Updates from WOLA tagged “Human Rights Defenders”

Blog entries, commentaries, and statements from WOLA’s Colombia team

International Civil Society Organizations Reject Stigmatizing Claims against the Humanitarian Caravan to Cañón del Micay in the Cauca department

November 5, 2020

On November 5, the Cooperation Space for Peace, which WOLA forms part of, published a statement to reject the stigmatizing claims against the Humanitarian Caravan to Cañón del Micay in the Cauca department.

Between October 29 and November 2, Campesino, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities from Cañón del Micay, a region located between the municipalities of Argelia and El Tambo in the Cauca department, organized a Humanitarian Caravan that sought to raise awareness of and reject the violence experienced by these communities.

However, according to the statement, the work of these social movements and the lives of these individuals are at risk due to the stigmatizing declarations made by Emilio Archila, Presidential Counsellor for Stabilization and Consolidation. He referred to the Caravan’s actions as “pure politicking” from sectors that “use violent acts to continue dividing Colombians.”

The Cooperation Space for Peace notes that the stigmatization of human rights defenders, based on their advocacy work, increases the risk of attacks and violations targeted against them. The statement calls on the State to assume measures to investigate these cases and bring the intellectual and material authors of the incidents, denounced by the Campesino, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous organizations and populations in the region, to justice.

It asks the international community to urge the Colombian government to take comprehensive measures in coordination with the communities to address the structural causes of the humanitarian crisis in the Cauca department, and to urge Colombian government officials to refrain from making defamatory statements that increase the life-threatening risks to social leaders and human rights defenders.

You can find the original, Spanish-language statement here.
An English-language translation of the statement is here.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Cauca, Human Rights Defenders

Action Required to Stop Massacres and Violence in Colombia

September 23, 2020

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

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:

Massacres

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 70 reports 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.

Attacks against Social Leaders

Tags: Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Public Health, Security Deterioration

Colombia Update: The State of Peace and Human Rights Amid the Pandemic

August 5, 2020

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

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. 

Related to the peace process, we share with you WOLA’s response to the recent interview President Duque gave to The Hill: Congress Should Be Alarmed by Colombia’s Crumbling Peace

Human Rights Abuses

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. 

Forced Eradication:

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.

COVID-19:

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.

Peace Process:

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.

Tags: Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Public Health, Security Deterioration

McGovern and Pocan Lead 94 Members of Congress Urging Trump Administration to Push for Peace in Colombia

July 7, 2020

(Press release cross-posted from mcgovern.house.gov. Lea la declaración de WOLA en español.)

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.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

Colombia Update: Attacks on Social Leaders, Forced Eradication Operations, and Ongoing Abuses Amid the Pandemic

July 2, 2020

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

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:

Human Rights Abuses

Tags: Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Public Health, Security Deterioration

Video of WOLA’s May 19 event: Colombian Military Espionage—An Attack on Post-Conflict Reformers and the Free Press

May 23, 2020

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.

In English and Spanish:

Full English translation:

Tags: Civil-Military Relations, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Military and Human Rights, Press Freedom, U.S. Policy

Podcast with Rep. Jim McGovern: “What if I was in Colombia? Would I have the courage to say what I believe?”

May 20, 2020

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

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.

Listen to the podcast above, or download the .mp3 file.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Audio, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Military and Human Rights, Podcast, U.S. Aid, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

The State of Human Rights in Colombia: Military Espionage, COVID-19, and Ongoing Abuses

May 19, 2020

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

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, CIJPcondemned 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.

Tags: Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Public Health, Security Deterioration

A New Scandal Underscores Colombia’s Stubborn Inability to Reform Military Intelligence

May 7, 2020

(Cross-posted from wola.org)

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.

Semana has a long record of revealing malfeasance in the security forces. The last five covers are from the past twelve months.

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.”

President Iván Duque and Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez, February 4, 2019 (Image c/o the Colombian presidency). 

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 told El 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.”

Tags: Civil-Military Relations, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Military and Human Rights, Press Freedom, U.S. Policy

Podcast: “These moments of social resistance are never moments. They have long histories.”

May 5, 2020

Winifred Tate, an anthropologist at Colby College and former WOLA staff member, is one of the country’s top experts on Colombia. She is the author of 2 books about Colombia: Counting the Dead, about the human rights movement in the country, and Drugs, Thugs, and Diplomats, about how U.S. policy toward Colombia gets made and how human rights groups have dealt with it. Tate has worked on Colombia from two perspectives: as a scholar, but also as an advocate, which gives her a unique perspective.

Here, she talks about the origins of Colombia’s human rights movement and the pros and cons of “professionalizing” defense of human rights. She discusses the importance of community-based organizing and the work of women activists in a very conflictive part of the country. The conversation delves into continuities in U.S. policy, especially Washington’s preference for military solutions to complex problems.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file.

Tags: Audio, Civil Society Peace Movement, Drug Policy, Human Rights Defenders, Podcast, U.S. Policy

Illegal Surveillance by Colombia’s Military is Unacceptable

May 4, 2020

Cross-posted from wola.org

In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported 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. 

Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.

The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation. 

Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.

Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.

In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.  

While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists. 

Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.” 

That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.

Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership. 

Tags: Civil-Military Relations, Human Rights Defenders, Military and Human Rights, Press Freedom

Podcast: COVID-19, Communities, and Human Rights in Colombia

April 11, 2020

As of early April 2020, Colombia has documented a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, and in cities at least, the country has taken on strict social distancing measures.

This has not meant that Colombia’s embattled social leaders and human rights defenders are any safer. WOLA’s latest urgent action memo, released on April 10, finds that “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.”

In this edition of the WOLA Podcast, that memo’s author, Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, explains the danger to social leaders, the shifting security situation, the ceasefire declared by the ELN guerrillas, the persistence of U.S.-backed coca eradication operations, and how communities are organizing to respond to all of this.

Listen above, or download the .mp3 file here.

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights Defenders, Indigenous Communities, Podcast, Public Health

COVID-19 and Human Rights in Colombia

April 10, 2020

By Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, cross-posted from wola.org.

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. 

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Indigenous Communities, Public Health, WOLA Statements

Over 21 International Civil Society Organizations Urge the Colombian Government to Investigate the Assassination of Marco Rivadeneira

March 25, 2020

On March 25, over 21 international civil society organizations signed a letter calling on the Government of Colombia to investigate the assassination of Marco Rivadeneira, a community leader from Putumayo, Colombia. Social leaders like Rivadeneira – who strive to fully implement the 2016 Peace Accords – continue to be targeted for working valiantly to bring human rights protections and peace to their communities. Sadly, Rivadeneira was killed on March 19, 2020, by three armed men who entered a meeting where he was discussing voluntary eradication agreements between farmers and the Colombian government.

The letter urges the Colombian government to effectively investigate and prosecute the assassinations of social leaders, especially amid the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter also calls on the U.S. government to vigorously support the Peace Accord implementation in Colombia. You can read the English version of the letter below. (Versión en español).

International Civil Society Organizations Call for the Colombian Government to Investigate Killing of Marco Rivadeneira and to Protect Human Rights Defenders
March 25, 2020

We are grieved to learn of the death of Marco Rivadeneira, a community leader in Putumayo, Colombia. Rivadeneira was killed on March 19, 2020, by three armed men who entered a meeting where Rivadeneira and other community members were discussing voluntary eradication agreements between farmers and the Colombian government.

Rivadeneira was a human rights defender, a promoter of the peace accords, and a proponent of voluntary coca eradication efforts in his rural community. He was a leader of the Puerto Asis Campesino Association and a representative to the Guarantees Roundtable (a process intended to protect human rights defenders). Rivadeneira was also the representative of his region for the national network of 275 Colombian human rights groups known as the Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos. Coordinación and its members are close partners of many of our organizations.

This killing “underscores once again the lack of security guarantees for the work of human rights defenders and the lack of political will on the part of the Colombian government to dismantle the criminal structures and paramilitary organizations that continue to attack social leaders and those who defend peace in the countryside,” as Coordinación asserts. The Coordinación urges the government to act decisively to ensure that “enemies of peace” do not use the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 virus to continue to exterminate social leaders.

107 social leaders were assassinated in 2019, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia. One out of three human rights defenders killed in 2019 (documented by Frontline Defenders) was from Colombia. 2020 has started off with a wave of violence against them.

We urge the Colombian government to ensure this crime is effectively investigated and prosecuted and to communicate what steps are being taken to bring the perpetrators to justice. We also urge the Colombian government to provide effective guarantees for human rights defenders, social leaders, and those working to build peace in Colombia. This starts with the vigorous implementation of the 2016 peace accords in Colombia, including convoking the National Commission of Security Guarantees to create and implement a plan to protect communities and social leaders at risk.

We urge the U.S. government to vigorously support peace accord implementation in Colombia. This includes adhering to the drug policy chapter of the accord which mandates working closely with farming communities to voluntarily eradicate and replace coca with government assistance, rather than returning to ineffective and inhumane aerial spraying programs.

Colombia must not lose more leaders like Marco Rivadeneira who have worked so valiantly to bring human rights protections and peace to their communities.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Illicit Crop Eradication

A UN Special Rapporteur’s Report Caused Tensions with Colombia’s Government. Here’s What It Said.

March 12, 2020

On December 26, 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, released a report on the challenges that rights defenders are facing in Colombia. The report concluded that social leaders are in grave danger, and that the risks they face have increased in the three years since the signing of the Peace Agreement. The report provides analysis and recommendations that the Colombian government should follow to safeguard vulnerable communities throughout the country. The Government of Colombia, however, vehemently disagreed with Forst’s findings. It produced a 20-page response to the report, submitting it to the UN Human Rights Council. In the response, the government blames non-state armed actors for the attacks on defenders, takes issue with numerous phrases in Forst’s report, and claims that the report’s data is incomplete, limited, and biased.

