, and even discusses their monitoring of the case of former President Álvaro Uribe.
Why do you say that the main problem in Colombia is not drug trafficking?
They are confusing a symptom with the causes. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Colombia and has been since the 1970s, but it is much more important to think about why this illegal business thrives so much in your country. It is as if someone had cancer, but only focused on the resulting headaches. Why doesn’t the Minister of Defense talk about the vast territories where the state doesn’t reach? That is where coca is easily planted and laboratories are located. Why doesn’t he talk about poverty and inequality? Why doesn’t he talk about corruption and impunity? All this is the oxygen that drug trafficking breathes. To speak only of drug trafficking as the cause of all problems is 1980s rhetoric that’s very discredited. No one makes policy nowadays seriously thinking that ending drug trafficking is going to end the rest of the country’s problems.
Is Colombia wrong to continue with the same strategy then?
If prohibition were dropped and drugs were regulated, Colombia would probably do much better. The country has a certain problem of addiction to drugs like cocaine, but not as much as larger consumer countries. What Colombia suffers is that because it’s an illegal business, the cost of cocaine is high and that feeds organized crime, which corrupts everything. If it were a low cost, regulated product like alcohol, it would not cause so many problems. What we don’t know is if in the rest of the world the damage would be greater if it were legalized. How many more people would become addicted? How many would neglect their children? How many would die from an overdose? All these harms aren’t known. In the United States we are experimenting with legal marijuana, which is a drug with fewer health hazards. There is a fear of experimenting with more addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, among others. That’s why we have to say that one doesn’t know how it would go for the world as a while, but for Colombia specifically there would be a net benefit if cocaine were legalized.
You also talk about the coca growers and the government’s fixation on one of the weakest links.
Measuring the problem in hectares of coca cultivation is a mistake. A more useful figure would be the number of families forced to live off of that crop, that’s the figure that needs to be lowered. The United Nations, in 2017, revealed that there were at least 120,000 families, or half a million Colombians, living off coca, whether they were farmers, raspachines, processors, or others. That figure must be lowered by offering alternatives. The State must also reach the territories to offer services and legal economy alternatives. Eradicating does not reduce much the number of families that depend on coca, because replanting, and migration to plant elsewhere, are enormous. So the hectare number stays high. You have to really think about opportunities for those families. The security and governance situation where these families live is also an important issue.
WOLA has been following the peace process.
As has been documented by foundations, legislators like Juanita Goebertus, and the United Nations, there is a lot of work to be done on implementation. What is most behind schedule is everything having to do with the first chapter: rural reform and the state’s presence in the territory. Of course, Dr. Emilio Archila is doing what he can, with the resources he is given to implement the PDETs, but four years later, too much still just exists on paper, in plans, and in PowerPoint presentations. It has not been possible to implement the accord in many places, much less establish the physical presence of the state. This is a long-term issue, but so far they are far behind where they should be after four years of setting up implementation investment and personnel. The presence of the government in places like Bajo Cauca, Catatumbo, Tumaco, and La Macarena, among others, is not seen. In some places it is limited to the presence of troops, and often not even that. That’s what’s most lacking. In each chapter of the accord there are successes and failures. An important effort has been made in the demobilization and reintegration process, but more needs to be done, although it should be noted that well below 10 percent of ex-combatants have gone to the dissidents. The JEP and the Truth Commission are working, but they need more support and budget.
And with regard to crop substitution…
It’s a mixed picture. It’s something that the Duque government didn’t like. They stopped allowing the entry of new families [into the substitution program]. The current administration complains that the Santos government was making promises that could not be financed, and that is true. But the pace of delivery to families who committed to replacement has been too slow.
Since you were talking about the JEP before, how have you seen its work and the attacks from the governing party?
The JEP has always had the challenge that it is the product of a compromise, which does not satisfy anyone 100 percent. Everyone had to “swallow a toad.” The criticisms of the JEP are also because it was a reason the plebiscite was rejected, it was born weakened. In spite of that I believe that its magistrates have shown great professionalism and have built a fairly robust institution from scratch in only three years. They have not made any major political mistakes. Patricia Linares and Eduardo Cifuentes are upright, serious and professional people. With the last confessions of the Farc (Germán Vargas Lleras, Álvaro Gómez, and Jesús Bejarano) it has been shown that there is hope of revealing unknown truths, and this must continue. The most important challenge is that although most magistrates are great academics, they do not have political heavyweights to defend them. Another important element is that next year the first sentences will be handed down and it has not yet been defined how the ex-guerrillas and military personnel who have been prosecuted will be punished. This will be very important for the credibility of the JEP.
How does the organization view the human rights situation in Colombia?
We are seeing more massacres, more murders of human rights defenders and social leaders compared to the prior 10 years. We knew that the first years after the peace accord were going to be more violent than the last years of negotiation, but one would hope that, after that, institutions would adapt and justice would begin to function so that levels of violence would begin to diminish. But we aren’t seeing this, there is no significant increase in the number of convictions of the masterminds behind massacres and murders of leaders. When this impunity persists, the consequence is that the murderers feel free to continue killing.
The numbers continue to snowball. It is worrying that we see the rights situation worsening. There are elements within Ivan Duque’s government who are concerned, but there is no major action in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the latter with the National Protection Unit. It remains to be seen whether the new Ombudsman will continue with the same energy as his predecessor, I hope so. We have to say out loud what the United Nations and other governments have said diplomatically: Colombia is not improving in human rights and there isn’t enough political will on the part of the government to do so.
Returning to the issue at hand, President Duque has said that drug trafficking is the main cause for the assassination of social leaders. Is there a possible truth here, or is this another simplification of the problem?
Drug trafficking is a source of funding, probably the main source of funding, for organized crime. That, often in collaboration with individuals in “legal” Colombia, is the main cause of the assassination of social leaders in Colombia. So it can be said that drug trafficking finances much of what Colombia is experiencing, but organized crime also lives from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, illegal mining and so many other things that require control of a territory, which the state is not disputing.
I would also add that the organized crime groups behind all these human rights violations are a much more difficult enemy to combat than the FARC. The FARC at least tried to fight the state, but these groups prefer not to do that: they seek to have relations with the State, with local landowners, with local political bosses. They prefer to bribe and coerce the authorities instead of fighting them. This makes them harder for a state to combat, because its own institutions are infiltrated in a way that the Farc never managed to do. That’s why it must be said that to get rid of a few kilos of cocaine, while these organizations live off other businesses and infiltrate institutions, is very simplistic. I don’t know who would be fooled by such facile arguments.
Regarding Joe Biden’s victory in the United States, can this change the Colombian government’s position or actions?
I don’t know, because the Biden government places a high value on the bilateral relationship. It’s going to continue aid as usual and many of the counter-narcotics programs will continue as before. Trade is not going to be touched, it will probably expand. Colombia and the United States, as a country-to-country relationship, will be fine. But the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático aren’t fine. Colombia saw Biden’s advisors and Democratic Party members calling on members of its ruling party to stop campaigning in Florida and to stay away from the U.S. presidential campaign.
Trump won Florida and two south Florida Democrats lost their seats, so there’s no love lost with the Centro Democrático. While the bilateral relationship will remain close, Biden and the Democrats will find ways to be a nuisance to the Centro Democrático. They are sure to talk more about issues that the Duque government would rather not touch, like implementing the peace accord, protecting social leaders, cleaning up the Army after so many scandals. They might even speak out about the Uribistas’ attempts to weaken the judicial system in the case of their leader.
Speaking of the Uribe case, WOLA announced it would do special monitoring of this judicial process. Why does a judicial action against a former president for alleged manipulation of witnesses have such importance and international relevance?
For Colombia it’s an important case because it is a great test for the independence of the judiciary and the principle that no one is above the law. This process would also answer many questions about the past of Álvaro Uribe and his associations. It is an opportunity to learn the truth about the rumors of his possible relationship, and those of his closest associates, with paramilitarism. All of these things must come out through a legal process. It is a great test for Colombian democracy. We are experiencing something similar here with our outgoing president. We are going to see if the legal and ethical violations he has committed can be prosecuted by our justice system.
In four months of monitoring, what have you observed?
Nothing new has emerged for us. When we say that we are doing monitoring, it does not mean that we have investigators on the ground. Although there is something of concern: that Uribe’s family has hired a lobbyist here. We have seen that a former Florida congressman has published some things attacking Ivan Cepeda. They have sought to educate other Republicans in favor of Uribe. What is worrying about this is that they are looking to create solidarity between politicians with a populist and authoritarian tendency. A “Populist International” is being formed, and we see this in this effort to name a street after Alvaro Uribe or to issue tweets celebrating his release from house arrest. It is a sign that they don’t care about justice but about authoritarianism. The Bolsonaristas in Brazil are part of this too.
On September 21, WOLA and 43 other international civil society organizations published a statement condemning widespread instances of police brutality during the recent demonstrations in Bogotá. The demonstrations were prompted by the September 9 police killing of Javier Ordóñez, which State forces responded to with disproportionate use of force against civilians exercising their rights.
According to the statement, 13 deaths were recorded, more than 400 people were injured (72 instances from firearms), and three women were sexually assaulted.
The several recommendations for the international community proposed by the organizations include: rejecting violence during peaceful demonstrations, providing sufficient guarantees for political participation, accompanying the peace process and the implementation of the 2016 accord, monitoring cases of police abuse, and supporting processes that contribute to an active and informed civic culture.
We remain extremely concerned about the violence taking place in Colombia namely massacres, killings and attacks against social leaders, and the abuses committed by the police in recent social protests. We encourage you to view the video of our recent Spanish-language event Social Leaders’ Perspectives on Colombia’s Recent Massacres (Perspectivas de líderes sociales sobre las recientes masacres en Colombia) to hear the perspectives and recommendations of social leaders from some of the regions most impacted by the violence. Also, we urge that you publicly condemn these violations and urge the Colombian authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Below are incidents reported to WOLA since July:
Three Massacres in a Day (Bolívar and Antioquia) On September 7, 12 Colombians were victims of three separate massacres that occurred in the span of 24 hours. The assassinations occurred in the municipalities El Carmen de Bolívar and Simití in the Bolívar Department and Zaragoza in the Antioquia Department. The Ombudsman’s Office had alerted authorities to the increased presence of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) in Bolívar and Antioquia and the risks their presence poses for civilians in these areas.
Three Men Killed (Cauca) On September 5, El Espectador reported that three corpses were found tied up and abandoned in public view in Seguengue. Officials are in process of identifying the identities of the victims. This massacre occurred less than 24 hours after another massacre in Santa Fe (Nariño).
Another Massacre in Southwestern Colombia (Nariño)According to El Espectador, on September 4, four victims who died from gunshot wounds were found in the Santa Fé hamlet of the Buesaco municipality. El Tiempo identified the victims as 29-year-old Luis Alberto García Caicedo, 24-year-old Carlos Alfredo Rosero, 36-year-old José Omar Castillo Ojeda, and 25-year-old Johan Wayner Ángulo. Over six massacres were recorded in Nariño in the past month. While media reports classify the incident as a massacre, the government deployed an elite unit to search and identify the perpetrators of what it classifies as “collective homicides”. Preliminary investigations have not identified the perpetrators, but investigators believe that the deaths are a result of armed disputes about drug trafficking among illegal armed groups. State officials revealed that García Caicedo was a former ELN combatant who was under house arrest for charges related to arms trafficking. Rosero had charges against him for drugs and arms trafficking. State officials were also investigating Castillo Ojeda for intrafamily violence and Ángulo Martínez for fraud.
Three Adolescents Murdered in Another Massacre (Antioquia) On August 23, two masked perpetrators on motorcycles shot at five people in Venecia, a town located southwest of Medellín. The attack killed three adolescents: a 19-year-old, an 18-year-old, and a 15-year-old. Blu Radio reported on August 24 that an investigation is underway, and authorities believe narcotrafficking gangs are responsible for the massacre.
