On August 26, four months after the April 28 launch of protests that went on for several weeks, several thousand protesters took to the streets of Bogotá, Cali, and a few other cities. The day was mostly peaceful, according to the National Police.
Fallout continues, however, from the Paro Nacional protests of April through June, when some protesters caused property damage and an often vicious police response killed 43 people, according to the NGO Temblores, while dozens more remain disappeared. While victims continue to seek justice, the authorities have been quietly cracking down on people whom they believe to have played leading roles in protest-related disorder, often charging them with “terrorism.”
An El Espectadoranalysis detailed several cases of very likely killings of civilians at the hands of police in Cali, none of which has been investigated.
Police have now captured 165 people they allege to have been leaders of the “Primera Línea”—young people who occupied the “front line” of protests—in several cities. Many face terrorism charges.
Among them is Juan Fernando Torres, a 25-year-old Medellín primary school teacher who became known as “El Narrador” because he documented protests, and confrontations with police, on video, posting them to his social media accounts. While the videos record him shouting rude epithets at the police, they do not appear to show Torres taking part in violence. Nonetheless, at 5:00 in the morning of July 29, police broke down his door and took him away while his family looked on.
A well-known student protest leader in Popayán, Estéban Mosquera, who had lost an eye to a tear-gas canister shot by a riot policeman during a 2018 protest, was shot to death on August 23 by two men on a motorcycle.
Thirty social leaders, human rights defenders, and former combatants in Tolima department say they have received death threats during the past seven weeks. Some say the threats began to escalate after the Paro Nacional began.
Relatives of people killed by police during earlier protests—after a September 9, 2020 episode of police brutality in Bogotá—say that they are receiving death threats and experiencing aggressive behavior from police in their neighborhoods. “In an intimidating message, in which several relatives of September 9 victims were mentioned, a person implied that he has already identified the people involved in the commemorative acts and, in addition, left a sentence via text message: ‘let’s see if you want the game to start, we will gladly start.’ The message dates to August 3.”
In a bit of encouraging news, the Constitutional Court ruled that the military justice system does not have jurisdiction over the May 1, 2021 police killing of protester Santiago Murillo in Ibagué, Tolima. The Court found no evidence that the accused policeman, Maj. Jorge Mario Molano, fired his weapon in self-defense or to protect anyone else. His case will be tried in the regular civilian criminal justice system.
As Colombia’s national debate over police reform continues, the Ideas for Peace Foundation and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Colombia released a report, based on inputs from 11 experts, about what obstacles stand in the way of meaningful reform to Colombia’s National Police force. The report highlights the need for civilian leadership of reform and of citizen security policymaking, which in turn requires a larger number of civilians educated and trained in the field.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP, the transitional justice tribunal set up by the 2016 peace accord) issued a report on July 1 warning that the Paro Nacional protests, and the government’s response, have affected the work of the post-conflict justice and truth system.
“The situation is worrying, since between April 28 and May 30, 2021, armed conflict events and affectations of civilians increased in 111 municipalities of interest for the Comprehensive System for Peace,” the JEP states. In those municipalities of interest, it has counted 13 conflict events and 89 “affectations,” way up from an average of 18 affectations during the same period in 2017-20. “This is evidenced by an increase in death threats, homicides of former FARC-EP combatants, and massive events of forced displacement.” The JEP also notes a sharp increase, in the context of the protests, of “groups of armed civilians” carrying out violence against protesters.
It adds new and troubling statistics: “Colombia has been the country with the second highest rate of violent deaths per day of protest in the world (one death every 36 hours), and the 2021 national strike has the highest number of violent deaths of people who have participated in social protest scenarios in the last 44 years [in Colombia].”
As of June 28, the NGOs Temblores and Indepaz, which have closely monitored human rights abuses in the context of the protests, counted:
75 killings in the framework of the national strike, of which 44 were allegedly committed by the security forces. Through June 26, Temblores reported that “13 are in the process of clarifying whether the alleged perpetrator was a member of the security forces,” and that “4 are attributable to armed civilians in which there are indications of possible involvement of members of the security forces.” A June 30 communiqué to the UN Human Rights Council from over 300 worldwide NGOs cites different numbers: “83 homicides have been reported, including at least 27 civilians killed by ordinary and riot police.”