Forst’s report, along with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ February 25 report on the country’s 2019 overall situation, caused tensions between the government of President Iván Duque and the United Nations. Forst was barred from entering the country in 2019 to complete research, which prevented him from presenting a more up-to-date version to the Council. High government officials continue to downplay the gravity of the security situation faced by social leaders—including Interior Minister Alicia Arango, who said on March 3 that more people are killed in the country for cellphone thefts than for being social leaders or human rights defenders.

What is in the report that so angered the Colombian government? Below are five main points from Special Rapporteur Michel Forst’s document.

  1. Assassinations and other attacks on human rights defenders are constant.

Assassinations of human rights defenders and social leaders—who work actively to implement the 2016 Peace Agreement—are constant and continue to escalate at alarming rates. According to the Special Rapporteur’s report, as of June 30, 2019, the Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) has reported over 486 assassinations since 2016. Other international observers and civil society organizations have reported different statistics on the total number of assassinations using distinct methodologies; however, rather than debating the methods of documentation, the report stressed that efforts should focus on understanding how to bolster the security situation for human rights defenders in Colombia.

2. Impunity provides an incentive to continue carrying out violations.

There is a high level of impunity for killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. In his report, the Special Rapporteur notes that cases that remain “with no establishment of guilt” exceed 89%, indicating a lack of recognition and justice for the victims and their families. The report suggests that this lack of recognition for victims provides a clear incentive for perpetrators to continue attacking social leaders.

3. Stigmatization and criminalization are common.

Political leaders, public officials, and other influential figures stigmatize and criminalize human rights defenders and social leaders, often characterizing them as guerrillas, guerrilla sympathizers, or anti-development terrorists. The report specifically points to a public declaration from the Governor of Antioquia, who stated, “Criminal gangs with close ties to the Gulf Clan illegal armed group and individuals linked to the National Liberation Army (ELN) were behind the miners’ strikes in Segovia and Remedios in 2018.” The report also highlights previous statements by the Minister of Defense that conflate public protests with organized crime activity. Mr. Forst argues, “Such statements undermine human rights defenders and expose them to greater risks and violations.”

4. Rural, ethnic, environmental, and women human rights defenders are among the most targeted.

Leaders in Colombia’s rural territories are among the most frequent targets of violations and assassinations. In its recommendations, the report highlighted the need to fortify security for social leaders who defend land, environmental, indigenous, and women’s rights. The report also notes a disproportionate number of attacks and assassinations of members of community action councils, ethnic leaders, victim’s rights defenders, farmers, land restitution claimants, and human rights lawyers.

5. Public and private companies continue to contribute to the human rights crisis.

National and international corporations operating in rural communities are adversely affecting the human rights situation in Colombia. Business interests and activity have resulted in the intimidation, criminalization, forced displacement, and killing of social leaders in their own communities. According to the report, 30% of recorded attacks occurred in areas with large-scale mining projects, while 28.5% took place in areas where palm oil, banana, and sugar cane agribusinesses operate.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, United Nations

Colombian Social Leaders at Great Risk in Chocó, Arauca, Cauca and Elsewhere

March 10, 2020

On March 4, unknown individuals killed Afro-Colombian Arley Hernan Chala, the bodyguard of prominent human rights defender and Afro-Colombian leader Leyner Palacios Asprilla. Leyner currently serves as the secretary general for the Interethnic Commission for Truth in the Pacific Region (Comision Interétnica de la Verdad de la Region Pacifico, CIVP) and is an active member of the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) and Ethnic Commission. In our urgent action dated January 9, we urged U.S. policymakers and others to act to prevent harm from being done to ethnic leaders from the Bojayá region of Chocó Department in Colombia’s Pacific.

We highlighted the deteriorating security situation faced by Leyner Palacios Asprilla and numerous other cases in a monthly urgent action alert on WOLA’s website.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders

Notes on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Annual Report

February 29, 2020

On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.

The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”

This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.

Here are some highlights from the report:

On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders

In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.

The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.

Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.

Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.

OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.

On the government’s response to these attacks

OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.

The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.

The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.

The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.

OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.

On the military and human rights

OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.

OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.

On blurring the lines between military and police

OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.

On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.

In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.

On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories

Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.

The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.

In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).

[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.

On illicit crop eradication and substitution

Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.

OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.

Tags: Attacks on social leaders, Civil-Military Relations, Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Illicit Crop Eradication, Military and Human Rights, Stabilization, UN

Civil Society Faces Deadly Threats in Colombia’s Chocó Region

August 8, 2019

When nearly 7,000 combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) disarmed and abandoned their strongholds in remote areas of Colombia, the Colombian government saw the opportunity to secure and establish themselves in communities that had not seen the rule of law in over half a century. The people of Chocó—Colombia’s most under-resourced region, with 45.1 percent of its population living under multidimensional poverty—were expectant. 

For the past four years, Chocóan civil society had undergone a transformation. Negotiations with the FARC in 2012 reduced combat operations and violence in the region, enabling leaders to organize and develop their activities with less fear of harm. This is important because during the 1990s-2000s, the civic space for these groups was decimated by violence and pressure exerted by illegal armed groups. 

During the peace accord negotiations, ethnic leaders were forced to mobilize at the national level and advocate internationally so that the rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous people were integrated into the accord. In a historic effort, Afro-Colombian and indigenous grassroots organizations united to form the Ethnic Commission for Peace. On August 2015, they negotiated the historic inclusion of the Ethnic Chapter in the peace accords. This chapter recognizes that Colombia’s ethnic minorities were disproportionately victimized by the internal armed conflict, and remedies this by guaranteeing that peace is implemented in a differentiated manner that respects their rights. Concurrently, a united front of women and LGBTQ+ organizations mobilized and established the Gender Sub-commission at the Havana negotiating table in 2014, leading to an integration of women and gender rights into the accord. 

As envisioned in the first point of the peace accord, the 16 most war-stricken regions around the country would build Development Plans with Territorial Focus (Planes de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial, PDETs), which would define the communities’ needs over the next 10 years of peace implementation. The ultimate goal of these development plans is to breach the socio-economic inequalities that have plagued these regions with violence. In the case of Chocó, more than 300 leaders worked to weave the Ethnic Chapter’s differential approach into their own Ethnic Territorial Development Plan.

As a longtime partner of these strengthened organizations, WOLA was part of a humanitarian observation mission to Chocó from July 2-5, 2019. Explored in more detail in an upcoming report, what we saw was bleak: about 11,300 people unable to move freely in the territory, 7,000 of which are indigenous people, more than 2,000 displaced, mostly indigenous, and a strategic dismantling of local civil society and closure of civic space by armed actors.

“After the signing of the peace accords in 2016, we had eight months of peace and quiet,” said a representative of the Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum of Chocó. “Then the paramilitaries came back, then the ELN.

Although the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerillas and the paramilitary Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) were always present in Chocó, the FARC controlled the majority of the territory with little contestation. After their disarmament, the Colombian government  saw these territories claimed by a fast advancing ELN who clashed with the AGC amongst the population. The ELN grew from 90 fighters limited to a few municipalities in the south of the region, to over 400 men in 75 percent of Chocó, all in less than two years. Within an eight-month period, communities saw themselves confined to their houses, unable to organize, fish, farm, or even escape as their territory had been littered with anti-personnel mines and sporadic firefights. 

Nevertheless, 87 civil society organizations of all stripes met to draft theChoco Now! Humanitarian Agreement proposed on September 2018 to the ELN and Colombian government negotiating in Havana. One of the organizations that led this grassroots proposal was the Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum of Chocó (Foro Interétnico Solidaridad Chocó). A perfect example of how Chocóan civil society remains dynamic and integrative, it is conformed by 78 organizations and community councils, both Afro-Colombian and indigenous, from all of Chocó. 

The Inter-ethnic Solidarity Forum establishes a united front, representing extremely diverse and marginalized communities. Institutional and civic spaces of their own creation gave way to communication networks amongst isolated communities that now quickly alert local and international civil society the moment any violation occurs, instead of having to endure victimization in silence. Social media and linkage with international organizations means Chocó’s ethnic communities can report and mobilize like never before. 

Unfortunately, a July 17, 2019 ELN terrorist attack on a police academy that left 21 casualties and 70 injured prompted President Ivan Duque to end negotiations with the ELN and order the immediate capture of the guerilla high command, who were negotiating in Cuba at the time. Since then, the unrestrained fighting between the government and illegal armed groups over territorial control and illicit economies has drastically deepened the humanitarian crisis in Chocó.

Chocó’s natural resource richness, inaccessibility, and connection to both oceans make it prime real estate of strategic geographical value for armed groups. The second largest producer of gold in the country, it is estimated 60 percent of Chocó’s gold leaves the Colombia illegally. By some estimates, this makes illegal gold exploitation more profitable than cocaine in Colombia’s Pacific region. An increase of coca crops, alongside the usage of  Chocó’s coasts as shipping points, have armed actors fighting viciously over control of the department. 

Armed groups have subjugated communities in places of strategic value for decades, placing them under complete social control. Nevertheless, a period of FARC hegemony over the region allowed some traditional authorities to retain their positions of leadership. Indeed, some leaders were able to negotiate effectively with the guerilla high command if FARC fighters overstepped boundaries with the community. 

Now that the FARC has left Chocó, and the State has failed to establish control, armed actors seek to subjugate these populations once again.

The difference is that the multiplicity of armed actors, the long periods of active fighting, and the lack of clear territorial boundaries makes the approach of these armed groups more vicious and in no way conciliatory, leaving little space for these newfound, highly vulnerable civil society organizations to exercise their leadership..

Since local government is corrupted, infiltrated by illegal armed groups, and incapable of controlling the territory, Chocó’s civil society is the population’s first and only line of defense against renewed victimization. Likewise, Chocó’s civil society is the only thing standing in the way of control of these widely profitable and vulnerable areas by illegal armed groups. 

However, armed groups are pursuing a strategy of confining and eroding civil society, by restricting the freedom of movement that would allow groups to meet, issuing threats and attacks against social leaders (in many cases forcing them to leave the region), and even infiltrating these same organizations and compromising their legitimacy. All of these serves to disempower the capacity of Chocó’s civil society to lobby and organize among themselves. 