Civil Society Denounces Massacres and Pleads with Government for Multilateral Ceasefire On August 22, over 91 civil society groups and community action boards from southwestern Colombia published a statement addressed to President Iván Duque denouncing a recent spate of massacres. Since March 16, the signatories have requested on several occasions that the government call for a multilateral ceasefire and implement a humanitarian agreement. The signatories argue that calling for a multilateral ceasefire will help stop the ongoing massacres across the country.
Massacre Leaves Six People Dead (Cauca) On August 21, a FARC dissident group known as the ‘Second Marquetalia’ allegedly killed six people in the municipality of El Tambo. El Tiempo reported that local officials found the bodies of the six individuals in a remote area known for disputes among armed groups for control of drug trafficking routes. According to community accounts, the six victims planned to attend a municipal meeting.
Rural Massacre (Arauca) On August 19, unidentified gunmen assassinated five persons, who locals believe were Venezuelan, in a rural part of Arauca. Meridiano 70reports that the incident could be linked to a robbery that was reported a few days prior.
Three Indigenous Adolescents Massacred (Nariño) The Awá Major Council of Ricaurte (Organización Cabildo Mayor Awa de Ricaurte, CAMAWARI) mourned the August 17 assassinations of three Awá adolescents that took place in the Pialambí Pueblo Viejo Indigenous reserve. CAMAWARI reported that despite pleas they have made to the government asking for protection since April 2020, systemic murders continue to take place. The Indigenous urge the government to implement the orders of the Constitutional Court and the precautionary measures issued to protect their communities by the OAS. Effective investigations by the regional government and the offices of the Human Rights Ombudsman, Public Prosecutor, and Attorney General are required. CAMAWARI urges the National Protection Unit to provide protective measures to the communities under threat.
Five Afro-Colombian Teens Brutally Massacred (Valle del Cauca) The National Association for Displaced Afro-Colombians (Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados, AFRODES) published a statement decrying the brutal massacre of five Afro-Colombian teens in Llano Verde on August 11. Llano Verde is a neighborhood located in eastern Cali where thousands of families, who were displaced due to the internal armed conflict, reside. The victims of the massacre included Luis Fernando Montaño, Josmar Jean Paul Cruz Perlaza, Álvaro Jose Caicedo Silva, Jair Andrés Cortes Castro, and Leider Cárdenas Hurtado. All of them were between the ages of 14 and 18. Evidence of torture was found on their bodies. They were also shot with firearms and one victim had his throat slit. AFRODES calls on the authorities to not only conduct a thorough investigation leading to the prosecution of those responsible for these crimes but to also investigate the racial dimensions of this massacre.
On August 13, WOLA echoed AFRODES’ requests and urged the Colombian government to make justice, peace, and rights-respecting investment for ethnic communities a national priority. WOLA has reported on the insecurity and abuses taking place in Llano Verde and lack of effective efforts on the part of the authorities to properly protect and assist displaced communities for the past 10 years. WOLA also urges U.S. and Colombian authorities to bring the intellectual perpetrators of this crime to justice and provide effective protection for the family members of the murdered youth and the AFRODES leaders and members living in this community.
On August 26, AFRODES rejected the systematic violence enacted upon Afro-Colombian communities, including the assassination of social leaders in Valle del Cauca. According to AFRODES, Cultural House Association of Chontaduro (Asociación Casa Cultural El Chontaduro), Other Black Women and… Feminists! (otras negras y… ¡feministas!), Diverse Women (Mujeres diversas), Anti Racist Resistance (Resistencia antirracista), and “Cimarroneando” the Verb (Cimarroneando El Verbo) over 200 youths have been murdered in Llano Verde in the past seven years.
It was stunning to see, over the past weekend, top Colombian officials startpushing the narrative that “the ELN and FARC dissidents” were behind last week’s confrontations between police and thousands of citizens all over Bogotá. This seems bizarre and removed from reality, but they continue to promote it.
A September 8 mobile phone video showed Bogotá police administering repeated electric shocks to Javier Ordóñez, a lawyer in his 40s, as he begged them to stop. Ordónez died of blows to his skull later, in police custody. The images triggered citywide protests on September 9 and 10. Some of them were violent: the police reported nearly 200 agents wounded, and 54 CAIs—small posts set up as a “community policing” model around the city—were defaced, vandalized, or destroyed.
These numbers would have been lower had the police employed their profession’s “lessons learned” about crowd control, practicing de-escalating techniques. Instead, they did the opposite: they escalated aggressively.
Police in Bogotá and the poor neighboring municipality of Soacha killed 13 people on the nights of the 9th and 10th, and wounded 66, some of them with firearms. Widely shared videos showed cops beating and kicking people who were already on the ground, shooting rubber bullets into subdued people at pointblank range, and discharging their firearms indiscriminately. Bogotá Mayor Claudia López, whose direct orders to the police wereignored, gave President Iván Duque a 90-minute video compiling citizen-recorded examples of this brutality.
You’d think that the people running Colombia right now would want to treat what happened last week very seriously. They’re governing one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and it’s on the edge right now. In Bogotá, a city of 8 million, people in the middle, working, and “informal sector” classes were already angry at stagnating living standards and an out-of-touch government. Last November, they participated in the most massive protests that the city had seen in more than 40 years (which the police also, at first, escalated violently).
Their situation has grown desperate after a six-month pandemic lockdown that pushed millions out of work (or out of informal-sector subsistence), and back into poverty. People are hurting. Anxiety, stress, and mental health issues are off the charts. The police, too, are frayed after enforcing semi-quarantine for so many months.
With all that going on, if a foreign analyst were to claim that last week’s protests were the artificial result of “guerrillas” or coordinated agitators, the proper response would be “you don’t understand this country, and its complexities, at all.” It defies all belief that the ELN and FARC dissidents could have orchestrated an uprising in Bogotá on the scale of what we saw on September 9 and 10. But that is the narrative that officials like Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Peace Commissioner Miguel Ceballos are pushing.
As Ariel Ávila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said, if that were true, it would’ve been the guerrillas’ largest coordinated operation in Bogotá in the armed conflict’s history. Today, the ELN has 2,400 members and a support network of another 4,000 or 5,000. Over 20 “dissident” groups led by former FARC members, which often fight each other and the ELN, have a cumulative membership of 2,600 plus about 2,000 in support networks. These 11,000-12,000 people are scattered across several vast rural regions in Colombia and Venezuela. Their urban presence is minimal: most have probably never seen one of Colombia’s major cities.
They do have toeholds in Bogotá, and some of their members may have participated in, and egged on, crowds in some of the Bogotá protest actions. But this disunited collection of bands, most of them focused on narcotrafficking and illegal rent-seeking, are obviously not the masterminds of what happened in Bogotá.
There were no masterminds. There is, instead, a population pushed to the edge by economic uncertainty and a perception that the government doesn’t care. For most, emergency assistance has totaled only about US$40 to US$70 since COVID-19 measures began. More often, their interaction with government has been with the police enforcing lockdowns, at times harshly. The likelihood of a social explosion has been one triggering event away. There’s no need for guerrillas to manage it.
Taking this reality seriously, though, is hard, especially for people in the thick-walled bubble of Colombia’s clase dirigente. The sectores populares—the poor and lower-middle class, and the middle class who have fallen into poverty during the pandemic—are so distant as to be abstract. When you’ve placed your faith in the free market, in a technocratic oligarchy, and—if that fails—in the security forces, then it’s hard to stare in the face of a reality like “an immense number of people are hungry, scared, frustrated, and angry at you.”
These people need empathy right now. But Colombia’s political system isn’t set up for empathy, especially not under its current management. Instead, police fired indiscriminately into fleeing crowds as though they’d never had a day of training in their lives. That response calls into question the viability of institutions. It calls into question the assumptions underlying longstanding economic and security policies.
Instead of empathy, leaders are reaching for the tried-and-true “it was the guerrillas” narrative. It’s a common reflex. Here in the United States, factotums at the White House and Homeland Security don’t lose an opportunity to blame anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests on fictional or marginal “anarchist” or “Antifa” groups. Though most people don’t believe that, it’s rich fodder for a large minority whose views come from what they read and share on FOX News, Facebook, and WhatsApp.
In Colombia it’s the same thing, but mixed in with a perverse nostalgia for the armed conflict and its simplicity. For decades, guerrillas gave Colombia’s political elite a perfect go-to excuse whenever elements of civil society came forward with strong grievances. Just label them as terrorists, (or “spokespeople for terrorists” in Álvaro Uribe’s famous phrase): people aligned with the FARC, which until 2016 was Colombia’s largest guerrilla group by far. It usually worked: social movements had the oxygen (in the form of media attention and legitimacy in mainstream public opinion) sucked out of them.
When the FARC disappeared along with the peace accord, though, so did that convenient scapegoat. Today, when politicians want to de-legitimize a political adversary, the collection of bands now active in the countryside just isn’t as compelling. But apparently, that’s not going to stop them from trying.
Bogotanos say they’ve never seen this face of the government before. “Police shooting in the streets of Bogotá at fleeing people, like rabbits from a hunter,” writes veteran columnist and author Cecilia Orozco in El Espectador. “Even those of us who are older don’t remember having seen, in urban scenarios, such openly defiant conduct from state agents who aren’t hiding their identities.”
Colombians of a different social class, of course, see that on a regular basis. Indigenous people in Cauca say it’s common. So do displaced Afro-descendant communities in marginal neighborhoods like Aguablanca, Cali. Communities opposing forced illicit crop eradication are constantly documenting cases of aggression and inappropriate force.
This kind of authoritarianism and arbitrariness, of escalation and lack of empathy, has long marked poor and marginalized parts of Colombia. What’s new, perhaps, is its abrupt arrival in Bogotá’s middle and working class neighborhoods. And it’s happening just as the pandemic knocks millions out of the middle class (back) into poverty.
Think about that. Already, manyColombiananalysts are soundingalarmsaboutmountingauthoritarianism. They see a weakening of checks and balances: a narrow congressional majority for the ruling party built with political favors, close presidential allies now in charge of the prosecutor’s office and other oversight bodies, and an ongoing assault on the independent judiciary that intensified after ex-President Uribe was put under house arrest in early August.
A backlash is underway from the people running Colombia, the people who are so slow to show empathy, but so quick to deny reality with fairy tales about guerrillas orchestrating mass protests. Last week gave us a vicious preview of what that backlash might look like once it consolidates.
New national protests are called for Monday. Even though neither the ELN nor guerrilla dissidents are in evidence, don’t expect a democratic or reasoned response on the streets of Bogotá.
A Google search for appearances of “Colombia” during the first six months of 2020 at house.gov, the domain of the U.S. House of Representatives, yields no more than 20 meaningful results. Most of those were brief mentions of the country’s record coca cultivation levels, or the impact of Venezuela’s crisis.
While the Senate is controlled by the Republican Party, the Democrats won the majority of the House in the 2018 elections. Since then, the House has spoken little about Colombia. But surprisingly, over the last few weeks, it has made statements about Colombia’s peace process, its social leaders, and its military espionage scandals.
On July 6, 94 Democratic legislators signed a letter expressing their concern about these issues.
Days later, the 2021 foreign aid budget bill passed the full House. This bill, and its accompanying narrative report, do much to move U.S. assistance to Colombia in a more pro-peace, pro-human rights direction.
It appropriates $458 million in new assistance for Colombia in 2021, of which less than $200 million would go to the country’s police and military forces. By contrast, the Trump White House had requested, in February, $413 million, of which more than $250 million would go to the armed forces and police.
It lists specific purposes for which U.S. aid should be used, placing implementation of the peace accord at the center, along with a greater presence of civilian state institutions in ungoverned zones. It calls for greater attention to victims, small farmers, women, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples, as well as coca substitution “as agreed to in the peace accord.”
