Colombia: UN concern over political assassinations

Carlos Ruiz Massieu, head of the UN Mission in Colombia, warned President Iván Duque about the human rights situation in the country when they met at the Casa de Nariño presidential palace in Bogotá last week. Ruiz said he especially expressed convern about "the issue of the assassinations of social leaders and human rights defenders." (Nuevo Siglo, Jan. 15) Duque had days earlier announced a new plan of action to address the ongoing targeted assassinations, pledging: "We are going to strengthen all the instruments that the Public Force has at its disposition so that the leaders of armed groups, which are behind a large part of these homicides, are brought to justice." He spoke at Riohacha, La Guajira department, one of the areas hard hit by the ongoing killings. (Nuevo Siglo, Jan. 10)

But also Jan. 15, Colombia's Constitutional Court censured the government for failing to adequately protect threatened social leaders. The case was brought by José Luis Ruiz, a social leader in Tierralta, Córdoba. Ruiz was a member of the Socialist Renewal Current, founded in the '90s by former ELN guerilla fighters who accepted a government offer to lay down arms and participate in the political process. Due to constant threats against him, he was assigned an escort by the government's National Protection Unit (UNP) in 2012. But in 2016, the UNP reviewed his case and decided to begin withdrawing protection. Ruiz challenged this decision, and won a ruling in his favor from Colombia's highest court. (El Espectador, Jan. 15)

2019's bloody beginning
The new year has been off to a bloody start. On Jan. 19, local campesino leader Reinaldo Escobar Cortecero in Puebloviejo, Magdalena, was gravely wounded in an armed attack—despite the fact that he was under an official protection order. (Prensa Rural, Jan. 19)

On Jan. 14, Wilton Fauder Orrego León, a contract worker at Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park, in the country's north, was shot dead by unknown gunmen. (Semana, Jan. 14)

On Jan. 12, Leonardo Nastacuas Rodríguez, an Awá indigenous leader from Cuascuabi resguardo in Ricaurte, Nariño, was slain in an attack by gunmen on his home. Members of the community had reported numerous threats and attacks to the authorities over the past months. (Contagio Radio, Jan. 13)

On Jan. 11, authorities found the bodies of three men, apparently thrown from a truck onto the roadway, in San Antonio corregimiento, Jamundí municipality, Valle del Cauca. (El Espectador, Jan. 15)

On Jan. 7, Miguel Antonio Gutiérrez, leader of the comunal action committee at barrio La Victoria, Chairá, Caquetá, was fatially wounded in an attack on his home by unknown gunmen. (Contagio Radio, Jan. 10)

On Jan. 5, Maritza Quiroz, a social leader in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, was killed n an attack on her home in vereda San Isidro. She had been an advocate for women displaced by violence and seeking restitution of lands in the Sierra Nevada. (El Espectador, Jan. 6)

On Jan. 1, Gilberto Valencia, a young Afro-Colombian cultural worker became the first casualty of the year when a gunman opened fire on a party he was attending in his village of Suárez, Cauca department. (Caracol Radio, Jan. 1)

Elsewhere in Cauca, an attack was apparently averted by community action on Jan. 14. Rubén Orley Velasco, a Nasa indigenous elder in Tacueyó, Toribío municipality, was accosted by a group of armed men who followed him when he began to walk away toward his home. The local Indigenous Guard mobilized to the scene, and the gunmen fled. (El Espectador, Jan. 14)

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) reported last month that threatening leaflets left in indigenous communities in Cauca mentioned various community leaders by name, offering rewards for their deaths. The leaflets were signed by the Black Eagles paramilitary group. (Contagio Radio, Dec. 19)

Similar leaflets left in rainforest communities in Putumayo department were actually signed in the name of the "South Putumayo Black Eagles Bloc of the AUC." The AUC, for Colombian Self-Defense Forces, was the paramilitary umbrella group ostensibly disbanded in an accord with the government in 2006. (DAR, Jan. 21)

The accounting of death
Colombia's official rights watchdog, the Defensoría del Pueblo, acknowledges that there was an assassination an average of every two days in the country last year—a rise of 36.5% over 2017. By its count there were 172 political assassinations in Colombia in 2018 (158 men and 14 women), up by 46 from the previous year. A total of 431 assassinations are counted since 2016. (Nuevo Siglo, Jan. 10) The Defensoría finds most of the killings are rooted in conflicts related to the narco-traffic, illegal mining, and disputed lands. (El Espectador, Jan. 9)

"Collective assassinations," or massacres, defined as four of more slain in one incident, are also on the increase. By November, 16 were couned last year, totalling 78 victims, according to the Defense Ministry. (El Colombiano, Jan. 9)

The official depoliticized view of the killings, however, is dubious. According to international rights group Front Line Defenders, Colombia led the world last year in slayings of human rights defenders, with 126 such cases registered. The runner-ups were Mexico with 48, the Philippines with 39, Guatemala with 26, and Brazil with 23. (Contagio Radio, Jan. 15)

Photo via Caracol Radio