There are other abhorrent effects of the ongoing conflict in Chocó. Both confined and displaced communities cannot engage in cultural practices—a fundamental basis for their resilience— that are deeply rooted in their ties to the land they have inhabited for hundreds of years. Children cannot attend school, increasing their likelihood of recruitment by armed groups and potentially foregoing the passage of ancestral knowledge to a new generation. 

During WOLA’s field trip to the region, multiple sources reported the cohabitation and collaboration of the Colombian army and the paramilitaries, positioned in the Atrato River just a few miles ahead of each other.

One particularly sinister practice of the ELN is the recruiting of indigenous teenagers to spy and report on Afro-Colombian communities, and vice versa, to sow mistrust between them. Many asserted that the army would handpick those thought to be ELN sympathizers for the paramilitaries to kill. Usually, individuals are forced to collaborate or be killed, and afterwards they are immediately branded as enemy sympathizers by the competing armed group—helplessly forced between a rock and a hard place.

Colombian ethnic civil society has increasingly become more vibrant and active, as seen when various groups came together to negotiate the historic inclusion of an Ethnic Chapter in the 2016 peace accords, or when ethnic communities organized to formulate transformative development plans for their regions, or when they helped craft a humanitarian accord based on international humanitarian law standards— these are achievements showcasing the momentum and capacity developed by Colombia’s ethnic civil society. Chocó—Colombia’s department with the highest concentration of ethnic populations— serves as an example for the rest of the country in terms of how an active, engaged civil society can bring about positive change. However, old patterns of violence seek to drag Chocóan communities back into a history of subjugation. The Ethnic Chapter, along with the totality of the peace accord, must be fully implemented now more than ever in order to prevent this.

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Human Rights Defenders, Indigenous Communities

International Civil Society Organizations Warn of Human Rights Crisis Jeopardizing Peace Accords

June 7, 2019

Alarmed by the deteriorating human rights situation and the return of violence to rural Colombia, 23 International Civil Society Organizations released a public statement demanding action from the Colombian government. With over 40 years of experience working on peace-building in Colombia, the organizations condemn the government’s delays and reneging on peace accord implementation, attacks to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP), and violence against social leaders and human rights defenders. The article makes reference to the recent New York Times’ article exposing military directives demanding increased body counts, the murder of former FARC combatant Dimar Torres on April 22, and the 62 social leaders murdered so far in 2019.

The May 30 statement demands Duque sign the JEP’s statutory law and abstain from promoting members of the military who have links to extrajudicial killings. On June 6, the president signed the law as asked and the Senate voted in favor of promoting General Nicasio Martínez despite the objections of human rights organizations. The statement also calls for the investigation of the murders and attacks on social leaders, the extended presence of the UN Verification Mission and renewal of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights among other requests.

Here is the full statement translated into English:

Public Statement

International Civil Society Organizations Express their Serious Concern for the Grave Humanitarian and Human Rights Crisis in Colombia Jeopardizing the Sustainability of the Peace Accord

The International Civil Society Organizations signatory of this statement, in reference to our mandates, have been committed to the respect for human dignity, the guarantee of rights, the construction of peace, and the negotiated termination of the Colombian armed conflict for over 40 years.

                We recognize the importance of the agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP guerilla signed on November 2016, as well as the dialogues with the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), now sadly stagnant due to lack of political will.

                The reneging and delays on the commitments made in the Final Agreement (FA), the permanent attacks against the Integral System for Truth, Justice, Reparations, and no Repetition (Sistema Integral de Verdad, Justicia, Reparación y no Repetición, SIVJR) – particularly towards the decisions of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP), place the lives and lawfulness of those participating under this jurisdiction at risk, including members of the FARC.

                This along with the murders, threats, intimidations, and stigmatizations against human rights defenders, environmentalists, and persons participating in voluntary illicit-use crop substitution, place the possibility to consolidate peace under serious threat.

According to the Center for Research and Education’s Program for Peace (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular, CINEP), their 2018 category for political violence reports 648 murders, 1151 death threats, 304 injured, 48 attacks, 22 forced disappearances, three cases of sexual assaults, and 243 arbitrary detentions. So far, 62 social leaders have been murdered in 2019[1].

The annual report of the We Are Defenders Program (Programa Somos Defensores), published this year on April, states that in 2018 there were 16 women human rights defenders murdered, surpassing the murder rate of male human rights defenders[2].

The New York Times recently exposed[3] a military directive that could bring back the infamous “false positives” within the Colombian Armed Forces, as seen in the case of demobilized FARC-EP member Dimar Torres, who was murdered by an active member of the military on April 22, 2019. Dimar’s murder in the Colombian northeast was confirmed as a military killing by general Diego Luis Villegas[4].

The government’s response to these reports is worrying. Among these are the Defense Minister’s recent statement denying the existence of said directive, and the inflammatory remarks made by a government party congresswoman, which forced the article’s author[5] and photographer to leave the country[6].

The Colombian government has the obligation to guarantee Human Rights, honor the commitments made in the peace accords with the FARC-EP, and respond effectively to protect the life and dignity of those who are put at great risk for advancing peace and Human Rights.

Thus, we demand the Colombian government to:

  • Order government officials to abstain from making speeches that stigmatize those who defend peace and Human Rights, as well as civilians.
  • Order the respective authorities to carry out investigations and sanctions towards the material and intellectual authors of the murders, attacks, and threats against Human Rights defenders and FARC-EP leaders who seek reintegration into civilian life.
  • Ratify the statutory law of the JEP and comply with its decisions. In this regard, investigate the facts surrounding the recapture of Mr. Seuxis Paucias Hernández, establish its legality, the truth about his situation, and guarantee him his right to due process.
  • Abstain from promoting high ranking members of the military that have been admitted to the JEP, or have open judicial cases, as a measure to guarantee non-repetition to the victims of conflict[7].
  • To the President, as commander in chief of the military, that he ensure that all orders, manuals, and operational documents of the military comply with national and international law as well as Human Rights and International Human Rights Law.
  • Extend the presence of the UN Verification Mission and renew the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as recognition to the work of the international community on Human Rights.
  • Guarantee the right to information by protecting free and independent journalism.

We request that the diplomatic apparatus, international community, and guarantor countries of the peace process demand the Colombian government honors the Final Agreement and takes the necessary measures so that its implementation is not bloodier than the conflict it aims to overcome. 

As civil society organizations, we reiterate our compromise to the construction of complete peace in Colombia and we will keep on working alongside victims, rural communities, persons on transit to civilian life, and the Colombian civil society at large.

Bogotá, May 30, 2019


[1] https://www.cinep.org.co/Home2/component/k2/690-informe-ddhh-violencia-camuflada-labase-social-en-riesgo.html

[2] https://somosdefensores.org/2019/04/23/la-naranja-mecanica/

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/es/2019/05/18/colombia-ejercito-falsos-positivos/

[4] https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/judicial/homicidio-de-dimar-torres-fue-una-ejecucionextrajudicial-comision-de-paz-articulo-852708

[5] https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/periodista-del-new-york-times-abandona-el-pais-poracusaciones-del-maria-fernan-cabal/616115

[6] https://www.elpais.com.co/colombia/otro-periodista-sale-de-por-senalamientos-contrapublicacion-the-new-york-times-nicholas-casey.html

[7] https://www.france24.com/es/20190302-human-rights-watch-colombia-ejecuciones-extrajudiciale

Tags: FARC, Human Rights Defenders, JEP

Colombian Congress Concerned About U.S. Ambassador Whitaker

April 24, 2019

The below post features a letter from several members of Colombia’s Congress who support full implementation of the peace accord. They emphatically reject views that U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker expressed in some unusual early April meetings with Colombian legislators. An account of these meetings was first reported in the Bogotá daily El Espectador. That report showed Whitaker, a career diplomat now completing his fifth year as ambassador, hinting that

  1. All U.S. aid to Colombia may be cut if Congress rejects President Iván Duque’s objections to the law underlying the transitional justice system. Colombia’s House overwhelmingly rejected those objections on April 8
  2. President Trump may “decertify” Colombia in September for being a poor partner in the drug war.
  3. The extradition of former FARC negotiator Jesus Santrich is a “point of honor” for the U.S. government.

The letter continues:

 

Press Release

Denouncing the Ambassador of the United States in Colombia’s Intrusion

 

We, the undersigned Members of Congress, affirm the following:

  1. We reject the U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker’s open intrusion into Colombia’s domestic politics. We do not consider the intervention into the legislative debate a legitimate exercise of his diplomatic privileges in Colombia, especially in regard to the transitional justice system and the peace process. Thus, any form of political pressure on members of the Legislative or Judicial branches, even in the form of statements or suggestions in a public forum, are inadmissible. The role of diplomacy is to cultivate and maintain good relations between countries, people, and governments and not to get involved in the country’s own political issues and democratic functions.
  2. We express our solidarity with John Jairo Cárdenas, representative of the Chamber of Representatives and member of the U Party on the Chamber’s Peace Commission, in light of the announcement from the U.S. Embassy suspending his visa. We consider this action to be an unwarranted conflict in our normally cordial bilateral relations. We are willing to respond proportionately to express our dissatisfaction with the treatment given to our fellow Representative Cárdenas.
  3. We additionally establish that the position taken by the U.S. ambassador regarding the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) and its legality contradicts the statements and positioned that the U.S. government has adopted in its capacity as a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council. Jonathan Cohen, the previous ambassador from the United States, issued the following statement in the name of his government: “We reaffirm the importance of Colombia’s enforcement of the Statutory Law of the JEP, as it empowers the judicial body to act in an independent and effective manner.
  4. We ask that President Iván Duque Márquez, acting through the offices of Chancellor Carlos Holmes Trujillo, communicates this position from the National Government of Colombia rejecting this act violating our national sovereignty.