The communiqué from 300 NGOs cites a large number of missing or disappeared people: “327 people are still unaccounted for, with the authorities denying that about half of these disappearances ever took place.”
83 victims of “ocular violence”—damage to protesters’ eyes, usually by fired projectiles.
28 victims of sexual violence. As of June 26, Temblores also reported 9 victims of gender-based violence.
58 of the 75 killings occurred in the southwestern department of Valle del Cauca; that department’s capital is Cali, where 43 of the killings occurred.
An ongoing series at El Espectador is producing biographical profiles of some of those killed in the protests. “Most of them went out to demonstrate, and in response to their discontent they were met with bullets.”
As of July 2, Colombia’s National Police counted 3 of its members killed and 1,548 injured. It added that investigations of police personnel were underway for 16 cases of possible homicide, 40 cases of physical aggression, and 105 cases of abuse of authority. On 8,783 occasions in the context of protests, police had carried out “transfers for protection,” a controversial form of short-term custody of up to 12 hours, usually without charges, foreseen in Colombia’s 2016 police law. While being “transferred,” human rights groups claim that those in custody suffer abuse or are held in inappropriate locations.
Colombia’s Paro Nacional protests have largely subsided, though concentrations persist in neighborhoods in Bogotá, Cali, and elsewhere. Ahead of the July 20 launch of a new congressional session, President Duque is telegraphing that his administration plans to introduce an “anti-disturbances and anti-vandalism” bill in that legislature.
The law would increase prison sentences for vandalism, blocking roads, or attacking police, all of which are currently offenses under Colombian law. The law “already includes jail sentences of around eight years for obstructing public highways, violence against public servants and property,” Reuters reported.
Duque called for the new law at a June 30 promotion ceremony for the chief of Colombia’s embattled National Police, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, who received his fourth star. Such a law is needed, he told the mostly police audience, “so that those who promote these practices do not try to get away with circumventing the rights of Colombians with impunity.” He called for a “clear and responsible” discussion of “what peaceful protest is and should be.” While he noted that most protest has been peaceful, there are many “vandals.”
Duque cited what happened to Camilo Vélez Martínez, a motorcyclist killed on June 25 when protesters stretched a cable across a street in southwest Bogotá. A protest leader in northwest Bogotá admitted to El Espectador’s Mónica Rivera that episodes like this point to a loss of discipline as public concentrations persist. “What we have seen is that they are infiltrating us and, unfortunately, it is very difficult to control the people. We control the compas, those who are with us, but we still have people who come to disturb the scene and then leave and go away.”
The political opposition saw in Duque’s statements an anti-democratic call to criminalize protest. “President Iván Duque announces an ’anti-riot law’ to legally shield the violent repression of young people,” said Green Party Senator Antonio Sanguino. “Duque suffers from a serious mental and cognitive problem of connection with reality.”
The proposal comes at a time when opposition analysts like Laura Gil, director of La Línea del Medio, warn of increasing concentration of power in the executive branch. “The unthinkable is becoming a reality: the formal breaking of the rules of the game,” Gil writes. In that context, there is reluctance to give Duque’s governing Centro Democrático party greater power to decide who is a peaceful protester and who is a “vandal.”
In recent weeks, ethnic groups throughout Colombia have urged for necessary advancements in the peace process including, but not limited to: the fulfillment of the 2016 peace accord’s Ethnic Chapter, establishing the Special Peace Electoral Constituencies in Colombia’s Congress, and addressing the critical humanitarian situation in Alto Baudó, Chocó department.
Below are synopses of these recent statements and access to full versions in both English and Spanish.
Fulfill the Ethnic Chapter Now!
On March 1, the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) published a statement that outlined the lagging implementation of the 2016 peace accord’s Ethnic Chapter. They also point to obstacles for ethnic participation in the transitional justice system and the urgent need to address the humanitarian crises in Chocó department, the city of Buenaventura, and on the Caribbean coast. The statement also urges the national government to resume peace dialogues with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group.
