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Colombia: Insecurity Rising in Ethnic Communities

By Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli

Photo Courtesy of @jrarce via

We remain deeply concerned about the security situation in Buenaventura and its impact on the local Afro-Colombian population. On February 16, we issued jointly with U.S. academics recommendations on steps the U.S. government can take to address the structural inequalities that are leading to today’s violence by advancing implementation of the Buenaventura Civic Strike Accord. We encourage U.S. lawmakers and others to support civil society’s recommendations for how to improve conditions in Buenaventura.

This month, we sadly lost a shining light in the Colombia Indigenous movement. Luis Fernando Arias, the Mayor Counselor of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, ONIC) will be greatly missed by many. The New York Times obituary can be found here.

We are very grateful to Representative James McGovern’s leadership on human rights and peace issues in Colombia.

Below we summarized the human rights cases brought to our attention in recent weeks:

Former Council Member and Social Leader Assassinated (Tolima)
On February 2, armed men assassinated former council member and social leader Jesús Salazar Valencia. In 2015, the Movement of Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (Movimiento de Autoridades Indígenas de Colombia, AICO) political party elected Salazar Valencia as Councilman of the Herveo municipality, Tolima department. Authorities are currently investigating his assassination, and local NGO the Institute for Peace and Development Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz, INDEPAZ) notes that Salazar is the 21st social leader assassination in 2021.

Campesino Human Rights Defender Murdered (Cauca)
On February 2, according to reports by the National Agricultural Trade Union (Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria, FENSUAGRO), heavily armed men assassinated social leader Yordan Eduardo Guetio in Corinto, Cauca department. The armed men intercepted Guetio and his father, as they rode a motorcycle, and forced Guetio off the vehicle. His father, unharmed during the incident, alerted the Campesino Guard and community; however, later in the evening, authorities discovered Guetio’s lifeless body where the incident occurred. Guetio was a youth leader with the Association of Campesino Workers (Asociación de Trabajadores Campesinos) in the Corinto municipality and stood out as a human rights defender and member of the community action board of the San Luis Arriba hamlet. FENSUAGRO demands that the national government, the military, and the Attorney General’s Office investigate the motives behind this murder and punish those responsible. The union also calls on the international community to provide sufficient and effective accompaniment to pressure the government to stop the killings of social leaders.

Armed Men Kill Social Leader and Adolescent Farm Worker (Huila)
On January 30, armed men entered social leader Arcenio Quinayas Ruiz’s household and shot him dead. Quinayas was the treasurer of his community action board in the Los Andes hamlet in San Agustín, Huila department. Similarly, authorities confirmed the assassination of a 15-year-old in La Independencia, La Plate, in the Huila department. Unidentified men assassinated the young man as he worked in a coffee plantation. The respective criminal investigation group has carried out urgent actions and inquiries to clarify both cases’ facts and find the unknown murderers.

Social Leader Decapitated (Antioquia)
On January 29, an unidentified paramilitary group murdered and decapitated Miguel Uribe, a member of the community action board of Ochali, Yarumal in the Antioquia department. INDEPAZ notes that Uribe is the 17th recorded murder of a social leader in 2021 and brought this case to President Iván Duque’s attention.

Young Social Leader Murdered (Valle Del Cauca)
On January 24, social leader Julian Sneider Muñoz was assassinated in Cali, Valle del Cauca department. Muñoz was a member of the social group Prisoners of Hope (Prisioneros de Esperanza), where he worked to diminish the violence in Cali’s neighborhoods with music, art, and sports. Authorities failed to publish an official statement about his murder 24-hours after it occurred. Prisoners of Hope calls on the authorities and the Mayor’s Office to thoroughly investigate the situation and find those responsible.

Indigenous Youth Leader Killed (Antioquia)
On February 14, social leader Orlando Manuel Chimá was assassinated in Cáceres, Antioquia department, due to armed confrontations between the military and a paramilitary group. A local group, the Social Guarantee Process (Proceso Social De Garantías, PSG), condemns the unjust murder of Chimá, a young social leader who was in the process of becoming an Indigenous Guard for the Indigenous Reserve of Los Almendros.