Signed:

Angélica Lozano

Senator of the Republic of Colombia

Gustavo Petro

Senator of the Republic of Colombia

Julián Gallo Cubillos

Senator of the Republic of Colombia

Iván Cepeda Castro

Senator of the Republic of Colombia

Wilson Arias Castillo

Senator of the Republic of Colombia

Luis Alberto Albán Urbano

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Jorge Gómez

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Juanita Goebertus

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Ángela María Robledo

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Jorge Enrique Robledo

Senator of the Republic of Colombia

Katherine Miranda Peña

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Omar Restrepo

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Fabián Díaz

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Alberto Castilla

Senator of the Republic of Colombia

Antonio Sanguino

Senator of the Republic of Colombia

Jairo Cala Suárez

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Carlos Alberto Carreño

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Benedicto González

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

María José Pizarro

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

León Fredy Muñoz

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Wilmer Leal

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

David Racero

Representative of the Republic of Colombia

Tags: Human Rights Defenders, U.S. Congress, U.S. Policy

Afro-Colombian Leader Urges Global Community to Widen its Laser Focus on Venezuela to Prioritize Peace in Colombia

April 18, 2019

Erlendy Cuero Bravo was honored by Johns Hopkins University on February 18 in a ceremony in Baltimore for her tireless defense of Afro-Colombian human rights despite repeated threats to her life.

While global attention has concentrated on the grave humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, Cuero Bravo focused her Washington D.C. on sounding the alarm about neighboring Colombia’s protracted civil conflict and the fragility of the 2016 peace deal that faces daily threats from the Colombian government.

Cuero Bravo is the vice president of AFRODES, an organization fighting for the rights of Afro-Colombians displaced by armed conflict. AFRODES was founded in 1999 and represents a coalition of 96 organizations with over 90,000 members. Cuero Bravo accepted the Anne Smedinghoff Award and presented her work before Johns Hopkins students and faculty.

“I am originally from a small village in Buenaventura,” she said. “But I fled to Cali after my father was murdered.”

Beginning with the loss of her father, Cuero Bravo has endured a succession of threats and tragedies from her activism. One of AFRODES’s most visible leaders, she represents a default target for armed groups. Though finally granted state protection after a series of bureaucratic delays, she now lives in hiding in a situation she compares to a drug trafficker evading the law.

Armed groups have gone so far as to threaten Cuero-Bravo’s children. “I thought that if I am going to die defending the work I do, that’s one thing, but I will not stand to allow anything to happen to my child,” she said.

Cuero Bravo dismissed many state protection measures as completely ineffective. She described one protection protocol as simply a daily visit from police to see if the social leader is still alive. In another, a social leader is taken to a hotel for five days before moving back to the threatened area.

“The only weapon we have is our words,” she said.

In a separate meeting with WOLA and other human rights organizations, Cuero Bravo detailed disproportionate impact of both poverty and violence on Afro-Colombian women. Threats of physical violence come from criminal gangs, paramilitaries, small-scale drug traffickers, and false accusations from the police that target human rights defenders.

The circumstances of deprivation that displaced Afro-Colombians and others are enduring have recently become obscured by the Venezuelan refugee crisis.

“We want to help our Venezuelan sisters and brothers,” Cuero Bravo said during the event with WOLA. “But it’s hard to see President Duque promising immediate aid to them while we [the displaced population in Colombia] still don’t have access to education, housing, or schools for our children.”

Cuero Bravo expressed her concern that the influx of Venezuelan refugees will present Colombia’s internally displaced population with a competition for resources and exacerbate the unemployment that feeds the country’s cycle of violence.

The high unemployment and economic stress afflicting displaced communities and ethnic minorities creates an environment that enhances the vulnerability for young people to be recruited into illegal trafficking or gang-related groups. Many armed groups focus on recruiting children due to the reduced legal penalties for children under the age of 18.

What worries Cuero Bravo most is the lack of hope she sees in her community’s youth. “The young people see the toll it takes to fight for our rights, and now they don’t want to be social leaders anymore.”

Still, Cuero Bravo pointed to several positive signs of progress in the Afro-Colombian community. Youth programs, like one in Cali that supports 1300 young people with access to education and job training, have the potential to significantly decrease the violence in the region.

“There are so many resources in Colombia,” Cuero Bravo said. “There’s no reason why Colombia shouldn’t be a rich country.”

Written by Julia Friedmann, Colombia Program Intern

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Human Rights Defenders

A Lack of Political Will Abandons Ethnic Minorities in Colombia to a Deteriorating Security Situation

April 18, 2019

Indigenous and Afro-Colombian civil society leaders denounced the assassination crisis which has claimed the lives of 58 minority social leaders during a historic hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) on February 15.

The hearing, jointly requested by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), the National Association of Displaced Afro-descendants (AFRODES), the Consultancy for Human Rights (CODHES), WOLA, and the Center for Justice and International Law, allowed indigenous leaders to raise their concerns about enhanced environments of violence in their communities.

Indigenous civil society representatives from the departments of Amazonas, Putumayo, and others called on the Colombian government to enhance security in their communities. Andro Pieguaje, a representative of the Siona people in the Putumayo Department, reminded IACHR that indigenous and Afro-Colombian security has only worsened after the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC.

“The post-conflict situation has left [indigenous] territories abandoned,” Pieguaje said. “We’re left with paramilitaries and narco-paramilitaries who fight to control our territories and their resources, as well as the illicit crops.”

 

Identifying the Problem Becomes Difficult with Two Stories and Two Sets of Facts

Civil society and Colombian government representatives disputed the number of social leaders assassinated and threatened since 2016.

According to ONIC data presented by Patricia Suárez, 206 indigenous people have been murdered and 6,580 displaced since 2016. Twenty minutes later, the Colombian General Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General) identified just 38 murders during the same period. During questioning, the Colombian state justified their statistics by noting that they came from the United Nations.

Both civil society and the government agreed on the location of the crisis. The regions registering the greatest threats to indigenous leaders were listed as Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó, La Guajira, Nariño, Antioquia, Putumayo, and Norte del Santander.

“The map of the affected areas and damage directly corresponds to an ethnic map [of Colombia],” said one of the lawyers representing civil society.

The humanitarian crisis in Colombia’s indigenous communities extends beyond the assassination of social leaders. “I’m here to bring the voice ofthe 102 indigenous nations of Colombia,” said one representative of the Naza people in Cauca. “The majority of us are living through the disappearance and extermination of our cultural identity.”

 

The Government’s Response

Government representatives rejected the accusations from civil society that their protection efforts were insufficient.

Referring to a government report, one Colombian state representative identified five factors that correlated with the assassinations. Four of the five factors blamed competition between armed extra-governmental actors, while one pointed to the “slow stabilization” of former FARC territory.

Pablo Elías González defended the government’s protection record. As the head of the National Protection Unit (UNP), he stated that 441 Afro-Colombian and 536 indigenous leaders had received protection. He also described the UNP practice as a dialogue with each individual in order to maximize their applicability to each culture.

Indigenous civil society representatives consistently cited the government’s slow response to protection as the deciding factor behind the violence. They also noted that the National Protection Unit (UNP) process was slowed by excessive bureaucratic hurdles and, when it was granted at all, often worsened the surrounding community’s security.

“The state lacks political will, because the process is slow enough that many leaders are killed before receiving protection,” Suárez said.

Súarez also pushed back against the government’s claim that it was implementing consultation-based policies. “We’ve showed up, and we’ve added our voices, but in practice there aren’t any advances [in indigenous security,” she said.

 

Moving Forward

Indigenous leaders proposed 10 mandates for both the IACHR and the Colombian government.

The recommendations focused on rapid investigations and response to murders and threats, prior consultation with indigenous communities about their protection, implementation of the Ethnic Chapters of both the 2016 peace accord and the 2018 National Development Plan, and a request that the CIDH visit the affected territories and hold the Colombian government accountable for implementing enhanced protection.

The hearing was intended to bring international pressure to bear on a Colombian government that has historically neglected ethnic minorities. The alarming number of social leaders killed in Colombia represents, as Súarez noted, a “lack of political will.”

Written by Julia Friedmann, Colombia Program Intern

Tags: Human Rights Defenders, Indigenous Communities, Inter-American System

Last week in Colombia’s Peace Process: Week of August 19-25

August 29, 2018

(Week of August 19-25)

ELN Still Hasn’t Released Captives and Hostages

The ELN’s release of four soldiers, three police, and two civilians in its custody, believed imminent, still hasn’t happened yet. Guerrilla fronts in Chocó and Arauca captured the nine on August 3rd and 8th, and President Iván Duque (who was inaugurated August 7th) has demanded their unconditional release before deciding whether to continue peace talks begun by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos.

A week ago, Colombia’s Defense Ministry stated that it had agreed with the ELN on a protocol for freeing the captives, with the participation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In Havana, chief ELN negotiator Pablo Beltrán told The New York Times that “the nine captives would be released ‘within the next week.’ But two days later, a recording from the ELN’s Western War Front, its hard-line bloc, which has released pictures of some of the hostages, said no agreement had been reached.”

The situation remains unclear. The Defense Ministry has refused to recognize the liberation as part of the peace negotiation, which the Duque government still hasn’t committed to continuing. The ELN has meanwhile reportedly sent members of its negotiating team to Colombia to work out handover details, but it is not known whether they have yet been in touch with the government.

“Uriel,” the commander of the ELN’s Western War Front, “complained about military pressure in the zone,” according to El Tiempo, which in his judgment is reducing the kidnap victims’ [security] guarantees.”

Interviewed by The New York Times, negotiator Beltrán insisted that the ELN wants to continue dialogue with the new Duque government, and promised reasonable terms. “‘We’re not asking for socialism, he said, adding that his rebels are mainly looking for basic protections for peasants and a way that the rebels can lay down arms.” Beltrán noted that guerrillas he has spoken with, after viewing the sluggish implementation of the FARC peace accord, are concerned that the government won’t honor an agreement. “We have an example that has us scared,” he told the Times, referring to the FARC process.

