Updates from WOLA tagged “Human Rights Defenders”

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

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