Reconfiguration of the armed conflict in the midst of the peace process

The peace process with the FARC guerrillas has brought hope, but since their demobilisation, other illegal groups have taken control of rural territories, which has engendered a new cycle of attacks against communities, human rights defenders and civil society leaders.

One of the most eagerly awaited events was the handover of 7,132 weapons by the FARC, on 26 June 2017.[1]  This brought the total of decommissioned weapons handed over by the guerrilla group to around 50,000, according to a subsequent statement by President Santos.[2]  During the presentation of the UN Mission to Colombia report to the Security Council, several Security Council member states gave their support to the second Mission, which is due to commence in July.[3]

On the other hand, there has been little progress in the negotiations between the Colombian Government and the National Liberation Army (ELN).  In May, the parties held a second round of talks in Quito, Ecuador, in which they discussed issues relating to civil society participation in the negotiations and humanitarian actions to de-escalate the conflict.[4]

The biggest concern for human rights organisations at the moment is the frequent attacks and murders of civic leaders and human rights defenders, and connected to this phenomenon, the increased visibility of neo-paramilitary groups in rural territories.

The Government of Colombia’s official position on the criminal bands or organised armed groups (GAO) is that it objects to the use of the term “paramilitaries” and/or “neo-paramilitaries” arguing that the threats are merely those of organised criminals relating to illegal activities such as drug trafficking.[5]

Nevertheless, the report by the Centre for Research and Popular Education CINEP El paramilitarismo sí existe (Paramilitarism does exist) shows that during 2016, neo-paramilitary groups threatened 395 people, extrajudicially executed 83, injured 44, disappeared nine and tortured twelve people.[6] Father Javier Giraldo, a researcher for CINEP and the Peace Programme, summarises the situation in just a few words: “the weight of paramilitarism is serious”.[7]  There was a total of 550 incidents attributed to neo-paramilitaries; in addition, according to CINEP’s report, another 833 incidents are attributed to unidentified actors.

Human rights organisations have reiterated that the importance of dismantling the neo-paramilitary groups lies in facing up to the problem; complete peace means “no FARC, no ELN, no paramilitaries, no criminal gangs whatever name you give them, and no criminal activities by the Security Forces”, in the words of Congressman Alirio Uribe, during the debate on political control on 17 May.[8]  The Congressman pointed out that “there is still collusion [between the military and paramilitaries] that must be purged, and there must be sure and effective measures for all citizens to be able to trust the Army and the Police”.[9]

The Human Rights Ombudsman recognised that there is “an attempt by illegal armed groups to take over the areas of territory that the FARC have withdrawn from, for the illegal economies that have fuelled the war in Colombia”.[10] According to analysis by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), 45% of the homicides which took place in 2016 and 67% of those from 2017, occurred in areas vacated by the FARC.  For the UNHCHR, ensuring that criminal justice is functioning properly in order to effectively prosecute the murders, transforming the illegal economies and rural development, are crucial.[11]

Progress in creating a protection agenda is an important step recognised by human rights NGOs, but they also criticise the Government for refusing to recognise the systematic nature of the murders, which is needed for there to be effective measures to deal with the situation.[12]

As a starting point, on 14th June the Inspector General issued Directive 002 of 2017 on the roadmap for protecting human rights defenders.  This aims to articulate the Public Ministry’s actions in different regions to adopt measures that provide effective protection.[13] The Directive recommends that the Government creates a single registry for recording the violation of rights of defenders and civil society leaders.  It also announced the creation of an information and analysis group on preventing and protecting human rights defenders.[14]

In addition, the National Security and Guarantees Commission (Decree 154 of 2017),[15] the Integrated Security System for Policy for the Respect for Human Dignity (Decree 895 of 2017)[16] were established; to date, however, no information is available regarding progress on the possible results of their implementation.

Neo-paramilitaries take over territory in Uraba

Death threat against a leader of the San Jose de Apartado Peace Community accompanied by PBI who had spoken about neo-paramilitary control during a Congressional Hearing

At a Public Hearing of the Second Commission of Congress on 17th May[17] on crimes against civic leaders and the presence of paramilitary groups in different regions of Colombia, Gildardo Tuberquia of the San Jose de Apartado Peace Community denounced the presence and movements of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) in several hamlets in the region.  He particularly emphasised the threats and harassment of members of the Peace Community and the collusion between the Army’s 17th Brigade and the AGC in the region. His statement was heard by the Vice-Ministers of Interior and Defence, delegates from the Presidency, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Inspector General’s Office and the Human Rights Ombudsman, and different Members of Congress.