Read the original Spanish statement here. Read the translated English version here.
The Special Peace Electoral Constituencies are an Opportunity to Strengthen Colombia’s Democracy. “Delivering for the Victims”.
In this March 1 statement, Colombia’s Ethnic Commission for Peace and Territorial Rights gives an overview of the effects of ongoing conflict in ethnic and rural territories in the past year. The Commission urges for proactive action by the state and demands the immediate creation of the Special Peace Electoral Constituencies in Colombia’s Congress—a mechanism devised in the 2016 peace accord. The Special Peace Electoral Constituencies seek to create representation in Colombia’s House of Representatives, promoting democracy and participation among sectors of Colombian society that have been historically excluded from political and economic life.
Read the original Spanish statement here. Read the translated English version here.
Humanitarian Mission in Alto Baudó, Chocó Department
A March 1 statement by an Alto Baudó humanitarian mission delegation—composed of regional and international entities—corroborates the critical security situation of the Baudó people. Several human rights violations and breaches of International Humanitarian Law were documented and the delegation made appeals to the national government, the Chocó Governor, the Alto Baudó municipality, political leaders and the ruling class, the Attorney General and Comptroller’s offices, the Prosecutor’s office, the Constitutional Court, and the international community.
Read the original Spanish statement here. Read the translated English version here.
One of the FARC’s five senators, Griselda Lobo Silva alias Sandra Ramírez, is named the second vice-president of the Senate for the chamber’s 2020-21 term. Lobo was the partner of maximum FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, who died in 2008. Ex-president and then-senator Álvaro Uribe praises Lobo for her “coherence.” Two days later, the senator ignites controversy by denying that the FARC recruited minors.
High Commissioner for Stabilization and Consolidation Emilio Archila denies that the government is seeking to remove former FARC leaders from the congressional seats that they currently occupy as a result of the peace accord. “We believe that ethically, those who are convicted of crimes against humanity should retire from the Congress, but we’ve never tried to impose that,” he says. The allegation appeared in a letter from the Defendamos la Paz coalition.
Abbey Steele of the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences is a scholar of violence and politics who has done most of her work in Colombia. She is the author of Democracy and Displacement in Colombia’s Civil War (2017, Cornell University Press).
In this episode, she discusses her work in Apartadó, in Colombia’s Urabá region, which saw forced displacement by paramilitary groups intensify after Colombia began direct local elections and leftist parties performed well. She calls what happened “political cleansing” or “collective targeting”: the paramilitaries targeted entire communities for displacement based on election results.
Steele explains this and other findings, particularly how communities have organized to resist the onslaught. She has a sharp analysis of the challenges that continue for the displaced—and for communities and social leaders at risk of political cleansing—today, in post-peace-accord Colombia.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) accords victim status to the Patriotic Union (UP) political party. The UP was founded during a 1980s peace process with the FARC, as a means to ease the guerrillas’ foreseen entry into civilian life. More than 3,000 of its members were killed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
With the FARC guerrillas likely to begin disarming very soon, this should be a time of hope, even joy, in rural Colombia. Instead, though, it is a time of fear. The last several weeks have seen the worst wave in years of murders of social leaders, indigenous leaders, land-rights activists, and human rights defenders. The renewed violence casts doubt on whether space for non-violent political activity will truly exist in Colombia’s “post-conflict” period.
The Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Bogotá-based think-tank supported by the business sector, counts 71 homicides and 17 homicide attempts against social leaders so far in 2016. (The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, using the definition of “human rights defenders,” counts 52 homicides and 35 attempts [PDF].) Ideas for Peace found the most attacks happening in the Pacific coast departments (provinces) of Valle del Cauca (whose capital is Cali) and Cauca; the south-central department of Caquetá; the northwestern department of Antioquia (whose capital is Medellín); and the northeastern department of Norte de Santander. The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, a network of human rights groups, counts 30 murders of social leaders since August 29, the day the Colombian government and FARC declared a bilateral ceasefire. The UN High Commissioner’s office counts 13 since the September 26 signing of the first peace accord with the FARC.