It conditions fumigation, freezing 20 percent of the State Department’s $189 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement funds until the Department certifies that Colombia’s coca reduction strategy “is not in violation of the 2016 peace accord.”
As in past years, it adds human rights conditions holding up 20 percent of $38.525 million in one of the main military aid programs, Foreign Military Financing (FMF), until the Department certifies that Colombia’s justice system is holding gross human rights violators accountable; that the Colombian government is taking effective steps to protect social leaders and ethnic communities; and—in a new measure—that the Colombian government “has investigated and is taking steps to hold accountable” officials involved in illegal surveillance of civilians, “including the use of assets provided by the United States for combating counterterrorism and counternarcotics for such purposes.”
Two Amendments About Colombia
In addition, on July 21, the House passed its version of the 2021 Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual bill making adjustments to the law underlying the Pentagon and the U.S. military, including budget guidelines. This is perhaps the only major bill likely to pass through both chambers and become law before the November election. The NDAA includes two amendments on Colombia.
The first, proposed by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), requires the Secretary of State, working with the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, to submit a report assessing allegations, revealed by Revista Semana in January and May, that U.S. aid to Colombia has been misused for “unlawful surveillance or intelligence gathering directed at the civilian population, including human rights defenders, judicial personnel, journalists, and the political opposition.” That report must detail:
Any use of U.S.-provided assistance for such activities;
Colombian security forces’ involvement in illegal intelligence gathering between 2002 and 2018;
An assessment of the full extent of such activities, including identification of units involved, relevant chains of command, and the nature and objectives of such surveillance or intelligence gathering”;
Steps that U.S. diplomatic, defense, or intelligence agencies took to respond to misuse of assistance;
Steps that the Colombian government took in response to misuse of U.S. assistance; and
The adequacy of Colombian military and security doctrine and training for ensuring that intelligence operations are in accordance with human rights standards.
The second amendment, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), places limits on U.S. support for aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas. Though it will probably not block any U.S. aid for aerial glyphosate spraying, it is noteworthy that a high-profile Congresswoman expresses concern about the issue. A spokesperson toldBusiness Insider that aerial fumigation was a destructive tactic of the US’s failed drug war. It negatively impacted the yield of many farmers and the public health of many Colombians.
The amendments prospered in significant part because of Rep. McGovern’s chairmanship of the Rules Committee, a powerful committee that meets each evening to approve (rule “in order”) amendments to be debated during the next day’s proceedings. Rep. McGovern is the member of the House who has most closely followed Colombia from a pro-peace and pro-human rights perspective. He toldBusiness Insider on July 27, “If it was up to me, I would end security assistance to Colombia right now. Those who are responsible for illegal acts ought to be held accountable … Clearly that doesn’t happen in Colombia.”
In the days following the amendments’ passage, McGovern appeared in numerous Colombian media outlets, includingEl Tiempo, El Espectador, andSemana. His message was quite critical of the current direction of U.S. policy, and voiced strong dismay at the Colombian military’s human rights abuses and the excesses of forced coca eradication undertaken by the Duque administration.
Two Incompatible Stances
It is clear that the Trump administration and the House have completely different priorities in Colombia today. The White House brings up record numbers of hectares of coca, and upholds Colombia as a partner and an ally in diplomatic efforts against Venezuela. In contrast, the House condemns slow implementation of the peace accord and the human rights abuses covered up by the Colombian government.
While Democrats are increasingly reluctant to accept these realities, very few Republicans today openly defend a militarized approach in Colombia. In the 1990s, a group of Republicans in Congress pressured the Clinton administration to increase military aid and fumigation in Colombia. In contrast, no Republican in Congress today advocates something similar with such force.
As a human rights advocate, I’ll give some credit to my own community: we are a solid group of experts and activists who have been working together since the 1990s to give higher priority to peace and human rights in U.S. policy toward Colombia. We have deep detailed knowledge, and a lot of institutional memory. Strategically minded donors have helped maintain this installed capacity, and when opportunity strikes, we can seize it.
What will happen in the next elections?
The next steps are in the Senate, where the 2021 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill has yet to be drafted. There, the Appropriations Committee will probably reveal its bill after the August legislative recess. It will not become law before the November election. The NDAA, meanwhile, may pass after conciliation between the House version and the Senate version, which does not include the McGovern or Ocasio-Cortez amendments.
The Colombian government appears to have been blindsided by the House Democrats’ July barrage. We’ve seen an angry note from Ambassador Francisco Santos to some of the signers of the 94-person letter, repeating the Duque administration’s talking points—which leave out key information—defending its protection of social leaders and rejecting concerns about peace accord implementation.
That letter’s brusque tone indicates that the Duque government has decided to continue refraining from engaging the increasingly progressive Democrats. With public opinion running strongly in the Democrats’ favor 13 weeks before major elections, adhering mainly to the Republican Party seems like a strategic error.
Below you will find our latest list of human rights developments in Colombia requiring attention. We also invite you to read Protect Colombia’s Peace , a report written by the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and 22 other international and local civil society organizations. Published on July 23, it outlines the current challenges of Colombia’s peace process, including: the obstacles to fully reintegrating ex-combatants, despite advances; the very partial implementation of the ethnic chapter and gender provisions; the increasingly dire situation of human rights defenders; the halting implementation of rural reforms; the return to drug policy solutions that are not sustainable and undermine the accords; and the impact of the Venezuelan refugee crisis on Colombia. Further, it outlines how the U.S. and international community can catalyze support for a sustainable peace by boldly encouraging compliance with the 2016 peace accords.
Key recommendations in the report advocate for U.S. aid and stronger diplomacy to call on the Colombian government to implement the peace accord’s ethnic chapter and gender provisions, ensure justice for the victims of the armed conflict, protect human rights defenders, advance sustainable drug policy and rural reforms to reach Colombia’s small farmers and Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, end abuses by the Colombian armed forces, and dismantle the paramilitary successor networks.
Unionist and Two Children of Leaders Killed (Bolívar) Three deaths were reported in El Carmen de Bolívar municipality on June 30. Union leader Ovidio Baena and two children of land claimants were killed in their homes over the weekend. Earlier this year, Colombia’s Ombudsman Office issued an official warning regarding the heightened risk paramilitaries in the region pose to these specific groups. The most prominent paramilitary is the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces ( Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC ). The AGC is targeting social leaders by sending threatening messages with a time and place to meet.
Social Leader Murdered (Chocó) On July 4, the social leader and educator Rubilio Papelito was murdered in the Bajo Baudó municipality. According to initial reports from community members, armed men entered Rubilio’s home and shot him. Indigenous leaders are calling on authorities to investigate the murder. Rubilio taught at the Santa María Birrinchao Educational Center.
Two Social Leaders Killed (Cauca) Paola del Carmen Mena Ortiz and Armando Suárez Rodríguez, members of the Afro Reborn Community Council ( Consejo Comunitario Afro Renacer ) in the El Tambo municipality, were killed on July 6. Council representative Tito Riascos reported the role of the Carlos Patiño front, dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia ( Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC ). With these deaths, perpetrators have killed 67 social leaders in Cauca since January 2020 according to Indepaz reports .
Indigenous Leader Killed (Nariño) Rodrigo Salazar, alternate governor of the Piguambi Palangala reservation, was killed on July 9 in the Tumaco municipality. He was an adviser to the indigenous guard and granted protective measures by Colombia’s National Protection Unit.
Rural Farmer Killed (Cauca) María Victoria Valencia, a rural farmer from La Pedregosa, was murdered on July 14. Two individuals wearing masks and civilian clothes shot her five times. Community members placed her on a makeshift stretcher immediately after the perpetrators left the scene. Before she could be carried to a nearby medical center, the armed pair returned and shot her three more times.
Armed Groups Kill Indigenous Girl (Chocó) On July 17, women in the Indigenous Bureau of Chocó ( Mesa Indígena del Chocó ) denounced the murder of 9-year-old Luz Elena Cáizamo Rojas from the Geandó community. She died on July 16 after getting caught in the crossfire of armed groups. According to reports from community members, the armed conflict between the National Liberation Army ( Ejército Nacional de Liberación, ELN ) and Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces ( Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC ) is escalating in the Chocó department. The Indigenous Bureau of Chocó urges the national government to fully implement the Peace Agreement and Ethnic Chapter. They also demand armed groups to respect international humanitarian law.
Humanitarian Crisis in the Catatumbo Region (North Santander) On July 11, the Commission for the Life, Reconciliation, and Peace of Catatumbo ( Comisión por la Vida, la Reconciliación y la Paz del Catatumbo ) released a statement on the region’s alarming human rights crisis. The civilian population continues to face stigmatization resulting in violence. Forced eradication operations exacerbate the community’s social and economic problems. Additionally, the Venezuelan crisis generates confinement for communities at the border. The Commission for the Life, Reconciliation, and Peace of Catatumbo denounced the murders of Carmen Ángel Angarita, president of El Hoyo village Community Action Board ( Junta de Acción Comunal, JAC ), and Salvador Jaime Durán, member of the Filo Guamo JAC. The group also reported the abduction of Juan Jesús Peinando Mora, president of the San Isidro JAC. In response to these human rights violations, they urge:
President Iván Duque to immediately cease forced eradication operations and meet with social organizations and communities to discuss the situation.
The National Government to comply with the ruling of the Administrative Court of Cundinamarca that suspends activities of U.S. troops.
For Juan Jesús Peinando Mora to be safely released and returned to his family.
The Office of the Attorney General to investigate the death of Salvador Jaime Duran, which is believed to be an extrajudicial killing.
Paramilitaries Kill Eight People (North Santander) On July 18, paramilitaries killed eight people in the Tibú municipality. Among the victims were members of the Farmer Association of Catatumbo (Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT ) and the National Coordinator of Coca, Poppy, and Marihuana Growers ( Coordinadora Nacional de Cultivadores de Coca, Amapola, y Marihuana, COCCAM ). ASCAMCAT attributed the deaths to the “Los Rastrojos” group. They urge Colombia’s Ombudsman Office to investigate the situation.
Death Toll Rises of Patriotic March Members (Antioquia) Edier Lopera’s corpse was recovered on June 24 after being murdered by paramilitaries the prior week. Edier was a member of the Farmer Association of Bajo Cauca (Asociación Campesina del Bajo Cauca, ASOCBAC ). Following his death, the Patriotic March ( Marcha Patriotica ) political party denounced the increasing violence against social leaders and human rights defenders. 238 Patriotic March members have been killed since the group’s constitution in 2011. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures for the party’s members in May of 2018. Since those measures, 68 members have been killed— 20 of those deaths took place this year. Patriotic March members also reported attacks, disappearances, intimidation, and theft of sensitive information by paramilitary groups.
Social Leader Killed (Cauca) Rural farmer and social leader José Gustavo Arcila Rivera was murdered on July 26. According to witnesses, an armed man entered his farm and shot him. José Gustavo was part of Corinto municipality’s Farmer Association. He also worked for the territory’s rural guard.
Armed Group Kills Three Rural Farmers (Córdoba) On July 27, the Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia of the Organization of American States (MAPP/OAS) reported the murder of 3 farmers and forced displacement of 60 families after a raid in San José de Uré. According to community members, several hooded men entered homes and stole valuable items. Orlando Benítez, governor of Córdoba, stated the ‘Los Caparros’ paramilitary group is responsible.
Possible Extrajudicial Killing (North Santander) On June 27, the Farmer Association of Catatumbo ( Asociación de Campesinos de Catatumbo, ASCAMCAT ) denounced the murder of Salvador Jaime Durán in Teorama municipalty’s Caño Totumo community. ASCAMCAT reports 6 members of the National Army are responsible for the murder. Salvador Jaime was a member of Filo Guamo Community Action Board ( Junta de Acción Comunal, JAC ). Public Ministry representatives are expected in the area to further investigate the situation.
Armed Group Targets Social Leader (Putumayo) Plans to assassinate social leader Jani Silva were uncovered on July 2. According to the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace ( Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP ), the armed group “La Mafia” is targeting Jani because of her work promoting the voluntary crops substitution program in the region. Earlier this year, Jani was also a target of the military intelligence espionage.
Ombudsman’s Office Issues Warning Over Armed Groups (Meta) June 19, the Ombudsman’s Office warned that FARC dissident factions seek to reinstate military power in the municipalities of Mesetas and La Uribe. Their control is established through targeted killings, anti-personnel mines, displacements, threats, and coercion of local leadership. These armed groups have managed to infiltrate several Community Action Boards ( Junta de Acción Comunal, JAC ).
Military Operation in Afro Colombian Community (Valle del Cauca) On June 23, around 90 members of the National Army and Technical Investigation Corps (CTI) arrived at the Guadualito village, ancestral territory of the Naya River Black Community Council. The organization Communities Building Peace in Colombia ( Comunidades Construyendo Paz en Colombia, CONPAZ ) and Caminos de Dignidad Association ( Asociación Étnica Caminos de Dignidad, ASOECAD ) report that the uniformed men assaulted community members and raided homes without judicial orders. The military claimed the commander of the Jaime Martinez Column, a FARC splinter group, was in the area. CONPAZ and ASOECAD denounced the military operation, stating that it goes against Law 70 of 1993 which granted Afro Colombians territorial rights to ancestral lands. Other regional protections include the precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
MOVICE Human Rights Defender Receives Death Threat (Sucre) On June 24, the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes ( Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado, MOVICE ) denounced the death threat against Sucre Chapter member Adil José Meléndez Márquez. Adil José is a human rights defender from San Onofre focused on land restitution and environmental protection. MOVICE believes he was targeted for speaking out against corruption in the department’s handling of the pandemic.
Afro-Colombian Social Leader Attacked (Cauca) On July 28, unidentified suspects threw a grenade outside the home of Yaneth Rivera Mosquera.
According to human rights defender and friend Luis Ernesto Olave, she is asking to be moved from the area for her safety. The social leader started receiving death threats the previous year after opposing the construction of the Popayan-Santander de Quilichao highway project. She is currently working to stop the recruitment of minors by armed groups.
Buenaventura City Hall Bombed by Hitmen (Valle del Cauca) On the evening of August 1, two hitmen threw an explosive device at the Buenaventura City Hall that targeted Mayor Victor Vidal. According to the Civic Strike Committee of Buenaventura, while no injuries were reported, the attack is an attempt to destabilize Mayor Vidal’s administration and occurred days after pleas for security measures from consistent threats. Vidal helped lead civic strikes in 2017, in which Buenaventura’s Afro-Colombian community demanded that the government provide basic healthcare, drinking water, and education. The Committee seeks adequate security measures and justice and accountability for the intellectual and material authors of the attack.
Afro-Colombian Leader Receives Death Threats (Bolívar) Henry Guizamano Vivas, delegate to the National Space for Prior Consultation of Black Communities ( Espacio Nacional de Comunidades Negras ), continues to receive death threats due to his work protecting the Swamp of the Virgin ( Ciénaga de la Virgen ) in Cartagena. He received a WhatsApp message threatening his life for giving a statement to El Tiempo newspaper on July 1.
Indigenous Leader Targeted (Meta) On July 12, a group of ten people entered the Naexal Lajt Reservation looking for Governor Hermes García. That previous week, four armed individuals detained a young man from the reservation and questioned him about the Governor’s place of residence. After contacting the Mapiripán police, Captain Castillo assured the leader a police motorcycle would patrol the reservation to guarantee his safety, beginning July 14.
Attack Against Indigenous Leader (Valle del Cauca) Colombia’s National Indigenous Organization ( Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, ONIC ) reported on July 22 that unidentified suspects set off an explosive outside the Kwe’sx Kiwe Nasa reservation home in the Jamundí municipality. Indigenous Governor Cristian Camilo Toconas, who was inside the building at the time of the attack, is unharmed. In the last two years, the Popular National Army (EPL), Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, and the Black Eagles ( Águilas Negras ) paramilitary group sent death threats to the leader. Before this latest attack, the Indigenous Organization of Valle del Cauca (Organización Regional Indígena del Valle del Cauca, ORIVAC ) received a letter threatening Governor Christian Camilo Toconas at its headquarters on June 17. The governor believes he is being targeted for speaking about the issue of illicit crops in the territories.
Peace Community Threatened by Paramilitaries (Antioquia) On July 22, the San José de Apartado Peace Community reported a series of incidents demonstrating paramilitary violence. These groups threatened social leaders in the region, implemented hunting fines of one million pesos, and violated quarantine protocol. The community also reports the murders of Mario Carmine Paciolla and Ernesto Aguilar Barrera. The same paramilitaries that killed Ernesto on July 18 entered the village of Totumito-Carboneras two hours later. They killed 6 farmers and displaced over 400 community members.
Threats Against Land Claimants (Antioquia) On July 23, the Forging Futures Foundation ( Fundación Forjando Futuros ) reported on the threats against rural farmers in the Turbo municipality. Flor del Monte property administrators are demanding 50% of the farmers’ lands. In the past two weeks, the administrators, accompanied by armed men, have threatened farmers in El Cedro and Tumaradocito communities to leave the property. The case is being reviewed by the First Civil Court of the Specialized Circuit for Land Restitution.
Colombia’s VP Rescinds Criminal Defamation Suit Against Insight Crime On July 24, Colombia’s Office of the Attorney General informed Insight Crime journalist Jeremy McDermott of a criminal defamation lawsuit filed against him by Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez. The lawsuit cites his article published on May 29, 2020 that allegedly links the Vice President’s husband Álvaro Rincón with a suspected drug trafficker. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Jeremy McDermott states his reporting never implicated the Vice President in any illegal activity and that he interviewed her for his investigation. If convicted, the journalist could face 16 to 54 months in prison, as well as a fine up to $375,000. Colombia’s Vice President later rescinded the suit after its announcement received push back from the international community and freedom of press organizations. While it is positive that the lawsuit was stopped, it is still unacceptable that journalists are intimidated in this fashion.
National Police Harass “March for Dignity” Protestors (Santander) A coalition of Colombian social organizations formed “March for Dignity” ( Marcha por la Dignidad de los Pueblos) to raise awareness on state abandonment in the territories, the murders of social leaders, and the precarious healthcare system. Protestors from the city of Barrancabermeja started the march to Bogotá on July 13. That same day, the National Police stopped the bus with protestors on four separate occasions. In each of those stops, police requested identification and took pictures of the protestors. March for Dignity denounced the actions of the National Police in a letter addressed to the Ombudsman’s Office, Office of the Inspector General of Colombia, and Presidential Adviser on Human Rights. The movement asks state institutions to respect the people’s right to protest.
Communities Request Removal of Military Units (Putumayo) On July 1, more than 100 delegates from the Farmer Reserve Zone of the Amazonic Pearl ( Zona de Reserva Campesina de la Perla Amazónica, ZRCPA ) requested the removal of military units belonging to the 25th Jungle Brigade ( Brigada XXVII de Selva ). The military carried out forced eradication operations in the area despite the voluntary substitution pacts signed by over 400 ZRCPA families. The Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace ( Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP ) reports that community members plan to remain in the area to disrupt forced eradication efforts.
Forced Eradication Disrupts Conservation Area (Putumayo) On the weekend of July 18, the National Police eradicated two hectares of coca crops belonging to families of the Kwe`sx Nasa Cxyuce community. The police camped out in a protected zone until July 21. They left a large amount of solid waste and cut down various trees in the area. In addition to ignoring the territorial autonomy of the Nasa People, community members state these actions violate Point 4 of the Peace Agreement.
Indigenous Boy Dies in Forced Eradication Operation (Putumayo) On July 20, 15-year-old José Oliver Maya Goyes was killed during a forced eradication operation led by the Public Force. The Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace ( Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP ) reports that he died after being shot in the chest. José belonged to the Awá community in the Villagarzón municipality. This is the second death in the month of July resulting from forced eradication operations.
Rural Communities Pen Open Letters to Armed Groups On June 27, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace ( Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP ) published a series of letters from over 70 communities and social organizations across Colombia. The six letters are addressed to the armed group La Mafia , the Second Marquetalia , AGC combatants , ELN combatants , FARC dissidents , and President Iván Duque . In the letters, communities express their desire to stop the violence and reconstruct a new future. They ask the armed groups to adopt necessary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which include refraining from entering their villages. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, they also encourage the groups to reconsider a Global Humanitarian Agreement. The letter recipients are invited to participate in dialogue on humanitarian issues.
Young Girl Dies After Trouble Accessing Healthcare (Chocó) On July 13, nine-year-old Escarlen Ávila died from a disease known as tabardillo . Escarlen and her six-year-old brother began experiencing a high fever, headaches, and abdominal pain on Saturday, July 11. Given the severity of their symptoms, they were transferred to the Nueva Esperanza de Dios Humanitarian Zone. The Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace ( Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP ) reported that the lack of medication, along with the transportation difficulties due to the presence of armed groups, aggravated their conditions.
Indigenous Community Confined by COVID-19 and Armed Conflict (Chocó) The Wounaan Indigenous community near the San Juan River has faced a severe confinement situation since July 3 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and intensification of armed conflict. Food supply has decreased because of the difficulty in accessing the farms and rivers. It is also increasingly dangerous traveling to Buenaventura to buy products unavailable in the territories, which includes medical supplies. On July 16, 9-year-old Luz Elena Cáizamo Rojas was killed in the crossfire from armed groups. Faculty from the Lumen Gentium Catholic University Foundation ( Fundación Universitaria Católica Lumen Gentium, UNICATÓLICA ) released an urgent action letter on July 17 demanding protection for their Wounaan students and their communities. They urge the national government and international community to attend to the humanitarian situation in the territories. Additionally, they request an investigation into the murder of Luz Elena Cáizamo Rojas.
Anti-Union Measures Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic (Magdalena) On July 29, the National Union Coordinator of La Cut in La Palma Industry ( Coordinadora Nacional de Sindicatos de La Cut en la Industria de La Palma) denounced Gradesa S.A.’s violation of COVID-19 safety protocols. According to the industry’s unions, the company’s administration is not doing enough to stop the contagion, putting workers and Ciénaga residents at risk. Some of the managers of Sintraimagra Union faced disciplinary hearings for speaking against the administration. Workers urge local and national health authorities to intervene and guarantee the community’s safety. They also call on the Ministry of Labor to guarantee the rights of workers.
Missing Ex-Combatant (Nariño) On July 4, James Andrés Montaño Esterilla was reported missing by the Association of Afro Amazon Community Councils of the San Miguel River in Ipiales-Nariño ( Asociación de Consejos Comunitarios Afro-Amazónicos de las Riveras del Río San Miguel de Ipiales-Nariño, ASOCCAFRAIN ). James Andrés is a member of the Nueva Esperanza Community Council. He was last seen traveling through the San Miguel River on July 2. The Community Council began search efforts the following day. They found the sunken boat, as well as the ex-combatant’s jacket and bag on the river bank.
Ex-Combatant Murdered (Nariño) On July 7, the Putumayo, Piamonte Cauca, and Cofanía Jardines de Sucumbíos Ipiales-Nariño Human Rights Network ( Red de Derechos Humanos del Putumayo, Piamonte Cauca y Cofanía Jardines de Sucumbíos de Ipiales-Nariño ) reported that James Andrés Montaño Esterilla’s body was found on the San Miguel River bank. Community members discovered a gunshot wound in his head. James Andrés was last seen traveling through the San Miguel River on July 2 . The departmental Human Rights Network states authorities at the national and regional level did not respond to the community’s request to activate an urgent search mechanism after he was reported missing on July 4. James Andrés, member of the Nueva Esperanza Community Council, was in the process of reincorporation.