Four weeks after the Public Hearing, the Community reported that Gildardo Tuberquia and another member of the Peace Community had received multiple death threats, in particular on 18th June at an AGC checkpoint between Mulatos and San Jose de Apartado,[18] and on 19th June in the hamlet of Mulatos Medio where an AGC group patrolled the farmers’ houses saying that they were looking for Gildardo and announced that “we have come to stay and we don’t want any snitches reporting about our presence in the area”.[19]

A few days later, the Community warned that a group of 30 armed neo-paramilitaries were patrolling the surrounding mountains.  For the Peace Community, which has resisted 20 years of violence by armed actors to remain on its land, it is clear that the AGC is expanding, and it has been reporting an increase in the AGC’s movements and visibility since September last year.

Neo-paramilitaries in the Lower Atrato

In the Cacarica river basin, the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) and other organisations reported that armed troops from the AGC forced members of the Nueva Vida Humanitarian Zone to attend a meeting on 5th June.[20]  In this area, since the beginning of the year, the AGC have been carrying out operations aimed at social control and coercion, recruiting children and young people, organising community celebrations such as Mother’s Day and giving presents to families.[21]

According to information provided by CIJP, on 5th May, 300 armed men wearing AGC uniforms were sighted in La Mina and La Dominga streams, two hours’ walk from the Embera indigenous reservation of Alto Guayabal (Jiguamiando).[22]  In April, an unspecified number of men wearing AGC armbands entered into Puerto Lleras in Jiguamiando Collective Territory, offering 800,000 pesos to anyone who wanted to work for them. They also reminded the villagers that they were taking over the areas left by the FARC and ordered the community to plant coca.[23]

Military intelligence sources estimate that there could be around 1,300 armed fighters from the AGC/Clan del Golfo in Uraba, and an equal number of collaborators whose remit is extortion, bribes and drugs.[24] According to Semana magazine, they are offering up to one and a half million pesos for people to join them, and credits for sowing coca plants.[25]

Manuel y Samir Ruíz_asesinados en 2012_web
James Ruiz holds the photos of Manuel and Samir Ruíz who were murdered in 2012.

Land claimants

Land claimants are in fear for their lives because of threats and exemplary killings designed to intimidate and destabilise the population. According to the Popular Training Institute (IPC), since 2008, 73 land claimants have been murdered in Uraba. [26]

The land claimant Enrique Cabezas received several death threats between 24th June and 1st July.[27]  CIJP had previously reported the killing of Duberney Gomez, the son of land claimant Rafael Truaquero, at the hands of the AGC on 31st May,[28] and the murder of Jeiler Chala, an afro-descendant leader and member of the Domingodo Community Council (Choco, Uraba) on 6th April.[29]

According to the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Lower Atrato is seeing a reconfiguration of the armed conflict: until it demobilised, the FARC’s 57th Front operated in Uraba. From the end of 2015 the ELN guerrilla arrived; the group had not been present in this area for the last twenty years. From 2014, hundreds of AGC fighters were gathering in the area (Truando and Salaqui) and since 2015 the Human Rights Ombudsman had warned the authorities that the group was expanding. The armed dispute between the AGC and the ELN for territorial control has also caused a humanitarian crisis.

Both the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission have continuously been reporting recruitment, confinement, forced displacement, public smears and threats against leaders, land claimants and ethnic authorities.[30]

Photo by Charlotte Kesl.

Ten year sentence for palm oil businessman in the Lower Atrato

Amidst the movements by neo-paramilitary groups, a sentence was emitted on 30th May 2017: the Criminal Chamber of the Medellin Superior Tribunal sentenced businessman Antonio Nel Zúñiga Caballero to ten years in prison for aggravated conspiracy to commit a crime, forced displacement and invading territory in the Curbarado and Jiguamiando Collective Territory.[31] Zúñiga Caballero was the majority shareholder of the Urapalma and Palmura companies which were effectively owned by paramilitary commander Vicente Castaño; the latter had conspired with Zúñiga Caballero to control the oil-palm business in different regions.