Paramilitary Group Orders for the End of Environmental Reserve Organization (Putumayo)
On February 10, in the Putamayo department, Commanders of the Border (Comandos de la Frontera, CDF) ordered the Perla Amazónica Campesino Reserve Zone (Zona de Reserva Campesina, ZRC) to dissolve. Similarly, the CDF called on the Women’s Committee, the Environmental Committee, and Association for the Integral and Sustainable Development of the Amazonian Pearl (Asociación de Desarrollo Integral Sostenible Perla Amazónica, ADISPA) to dissolve.

In 2020, the CDF paramilitary group was responsible for at least 50 murders, including social leaders Marco Rivadeneira, Yordan Tobar, and Édison León Pérez. Now, the CDF is demanding social organizations not under their control to disband, and is displacing individuals not following their norms. They are also trying to interfere with local electoral processes using formal legal mechanisms such as an electoral assembly. Their initiative to recruit young people and develop counter-agrarian reform, by buying land from some Campesinos of the ZRC, is a direct attack against the rural community. These Campesinos are prisoners to the conditions of violent pressure and economic hardship and are forced to desist from demanding voluntary illicit crop substitution.

The ZRC has continually expressed the state’s failure to implement the 2016 peace accord. Still, nothing is accomplished despite calls to action made to the government to undertake humanitarian intervention. Similarly, calls for ceasefires are ignored, which has allowed social control by paramilitaries in the area. The Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz, CIJP) calls on high-level intervention to protect the life, integrity, and environmental rights of the ZRCPA.

San José de Apartadó Peace Community Denounces Paramilitary Imposition (Antioquia)
On February 3, the San José de Apartadó (SJA) peace community denounced the continued presence of paramilitary groups in their region intentionally declared neutral of armed conflict. The SJA peace community’s bulletin outlines over 10 different instances of egregious paramilitary imposition in the past two months, including sexual assault of a minor, gender-based violence, obstructions to truth and reconciliation, active armed operations, child recruitment, stigmatization, threats, and assassinations. The SJA peace community calls on and thanks the international community for its accompaniment, especially during the pandemic, and seeks further pressure on the Colombian government to address this paramilitary violence.

Human Rights Defenders Threatened by Paramilitary Member (Valle del Cauca)
On February 10, human rights defenders Milbia Diaz, Santiago Mera, and the journalist Elkin Sarria were followed by a man on a motorcycle in the Lleras and El Firme neighborhoods in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca department. Prior to the incident, the human rights working group conducted a tour of the Estero San Antonio River with witnesses to identify the existence of mass graves at the site. When the humanitarian commission disembarked on their tour, a suspicious vehicle awaited and followed them for approximately 5 minutes. These criminal groups, with a strong presence in surrounding neighborhoods, threaten the work the CIJP carries out in the Humanitarian Space Puente Nayero.

Human Rights Defender Is Threatened and Relocated (Valle Del Cauca)
On February 10, the Alliance for Global Justice urged their followers to take action to ensure human rights defender Darnelly Rodriguez’s safety, as she continues her critical rights work in Colombia. Over the past year, Rodriguez received numerous serious threats and is located in a region with one of the highest concentrations of political violence and internal displacement in the country. She is the coordinator for the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network (Red de Derechos Humanos del Suroccidente Colombiano “Francisco Isaías Cifuentes”, REDDHFIC), a grassroots organization that serves Indigenous, Campesino, and Afro-Colombian communities in the Valle del Cauca department. She also coordinates the Pacific Center for Human Rights (Centro Pazifico) based in Cali, which provides resources and spaces necessary for social movements, education, and lodging for people displaced by political violence.