Murders of Social Leaders Are Not Slowing

On August 23 President Duque, accompanied by the internal-affairs chief (Procurador), human rights ombudsman (Defensor), the U.S. ambassador, the ministers of Defense and Interior, and other officials, presided over an event to lay out a policy for protecting threatened social leaders and human rights defenders. The “Second Table for the Protection of Life” took place in Apartadó, in the troubled Urabá region of northwest Colombia, a zone of drug transshipment, much stolen landholding, and frequent attacks on social leaders. About 90 social organizations were in attendance.

Those present signed a “pact for life and protection of social leaders and human rights defenders,” which El Nuevo Siglo described as “an immediate roadmap to ‘rebuild trust in justice and to judge the material and intellectual authors of this criminal phenomenon.’”

The phenomenon remains intense. Ombudsman Carlos Negret announced that the August 22 murder of Luis Henry Verá Gamboa, a 51-year-old Community Action Board leader in Cesar department, was the 343rd killing of a social leader in Colombia since January 2016: one every 2.8 days. At least 123 killings—two every three days—took place during the first six months of 2018, The Guardian reported.

Deputy Chief Prosecutor (Vicefiscal) María Paulina Riveros, who attended the Apartadó event, said that her office has arrested 150 people and identified 200 suspects tied to the killings of social leaders; she did not say how many are suspected trigger-pullers versus those believed to have planned or ordered killings. In Urabá and northern Antioquia department, she added, businesses and landowners who resist restitution of stolen landholdings are heavily involved in killings of land claimants.

Procurador Fernando Carrillo said that his office will pressure mayors and governors to take more actions against killings of human rights defenders, adding that 30 officials are currently under investigation for failing to prevent the murders.

“If we want to guarantee the life and integrity of our social leaders, we have to dismantle the structures of organized crime that are attacking them,” Duque said. He added, “What we want is to seek an integral response of preventive actions and investigative speed to guarantee freedom of expression to all the people who are exercising the defense of human rights.”

Some social leaders, while glad to see a high-profile commitment, voiced concern about follow-through. “It’s not enough to draw up a lot of norms and mechanisms, if they don’t end up being effective instruments in their application, if they’re handed down from above but get lost on their way to the regions,” said Marino Córdoba of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians.

New Peace Commissioner Meets Senior FARC Leader

The Duque government’s new high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, toured some of the sites (“Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation”) where many demobilized FARC members are still living. Accompanied by UN Verification Mission chief Jean Arnault at the site in Pondores, La Guajira, Ceballos met with former FARC Secretariat member Joaquín Gómez of the former Southern Bloc. Ceballos’s message was that the new government intends to respect the Santos government’s commitments for the reintegration of demobilized guerrillas.

Two of the most prominent demobilized FARC leaders, however, are still unaccounted for. Former Secretariat member Iván Márquez, a hardliner who was the FARC’s chief negotiator in Havana, has not been heard from in about a month. The same is true of Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias El Paisa, the former head of the FARC’s feared Teófilo Forero Column. Both Márquez and Velásquez had been staying at a demobilization site in Caquetá; Márquez moved there in April, after renouncing his assigned Senate seat in the wake of the arrest, on narcotrafficking charges, of his close associate and fellow FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich.

FARC Senator Carlos Antonio Lozada told Colombian media that he doesn’t know where Márquez and Velásquez are and hasn’t heard from them. He said he hoped to see Márquez at a late August meeting of FARC political party leaders. Ariel Ávila, an analyst at the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, told El Colombiano, “there are many rumors about what they could be doing, that they’re in Venezuela, that they’re in hiding, that they’ve joined the dissident groups.”

FARC Dissidents Expanding in Catatumbo Region

Catatumbo, a poorly governed region of smallholding farmers in Norte de Santander department near the Venezuelan border, has already been suffering a wave of violence between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a small guerrilla group that is almost exclusively active there. Now, reports La Silla Vacía, the largest FARC dissident group has arrived in Catatumbo, especially in areas that had previously been the dominion of the FARC’s disbanded 33rd Front.

Basing itself mainly on military intelligence sources, La Silla claims that dissidents from the FARC’s 7th Front, active in south-central Colombia, are branching out. 7th Front leader “Gentil Duarte” has sent one of his most notorious deputies, “John 40”—a FARC leader with a long history in the cocaine trade—to Catatumbo to build up recruitment and recover control of trafficking routes.

According to Army Intelligence information, his appearance in the area occurred between four and five months ago, when it was already known in the region that several ex-FARC members had decided to return to arms, and those who were not organizing on their own in small groups were dividing themselves between the ranks of the ELN and the EPL. What is clear is that John 40 came to organize them to prevent the new reorganizations from being dispersed or ending up simply strengthening the other two guerrilla groups, at a time when the coca market in Catatumbo is skyrocketing.

Wilfredo Cañizares of the Fundación Progresar think-tank in nearby Cúcuta told La Silla that Catatumbo may now have as many as 30,000 hectares of coca, at least 6,000 more than were measured in 2016.

Duarte and John 40 both abandoned the FARC in 2016, objecting to the peace accord the guerrillas were signing with the government. They are now part of the largest dissident group in the country, beginning to coordinate well beyond their center of operations in Meta and Guaviare departments. While La Silla’s military intelligence source said that the group has only about 33 men in the Catatumbo region, “seven sources we talked to in Catatumbo, among them local authorities and social leaders, said that the number could be between four and seven times larger.”

The 7th Front has avoided drawing attention to itself in Catatumbo, even as ELN-EPL fighting has caused a humanitarian crisis in the region. However, some of La Silla’s sources say the dissidents may have been behind a massacre three weeks ago in the central Catatumbo municipality of El Tarra.

Two sources in El Tarra told us that with the passing of days, the hypothesis that has grown strongest is that it was a dispute between dissidences. “Everything points to the dissidence of John 40 being the one that ordered the massacre, because the dissidents who died did not want to align with him and the model he came to put together,” one of those sources told La Silla.

Citing a human rights defender, an Army source, a social leader, and two local authorities, the report adds that the presence in Catatumbo of middlemen from Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel is adding fuel to the fire. Three sources told La Silla Vacía that, while Sinaloa’s representatives aren’t behaving like an armed group in the region, they have a great deal of money, and as a result are under the protection of both guerrillas and corrupt members of the Army and Police.

Displacement Has Already Surpassed 2017 Levels

Speaking at a Cali event organized by El Espectador’s Colombia 2020 program, Jozef Merkx, the Colombia country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, drew attention with a grim piece of data: “in August 2018 Colombia has surpassed the number of internally displaced people that was measured in all of 2017.” That makes more than 20,000 Colombians forced from their homes by violence so far this year.

Merkx added that displacement is most severe along the Pacific Coast, in Catatumbo, and in Antioquia’s Bajo Cauca region. Mass displacements have also occurred in Meta, Arauca, and Córdoba departments. All of these zones have seen intense fighting this year between still-existing guerrillas like the ELN and EPL, armed organized crime groups like the Urabeños, or FARC dissidents.

The UNHCR official noted that 60 percent of the displaced have settled in 29 cities, where they often continue face severe security challenges. The same neighborhoods are also seeing a large flow of Venezuelans, a migration emergency that is much larger in number and has been getting much more attention. A UN Secretary-General spokesman said in mid-August that 2.3 million Venezuelans—7 percent of the neighboring country’s population—had abandoned the country as of June. Of those, 1.3 million were “suffering from malnourishment.”

WSJ Report Reveals New Details About Drone Coca Eradication Plan

An August 19 Wall Street Journal report gave some new information about Colombia’s plan to start eradicating the country’s still-increasing coca crop by spraying herbicides from low-flying drones. The herbicide would continue to be glyphosate, which Colombia stopped spraying from higher-flying aircraft in 2015, after a World Health Organization study pointed to some probability that the commonly used herbicide is carcinogenic.

Colombian police, along with a company called Fumi Drone, have been testing the new method using 10 drones in Nariño, the department with Colombia’s highest concentration of coca. Fully loaded with herbicide, each drone weighs 50 pounds and must be recharged after about a dozen minutes. “The small, remotely guided aircraft destroyed hundreds of acres of coca in a first round of tests,” police and Fumi Drone told the Journal.

The United States backed an aircraft-based glyphosate spraying program for more than 20 years. It proved capable of achieving short-term reductions in coca cultivation, in specific areas—but in an on-the-ground context of absent government and no basic services, growers tended to replant quickly. Because spraying from dozens or hundreds of feet in the air is very imprecise, farmers also alleged health and environmental damage—which U.S. officials denied—and the destruction of legal food crops.

Since 2015, Colombia’s forcible coca eradication has mainly involved individual eradicators either pulling the plants out of the ground or directly applying glyphosate. This is dangerous work, and hundreds of eradicators or security-force accompaniers have been killed or wounded since the mid-2000s by ambushes, snipers, landmines, and booby traps.

Critics warn that, while drones are safer for eradicators and less likely to spray people and legal crops, they do not solve the fundamental problem: coca-growing areas are abandoned by the government, and those who live there have shaky property rights, no farm-to-market roads, and few economic options. Spraying from the air and leaving no presence on the ground, then, virtually guarantees that coca cultivation will recur. “It’s a short-term solution,” Richard Lapper of the U.K.-based Chatham House think tank told the BBC. “Ultimately, there’s a lot of international demand for cocaine.”

U.S. government officials told the Wall Street Journal that they’re not completely sold on the drone idea. “[T]hey are open to using drones but need to learn more about their capabilities once Colombia’s police complete tests, which could run until January.” As he has in the past, Ambassador Kevin Whitaker made clear that the door remains open to using spray aircraft.

Seven or eight of the crop dusters that had worked the coca fields here remain in Colombia. [There were 14.] In a few months, U.S. officials say, they could become operational again. “I told embassy personnel and the Colombians the same thing: We need to be ready for a restart,” said the U.S. ambassador, Mr. Whitaker.

Meanwhile, participants in the voluntary crop substitution program begun under Chapter 4 of the FARC peace accord remain uncertain about whether Iván Duque’s government will continue the effort, known as the National Integral Illicit-Use Crop Substitution Plan (PNIS). Defense Minister Guillermo Botero raised concerns when he announced: “Voluntary eradication is over, and it will become obligatory… the fumigations will surely have to take place… we’re going to dedicate ourselves tenaciously to the eradication of illicit crops.”