PBI Colombia


[1]  El Espectador: Hoy termina la dejación de armas de las Farc, 26 June 2017; UN Colombia: La misión recibe el conjunto de las armas individuales de las Farc-EP de acuerdo a la hoja de ruta del 29 de mayo, 26 June 2017
[2] El Espectador: Entre incautadas y entregadas, tenemos 50 mil armas contabilizadas de las Farc: Santos, 29 June 2017
[3] UN: Países del Consejo de seguridad respaldaron segunda misión de la ONU, 30 June 2017
[4] El Tiempo: Gobierno Santos cree que sí le queda tiempo para la paz con el Eln, 5 June 2017; El Colombiano: ¿Qué tanto futuro tienen los diálogos con el Eln?, 23 May 2017
[5]  Statement: Aníbal Camacho, Vice-minister, Debate on Political Control “Crímenes contra defensores de derechos humanos y líderes sociales”, Comisión Segunda de la Cámara de Representantes, 17 May 2017
[6]  CINEP: El paramilitarismo sí existe, May 2017
[7]  Semana: “Los paramilitares dicen que trabajan conjuntamente con el Ejército”, 8 May 2017
[8]  Ponencia: Alirio Uribe, Congressman, Debate on Political Control “Crímenes contra defensores de derechos humanos y líderes sociales”, Comisión Segunda de la Cámara de Representantes, 17 May 2017
[9] Ibid. Statement by Alirio Uribe
[10] Defensoría del Pueblo: 156 líderes sociales y defensores de derechos humanos han sido asesinados en los últimos 14 meses: Defensoría, 31 March 2017
[11]  Semana: Cómo prevenir el asesinato de defensores de derechos humanos, 30 June 2017
[12] Observatorio de Tierras: Reporte Semestral – Observatorio de Restitución y Regulación de Derechos de Propiedad Agraria, Dinámicas del asesinato de líderes rurales: las covariables municipales, June 2017
[13] Procuraduría General de la Nacional: Directiva 002, 14 June 2017
[14] El Espectador: La directiva 002 de la Procuraduría, 5 July 2017
[15] Ministerio del Interior, Decree 154 of 3 February 2017
[16] El Espectador: Nuevo Sistema Integral de Seguridad para garantizar los derechos de líderes comunitarios y participantes en política, 7 June 2017
[17] Statement Gildardo Tuberquia, Debate on Political Control “Crímenes contra defensores de derechos humanos y líderes sociales”, Comisión Segunda de la Cámara de Representantes, 17 May 2017
[18] San José de Apartadó Peace Community: La paz que se busca ¿Será la paz de los sepulcros?, 29 June 2017
[19]  San José de Apartadó Peace Community: La paz que se busca ¿Será la paz de los sepulcros?, 29 June 2017
[20] CIJP: AGC sin respuesta de Estado a sus anchas en Cacarica, 8 June 2017
[21] Arcoiris: Paramilitares obligan a comunidad a asistir a reunión en Cacarica, Chocó, 8 June 2017
[22] CIJP: Presencia de AGC en cercanías de Resguardos Embera y comunidades negras de Jiguamiandó, 5 May 2017
[23]  CIJP: Incursión de AGC a Puerto Lleras y anuncio de ingreso a Pueblo Nuevo, 15 April 2017
[24]  Semana: Urabá, el nido de los nuevos paramilitares, 25 April 2017
[25]  Ibid. Urabá, el nido de los nuevos paramilitares
[26] IPC: Rechazan amenazas de muerte a reclamante de tierras en Urabá, 24 March 2017
[27]  CIJP: Amenazan a líder de tierras Enrique Cabezas, 2 July 2017
[28]  El Espectador: Hallan muerto a hijo de reclamante de tierras en una carretera de Chocó, 1 June 2017
[29]  Radio Macondo: Paramilitares asesinan a líder de Domingodó, 6 April 2017
[30]  Defensoría del Pueblo: Nota de Seguimiento no. 004-17, 27 April 2017
[31]  Ibid. ¿”Terceros” o determinadores? El proyecto económico paramilitar en Bajo Atrato

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