Indigenous Elder and Social Leader Threatened and Unprotected (Valle del Cauca)
On February 15, in Cali, the Black Eagles paramilitary group circulated a flyer threatening social leader Rafael Uclue Perdomo and other social leaders of the Indigenous movement in the Valle del Cauca department. Perdomo is an Indigenous elder and advisor to the Indigenous communities and is also one of the founding members of the Regional Indigenous Organization of Valle del Cauca (Organización Regional del Valle del Cauca). As an Indigenous elder, Perdomo is eligible to receive protection under a measure set by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR). Yet, the state has not enforced the measure. Similar court sentences urge entities such as the National Protection Unit and the Victims Unit to adopt precautionary measures. The Justice and Dignity Corporation (Corporación Justicia y Dignidad) demands that state institutions adopt all measures necessary to protect Perdomo and his family. They also demand that the state provide guarantees for the defense of territories and life in Indigenous communities.

Afro-Colombian Leader Threatened through WhatsApp (Valle del Cauca)
On January 31, social leader and human rights defender Orlando Castillo received threatening messages via WhatsApp. The threatening messages are similar to previous threats made to other community members, which contain false accusations against him and other Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space leaders. Since April 2014, these leaders have developed a proposal for peace and self-protection against paramilitary groups involved in extortion, child recruitment, and drug trafficking. The IACHR has enacted precautionary measures to benefit more than 600 families living in this humanitarian space, ignored in the absence of an effective response to these threats. Humanitarian organizations have denounced these armed operations of alleged complicity, tolerance, and omission by police forces, with alleged participation in the armed strategy of control and repression against ethnic communities.

Afro-Colombian Leaders Receive Death Threats (Cauca)
On January 21, Afro-Colombian leader Victor Hugo Moreno of the Association of Community Council of Northern Cauca (Asociación de Consejos Comunitarios del Norte del Cauca, ACONC) denounced that the leaders of the Zanjon Community Council in Cauca department are facing death threats. Moreno urges Colombia’s Attorney General and Ombudsman to take action. He also asks that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights investigate and prosecute these violent threats made by paramilitary groups against these Afro-Colombian Leaders.

Environmental Defenders Face Violence and Death Threats (North Santander)
On January 20, unknown armed persons attacked environmental leader Yuli Velázquez in her home. As a member of the Artisanal, Environmental and Tourist Fishermen Federation of Santander (Federacion de Pescadores Artesanales, Ambientales y Turísticas de Santander, FEDEPESAN), Velázquez denounced alleged corruption with resources invested by Ecopetrol and La Corporación Autónoma Regional de Santander. Social and environmental defenders in these communities also continue to oppose future fracking projects. Environmental and rights organizations including Peace Brigades International Colombia (PBI) and Social Thought and Action (Pensamiento y Acción Social, PAS), as well as social leaders and human rights defenders in Barrancabermeja, North Santander department, denounced the high-risk security situation of environmental defenders. They are regularly exposed to threats and attempted assassinations influenced by public stigmatization. In a statement, the organizations called on civil and military leaders to protect the lives and rights of environmental defenders, fishermen, and Indigenous peoples in Colombia’s rural regions.

Indigenous Man Attacked by Paramilitaries (Antioquia)
On February 2, members of the Gulf Clan paramilitary group violently attacked Benerito Domico, a Urada Indigenous Reserve member. They assaulted Domico while he was stationed at a checkpoint between Mutatá and Pavarando; three armed men forced everyone out of their vehicles and proceeded to intimidate them. Following the assault, Domico requested help from the Pavarandó community. Similar to two decades ago, human rights violations continue as paramilitary type of operations, allegedly supported by police and military sectors. Today’s territorial and social control operations coincide with strategic business expansion plans projected by private sectors during the Álvaro Uribe administration. The Attorney General asserts that the territories’ judicial actions show little or no practical results in the dismantlement of consolidated criminal organizations and paramilitary groups.

Indigenous Communities Fight for Their Endangered Territories (Antioquia)
On February 11, the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia (Organización Indígena de Antioquia, OIA) and the Embera Eyábida communities of the Río Murindó and Río Chageradó reservations in Murindó, Antioquia department declared themselves in a permanent minga due to the grave humanitarian situation caused by the presence of illegal armed groups. The operations of illegal armed groups affect Indigenous, Black, Mestizo, and Campesino communities. Between February 11 and February 16, the minga passed through communities in the Río Murindó and Río Chageradó reservations to demand peace. They seek to re-establish their rights as endangered communities and assurance that their sacred sites and their Embera territories remain untouched. Together as Indigenous communities, they amplify their collective voice to protest and reject the state’s abandonment and demand respect and humanitarian assistance.

