Indigenous target in Colombia human rights crisis

The Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Aug. 11 urged the government to effectively protect the lives and physical and cultural integrity of the Nasa indigenous people amid a wave of assassinations in their territory in the southern department of Cauca. The statement noted attacks on members of the Nasa Indigenous Guard over the past 24 hours, in which two were killed—Gersain Yatacué in the community of Toribio and Enrique Güejia in the community of Tacueyo. These brought to 36 the members of the Nasa people killed so far this year, according to Alberto Brunori, the UN human rights officer for Colombia. That is nine more than in the same period last year, which Brunori said points to an "alarming situation" in Cauca. (Prensa Latina, Aug. 11)

The wave of violence in Cauca follows a protest mobilization or minga held by the Nasa and their allies earlier this year. After 27 days, the Minga was suspended April 6, when the government agreed to dialogue, and the blockades that had been maintained on the Pan-American Highway between the cities of Cali and Popayán were lifted. The Minga was called by the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) to press for resolution of land disputes in the region and demand the government's compliance with the Havana peace agreements. The peace accords with the FARC rebels, including provisions for restoration of usurped lands, are opposed by Colombia's right-wing president, Iván Duque. (TeleSur, April 6)

The Minga was punctuated by several violent incidents. On March 19, a member of the feared National Police riot squad, ESMAD, was killed in a clash that erupted when troops tried to clear the highway blockade. Duque said the killing revealed "infiltration by armed groups in the indigenous demonstrations." But indigenous leaders said the officer, Boris Alexánder, was killed by armed but non-uniformed provocateurs within the police ranks. They also noted that two indigenous activists were wounded in the clash. (El Espectador, March 19)

Two days later, eight were killed when a bomb blast went off at the indigenous community of Dagua, in the neighboring department of Valle del Caua. Community leaders said the blast targeted members of the Indigenous Guard who had been participating in the Minga. The Indigenous Guard is a self-defense patrol armed only with traditional staffs, or bastónes. (El Tiempo, March 22; Semana, March 21)

In early April, the Aguilas Negras paramilitary group distributed leafets around Cauca offering a bounty of  $30,000 for the killing of indigenous and campesino leaders—a favorite tactic of the paramilitary networks. (Colombia Reports, April 17) The call appears to have been answered.

In the early hours of April 10, Policarpo Guzmán Mage, a campesino leader in the corregimiento (hamlet) of El Plateado, in Cauca's Argelia municipality, was slain by unknown gunmen in a road ambush as he was riding his motorcycle to work. (Contagio Radio, April 12) On April 15, the body of Jhon Jader Cayapú, an indigenous community leader in  Corinto, Cauca, was found slain on a roadside. (Contagio Radio, April 16)

Killings of social leaders continue across country
This was part of a mere spike in the ongoing deadly attacks on community leaders and human rights defenders across Colombia. On April 13, Aquileo Mecheche, a teacher in the indigenous community of Riosucio, Chocó department, was slain near his home. He had received numerous threats, which had been reported to the Defense Ministry. ONIC called his slaying a "death announced" (muerte anunciada). (Semana, April 13) On April 27, Diofanor Montoya, an elderly campesino and community leader in Maceo, Antioquia department, was gunned down while working his plot of land. (Contagio Radio, April 30)

The UN human rights office in Colombia announced in March that the number of assassinations of social leaders and rights defenders in the country in 2018 was 110 (a smaller figure than that of Colombia's own official human rights body, the Defensoría del Pueblo, which counted 172), Of these, 27% targeted members of indigenous groups (18 cases) or Afro-Colombian communities (12 cases). The figures are a significant increase over 2017, and are on track to be supreceded in 2019. Last year also saw a 165% jump in the number massacres (defined as slayings of four or more persons), from 11 such cases in 2017 to 29 in 2018. (Nuevo Siglo, Bogotá, March 14)

Duque bottlenecks peace process
In his latest blow to the peace process in March, President Duque said he objected to several articles in legislation implementing the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), created by the 2016 agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The JEP is to establish a tribunal to investigate, judge and sentence those responsible for grave crimes during the five-decade internal war. The International Criminal Court broached re-opening its investigation into Colombia if the JEP tribunal was not established. (Jurist, March 11)

In what was widely seen as a capitulation to international pressure—and a defeat for Duque—the president finally gave in and signed the legislation establishing the JEP tribunal in June. (Colombia Reports, June 7)

Uribe in the dock
Duque's political mentor, Alvaro Uribe, who was president during the bloodiest period of the war between 2002 and 2010 and has bitterly opposed the peace process, is now standing trial on charges related to his ties to the illegal paramilitary networks. Colombia's Supreme Court on Aug. 12 ruled that a witness tampering case against Uribe will proceed, rejecting an appeal for annulment by his defense. Uribe is accused of attempting to influence witnesses who testified that he formed a paramilitary death squad when he was governor of Antioquia department in the 1990s. The charges are based on the testimony of two ex-paramilitaries who claimed Uribe helped found the Medellín-based Bloque Metro of the paramilitary network, which he then ordered to carry out massacres and assassinations during his tenure as president.

The case was brought by left-opposition lawmaker Ivan Cepeda, who has detailed the charges against Uribe in his book, A Las Puertas del Ubérrimo (At the Gates of Ubérrimo)—a reference to the leader's private estate in Antioqia. 

The Supreme Court also denied a request to suppress evidence against Uribe from telephone conversations that were apparently intercepted by accident in an investigation against lawmaker Nilton Cordoba and his ties to the so-called "Toga Cartel," a corruption network within the Colombia government. (Colombia Reports, Aug. 13; Colombia Reports, April 12; El Espectador, April 10, Canal1, Bogotá, March 7)

In April, as the case was being brought against Uribe, his former security chief and ex-police general Mauricio Santoyo was deported to Colombia from the US, where he had served seven years of a 13-year sentence for collaborating with illegal paramilitary groups. Convicted by a Virginia federal court in 2012, he was returned to Colombia to face similar charges there. He was immediately taken into custody upon landing in Bogotá. (Semana, April 29