Ethnic Commission Addresses Human Rights Situation On July 10, the Ethnic Commission for Peace and the Defense of Territorial Rights ( Comisión Étnica Para La Paz Y La Defensa De Los Derechos Territoriales ) released a statement echoing the comments Monsignor Darío Monsalve made about the human rights situation in Colombia. The Ethnic Commission explains the territories continue to suffer from armed conflict. They have referred to the current situation as a genocide, which has worsened with the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The group invites the Cardinal Secretary of State to support the initiatives of bishops such as Monsignor Darío Monsalve defending the peace process. The Ethnic Commission also urge the national government to fully implement the entirety of the Peace Accord, including the Ethnic Chapter.
Petition Supporting Truth Commission (Cundinamarca) A petition letter with 3,166 signatures from individuals and organizations supporting Colombia’s Truth Commission was published on July 17. As part of Colombia’s transitional justice system, the Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition Commission began operating in November 2018. The letter encourages the commission to continue its work listening to victims of the armed conflict. It also seeks to prevent the mistreatment and politicization of the peace process.
Truth Commission Receives Over 6,000 False Positive Cases On July 22, the Committee on Extrajudicial Killings presented two databases detailing 6,912 potential false positive cases to the Truth Commission. 15 social organizations documented the cases dating from 1990 to 2015. Most of these cases were concentrated in the Antioquia and Meta departments, and 5,763 of them occurred between 2002 and 2010. According to Alberto Yepes of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination ( Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos, CCEEU ), the committee asks the Truth Commission to clarify the motivations behind the strategies that allowed these acts to be committed. If the commission finds the state responsible, the organizations hope institutional responsibility can be established.
Organizations Denounce Politicization of Truth Commission (Cundinamarca) On July 29, the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes ( Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado, MOVICE ) and the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination ( Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos, CCEEU ) denounced attempts to politicize the Truth Commission. Commissioner Carlos Guillermo Ospina, a representative of the military, uses social media to deny the reality of extrajudicial killings known as “false positives.” Internal debates of the Truth Commission are being aired on social networks, a breach in confidentiality. MOVICE and CCEEU urge the Commission and its members to remain faithful to its clarification mandate by acknowledging the state’s responsibility.
Other items of interest:
Legal Case Could Lead to New Protections for Human Rights Defenders (Cundinamarca) On July 9, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presented Case 12.380 on the situation of the José Alvear Restrepo Collective Lawyers Corporation (CAJAR) members to the Inter-American Court. This litigation originated in 2001 when the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and CAJAR filed a complaint regarding the stigmatization, harassment, threats, violence, exile, and surveillance carried out against CAJAR members. The Court now has an opportunity to address the shortcomings of state institutions in protecting human rights defenders and to discuss the protection guarantees needed for them to continue their work.
Civil Society Endorse Human Rights Ombudsman Candidates (Cundinamarca) Colombia’s House of Representatives is set to elect the nation’s new Ombudsman from a shortlist presented by President Iván Duque. On July 21, the “Defendamos la Defensoría” campaign circulated a petition letter addressed to the President. This letter encourages the President to select candidates that possess the necessary merits, as well as expert knowledge in the field of human rights. It also provides a list of 22 candidates, who not only meet these requirements but are also recognized by civil society and human rights organizations.
Community Calls Out Institutional Racism in Bogotá (Cundinamarca) On July 29, the Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenquero people of Bogotá called on the City Council and community to join efforts and take to the streets. This comes a month after the signing of the District Development Plan. According to the communities, Horacio Guerrero, head of ethnic issues for Bogota’s mayor’s office, ignores representatives’ input. The call to protest states that the City Council is implementing measures harmful to the communities. They request a dialogue with the representation of Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, and Palenquero people for development plans.
Venezuelan Sex Workers Killed (Cauca) On July 20, two Venezuelan sex workers in Cauca’s Buenos Aires municipality were shot dead. The victims were identified as 24-year-old María José Hernández Márquez and 22-year-old Yanexi Carolina Lugo Brocha. They were taken from the Caldono municipality in a white truck. The Jaime Martinez Column is known to be active in the region. So far this year, the number of women murdered in Cauca is 45.
Washington, D.C.—In response to news that Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered that former president Álvaro Uribe be held under house arrest, in connection to allegations of witness tampering, WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli issued the following quote:
“Uribe has always been one degree of separation from crimes against humanity and unaccountable, authoritarian behavior. Despite massive circumstantial evidence, others have always taken the fall for the DAS intel scandal, the parapolitics scandal, links to paramilitaries on the U.S. terrorism list, false positive killings, paramilitary massacres, and violence against Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples. This case involves the ex-president’s lawyers making payoffs to ex-paramilitary witnesses, so they might alter their testimonies and falsely incriminate a political adversary. We hope that it begins the process of peeling off Álvaro Uribe’s Teflon vest so that all the victims of these crimes can finally have justice.”
“This sends a strong message that no one is above the rule of law in Colombia,” said Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA. “These kinds of sensitive investigations, implicating some of Colombia’s most powerful political elites, are only advancing in the first place thanks to the courageous work of human rights defenders, journalists, justice officials, and other reformers who are fighting every day to uncover the truth of what happened during Colombia’s conflict. As the legal processes involving Uribe continue, it is critical that state officials respect and uphold the independence of Colombia’s courts and justice system.”
On July 1, a team of coca eradicators and security forces arrived in the village of Caucasia, in Puerto Asís municipality, in Colombia’s department of Putumayo. In Colombia’s far south along the Ecuador border, Putumayo is where U.S.-backed operations under “Plan Colombia” began. Its first phase in 2000, what the Clinton Administration called the “push into southern Colombia,” expanded military and coca-eradication operations there. Twenty years later, the region’s farmers remain so isolated and abandoned that Putumayo still concentrates tens of thousands of hectares of coca plants.
Dozens or hundreds of Caucasia farmers gathered to protest the eradicators’ arrival. They had been in the midst of negotiations with Colombia’s Interior Ministry on a pilot project to eradicate their coca voluntarily, in exchange for assistance. Those dialogues got put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colombia. But forced eradication did not get put on hold: eradicators and police escorts arrived and prepared to pull up the bushes.
Though details of what happened remain elusive, it is clear that the situation grew tense on July 3. Members of the Colombian Police anti-disturbances squadron (ESMAD) opened fire at some distance, killing one of the community members: 56-year-old Educardo Alemeza Papamija. Three others were wounded.
Episodes like this have become very common in 2020, especially since Colombia went into pandemic lockdown. Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank counted 15 confrontations between security forces and farmers between January and April, with 4 civilians killed. Overlapping this count somewhat, during the first three months of COVID-19 response—between late March and late June—Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counted five civilians killed:
Alejandro Carvajal, in Sardinata, Norte de Santander, on March 26;
Ángel Artemino Nastacuas Villarreal, in Tumaco, Nariño, on April 22;
Emérito Digno Buendía Martínez, in Cúcuta, Norte de Santander, on May 18;
Ariolfo Sánchez Ruíz, in Anori, Antioquia, on May 20; and
Salvador Jaime Durán, in Teorama, Norte de Santander, on June 27.
Adding the July 3 incident in Putumayo makes six civilians killed in coca eradication operations since late March. This is the deadliest period since 2017: in October of that year, police accompanying coca eradication operations massacred seven farmers in the village of El Tandil, in Tumaco, Nariño.
The eradication operations have become more aggressive as the U.S. government has prodded Colombia to expand them, while paying much of the bill. “Under pressure from Washington, the year-old government of President Ivan Duque has quadrupled the number of eradication teams to 100 since taking office. It aims to raise that to 150,” Reuters reported last September. Colombia has pledged to forcibly eradicate 130,000 hectares of coca in 2020, which would smash its 2019 record of 94,606 hectares.
That dramatic expansion is being helped along by a quarter of a billion dollars in 2020 U.S. assistance for drug interdiction and eradication: $125 million in this year’s foreign aid appropriation, and another $124 million that the Trump administration slashed from aid originally appropriated for Central America, and delivered to Colombia last October. The strategy is being reinforced by a large deployment of military trainers who arrived in the country in early June.
While we don’t have visibility over what is happening inside the Colombian security forces’ eradication teams, it is quite possible that their increased aggressiveness this year is tied to their rapid, U.S.-backed expansion. It’s difficult for any organization to expand this quickly without experiencing managerial issues or slippages in training—including use-of-force training.
These expanded operations are dangerous for the soldiers and police too: armed groups protect the coca with landmines, booby traps, snipers, and ambushes. The Ideas for Peace Foundation counts 126 members of the security forces or coca eradicators killed during manual eradication operations between 2009 and 2018, and 664 more wounded. Protesting farmers, meanwhile, aren’t always non-violent, and security force members are sometimes injured during protests against eradication.
This, though, is yet another reason for Colombia and its U.S. government supporters to pursue a different strategy: a less violent and confrontational one that might actually reduce the dependence on coca that has led the crop to persist in rural zones for 40 years now. A better strategy would seek specifically to lower the number of Colombian families that plant coca, in most cases for lack of other viable options. Estimates of that number currently range from over 119,500 to over 230,000 families.
An alternative strategy exists, and it was the product of years of intense negotiations. Colombia’s 2016 peace accord had a plan for reducing this number of coca-growing families dramatically. Under the accord’s fourth chapter, over 99,000 families signed voluntary coca eradication agreements, in exchange for promised assistance. That number could have been higher, but the government of President Iván Duque froze the program after taking office in August 2018. The accord’s crop substitution plan, along with its larger efforts to bring a government presence into historically abandoned rural areas, is underfunded, increasingly behind schedule, and not receiving anywhere near the emphasis that forced eradication is getting—especially during the pandemic.
Even in a pandemic, Colombia’s U.S.-backed expanded forced eradication campaign is happening without even food security assistance for the families affected, leaving many hungry after the eradicators depart. In June the Colombian daily El Espectadorasked the Defense Minister why coca eradication was happening during the pandemic in an absence of any help for farmers. He replied flatly that coca is illegal and that eradicating is “our constitutional duty.” We know from years of experience that eradication unlinked to assistance doesn’t work: it may yield a short-term decrease in the number of hectares planted with coca, but replanting happens quickly.
This aggressive, cruel, and ineffective model must stop now. Coca eradication should be the product of dialogue with communities, with the goal of bringing a lasting government presence into vast areas of Colombia where people live without one. In the rare instances when that is not possible, eradicators should de-escalate confrontations with communities, seeking to avoid the use of force and the repetition of the sorts of tragedies that Colombia has witnessed six times now since the pandemic began.
And of course, Colombia should resist any effort to re-start eradication by spraying the highly questioned herbicide glyphosate from aircraft. Fumigation not only raises health and environmental concerns that the government has not yet addressed—it is the very opposite of a long-term solution based on having people on the ground to govern territory.
As the main foreign backer of Colombia’s coca eradication strategy, the U.S. government should play a determining role in helping Colombia pursue a more humane, long-term-focused, and ultimately successful strategy. If the United States does not help to change course, it will continue to share the blame for disastrous human rights outcomes like what we are seeing now. And within a few years—when coca-growing families inevitably replant after remaining without formal title to their lands, isolated from markets, and lacking even basic governance—the United States will also share the blame for the current strategy’s foreseeable failure.
WASHINGTON, D.C., July 6, 2020 — Today, Representatives James P. McGovern (D-MA), Chairman of the House Rules Committee and Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and Mark Pocan (D-WI), Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led a group of 94 Members of Congress urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to press the Colombian government to commit to peace and stop the escalation of violence against Colombian human rights defenders.
