The year started off with negotiations in Havana, with the promise of a signed agreement between the FARC and the governmnet while the country prepared itself for a new and unknown phase, peace in Colombia. But what does peace really mean? Disarmament and the end of bombing campaigns? Reparations for the victims? Guarantees of non-repetition of violations? Social justice?
These and other questions are examples of the topics that were discussed and debated in the Political Training School Andrés Flores. In January, we travelled to the village of Cagui on the San Lorenzo Lake in the municipality of Cantagallo (South of Bolivar). The event brought together various social organisations from the Magdalena Medio to think together about possible scenarios, challenges and difficulties they may come up against this year.
It’s a long way from Barrancabermeja, Santander to El Bagre, a sub-region of the neighbouring department of Antioquia. While only 120kms as the crow flies, it’s a 20-hour journey by bus via Medellín where in February we met with Mauricio Sánchez, the president of AHERAMIGUA, the Asociation of the Small-Scale Farmers and Miners of Guamocó to accompany both him and colleagues from other organisations to a humanitarian refuge in the settlement of Puerto Claver, El Bagre.
In Puerto Claver hundreds of people had been displaced by the armed conflict in the surrounding area. Mauricio brought together a Verification Commission to independently investigate the causes of the displacement and disappearances and to help those affected with the legal processes that will help to ensure that the state fulfils its obligation to protect the human rights of its citizens.
There is a great deal of fear in the communities of possible repercussions should they make testimonies and due to the complex nature of the armed conflict and the power dynamics in the region, there is little trust in state institutions.
On 7th of March William Castillo, founding member of AHERAMIGUA, was killed in El Bagre, Bajo Cauca, Antioquia. His death caused a huge blow to the organisation that continues to carry out its important work in the defense of human rights, despite the hugely dangerous situation and the lack of guarantees from the Colombian state.
In March at last, the moment arrived that the people from the Naya River had been waiting for years: the collective titling of their lands. A seventeen year legal battle. A thousand people came to the handover of the legal titles, by river or by walking through the jungle, in Puerto Marizalde, a small village on the banks of the Naya River (Pacific coast).
On the 17th of March a national protest took place in Colombia. The aims were to demand greater equality in economic policy, greater sovereignty over Colombian natural resources and social justice in the context of a peace agreement being signed between the government and the FARC guerrilla group. In Bogota approximately 15,000 people took part in the demonstration, amongst them, several organisations that PBI accompanies.
On 6th of April, the Colombian State signed a second friendly settlement agreement before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in the case of the Massacre of Trujillo, Valle (1986-1994), which legally recognises 76 victims. This case was presented before the IACHR in 1992, and was the first case in the country.
On 13th of April, Puente de los Nayeros celebrated two years of tranquility. Two years ago the inhabitants of a neighbourhood in Buenaventura took their destiny into their own hands and put an end to the violence that existed in Puente de los Nayeros and they built an island of tranquillity in one of the most violent cities in Colombia.
On 17th of April, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó woke up with tags of the neoparamilitary group AGC, on the walls of its bodega and on the fence of its declaration and principles. The Peace Community had been denouncing the presence and the threat of this illegal armed group for the past few months.
June was marked by a public apology issued by the Colombian State, through the Minister of Defense and Armed Forces, to the family of Jose Lorenzo Taborda Taborda. Perhaps this young man’s story can join the list of the horrific practice of what are called ‘false positives’, executions of civilians carried out illegally by members of State security forces and manipulated by them to be made to appear as the lawful killing of guerrillas in combat, for the purpose of “showing results” in the Colombian armed conflict.
On 27th of June, citizens of the towns of Puerto Claver, El Bagre and Puerto López came to El Bagre to march for peace. Despite the threats received by the organisers of the march, and the wave of assassinations of community leaders over the previous months more than 200 people gathered in a demonstration of hope. El Bagre is in a strategic position between Santander, Bolivar, Antioquía and Cordoba and is also estimated to be one of the largest gold deposits in the world, which are some of the reasons for the persistance of the armed conflict in the region.