Ten social and coca-grower organizations that have served as intermediaries for the PNIS program responded with a letter to President Duque asking him to keep the program in place. As laid out in the accord, the Santos Presidency’s crop substitution program has already promised two years of financial and technical assistance to 124,745 coca-growing households, signing individual accords with 77,659 of them. About 47,910 have eradicated about 22,000 hectares of coca in exchange for promised support, which has been arriving slowly.

In other bad drug-trade news, a decorated U.S. Army Special Forces sergeant, Daniel Gould, was arrested after DEA agents found 90 pounds of cocaine inside two backpacks aboard a military transport plane in Colombia. The plane was bound for Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. A Defense Department spokesman confirmed the allegations, which were revealed by NBC News, but did not elaborate, citing “the integrity of the investigation and the rights of the individual.”

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Demobilization Disarmament and Reintegration, Drug Policy, ELN Peace Talks, Human Rights Defenders, Weekly update

Last Week in Colombia’s Peace Process: Week of April 22-28

May 3, 2018

Jesús Santrich Case

Arrested FARC leader Seusis Pausias Hernández alias Jesús Santrich remains in Bogotá’s La Picota prison, where he is continuing a hunger strike that began after his April 9 arrest. He agreed to receive medical attention, but only from “trusted personnel.”

Colombia’s judicial system—both the transitional system set up by the FARC peace accord and the regular criminal system—are awaiting a formal request for Santrich’s extradition from the U.S. Justice Department’s Southern District of New York. That is where Santrich was indicted on April 4 to face charges of conspiring with Mexican traffickers to send 10 tons of cocaine to the United States.

The Colombian investigative website La Silla Vacía reported that three people with whom the site consulted,

(a journalist who has covered narcotrafficking for decades, an investigator who is an expert on the issue, and a lawyer who used to defend narcos), said that upon viewing the evidence, they were convinced that the case is not a fake setup.
… What they do believe is that it looks like “entrapment” by the DEA, which over several months put together an operation with undercover agents in order to catch someone in the act who believed he was negotiating with narcos.

Santrich’s closest ally in the FARC leadership, Iván Márquez, told an interviewer that until the jailed ex-guerrilla leader is freed, Márquez will not take his seat in Colombia’s Senate. (The peace accord gives the FARC five seats in each chamber of Colombia’s Congress for eight years, starting when the new session begins in July.) “How can I go on July 20 and be a senator… when they could go and tell me I’m a narcotrafficker? …What I’m saying is very hard because it means the failure of the peace process in Colombia.”

Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator in the Havana peace talks and is often referred to as the group’s number-two leader, was elected to Congress and served briefly during a failed 1980s FARC process. He left Bogotá in mid-April, relocating to a former demobilization site in a rural zone of his native department of Caquetá. If Márquez does not serve in the Senate, his seat will go to Israel Alberto Zúniga alias Benkos Biojó, the former commander of the FARC’s 34th front in Chocó and Urabá.

Márquez’s angry statements about the Santrich situation contrast with calls from other top FARC leaders, who have called for calm. “The moment we signed the accord, we accepted the constitution and the laws,” reads a statement from top FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez, “and it is our duty to act according to them. Whoever does not should prepare for the consequences, and it would be difficult for them to ask the [FARC] party’s solidarity.” A source in the FARC told El Tiempo of “alarm” within the organization about apparent divergence between the group’s hardliners, like Márquez, and moderates.

A key hardliner, Hernán Darío Velásquez alias “El Paisa,” abandoned the Caquetá demobilization site where he was living (Miravalle, the same site where Márquez is now), conditioning his return on Santrich’s freedom. During the conflict, Velásquez headed one of the FARC’s most deadly and powerful units, the Teófilo Forero Column active in south-central Colombia and occasionally in cities. According to La Silla Vacía, this unit carried out the 2003 El Nogal bomb attack in Bogotá, which killed 36 people; the 2001 kidnapping of 12 from a building in Neiva, the capital of Huila; the 2003 “house bomb” that killed 6 in Neiva; the 2000 assassination of congressman Diego Turbay; the 2002 airplane hijacking and kidnapping of a senator that triggered the end of the 1998-2002 peace process; and the 2012 bomb in Bogotá targeting former interior minister Fernando Londoño.

Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera pointed out that “El Paisa” is free to leave anytime. “The Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces are not a prison. People can come and go freely.” This is true at least until they are called to stand trial for war crimes in the new transitional justice system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.

“Alias ‘El Paisa’ was always resistant to the peace process,” Angela Olaya and James Bargent of the Colombian Organized Crime Observatory told La Silla. “It wouldn’t be strange if he finally dropped out of the process.”

“Of course he is in the process,” Iván Márquez told an interviewer.

Don’t you see how he’s working? I’m going to take his place while I’m here [at the demobilization site]. …I would like to keep seeing “Paisa” in this situation, and not in another, not in a confrontation. He isn’t thinking of war, he’s not thinking about being a dissident. He’s thinking of Santrich being freed and in resources coming to finance productive projects.

Local Leaders Swept Up in Wave of Arrests on Charges of ELN Collaboration

On April 20 and over the following weekend, Colombian authorities arrested between 33 and 42 individuals, including social leaders and former municipal officials, in the southwestern department of Nariño and the city of Cali. The Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía) is charging many with being part of the ELN or its support network. Some have been released for lack of evidence.

Perhaps the best known of the arrested was Harold Montúfar, who served between 2004 and 2007 as mayor of Samaniego municipality in Nariño. One of several former Samaniego mayors or officials arrested, Montúfar was known as an active promoter of peace during, and since, his tenure. Samaniego has long been an ELN stronghold, and is notorious throughout the country for the large number of guerrilla-laid landmines scattered throughout its territory. Montufar has led efforts to make humanitarian demining possible, an effort that requires dialogue with local ELN leaders. In addition, he promoted a Local Peace Pact that brought important reductions in violence to the Samaniego region. Montúfar had traveled to Quito, where the government’s peace negotiations with the ELN until recently were taking place, to promote the idea of reviving the Pact.

“Activists who know Montúfar’s social and political trajectory” told Verdad Abierta “that at least since 2000, authorities have tried to link him to the ELN guerrillas.” Samaniego priest Jhon Fredy Bolívar told La Silla Vacía,

“Here anybody who doesn’t have a link to those people [the ELN] can’t live in Samaniego, because they enter houses, demand things, take food and basic goods, it’s part of the dynamic of the conflict we’re living through. Farmers, church, officials, everyone ends up getting tied to the conflict in some way because you help, or if you don’t help you must prepare for the consequences.”

Montúfar was freed later in the week.

Still in custody is Sara Quiñones, a leader of the Alto Mira y Frontera Community Council, an Afro-Colombian community settlement in Tumaco, Nariño, along the Ecuador border. She was arrested in Cali, where she had been taking refuge from death threats, along with her mother, Tulia Marys Valencia, who was also arrested. The Fiscalía accused Quiñones of being an ELN member since 2013, “in charge of financial tasks directed at subversive activities and narco-trafficking.” It accused her mother of being a presumed “guerrilla militia member” since 2013 “who has used her social work to carry out intelligence and recruitment tasks.”

Quiñones’s and Valencia’s arrests come just weeks after the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, on March 11, ordered protective measures for Quiñones and other members of the Alto Mira y Frontera leadership. Verdad Abierta reports that they are now being subject to cruel treatment.

Those present at this judicial hearing expressed their concern about the poor treatment that Sara Quiñones and her mother are receiving: “They’re strong, but they want to break them with the conditions. While some women are placed in a jail in the south that is newer with better conditions, they ended up in a station in the center of Cali, the most disgusting of all.”

The chief of the Fiscalía’s organized crime unit, Claudia Carrasquilla—who has a past record of going after paramilitary organizations—responded to questions with tough talk, as Verdad Abierta reported.

“It’s an investigation that had been ongoing in the Organized Crime Directorate against the ELN’s Southwestern War Front, in which it was evident that some former public officials and leaders were possibly at the ELN’s service, above all in the management of support networks and finances,” Carrasquilla explained.
“We knew that this was a complex process, that was going to generate what it is generating, the disagreement of the majority of human rights collectives, precisely because the majority of the arrest orders went against that type of people. But we wanted to go very strong, with very compelling elements, to be able to try them.”

The Black Communities Process (PCN), a grouping of Afro-Colombian organizations especially active in the Pacific region, condemned the arrests of Quiñones and Valencia as “judicial false positives.” PCN leader Charo Mina told Contagio Radio, “It’s a criminalization process, and it’s what we’re used to seeing from the Fiscalía, showing its opposition to the ELN dialogues.”

Procedural Law for Transitional Justice System Introduced in Congress

The transitional justice system set up by the peace accords to try war crimes, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), took another step toward being able to function fully. The last piece of legislation needed to establish it is now before Congress. Justice Minister Enrique Gil Botero presented a 76-article bill, drafted with input from the new system’s judges, that would become the JEP’s Procedural Law.

This is the third piece of needed legislation. Colombia’s Congress approved the first, a constitutional amendment, in May 2017, and it received Constitutional Court approval in November. The second, the statutory law governing the JEP’s functioning, passed the Congress in late November and the Constitutional Court is still reviewing it. Congress will also have to pass the new bill—which is far from guaranteed before the next session begins on July 20—and it will probably have to undergo court review.

These long delays occur while 6,094 former guerrillas, 1,792 current and former armed-forces members, 44 former civilian officials, and 6 private citizens await judgement in the JEP for alleged involvement in serious human rights crimes. Still, even without all laws in place, the JEP has been able to start working, getting established and beginning written reviews of case files. It has stumbled in recent weeks, though, as internal disagreements over structure and procedure turned nasty, resulting in the April exit of tribunal administrator Nestor Raul Correa.