Since a 2016 peace accord brought an end to decades of conflict in Colombia, over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered, including 153 in only the first six months of 2020. The Colombian government’s slowness in implementing the peace accords, its failure to bring the civilian state into the conflict zones, and its ongoing inability to prevent and prosecute attacks against defenders have allowed this tragedy to go unchecked.
“This is not the first time Congress has demanded the U.S. and Colombian governments protect human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia. Yet the assassinations continue to mount, and the pandemic has made them even more vulnerable. Enough is enough. Whatever the Colombian government thinks it’s doing, it’s simply not getting the job done. It should spend less time downplaying the statistics, and more time providing protection and, more importantly, hunting down, arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning those who order, carry out, and benefit from these murders. That’s what the peace accord calls for, and nothing less will do,” said Congressman McGovern. “The brutal murders of those working for peace and basic human dignity in Colombia is not only a tragedy for Colombians, it hurts all people around the world who care about human rights. The United States has an obligation speak out and demand an end to this unrelenting violence.”
“Three years after a historic peace accord was signed, human rights defenders, union leaders, land rights activists and indigenous leaders continue to face violence as the Colombian government looks the other way,” said Congressman Pocan. “Over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered since the signing of these peace accords. Secretary Pompeo must condemn this violence and urge the Colombian government to safeguard the lives of these defenders, prosecute the intellectual authors of these attacks and dismantle the structures that benefit from this violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made these leaders more vulnerable to attack, and we must ensure U.S. assistance to Colombia is used to ensure these peace accords are implemented—not continue to allow these acts of violence to occur with impunity.”
Violence appears to have intensified as illegal armed groups take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic while the government fails to respond, further increasing the vulnerability of targeted rights defenders and local leaders who are being murdered in their homes and workplaces, out of the public eye and with impunity. Before the pandemic, large-scale demonstrations had taken place throughout the country demanding protection for human rights defenders and community leaders as Colombia confronts the greatest number of assaults and killings in a decade.
For example, on March 19, three armed men entered a meeting where farmers were discussing voluntary coca eradication agreements and killed community leader Marco Rivadeneira. He promoted peace and coca substitution efforts in his community, represented his region in the guarantees working group to protect human rights defenders, and was a member of the national human rights network Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos.
This letter follows on recent revelations of illegal surveillance by military intelligence of journalists, human rights defenders and judges; the rape of an indigenous girl by several Colombian soldiers, reflecting a pattern of abuses by the military; and an in-depth memorial by El Espectador daily newspaper citing the names of 442 human rights and social leaders murdered since the signing of the Peace Accord.
The Members’ letter was also backed by several prominent human rights organizations which advocate for peace and social justice in Colombia.
“The peace accords offer Colombia a roadmap out of a violent past into a more just future. But there are no shortcuts. The Colombian government and international community must recommit to full implementation. Not one more human rights defender should lose their life while peace founders,” said Lisa Haugaard, Co-Director of the Latin America Working Group.
“Social leaders are the most important people in bringing peace and democracy to Colombia. The United States, which is Colombia’s top donor, must do everything it can to stop the systematic killing of social leaders and ensure justice on cases of murdered activists. A consolidated peace in Colombia is in the best interest of the United States, and social leaders are how we achieve that peace,” said Gimena Sanchez, director for the Andes, at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Until the government of Colombia adopts a security policy that prioritizes the protection of the lives and rights of indigenous and community activists, particularly in the former conflict areas, the promise of the peace accords for peace and justice will remain illusory,” said Mark Schneider, Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The full text of the letter can be downloaded here. A copy of the letter translated into Spanish is here.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex Colombians have been granted momentous protections over the past two decades. Included in these feats is the historic recognition of LGBT+ people in the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the first in the world to specifically include LGBT+ people. But nonetheless, ongoing violence against the LGBT+ community, especially against trans people, reflects a longstanding paradox in Colombia: on paper, the country has one of the strongest legal frameworks in Latin America defending the rights of LGBT+ people; however, in practice these protections are rarely enforced.
After Brazil, Colombia is perhaps the most dangerous country in the Americas for LGBT+ people. Last year, a study found that, out of nine countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombia registered the highest number of killings of LGBT+ people over a five-year period. In 2020, attacks against LGBT+ leaders and trans people continue even amid the COVID-19 lockdown. So far this year, in the Caribbean region alone, at least 15 LGBT+ people were killed. As Pride Month comes to an end, civil society groups and Colombia’s LGBT+ community persist in an ongoing struggle to combat stigmatization, secure justice for past crimes, and ensure that authorities implement protections as guaranteed under the law.
Colombia at the forefront of the LGBT+ movement in Latin America
Colombia has experienced significant milestones in terms of political and other forms of representation for LGBT+ people, paving the way towards a more inclusive society. In October 2019, Bogotá elected Claudia López as their first woman and lesbian mayor. Various elected representatives across national, departmental, and local levels like Andrés Cancimance in Putumayo and Oriana Zambrano in La Guajira identify as LGBT+. Television shows continue to feature more LGBT+ characters and media coverage of LGBT-related issues has grown more consistent. These increased levels of visibility are a result of tireless campaigns by civil society groups and activists that work to educate and transform society.
Legal victories led by local civil society organizations and grassroot movements have lent significant momentum to the fight for LGBT+ equality in Colombia. In 2015, trans people over the age of 18 were given the right to change their legal gender on all identification documents. The following year, same-sex marriage was legalized. Other progressive legislation upholds the right for LGBT+ individuals and couples to adopt, protections on employment discrimination and hate crimes, and explicit penalties set in the National Police Code for any acts of gender-based discrimination. These landmark decisions by the Constitutional Court and legislation enacted by the Colombian Congress are legal breakthroughs that place Colombia at the forefront of the LGBT+ movement in Latin America.
Even the historic 2016 peace agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of Colombia contains a differential focus on gender. Through a Gender Subcommittee that included an LGBT+ representative, the negotiating actors recognized that women and LGBT+ people were disproportionately affected by the armed conflict, and correspondingly, 41 gender-specific provisions were included throughout the agreement. Including this focus on women and LGBT+ groups helped make Colombia’s 2016 peace deal one of the most inclusive peace agreements in history. According to LGBT+ rights group Colombia Diversa, though many of these provisions remain stalled, about 70 percent have at least begun implementation.
One key mechanism in the peace agreement includes the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP), one of three separate components that make up the current transitional justice system. As a result of the work conducted by Colombia Diversa and Caribe Afirmativo, the most prominent LGBT+ organizations in the country, the JEP opened two cases on the persecution of LGBT+ people during the armed conflict. Two reports submitted by the organizations to the JEP outline the systematic violence perpetrated by the FARC and paramilitary groups against LGBT+ people in Nariño and Antioquia. The JEP is therefore the first transitional justice tribunal in the world to recognize that, in the scope of the armed conflict, LGBT+ people were targeted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
The backlash against a so-called “gender ideology”
Discrimination towards the LGBT+ community still persists in Colombia, the result of longstanding stereotypes and misinformation spread about gender identity and sexual orientation. This harmful rhetoric is expressed in part through an opposition movement seeking to curtail greater recognition of LGBT+ rights, rallying against a so-called “gender ideology.” This questionable argument is not unique to Colombia and the Americas; it is a global strategy led by evangelical factions that seek to undermine the rights of women and LGBT+ persons. Proponents of this argument target LGBT+ organizations because their existence and work defy the patriarchy, heteronormative norms, and religious beliefs.
In 2014, student Sergio Urrego died by suicide after facing discrimination from school officials because of his sexual orientation. Following this tragedy, the Constitutional Court ruled in 2015 that school handbooks across the country had to be revised to address bullying of LGBT+ students. Then, in 2016, Former Minister of Education Gina Parody, who also happens to be a lesbian woman, obeyed the ruling and published an extensive manual with recommendations to schools on how to prevent discrimination and how to have conducive conversations with students about gender identity and sexual orientation. It ignited national controversy, however, as evangelical and conservative sectors claimed that the Ministry of Education was promoting homosexuality and indoctrinating a “gender ideology” among schoolchildren.
These same sectors were mobilized to sustain fierce opposition to the peace process with the FARC. Propaganda around the so-called “gender ideology,” supposedly embedded in the peace agreement, ultimately contributed to the failed 2016 plebiscite. The final peace agreement with the FARC in November 2016 removed several references to “gender’”and “LGBTI”, and even downright eliminated any mention of the term “sexual orientation.”
While the 2016 peace agreement still affords recognition to LGBT+ people, the removal of these specific references to appease to conservative sectors is indicative of the powerful role that LGBT+ prejudice continues to play in Colombian society. It also reveals the continued need to ensure protection and guarantees to LGBT+ Colombians, even outside the framework of the peace agreement.
Violence against LGBT+ Colombians
Anti-LGBT+ rhetoric contributes to alarming increases in hostility and violence against queer Colombians. Between 2014 and 2018, over 545 LGBT+ Colombians were assassinated. Members of the public security forces are most responsible for acts of violence and harassment against LGBT+ Colombians, according to a 2020 report by Colombia-based NGO Temblores. This violence highlights the concerning gap between Colombia’s progressive legal protections and the actual enforcement of said protections.
Unfortunately, gathering current data on such abuses and violence against LGBT+ Colombians is limited for various reasons. Wilson Casteñada, director of human rights group Caribe Afirmativo, notes that local organizations are largely responsible for documenting cases of LGBT+ violence. State entities do not maintain databases that register these abuses, and when they do exist, they lack the political will and funding to be maintained properly. Additionally, there is a strong probability that violence against LGBT+ people by public security forces is underreported, as those who experience this violence may be reluctant to go to the authorities to report these crimes. All this contributes to a lack of detailed data on violence and crimes not just against Colombia’s LGBT+ community, but across the region.
Transphobia is rampant in Colombia. Trans people who are sex workers face particularly extreme levels of violence and harassment because stigmatization around sex work increases the risk that such reports of violence are not taken seriously. This was seen in a recent case on May 29 when Alejandra Monocuco died after she was wrongly denied medical treatment and transportation to the hospital in an ambulance. On June 20, five transgender sex workers were brutally attacked by members of the Colombian National Police in Bogotá. These incidents are commonplace because cultural stigmas allow for physical and structural violence against the trans community.
The exclusion faced by trans Colombians was also made evident in the state’s emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under pico y género, a sex-based quarantine measure temporarily implemented in Bogotá and Cartegena, women and men were allowed out for essential tasks on alternating days of the week; trans women and men could go out according to their gender identity. According to trans rights organization Red Comunitaria Trans, in Bogotá the policy resulted in some 20 cases of targeted discrimination against trans people. The measure is an example of how state policies often overlook the realities of discrimination and institutional violence against gender nonconforming and trans people.
The struggle for LGBT+ rights must continue
LGBT+ Colombians have many reasons to celebrate. But their battle for ensuring the enforcement of gender identity and sexual orientation protections continues. Implementing and enforcing the mechanisms designed in the peace agreement are also challenges that not only affect LGBT+ people, but also affect Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities who are silenced in similar ways.
It is precisely the work of civil society groups and activists that made the current feats possible and this work must be amplified. The international community should continue to hold authorities accountable for enforcing the laws set forth to protect the rights of LGBT+ people. And ultimately, that support must account for the intersections among class, race, ethnicity, and disability that deepen the discrimination faced by the LGBT+ community in Colombia and beyond.
We are grateful to all the members of the U.S. Congress who signed the Dear Colleague letter on Colombia to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concerning social leaders that Representatives James McGovern (D-MA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) are circulating. For those who haven’t signed, we strongly encourage you to do so by Friday, June 26. This letter will help advance protections for social leaders and help to prevent further abuses like those listed below from continuing to take place. Since our last urgent action on May 19 we received the following information:
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) urges members of Congress to sign a Dear Colleague letter on Colombia to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being circulated by Representatives James McGovern (D-MA-2) and Mark Pocan (D-WI-2).