Indigenous Territories Terrorized by Armed Groups (Cauca)
On February 4, the Association of Northern Cauca Indigenous Councils (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca, ACIN) publicly denounced the humanitarian crisis taking place in their territories, a result of operations by illegal armed groups. A recent instance includes a January 31 kidnapping of several community members, many of whom are still not free. Another instance occurred on February 4 when armed men on motorcycles chased Héctor Casamachin, an Indigenous leader, as he drove through El Palo and Toribio. Though he crashed his vehicle, he fortunately escaped. ACIN condemns all criminal activity and illegal armed groups’ presence in Indigenous territories. In a public statement, they emphasize that “the respect for life must take precedence over any act of war and death, with which the armed forces pursue the destruction of our communities.”

Indigenous Community Request sIncreased State Protection (La Guajira)
On February 2, Marcela Epiayu Sánchez, the legal representative for the Association of Traditional Wayuu Indigenous Authorities Shipia Wayuu, requested increased protection mechanisms from the Director of the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP), Alfonso Campo Martínez. Epiayu Sánchez made this urgent request following the February 1 murder of Remigio Epiayu, an Indigenous leader of the Porciosa and Damasco communities in Manaure municipality. Though state institutions are aware of these ongoing threats against and killings of Indigenous leaders in the region, the community has not received additional protection. Armed incursions by Samuel Epiayu and the criminal group he leads continue. Moreover, investigations carried out by the Attorney General’s Office rarely prosecute the individuals responsible for this violence.

Buenaventura Experiences Mass Displacements During the Pandemic (Valle del Cauca)
On February 4, a reported 30 families from the Juan XXIII, Litoral, Caguán, El Otoño, La Unión, and Buenos Aires neighborhoods in Buenaventura were internally displaced. These displacements are a result of the constant clashes occurring between segments of a local gang, who are also responsible for threats and murders of social leaders and for increased incidences of child recruitment. This violence is not limited to the urban areas of Buenaventura. Throughout 2020, fishermen and locals at the high sea were subject to continuous robberies and other forms of relentless violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this insecurity, as armed groups continue to use the public health crisis to its favor. Communities are confined by both the pandemic and ongoing armed conflict. The Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (Consultoría para Derechos Humanos y DesplazamientoCODHES) expresses its deep concern about these recent events, which add to the continuous rights violations against the Buenaventura population. CODHES calls on national, regional, and local government institutions, as well as the international community, to urgently address this violence.

175,000 People Caught in Crossfire in Buenaventura (Valle del Cauca)
On January 29, the Ombudsman’s Office reported that at least 175,000 people in low-income neighborhoods known as Comunas 7, 10, 11, and 12 were caught amid crossfire among different illegal armed groups. This violence occurring across the Pacific and particularly in Buenaventura is a deep expression of structural racism, exploitation, and exclusion that the national government has historically not addressed. The Afro-Colombian Studies Group and the Leadership Team of the School of Human Sciences at the National University of Colombia urge the national government to respond in a timely manner and to clearly outline a plan to protect the civilian population. They request national and regional state institutions to take immediate measures, including those recommended by the Ombudsman’s Office calling for the protection of at-risk Afro-Colombian communities.  Similarly, they call on the urgent need for peace accord implementation and accompaniment and development of the recommendations made by the Ethnic Commission for Peace and Territorial Rights in its Mandate 002, which establishes the guidelines for the design, implementation, and monitoring of the self-protection system for ethnic peoples and communities.

Indigenous Community Caught in Armed Conflict (Antioquia)
On January 28, the OIA published a letter condemning the presence of paramilitary groups in Indigenous Embera territories located in the towns of Dabeiba and Frontino in the Antioquia department. The Indigenous peoples of these territories have been caught in the midst of crossfire and used as human shields in an ongoing armed conflict among illegal paramilitary groups. OIA amplifies the voices of the Indigenous people, who demand the paramilitary groups leave their territories and urges the national government to guarantee stable and lasting peace in their regions. They also request national and regional institutions to implement humanitarian assistance systems to protect the territorial integrity and livelihoods of the Indigenous peoples. Similarly, they call on humanitarian organizations nationally and internationally to provide accompaniment.