Army Patrols Medellín’s Troubled Comuna 13

Comuna (Ward) 13, a complex of poor neighborhoods on Medellín’s western edge, became nationally known in 2002 when recently elected president Álvaro Uribe ordered an intense military offensive there against guerrilla militia groups. Operations Mariscal and Orion ejected the militias (essentially, guerrilla-tied gangs) with significant loss of life, only to end up replacing them with paramilitary-tied gangs, some of whom participated in the operations alongside the troops.

The Army was back in Comuna 13 this week, amid a crime wave. 300 soldiers are patrolling the neighborhoods in an effort to weaken violent gangs that residents call “combos” and local officials call “ODINs” (Organizaciones Delincuenciales Integradas al Narcotráfico, Narcotrafficking-Linked Criminal Organizations). Fighting between gangs in recent days had killed four people, confined people to their houses, and shuttered schools.

El Espectador explains the complicated situation:

As Medellín Security Secretary Andrés Felipe Tobón explained it, two illegal groups are present in the Comuna: La Agonía and El Coco, which have not only occupied territory for years, but are also aligned with two other larger, more powerful armed structures: the ODIN Caicedo and the ODIN Robledo. Carlos Pesebre formed part of the second group, and until recently it was under the command of Cristian Camilo Mazo Castañeda, alias Sombra, who was captured last Saturday in El Peñol municipality. As a result, the authorities’ conclusion is that the fighting this week responds—in large part—to ODIN Caicedo taking advantage of the momentary lack of leadership in ODIN Robledo to attack its structures.

Transportation companies—which are routinely extorted by gangs—have been especially targeted. A public bus was set on fire in the Calasanz neighborhood. Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez blamed “Juancito,” the 45-year-old leader of the “Betanía” combo, for the threats and attacks on bus companies.

Authorities dismissed as fake several flyers circulating in parts of the city declaring a curfew enforced by the “Gaitanistas,” one of the names used by the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group. Still, residents of the marginal neighborhoods tell reporters that they are restricting their movements.

Medellín Police commander Gen. Óscar Gómez Heredia told El Colombiano that his force has 320 men patrolling the neighborhoods, in addition to the soldiers. But a reporting team from the Medellín daily wrote, “We passed through eight neighborhoods of Comuna 13 yesterday morning. In all of the zone, El Colombiano only found two police patrolling in the La Torre sector, and several soldiers posted alongside a military base.”

EPL “Armed Stoppage” Pauses in Catatumbo, Violence Continues

A humanitarian crisis continues in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department, near the Venezuelan border. Home to the country’s second-largest concentration of coca crops, this neglected territory has strong social organizations and a historic presence of FARC, ELN, and EPL guerrillas.

The latter group (Popular Liberation Army), which is only active in Catatumbo, has been enforcing an “armed stoppage” for about two weeks, preventing road travel, confining people in their communities, and forcing businesses and schools to close. In the face of emphatic protests from communities faced with the possibility of running out of food, the EPL announced a 60-hour pause in its stoppage, from the morning of April 24 to the evening of the 26th.

The April 23 announcement read, “our guerrilla organization is open to dialogue to solve the differences between the two guerrilla organizations.” This refers to fighting that broke out between the EPL and ELN around March 14, and has since killed about 30 people and forced over 4,600 to displace.

The government calls the EPL “Los Pelusos,” and considers them a regional organized crime structure. The organization calls itself an insurgent group, organized as the Libardo Mora Toro Front, that can trace its lineage to a Maoist guerrilla organization that mostly demobilized in 1991. The EPL remnant has been growing, and estimates of its current size range from 130 to 400-500 combatants, which would make it at least as large as the ELN contingent active in Catatumbo. The EPL is also regarded as the wealthiest illegal group in Catatumbo. Its longtime leader alias “Megateo”—killed by the security forces in late 2015—built a vigorous operation trafficking cocaine across the Venezuelan border.

Verdad Abierta explained the EPL’s origins in a lengthy article published this week. It reports that the Libardo Mora Toro Front has been in Catatumbo since early 1982, where it coexisted alongside the FARC’s 33rd Front and two ELN fronts. As soon as it decided not to participate in the EPL’s late 1980s-early 1990s peace process, the Front involved itself in drug trafficking. After the 2015 killing of “Megateo,” alias “David León” took over leadership. He emphasized ideology and growth through recruitment until his September 2016 capture.

Since then, the EPL’s leadership has been in flux. “It’s gotten so that very young people arrive in power, who don’t have enough political education and who are more contaminated by narcotrafficking,” Wilfredo Cañizares of the Cúcuta-based human rights group Fundación Progresar told Verdad Abierta. “At least, that’s what the ELN members say: that they want to get the EPL out of the region because they’re tired of their mafioso way of acting, that they’ve lost their revolutionary vocation.”

Until recently, Verdad Abierta notes, “ELN guerrillas and members of the Libardo Mora Toro Front walked together through the same Catatumbo hamlets as though they were members of the same family, or at least the same organization.” They patrolled together and fought the military or paramilitary groups together. “Here in the region there were accords between guerrillas, and between guerrillas and the community: for example, not to use weapons or wear camouflage in the town centers; respect the work of social organizations; respect international humanitarian law; respect each armed group’s boundaries,” a resident of the central Catatumbo town of El Tarra told Verdad Abierta. “But the ELN and EPL mutually accuse each other of having violated those accords, of not respecting community work, of not respecting boundaries.”

The same source says much disagreement centers on the marketing of coca paste that they purchase from the region’s growers. The FARC had controlled much of this business until its late 2016-early 2017 demobilization. Competition between the ELN and EPL intensified.“The ELN pay COP$3.2 million or COP$3.1 million [just over US$1,100] per kilo of coca paste, two, three, four months at a time. On the other hand, “The Pelusos,” to win people over, started paying COP$3.5 million per kilo [US$1,242], all at once. And the ELN didn’t like that at all.”

Verdad Abierta reports that the situation has grown still more complicated with the presence of another actor in the region: intermediaries from Mexican cartels. “The Sinaloa Cartel is buying the majority of coca that’s coming out of Catatumbo. They are in the territory,” said Cañizares of the Fundación Progresar. Today, “we’re not talking about campesinos with three or four hectares, we’re talking about campesinos with more then 10 hectares of coca leaf.”

Criminal groups also make money by trafficking cheap gasoline from Venezuela, precursor chemicals, and weapons. Some specialize in refining a crude gasoline from oil siphoned from the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline, which passes through Catatumbo’s center. This gets used to refine coca paste from the dried leaves.

After a March 14 meeting between the two groups erupted in violence, ELN-EPL fighting has raged unabated. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 90,000 Catatumbo residents have seen their ability to travel in the zone reduced or curtailed, in some places resulting in total confinement. At least 80 schools have closed their doors, leaving 45,000 kids without classes. OCHA also notes that armed-group pressure has 10 social leaders to abandon their organizations.

A leader of CISCA, a Catatumbo campesino network, noted to Verdad Abierta that some of the most violent communities are those that the Colombian government had pinpointed as priorities for implementing the FARC peace accord. “But, what has been done? Nothing. Neither crop substitution nor Territorially Focused Development Plans (PDETs). Nothing. Later, they’ll say they couldn’t do it because of the violence, even though the Accord was signed two years ago and this violence got worse only a month ago.” Cañizares of Fundación Progresar held a similar view:

“The FARC concentrated in Caño Indio [the demobilization site in Tibú municipality] and the Santos government said: now the state will arrive. And nothing. Before [2004], when the paramilitaries demobilized in Campo Dos [Tibú], the Uribe government said: the state is arriving. And nothing. When the EPL concentrated in Campo Giles [Tibú], the Gaviria government committed to building an aqueduct for that township. Today there is no potable water. The state never arrived, but those who did come quickly were the illegal armed actors.”

This week, in response to the crisis in Catatumbo, Mariana Escobar, director of the Territorial Renovation Agency—the new entity that implements the PDETs in compliance with Chapter 1 of the Havana accord—promised to present within 10 days a “road map” for structuring PDETs in the region. And a group of 2,000 soldiers from the Army’s Engineering Brigade arrived with promises to help meet infrastructure needs in the areas of ELN-EPL fighting. Vice-President Óscar Naranjo, visiting the city of Ocaña at Catatumbo’s periphery, said that 12,000 members of the police and military are already deployed in the region.

However, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas and Army Commander Gen. Ricardo Gómez Nieto angered some in Catatumbo by insisting that conditions in the zone were calm. Villegas questioned the Norte de Santander governor’s decision to suspend classes in the region’s schools, and Gen. Nieto said that after a visit he saw little evidence of war.

According to La Silla Vacía, “part of the complexity of combating both the ELN and the EPL is that their men, in their majority, are born and bred in the region.”

They were recruited there and are relatives or friends of the zone’s inhabitants. So networks of paid informants don’t work as well here as in other regions. In addition, since both groups’ guerrillas spend much of their time dressed in civilian clothing, it is very hard to identify them. And as they’re in a border zone, when they’re chased, they go to the Venezuelan side.

Somos Defensores Reports on January-March Attacks on Social Leaders

The non-governmental organization Somos Defensores, which monitors attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders, published its latest quarterly report. It documents a dramatically worsening situation.

Forty-six rights defenders or local leaders were murdered during January through March: one every two days. That is up from 20 in the same period of 2017. Somos Defensores categorized their work as follows:

  • Community Action Board leader: 13 victims
  • Community leader: 11 victims
  • Campesino or Agrarian leader: 8 victims
  • Indigenous leader or rights defender: 7 victims
  • Economic, Social, Cultural rights defender: 3 victims
  • Afro-Colombian leader: 3 victims
  • Victims leader: 1 victim

Leaders of Community Action Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal), hamlet or neighborhood-level advisory bodies first established in the 1960s, are heavily represented because many of their members are independent local leaders. Nine of the dead were members of a cross-cutting category: participants in coca substitution programs established by Chapter 4 of the Havana peace accord.