The letter brings to light the difficult circumstances faced by social leaders in Colombia. The U.S. Congress representatives include specific demands in their letter: protective measures for social leaders; thorough and transparent investigations of their murders; cracking down on paramilitaries and their drug trafficking networks; holding Colombian Army intelligence members accountable for illegal spying on journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians; and vigorously implementing the peace accords. The U.S. Congress representatives also urge the United States to work alongside rural communities to sustainably replace coca crops, rather than returning to ineffective policies of aerial spraying and forced eradication.
Please contact your U.S. Congress representative to sign on. You have an opportunity to help hold Colombian institutions accountable for a near quarter-century track record of direct assaults against a vibrant civil society. The letter will only make a significant impact if it is backed by as many representatives in Congress as possible. So send a message now!
Paste this sample email into the appropriate box. See sample message here.
It will only take two minutes of your time. Do it so that the people organizing for an entire country’s better future don’t have to worry about laying down their lives for the cause.
Below please find the text of the letter.
Dear Secretary Pompeo,
As the coronavirus pandemic exposes and magnifies existing problems in each of the countries it ravages, we are particularly concerned that it is affecting the safety of Colombia’s brave human rights defenders and social leaders who are putting their lives on the line to build lasting peace.
We write to ask you to urge the Duque Administration to recommit to implementing the historic 2016 peace accords and protecting Colombia’s endangered human rights defenders whose vulnerability has only increased during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Colombia is now the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders. Over 400 human rights defenders have been murdered since the signing of the peace accords – a loss of committed and valiant civic leaders that Colombia cannot afford. The Colombian government’s slowness in implementing the peace accords, its failure to bring the civilian state into the conflict zones, and its ongoing inability to prevent and prosecute attacks against defenders have allowed this tragedy to go unchecked. This appears to have intensified as illegal armed groups take advantage of the pandemic while the government fails to respond, further increasing the vulnerability of targeted rights defenders and local leaders.
For example, on March 19, three armed men entered a meeting where farmers were discussing voluntary coca eradication agreements and killed community leader Marco Rivadeneira. He promoted peace and coca substitution efforts in his community, represented his region in the guarantees working group to protect human rights defenders, and was a member of the national human rights network Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos. Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and poor farming communities like the San José de Apartadó peace community continue to suffer and are even more vulnerable from the unchecked presence of illegal armed actors in their territories.
Marco Rivadeneira was one of 23 social leaders killed between March 15 and April 24, during the first weeks of Colombia’s pandemic lockdown. According to the Colombian NGO, Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ, in the first three months of 2020, 71 social leaders and defenders were killed in Colombia.
To stop this tragedy, we ask you to urge the Duque Administration to:
– Improve protection of human rights defenders and social leaders, starting with effective investigations of attacks and threats against them, identifying those who ordered these crimes and publicly presenting the outcomes of these investigation.
– Develop a road map for protection in consultation with defenders in the guarantees working group, including for pandemic-related challenges such as the need for personal protective equipment.
– Fund and implement collective protection measures with differentiated ethnic and gender approaches in consultation with communities through the National Protection Unit. Collective measures agreed to with Afro-descendant and indigenous communities’ authorities must be guaranteed. The self-protection mechanisms of the San José de Apartadó peace community and similar humanitarian zones should be respected, including the support provided by international accompaniers, even during the pandemic.
– Dismantle the paramilitary successor networks involved in drug trafficking, which fuel much of the violence against human rights defenders and social leaders. The government must honor its commitment to regularly convene the National Commission of Security Guarantees, which was established by the accords to develop and implement plans to dismantle illegal groups and protect communities, social leaders, and ex-combatants.
– Effectively investigate, prosecute, and present results about these paramilitary and criminal networks through the Attorney General’s special investigative unit. We welcome the new agreement between the Colombian Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia to train prosecutors and investigators in aggressively addressing these human rights crimes. It is critical the State end impunity in the murders, disappearances, assaults and threats against human rights defenders, social leaders, land rights and environmental activists, journalists, trade unionists and other defenders.
– Swiftly hold accountable Colombian Army intelligence members, including at the highest ranks, who ordered and carried out mass surveillance on 130 journalists (including U.S. reporters), human rights defenders, political leaders, and military whistleblowers. The U.S. should also ensure that U.S. security and intelligence assistance does not assist, aid or abet such illegal surveillance, now or in the future.
– Vigorously implement the peace accords, including by adequately funding the transitional justice system, fully implementing the Ethnic Chapter, delivering on commitments for protection for ex-combatants and productive projects to reintegrate them into civilian life, and honoring commitments for truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition for victims of the conflict.
We urge you, Mr. Secretary, to ensure that all agencies of the United States speak with one clear voice to condemn these ever-escalating murders and to press the Duque Administration to take the necessary steps to identify and prosecute the intellectual authors of these crimes and dismantle the criminal structures that protect them.
Finally, we urge you to continue to provide valuable U.S. assistance to Colombia to implement the peace accords, provide humanitarian assistance for Venezuelan refugees and refugee receiving communities, and address the health and food security crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. should also take advantage of opportunities provided by the peace accords to carry out sustainable and lasting eradication of illegal crops by working with communities to replace coca with legal livelihoods and by dismantling trafficking networks.
Thank you for your attention to these important concerns in this difficult time.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Michael Kozak U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy to Colombia, Bogota
Dear Ambassador Kozak and Ambassador Goldberg,
We write out of deep concern, which we are confident you share, regarding the revelations that Colombian Army intelligence units compiled detailed dossiers on the personal lives and activities of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, union leaders, and possible military whistleblowers. As you know, the group contained U.S. citizens, including several reporters and a Colombian senator.
This scandal is disturbing in itself and for what it says about Colombia’s inability to reform its military and intelligence services. In 1998, the 20th Military Intelligence Brigade was disbanded due to charges that it had been involved in the 1995 murder of Conservative Senator Álvaro Gómez Hurtado and his aide and, according to the 1997 State Department human rightsreport, targeted killings and forced disappearances. In 2011, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia’s main intelligence service, was disbanded due to the massive surveillance, as well as threats against, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, Supreme Court judges, and reporters. In 2014, Semana magazine revealed army intelligence was spying on peace accord negotiators in the so-called Operation Andromeda. In 2019, Semana exposed another surveillance campaign using “Invisible Man” and “Stingray” equipment against Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, and U.S. and Colombian reporters, including its own journalists. In March 2020, a Twitter list compiled by the Colombian army identified the accounts of journalists, human rights advocates, and Colombia’s Truth Commission and Special Jurisdiction for Peace as “opposition” accounts.
The surveillance is far worse than a massive invasion of privacy. The targeting of political opposition, judicial personnel, human rights defenders, and journalists leads to threats, attacks, and killings. For example, during the 2019 surveillance operation, Semana reporters and their family members received funeral wreaths, prayer cards, and a tombstone. This surveillance and targeting has a chilling effect on the very people and institutions needed to maintain a vibrant democracy. It means that no amount of government protection programs can stop the targeted killing of human rights defenders and social leaders. The persistence of this kind of surveillance suggests that an important segment of Colombia’s military and intelligence services – and of the political class – fail to appreciate the fundamental role of a free press, human rights and other civil society organizations, and peaceful dissent in any vibrant democracy.
We are also deeply concerned to hear that some U.S. intelligence equipment may have been used for these illegal efforts. Semana “confirmed with U.S. embassy sources that the Americans recovered from several military units the tactical monitoring and location equipment that it had lent them.”
As we review this latest manifestation of Colombia’s deeply rooted problem of identifying as enemies and persecuting those who wish to defend human rights, uphold justice, and report the truth, we ask ourselves: What can ensure that this never happens again?
At a minimum, we recommend that the U.S. government:
Support the creation of an independent group of experts under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate and recommend steps to achieve justice and non-repetition.
Press for a thorough review of military doctrine and training to ensure that it promotes a proper understanding of the role of the military in a democratic society, including the role of human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians, and an independent judiciary. While the written doctrine was revised during the Santos Administration, clearly improvements to doctrine are not being followed. The review should seek an accounting for the too-frequent episodes of senior military behavior that contradicts this revised doctrine. Such a review must have input from Colombian human rights defenders and judicial experts, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Urge the Colombian government to provide all necessary protection measures, agreed upon with the targeted individuals and organizations, to ensure their physical and psychological integrity, as well as that of those around them.
Urge the Colombian government to purge all intelligence files, whether of state security forces or other organizations, collected on human rights organizations, finally addressing the long-standing demand by human rights organizations, unfulfilled for nearly a quarter century.
Urge the Colombian government to reveal publicly the full extent of illegal intelligence operations targeting civil society activists, politicians, judges, and journalists, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives.
The administration should direct DNI, CIA, NSA and DIA to inform congressional intelligence, armed services and foreign relations and foreign affairs committees of their conclusions on the full extent of illegal Colombian intelligence operations, clarifying who was in charge, to whom they reported, what kind of intelligence was carried out, and with what objectives. The administration should direct the same agencies to inform these congressional committees whether and when the U.S. government learned of these actions by the Colombian military and intelligence services and whether U.S. intelligence agencies cooperated with their counterparts even after learning of those actions.
Investigate whether recipients of U.S. training and/or equipment participated in ordering or implementing these illegal activities and immediately suspend individuals and units involved from receiving U.S. training and equipment, per the Leahy Law.
Suspend all U.S. support for Colombia’s military and intelligence services if the Colombian government does not immediately suspend and promptly investigate and prosecute officials who ordered and executed these illegal activities and conduct the thorough review and rewriting of military doctrine and training mentioned above.
If the nation is to realize the vision of so many Colombians to create a truly “post-conflict” society with shared prosperity under the rule of law, then intelligence targeting and surveillance of democratic actors must finally end. Thank you for your efforts to ensure Colombia turns the page for once and for all on these deadly, illegal, and anti-democratic activities.
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America Colombia Grassroots Support, New Jersey Colombia Human Rights Committee, Washington DC Colombian Studies Group, Graduate Center – College University of New York Colombian Studies Group, The New School International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights Latin America Working Group (LAWG) Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) Oxfam America Presbyterian Peace Fellowship School of the Americas Watch United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective
On May 19 WOLA hosted a 2-hour discussion of new revelations that Colombian Army intelligence had been spying on journalists, judges, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, and other military officers. The nine speakers included several victims of the spying and some U.S.-based analysts.
The discussion’s video feed is below. The first is presented in the languages the speakers used, and the second is dubbed with a full English translation.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, is a longtime advocate of human rights, worldwide and in Latin America.
McGovern joins WOLA in this episode for a conversation about Colombia, a country to which he has traveled several times, and where he was one of the House of Representatives’ leading advocates for the negotiations that ended with a peace accord in 2016.
We’re talking weeks after new revelations that U.S.-aided Colombian military intelligence units had been spying on human rights defenders, journalists, judges, politicians, and even fellow officers. The Congressman calls for a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Colombia while the U.S. government undertakes a top-to-bottom, “penny by penny” review of the aid program. “If there’s not a consequence, there’s no incentive to change,” he explains.
He calls for the Colombian government and the international community to do far more to protect the country’s beleaguered human rights defenders, to change course on an unsuccessful drug policy, and to fulfill the peace accords’ commitments. Human rights, Rep. McGovern concludes, should be at the center of the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship.
Since our last urgent action Colombia’s weekly magazine Semana revealed that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military. We at WOLA find this to be completely unacceptable . On Tuesday, May 19 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, WOLA is hosting, alongside other human rights organizations, a webinar with several of the persons targeted by this illegal espionage. We encourage you to join us to hear their perspectives and recommendations on what should be done to redress this. In this document, you will find summarized statements made by several civil society groups about this scandal. You can join the webinar by registering here.
Additionally, WOLA produced a short video about the violence faced by social leaders in Colombia. The video asks U.S. authorities to call on the Iván Duque administration to protect social leaders, prioritize investigations of the assassinations, and prioritize full implementation of the peace accords.
We also take this opportunity to update you on developments on the April 25 request to President Duque by Black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquero and Raizal persons asking for the creation of an Afro-Colombian Emergency Fund. The Ministry of Health announced that it will designate a person to manage the COVID-19 emergency in the Colombian Pacific. However, details of who this will be or how this person/office will function are not clear. CONPA and others are asking for that to be determined as soon as possible. It should be done in full consultation with Afro-Colombian authorities. Secondly, a special education plan is required for Afrodescendants living in areas with limited internet capacity. Virtual learning is not reaching most children in shantytowns and rural areas because they do not have computers and/or the technical capacity to access school in this manner. Lastly, CONPA insists that the government advance humanitarian accords with the ELN that provide protection to civilians and communities caught up in conflict. We were disappointed by last week’s developments that run counter to peace in Colombia. Please see our May 14 statement Inaccurate Trump Administration Charges Against Cuba Damage Prospects for Peace Talks in Colombia and Elsewhere.
The following are summaries of the human rights situations and cases we received that require action. We have divided them into three parts: military intelligence scandal, COVID-19 related concerns, and human rights abuses.
Military Intelligence Espionage
Illegal Military Surveillance Targeting Social Leaders
On May 10, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) condemned the illicit surveillance carried out by the Colombian army’s intelligence units on social leaders Luz Marina Cuchumbe and Jani Rita Silva and CIJP staff Father Alberto Franco and Danilo Rueda. They make clear that strong measures must be taken to protect the whistleblowers in this case.
Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.
This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.
The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.
Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.
What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.
Prehistory: this keeps happening
Unauthorized wiretapping scandals recur with numbing regularity in Colombia. In 2009, Semana—which tends to reveal most of these misdeeds—uncovered massive surveillance and threats against opposition politicians, judicial personnel, reporters, and human rights defenders. These were carried out by an intelligence body, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), that reported directly to President Álvaro Uribe. The DAS had already run into trouble earlier in Uribe’s government (2002-2010) for collaborating with paramilitary groups on selective killings. As a result of the 2009 scandal, the DAS was abolished in 2011.
In 2013 Colombia passed a landmark intelligence law prohibiting warrantless surveillance or intercepts, and put strong limits on judges issuing warrants against people who were not organized criminals, drug traffickers, or terrorists. The law created a congressional oversight body that has been largely inactive, while a commission to purge intelligence files issued a report that was not acted upon.
By 2014, army intelligence was at it again. Semana revealed the existence of a hacking operation, “Andromeda,” working out of what looked like a restaurant in western Bogotá. Its targets included government negotiators participating at the time in peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. Since then, efforts to hold accountable those responsible for Operation Andromeda have shown “no results to date,” according to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
President Juan Manuel Santos’s second term (2014-2018), marked by the conclusion of a peace accord with the FARC, was a quieter period for military human rights scandals. A moderate, and moderately reformist, high command implemented doctrinal changes and supported the peace process, while human rights groups documented fewer extrajudicial executions committed directly by the armed forces.
2019, a bad year for Colombia’s army
Progress reversed sharply in 2019. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place, including Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, fell under criticism from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” extrajudicial killings a decade earlier. Colombian media began gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel. Semana revealed that in a January meeting Gen. Diego Luis Villegas, the chief of the military’s “Vulcan Task Force” and now head of the army’s “Transformations Command,” said, “The army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”
In April, troops in Gen. Villegas’s task force killed a former FARC guerrilla in northeast Colombia’s volatile Catatumbo region. Semana reported later in the year that a colonel had told his subordinates that he wanted Dimar Torres dead. (Gen. Villegas apologized publicly for the killing, and the colonel is detained awaiting trial.)
In May 2019, the New York Times ran with a story that Semana had been sitting on: army chief Gen. Martínez and his commanders were reviving “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. Rather than measure territorial security or governance, army brass decided to require unit commanders to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. This raised concerns about creating incentives for “false positives”: killings of innocent civilians in order to pass them off as combatants to pad body counts, as happened thousands of times in the 2000s.
Whistleblowers within the military were the main sources for the Times story. Rather than upholding those whistleblowers and rethinking “body counts,” the high command launched a campaign to root out officers who talked to the media, including New York Times reporter Nicholas Casey. In what Semana revealed in July and called “Operación Silencio,” counterintelligence officers began interrogating and polygraphing army colleagues suspected of snitching. (We would learn in May 2020 what the army was doing at the time about Nicholas Casey.)
The second half of 2019 had more bumps for the army. Semana revealed corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. These led to the firing of five army generals, including Gen. Martínez’s second in command. In November, the civilian defense minister, Guillermo Botero, was forced to resign amid allegations of a cover-up of an August bombing raid on a rearmed FARC dissident encampment, which killed eight children.
The January 2020 hacking revelations
After a stormy year-long tenure, Gen. Nicacio Martínez, the army commander, abruptly resigned on December 26, 2019. (The General toldEl Tiempo that he discussed his exit with his family on December 8, notified President Iván Duque the next day, and was out 17 days later.) On January 13, 2020, Semana published a bombshell cover story on what it called “the real reasons that caused the government to retire the army commander.”
This is an English translation of a statement signed by the U.S. and European human rights and humanitarian aid organizations whose logos appear above. (PDF en español)
International civil society organizations warn of the serious risk that misuse of state intelligence systems represents for peace and democracy in Colombia
The international civil society organizations that sign this communiqué express their solidarity with the more than 130 people, including journalists, members of political parties, NGOs defending human rights, and trade unionists who, according to Semana magazine investigations, have been victims of a new episode of illegal interceptions, through the implementation of a computer monitoring program, executed by several units of the national Army. These intercepts, which include even high officials of Iván Duque’s government, call into question the guarantees of constitutional and democratic principles in Colombia.
The results of this journalistic investigation are worrying: the surveillance took place in response to the publications, by the New York Times in early 2019 on the return of extrajudicial executions, and the investigation by La Liga Contra el Silencio and Rutas del Conflicto in July 2019 about agreements between extractive companies and the Ministry of Defense.
Freedom of expression is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in Colombia it is a constitutional right (article 20) and it is essential, as stated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its chapter VIII, for the development of democracy and for the full exercise of human rights.
As highlighted by the Office in Colombia of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, state intelligence systems should be used for the protection of human rights, and not to violate them. In this sense, we urge the Colombian State to take concrete measures to regulate these intelligence systems .
It is urgent that the Colombian State, in an exercise of transparency with the Colombian people and with the international community, carry out the pertinent investigations to clarify the origin of these actions and bring to the competent authorities those responsible for this very serious aggression against the work of human rights defense, freedom of the press, and guarantees to the political opposition in Colombia.
The Colombian State must, likewise, provide sufficient guarantees for life and integrity and the right to defense of individuals and organizations defending human rights in general and in particular of those who have been exposed with this illegal practice.
As international civil society organizations, we warn of the high risk of the sustainability of the peace process in Colombia, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with this type of persecution of the political opposition, added to the increase in murders of human rights defenders and ex-combatants from the Farc, which so far in 2020 already number more than 100, according to the records of Indepaz.
Intelligence systems must respect human rights and be subject to strict civil and judicial controls
The following April 23, 2020 statement is cross-posted from wola.org. We are alarmed that Colombia is not only going ahead full-throttle with manual eradication operations in coca-growing zones during a pandemic, but that eradicators’ security-force escorts have killed two civilians in the past four weeks.
Washington, D.C.—On Wednesday, April 22, in an Indigenous community in southwest Colombia, public security forces killed one person and injured three others who were peacefully protesting a police operation to manually eradicate coca plants. Members of the police eradication team fired into a group of Awa Indigenous people, who were attempting to talk to them about why Indigenous authorities hadn’t been consulted about the planned eradication, as required by law. The death is the second related to manual coca eradication operations since Colombia went into national quarantine in late March.
Even while imposing a strict national quarantine, the Colombian government has launched more intense and aggressive coca eradication operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. These operations, which often require the deployment of public security forces without appropriate protective equipment, have sparked long-standing tensions in six Colombian departments. In addition to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 due to the deployment of eradication forces, the aggressive eradication campaign has ignored key elements of the historic 2016 peace accord.
In the operation that led to the death of one Indigenous community member and three wounded in southwest Colombia, the government had failed to consult with the community prior to the operation. Additionally, in many of the other municipalities targeted in the last month, the Colombian government has systematically failed to deliver payments and other productive project support for crop substitution programs as laid out by Chapter 4 of the peace accords.
The Duque administration’s push to intensify coca eradication has largely responded to an aggressive pressure campaign from the Trump administration. Citing rising rates of coca production and cultivation, the Trump administration has pushed the Duque government to expand its eradication teams from 25 in 2017 to nearly 150 today. This rapid expansion appears to have vastly outpaced any instruction in use-of-force protocols that the security forces accompanying the eradicators were receiving, heightening the risk that when these teams go into rural communities to destroy what is, for many families, their only steady source of income, the resulting confrontations involve excessive or even lethal force.
Beside increasing coca eradication operations during the nationwide lockdown, Colombia has seen no slowdown in the pace of attacks and threats against social leaders, including those who are advocating for implementation of the peace agreement’s illicit crops chapter. On April 22 alone, three people at a local community council in southwest Nariño department were killed by dissident fighters from the now-demobilized FARC guerrilla group; another social leader, who formed part of the leftist Marcha Patriótica political movement, was killed in Cauca department; and two more were killed elsewhere in Cauca. Various Afro-Colombian communities in Cauca and Chocó department have also expressed concern about eradication operations and threats by armed groups in their area. According to Colombian think tank Indepaz, at least 71 social leaders were killed during the first three months of 2020; at least another dozen have been killed since Colombia’s national quarantine began.
The Colombian government needs to rigorously and promptly investigate the killings of social leaders, securing convictions for those who carried out and those who ordered the crime. Additionally, instead of a drug policy that emphasizes forced eradication of coca, the Colombian government should uphold its commitments in the 2016 peace agreement and promote rural land reform, sustainable development, and the establishment of state presence in coca cultivation areas. Finally, given the number of leaders from farmers’ association the National Agrarian Coordinator (Coordinador Nacional Agrario) and the Marcha Patriótica who have faced violent attacks and threats, all armed actors—including FARC dissident groups and government forces—should avoid involving civilians in armed conflict.
Colombia, along with the rest of the world, is dealing with the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. Similar to governments across the globe, it is adapting the best it can to this unprecedented public health threat. As of April 9, 69 Colombians have died, and another 2,223 are infected with the virus that has spread across 23 departments. In this update, we include information received from our partners with their view on how the pandemic is affecting their communities, along with concerning reports of on-going killings, attacks, and threats against social leaders; armed conflict; insecurity; and other abuses. Sadly, despite the national quarantine in Colombia, killings and attacks on social leaders and armed confrontations continue and have become more targeted.
We are particularly concerned about how the pandemic will affect already marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous minorities in rural and urban settings. Additional measures must be put in place to protect the health of these already marginalized communities. For this to be effective, consultation, coordination, and implementation are required with ethnic leaders in both rural and urban settings. On March 30, the Ethnic Commission sent President Duque a letter with medium and long-term requests to best help ethnic communities. In sum, they ask the government to coordinate with them; guarantee food supplies, seeds, and inputs for planting their crops; and to strengthen their organizations so they can sustain their national and regional team that attends daily to the situation of the peoples in the territories. At present, the National Organization for Indigenous Peoples (ONIC) has developed a national system of territorial monitoring of the COVID-19 virus in indigenous territories. They have organized territorial controls with indigenous guards to limit contagion in indigenous areas. AFRODES has circulated guidelines for displaced Afro-Colombians in urban settings.