Explosion Injured Seven People, Including a Minor (Cauca)
The Network for the Defense of Life and Human Rights (Tejido de Defensa de la Vida y Los Derechos Humanosalerted the national government and international community of the critical rights situation in El Damian in the Tacueyo Indigenous Reserve. On February 10, amid confrontations between the military and a paramilitary group, an explosion occurred and left seven people gravely injured, one of them a minor. This situation is a severe violation of the International Humanitarian Law, and the ACIN demanded the armed confrontation immediately cease.

Rights and Victims Groups Disagree with Duque About Unifying Numbers of Social Leaders
On February 3, President Iván Duque announced the continuation of the Opportune Action Plan (Plan de Acción Oportuna, PAO) that would unify the compilation and collection of information about threats against and killings of social leaders. This unification would subject all prevention, verification, and monitoring tools to the Attorney General’s Office. The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination (Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos, CCEEU) and the Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movimiento de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado, MOVICE) express deep disagreement with unifying information related to social leader murders under the supervision of the Attorney General’s Office. They characterize this unification attempt as a severe setback for tools the state can use to prevent, verify, and monitor attacks and killings of social leaders. The CCEEU and MOVICE urge the national government to respect the separation of powers and withdraw the supposed unification proposal. They also call on the Attorney General’s Office to change its methodology for collecting data about threats against and killings of social leaders, and present statistics that are consistent with international standards to clarify these serious crimes.

Social Leaders on the Caribbean Coast Confront Ongoing Violence (Bolívar)
On February 5, President Iván Duque visited El Salado in El Carmen de Bolívar, where residents in early January 2021 denounced the Black Eagles paramilitary group for its ongoing threats to kill social leaders in the community. In his visit, President Duque affirmed that police forces would strengthen security in El Carmen de Bolívar, but this announcement failed to mitigate community fears or solve the underlying problems behind this ongoing violence. Though national and international entities have directed peacebuilding and victims’ reparations efforts to the Montes de María subregion since the signing of the 2016 accord, illegal armed groups have occupied areas cleared by the FARC, especially those with narcotrafficking access to the Caribbean Sea. Other illegal armed groups like the Gulf Clan have terrorized residents in the region amid their operations. Women and LGBT+ social leaders face particular threats for their work, which is often unregistered. With 54% of threats and killings of social leaders concentrated in Montes de María, El Carmen de Bolívar is one of the most affected municipalities and accounts for the area with the most aggressions against social leaders.

Violence Against Social Leaders and Human Rights Defenders is a Nationwide Crisis
On February 11, the Colombian Commission of Jurists (Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, CCJ) published July 1 to December 31, 2020 data for its Socio-Political Violence Database (Base de Datos de Violencia Sociopolítica, BDVSP). The recorded data revealed a total of 152 violations against social leaders and human rights defenders. Of the 152 violations, 129 of the victims were male, and 23 were female. These crimes occurred in 20 of Colombia’s 32 departments. The CCJ published a bulletin to analyze these rights violations, their context, and the conditions in which human rights are defended in Colombia.


On a positive note, the transitional justice tribunal is making significant advances:

Special Jurisdiction for Peace Advances Macro-Case on Extrajudicial Executions
On February 18, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP) announced how it plans to investigate and prosecute extrajudicial executions. According to investigations the JEP carried out for macro-case 03, which began in July 2018, the tribunal announced it identified at least 6,402 extrajudicial killings occurred between 2002 and 2008, with many more possible cases to report. On February 24, over 25 international civil society organizations, including WOLA—through the Cooperation Space for Peace (Espacio de Cooperación para la Pazpublished a statement commending the JEP for these advances and publicly supporting the legitimate work of human rights organizations and victims of extrajudicial executions.