The wave of terror elicited statements of concern since the second half of November from the UN and its High Commissioner, the OAS, and the Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory, which compared it to the late 1980s-early 1990s massacre of more than 3,000 members of the Patriotic Union, a FARC-linked leftist political party.
Among the social leaders most recently murdered, or who barely escaped murder, are the following individuals.
Jhon Jairo Rodríguez Torres, from Caloto, Cauca, murdered November 1
A longtime local leader in the township of Palo, Rodríguez co-founded the Association of Campesino Workers of Caloto in 2003, and was active in several local organizations, including the Marcha Patriótica, a recently created, largely rural political movement that is widely viewed as a building block for the FARC’s transition to a non-violent political party. His body was found by a roadside, next to his motorcycle, with three bullet wounds.
José Antonio Velasco Taquinás, from Caloto, Cauca, murdered November 11
Velasco was a member of several campesino organizations in Caloto, and of the Marcha Patriótica. The Center for Historical Memory describes Velasco as “recognized by the community as a great friend and community member who stood out for having good relations with the whole community. On November 11 he was found in the area known as La Trampa, in Caloto, with a bullet wound in the head.”
Argemiro Lara, from Ovejas, Sucre, attempted murder on November 17
Lara is part of a community of campesino leaders organized to re-claim the La Europa hacienda, from which they were displaced by paramilitaries during the early 2000s. This case is very well known, and Lara has received so many threats that he is protected by the Colombian Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit. On November 17 in Sincelejo, Sucre, Lara’s bodyguard shot and killed a hitman who had drawn a gun.
Erley Monroy Fierro, from La Macarena, Meta, murdered November 18
Monroy was a leader of the Losada-Guayabero Environmental Campesino Association (ASCAL-G), very active in local human rights and campesino networks including the Marcha Patriótica, and a vocal opponent of oil exploration and fracking. He was shot in the neighboring municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, about three miles from the base where Colombian Army’s Cazadores Battalion is headquartered. He was 54 and a lifelong resident of this region, a traditional FARC stronghold.
In May, Monroy and other local activists denounced
that “soldiers from the Battalion were patrolling together with three people in civilian clothing, taking photographs of leaders,” and that “graffiti with the name ‘AUC’ had appeared on the road” near San Vicente del Caguán, according to Colombia’s Verdad Abierta investigative journalism website. (The AUC, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, was a national network of right-wing paramilitary groups that formally disbanded in 2006.)
San Vicente del Caguán and La Macarena—two of five municipalities that hosted failed peace talks with the FARC between 1998 and 2002—are a flashpoint for violence against social leaders. San Vicente’s mayor, elected in October 2015, comes from the Democratic Center, the rightist political party of former president Álvaro Uribe. Mayor Humberto Sánchez told reporters he does not believe Monroy’s killing was politically motivated, speculating that he “was likely killed by disgruntled neighbors.” Sánchez had also accused Monroy’s campesino organization of being guerrilla collaborators, and said that the spate of AUC graffiti owed to “the guerrillas preparing the ground for assassinations of campesinos and cattlemen and using that to justify their actions.”
Didier Losada Barreto, from La Macarena, Meta, murdered November 18
Losada was president of the Community Action Board (Junta de Acción Comunal, a sort of local elected advisory commission) of Platanillo township in La Macarena, and a member of DHOC, the Foundation for the Defense of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law of East-Central Colombia, a local human rights network, as well as the Marcha Patriótica. He was at home with his family when two masked men burst into his home and shot him nine times.
Hugo Cuéllar, from La Macarena, Meta, attempted murder November 19
Cuéllar was president of the Community Action Board of La Victoria township in La Macarena, and a member of ASCAL-G, the same organization as Erley Monroy.
He was walking home from Monroy’s wake with his daughters, when two men on a motorcycle shot him. “They followed him all the way home on the motorcycle and then shot him,” Cuéllar’s sister told the Miami Herald. “And then they pointed at the girls, but the gun didn’t go off.”