In 11 of the homicide cases, the report identifies the group presumed responsible. The security forces appear four times, paramilitary/organized crime groups three times, FARC dissidents twice, and the ELN twice. Thirty of the forty-six murders took place in just five departments: Cauca (8), Antioquia (7), Norte de Santander (7), Arauca (4), and Córdoba (4).

As Colombia’s slow-moving government apparatus struggles to respond to the problem, the Interior Ministry promulgated a decree that would make possible more collective protection measures for entire communities. According to Contagio Radio, the decree “seeks to create and implement an Integral Security and Protection Program for Communities and Organizations in the Territories, and define necessary measures that protect communities in an comprehensive manner.”

President Santos Visits U.S. Southern Command in Miami

While briefly in Miami, President Santos paid a visit to the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command, the Defense Department body responsible for U.S. military activities in all of Latin America except Mexico, the Bahamas, and Puerto Rico. In remarks, he effusively thanked those in attendance for 18 years of military assistance since Plan Colombia was launched in 2000. He also talked up the peace process using defense-friendly language.

Any asymmetric war today ends in a negotiation, regardless of what ends up being negotiated. And that’s what we did: a negotiation that from our point of view was a cheap negotiation. With regard to what we sacrificed, compared to what they were demanding at the beginning of the process, it was practically free of cost.
…That’s something the world is applauding, admiring, and studying, and this is something that was possible thanks to the very special relationship we’ve had with the Southern Command.

Meanwhile, while testifying in Colombia’s Congress about a military corruption scandal, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Alberto Mejía mentioned that during the previous week, they signed a 5-year cooperation agreement with the U.S. government to combat narcotrafficking.

In-Depth Reading

Tags: Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Transitional Justice, U.S. Policy, Weekly update

The Activists Key to Consolidating Colombia’s Peace Are Facing Increased Attacks

February 15, 2017

by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Sonia Londoño

With the end of 52 years of conflict between the Colombian government and armed rebels, civil society activists are playing a key role in constructing a lasting peace and democracy in Colombia. Sadly, the human rights defenders, trade unionists, Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other community leaders conducting this vital effort are under threat. Since the signing of the peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the start of its implementation, attacks against civil society activists have increased at an alarming rate. While the FARC accord has significantly reduced overall violence in the country, the demobilization of these fighters has created vacuums throughout the country, which are in turn being occupied by paramilitary successor organizations that are making their presence known through selective killings and death threats.

If implemented accordingly, the peace accord is has potential to further a number of promising social reforms. Among other things it is designed to lead to rural land reform, guarantee political participation for historically-excluded political sectors, facilitate the reincorporation of FARC guerrillas into civilian life, deepen consultation with marginalized ethnic groups, provide alternatives to rural farmers who grow coca, and fulfill the rights of truth, justice and reparations for millions of victims. But these goals necessarily clash with certain interests, and the possibility of achieving them is leading to illegal armed groups’ attacks against activists. Worst affected are members of newer political movements like the Marcha Patriotica, ethnic minority activists and community organizers in rural areas. The Colombian government must prevent further harm from taking place to these activists. Perpetrators of these acts should be prosecuted and brought to justice immediately. If these attacks continue, the peace accord with the FARC and nascent peace talks with the National Liberation Army will be seriously undermined. Ultimately, the success or failure of a lasting peace in the country will depend on the government’s ability to ensure justice for these crimes.

The Statistics Alone are Sobering, But the Story is Deeper

Unfortunately, the news on the ground has been bleak: a number of Colombian organizations report that since September 2016, the security situation faced by civil society activists has been rapidly decreasing. While the numbers differ depending on multiple definitions of human rights defenders, activists and community leaders, what is certain is that all reports point to the problem getting worse. Somos Defensores reports that from January to December of 2016, 80 social leaders were killed. The majority of these murders took place in Cauca Department. INDEPAZ, on the other hand, reports that during that same period, 117 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed. They also add that in Valle del Cauca (5), Cauca (43), and Nariño (9) departments, a combined total of 57 activists were killed (two thirds of the total). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office, meanwhile stated that since the November 24, 2016 signing of the accord, 13 of the 53 killings of civil society figures recorded by that office in all of 2016 took place.

The trend has not gone entirely unnoticed. On November 2, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a statement of concern regarding the killings of human rights defenders in Colombia in 2016. The Commission found that while the numbers of death threats and intimidation faced by human rights defenders are down from 2015, the number of actual killings is up. It also urges Colombia to include in its investigations the premise that these individuals were murdered due to their work defending human rights. On February 7 the IACHR condemned the killing of another 7 people in 2017. It is particularly concerning that five of the seventeen killed were ethnic minorities, including two women.

The impact of murders, attempted murders, threats and aggression against activists has a disproportionate impact on indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. This disproportionate impact is true numerically speaking–one source states that 30 percent of those civil society activists killed are ethnic minorities—as well as sociologically. Such killings cause disastrous effects on ethnic minorities’ collective, organizational processes and their ability to work together to advocate for their land, ethnic and cultural rights. .

In addition to the threats faced by community leaders, we also see illegal armed groups targeting ethnic leaders’ extended family members. Given this, it is necessary that a differentiated approach is taking when creating prevention and protective measures for these leaders and their communities. Constitutional Court Orders 004, 005 and 092 on Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and Women IDPs contain useful information on how to prevent the displacement of key communities. In many circumstances collective protective measures are required rather than individual ones. With U.S. Embassy support the Association for Internally Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) worked to help develop collective measures for Afro-Colombian leaders and displaced communities at risk in urban and rural environments. However, Colombian authorities never followed through with implementing what was required. Access to justice for these communities is often more challenging, so it is the clear responsibility of the government to break down the barriers that exist for ethnic groups’ entry into the judicial system.

When it comes to the exact number of killings and attacks against Afro-descendant and indigenous leaders and communities, there are, generally speaking, no comprehensive statistics available. The reasons for this are many: institutional racism, underreporting by ethnic minorities due to fear of reprisals, corruption of local officials and the complex geographical dynamics found in the rural and urban areas they live in. Given this, it is likely that the problem is worse–and less addressed–than what is actually reported. When looking at the Somos Defensores figure of 80 leaders killed in 2016, it is noteworthy that 22 of those killed or, 27 percent of the total, were ethnic minorities (15 indigenous and 7 Afro-Colombians).

Recent Cases of Concern to U.S. Policymakers

WOLA issues periodic action alerts about threats and attacks against civil society. While all cases are of concern, there some are of particular interest to U.S. policymakers. In January, three members of the Communities Constructing Peace in the Territories (CONPAZ) were killed: Afro-Colombian Emilsen Manyoma Mosquera and her husband Joe Javier Rodallega from Valle del Cauca Department, and Wiwa indigenous leader Yoryanis Isabel Bernal Varela of Cesar Department. Ms. Bernal Varela was an outspoken leader for the rights of indigenous Wiwa, Kogui and Arhuaco women. She was disappeared and fifteen days later found dead with a bullet in her head. Ms. Mosquera was a tireless advocate for the rights of youth in the Community Council of Bajo Calima. She and her partner were killed in Buenaventura. Meanwhile, the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice in Peace that legally represents CONPAZ suffered security incidents. Also in January, Marino Cordoba of the AFRODES and the Ethnic Commission suffered the murder of two of his relatives at the hands of Gaitanista paramilitaries in Chocó. This came just a few months after his son was killed by these same men in October 2016. AFRODES leaders continue to face security challenges throughout the country.

The Indigenous Association of Northern Cauca (ACIN), the Wayuu territorial authorities, and the Afro-Colombian Community Councils of Northern Cauca (ACONC) continued to face assassination attempts, attacks and death threats. The ACIN and ACONC are engaged in defending their ancestral lands from illegal mining, environmental damage and the encroachment of illegal armed groups. After the many publicized deaths of indigenous children due to malnutrition, dehydration and the humanitarian crisis in their region, Wayuu authorities advocated for cleaning up corruption and mismanagement of funds by Colombia’s Child Welfare Agency (ICBF). They have also denounced the environmental damage caused by the Cerrejon coal mine. The latter has resulted in stigmatization of Wayuu communities in the press and death threats. Particularly worrisome is the deteriorating security situation faced by members of the San Jose de Apartadó Peace Community in Antioquia, and Operation Genesis victims in Cacarica, Chocó, who have denounced paramilitary activity in their regions.

Relevant Mechanisms in the Accords and Steps Forward

The peace accord with the FARC signed on November 24 includes mechanisms that guarantee the physical protection for human rights defenders and guarantees for them to do their work. In the political participation (point 2 of the accords) it stipulates that adequate normative and institutional prevention, protection, evaluation and monitoring of will take place to guarantee the security for leaders and organizations of social movements and human rights organizations. The accord states that “security guarantees are a necessary condition for consolidating the construction of peace and coexistence.” It also highlights the importance of civil society activists in the implementation of the plans and programs set forth by the accord.

The third point of the accords, the end of the conflict section, includes an agreement “to guarantee security by fighting criminal and other organizations responsible for homicides and massacres that target defenders, social and political movements, or who threaten persons who participate in the implementation of the accords and construction of peace.” This includes actions against “organizations referred to as successor paramilitary organizations and their support networks.” This point then proceeds to include the agreement that several mechanisms will be developed to address this problem. These include a National Commission to Guarantee the Dismantlement of Criminal Organizations, which would be responsible for attacks against defenders, social and political movements that include paramilitary successor groups. It calls for the creation of a Special Investigation Unit to dismantle these criminal organizations and their networks, the integration of an Elite Corps within the National Police and an integral security system for policy development. Lastly, it sets forth basic guarantees for prosecutors, judges and other public servants involved in this fight.

The press coverage reveals that in his conversation with President Juan Manuel Santos, President Donald Trump indicated that he would personally see to it that Colombia receives the assistance package needed to consolidate peace, which will first require approval from the U.S. Congress. Such an indication of support for Colombia’s peace is a positive first step. We would also encourage policymakers to prioritize operationalizing the commitments found in the accord pertaining to protecting human rights defenders, community leaders and political parties, and dismantling paramilitary successor groups.

Tags: Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders, Post-Conflict Implementation