In July, Eamon Gilmore, the EU Special Envoy for the Peace Process in Colombia visited the region of Urabá in order to get to know the situation of the human rights defenders and the progress of land restitution to the victims of the armed conflict. He visited the Peace Community and met some of the leaders of the Curbaradó region to listen to their stories of displacement and return.
On 25th of August we witnessed the signature of a peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC.
On 30th of August the Nonam indigenous community celebrated the return to their land. This community lives in the Santa Rosa de Guayacan Reserve, located on the shores of the San Juan River in the Lower Calima Region of Valle de Cauca. Their subsistence is based on tradition and culture, especially fishing, agriculture and artisanal crafts. A paramilitary incursion forced them to flee in 2010; and after one year of living in an overcrowded shelter they returned to their land.
On 30th of August, all around the world people commemorated the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Families of the disappeared gathered in Bogota to remember and dignify their loved ones’ names, lives, memories and dreams.
This day also marked 29 years since the disappearance of Nydia Erika. “It always brings sadness, even now we have found her body, but the impunity still hurts us, and the persecution, and the men who have been watching our activities in recent days”, says her sister Yanette Bautista.
On 6th of September, a group of approximately 150 armed men wearing camouflage uniforms were carrying out operations in different parts of the Cacarica Collective Territory (northeast Colombia). They called themselves Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, restricted the free movement of the population during night hours and declared that their objective was to break into the Nueva Vida Humanitarian Zone. These recent incidents have created unease amongst the civilian population. As well as being victims of Operation Genesis, members of the CAVIDA association have been granted precautionary protection measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, under which the Colombian State is obligated to protect the black communities of Cacarica.
On 9th of September, the Luis Carlos Perez Lawyers’ Collective (CCALCP) won the Prize for the collective experience or process of the year – NGO / Accompanier category. Javierana University hosted the fifth annual “Prize for the defence of human rights in Colombia”. The awards, organised by Diakonia Sweden, recognise, raises awareness and reward the work of individual defenders, processes and non-governmental human rights organisations who work in dangerous and vulnerable conditions.
“Each poem or story is a port which I have entered, a tree that has given me oxygen, a lighthouse that illuminates the path on which I keep moving forward”. The voice of David Ravelo is strong and optimistic despite the fact that on 14th of September, it is six years that he has been in prison.
On 26 of September, the Government of Colombia and the FARC ratified the Agreement for building a stable and lasting peace in Cartagena. But in the midst of all the optimism surrounding the signature of the agreement, a worrying tendency has emerged in the post-conflict setting. Since the historic announcement of the definitive bilateral ceasefire on 24 August 2016, there were at least 22 murders of human rights defenders and community leaders.
“Now it doesn’t hurt to remember, because I have forgiven”. These words were spoken by a victim of La Chinita massacre on 30th of September. That day, a delegation from the FARC recognised their responsibility and asked for forgiveness. On 23 January 1994, during a community celebration in a neighbourhood of Apartado (Antioquia), the FARC arrived and started shooting people, 35 were killed.
On 17th of November, an attempt was made to kill Argemiro Lara, land restitution leader and peace activist in Sucre (northern Colombia). Argemiro Lara is one of the leaders who are trying to recuperate Finca La Europa, a property of 1,233 hectares, which in 2000 was violently taken from the farmers who lived on the land, during the height of a paramilitary offensive. The attack on 17 November is part of a nationwide surge in murders and threats.
On 24th of November, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a revised peace agreement to end more than 50 years of conflict, despite continued objections by many who rejected the original deal in an October referendum.
On 8th of December, the governmental organization charged with defending the rights of victims and providing reparations (Unidad de Vìctimas) recognized the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights CREDHOS collectively as an organization that has been persecuted.
Before the act Ivan Madero, president of CREDHOS, expressed his emotions on what it means for CREDHOS. “To be compensated and acknowledged feels like a new chapter of strengthening institutions; we are pleased, we deserve it for our 30 years of persistence”, he explained, proud of the work that his organisation has been carrying out in the Magdalena Medio region and for the hopes that this new era of peace and reconciliation can bring to human rights defenders in Colombia.