Danilo Bolaños, from Leiva, Narino, attempted murder November 19
Bolaños, a member of the Association of Campesino Workers of Nariño (Astracan), was on his motorcycle, returning from a meeting of local pro-peace groups, when a hitman riding on the back of another motorcycle fired six shots at him from a handgun. All missed. Verdad Abiertareports that he had not received any threats beforehand, “and the only thing he know of was a pamphlet with the ‘self-defense groups’’ initials that had circulated in Leiva, without mentioning either him or Astracan.”
Rodrigo Cabrera Cabrera, from Policarpa, Nariño, murdered November 20
Like many of the victims listed here, Cabrera was a member of the Marcha Patriótica. “As a member of the Marcha Patriótica, he actively supported diverse peace initiatives,” reports the Center for Historical Memory, including the designation of a village in Policarpa as a zone for FARC disarmament.
Cabrera had not been threatened before the 20th, when two masked men intercepted his motorcycle and shot him 12 times.
Rather than push for an investigation, the mayor of Policarpa, Claudia Inés Cabrera (no relation), denied that the murder had any political motivation. The victim “isn’t recognized as a community leader,” she said. After a security meeting between the mayor and local law enforcement, a statement contended that Cabrera’s father said “he was apathetic about politics and had never belonged to a political group.” The victim’s father, Sergio Cabrera, told reporters that no, “he liked politics, but not too much. He was a man of peace.” Lizeth Moreno, a local Marcha Patriótica leader, noted that “in her communiqué, the mayor doesn’t even reject the homicide, she justifies it saying that Rodrigo presumably had a [criminal] past.”
Froidan Cortés Preciado, from Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, murdered November 23
Cortés, a boat mechanic and member of the Marcha Patriótica and at least two local human rights networks, had been organizing protests against forced coca eradication in the rural zone of Buenaventura. A red boat with three black-clad men who were unfamiliar to eyewitnesses brought Cortés from his workshop to his home, where they shot him to death.
Marcelina Canacué, from Palermo, Huila, murdered November 25
Canacué, a 60-year-old member of her township’s Community Action Board and of the Marcha Patriótica, was shot three times on a road near her home. Though active, she was not considered a prominent social leader. “She was part of the Marcha Patriótica, one of those people who goes to all of the events and meetings,” an acquaintance told the Center for Historical Memory.
At a meeting with Huila’s governor the next day, local leaders denounced an increase in acts of vandalism and the presence of paramilitaries “hidden and poised to pounce” (agazapados). Police never arrived at the crime scene to investigate the killing. Canacué’s body remained on the roadside from 8:30 AM until 1:00 PM, when the funeral home came to recover it.
Jorge Humberto Chiran, from Cumbal, Narino, attempted murder November 28
Unidentified people threw an explosive device at the home of Chirán, governor of the Gran Cumbal indigenous reserve. On November 3, Chirán, who works with the local Marcha Patriótica, had received a threatening pamphlet from a group calling itself the “Military Bloc of the Southwest Pacific of Nariño.”
Carlos Ramírez Uriana, from Fonseca, La Guajira, attempted murder December 3
Ramírez, a leader of the Mayabangloma reserve of the Wayúu indigenous community, was shot three times by an individual waiting for him outside his residence. He is recovering from his wounds. Southern Guajira indigenous authorities say they have “detected in several communities unknown subjects on high-powered motorcycles.”
Creating a Climate of Fear
The sharpness of the increase in murders during the post-first-accord period is striking. It looks almost as though a switch got thrown somewhere within Colombia’s darkest, most reactionary quarters. Still, experts warn against attributing all this killing to a coherent nationwide conspiracy against the peace talks.
Carlos Guevara, who runs the Human Rights Observatory at the Colombian group Somos Defensores, toldVerdad Abierta that the first accord’s rejection in an October 2 plebiscite did worsen the situation significantly. Because there was no accord in place, the protection measures it foresaw for opposition social movements could not be implemented, even as the FARC began clearing out of zones that it controlled or influenced. With the FARC presence reduced, other groups have moved into these zones and begun to threaten existing organizations.
Guevara cautioned, though, against blaming everything on the right wing: