This year has been marked by murders of social leaders, which have been deeply painful for communities, especially as these events have occurred during the implementation of the Peace Agreement. On 17 January, Emilsen Manyoma was killed. This 31 year-old leader was part of Conpaz, a project that brings together peace proposals from different rural territories. Manyoma had been a recognised leader for more than ten years, after she began reporting paramilitary control and drug trafficking.
On 7 February the Colombian government began a peace dialogue in Quito (Ecuador) with the second largest guerrilla group in the country, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
Communities in Cacarica commemorated twenty years since Operation Genesis, a joint military-paramilitary operation which led to the displacement of 3,500 inhabitants from the region. These armed groups carried out this Operation between 24 and 27 February 1997, with the strategic aim of expropriating massive amounts of land from the population. The communities fear that these events could be repeated and that the cycle of violence could return. This year in February, their peaceful lives were interrupted when a group of eight armed neo-paramilitaries entered one of the Humanitarian Zones in Cacarica.
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó commemorated its 20th anniversary. The results of two decades of violence are overwhelming: 320 people killed, 350 death threats, 100 cases of torture, and 50 displacements. There have also been numerous massacres, but the one that perhaps had the greatest impact on the Community was committed on 21 February 2005. On that day eight people were murdered and dismembered in the villages of Mulatos and La Resbalosa, including three minors and leader Luis Eduardo Guerra. The Community celebrated twenty years of existence, however, even the signing of the agreements has not brought the peace they have long awaited. Violence continues to haunt the Peace Community, with incursions by neo-paramilitary groups in several of its villages during 2017.
On 5 April the government signed Decree 588 creating the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Recurrence Commission, as established in the Peace Agreement signed between the government and the FARC guerrilla. This body is part of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Recurrence, one of the most important parts of the agreement in relation to the issue of human rights. The Truth Commission will be key in writing a new chapter to move on from war and look towards the future.
Social and human rights organisations met to remember the victims of the Barrancabermeja massacre. Nineteen years ago, on 16 May 1998, a group of fifty paramilitaries arrived at a fundraising event in a neighbourhood of Barrancabermeja. That night they murdered seven people and disappeared a further twenty-five, who they later killed and buried in shallow graves.
Ten years in prison for palm businessman from the Bajo Atrato area: On 30 May, the Criminal Chamber of the Superior Court of Medellín sentenced businessman Antonio Nel Zúñiga Caballero to ten years in prison for crimes of aggravated conspiracy, forced displacement and invasion of territory, all related to the collective territory of Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó (Bajo Atrato, Urabá region). Zúñiga Caballero was the majority shareholder in the Urapalma and Palmura companies, which really belonged to paramilitary commander Vicente Castaño. Together, these two men coordinated the oil palm business in a number of regions.
Human rights defender David Ravelo Crespo was released from Barrancabermeja prison on 20 June after almost seven years. Ravelo was arrested and jailed in 2010, accused of being the intellectual author of the 1991 murder of David Núñez Cala, a civil servant from Barrancabermeja. In 2012, a Specialised Criminal Court sentenced Ravelo to eighteen years in prison for aggravated homicide. “I am guilty because I speak out”, Ravelo has said on numerous occasions. He is convinced that with his incarceration “they are trying to silence a grassroots leader that hasn’t allowed himself to be intimidated or co-opted by the establishment.” Ravelo is appealing to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP), in the hope that his case will be reviewed and he will be declared innocent.
Social protest reveals the other side of Buenaventura: the government and leaders from the civic strike in Buenaventura (Valle del Cauca department) reached an agreement ending three weeks of social protest. Buenaventura is the largest port in Colombia and the most important in Latin America, connecting 500 ports around the world. Currently, the expansion of the port terminal is underway, which has led to a dispute over land. Buenaventura used to be underwater and the mainly Afro-descendant population used their craftsmanship to shore up the land and reclaim it from the sea.
Guerrilla lays down weapons: one of the most eagerly awaited events was the laying down of 7,132 weapons by the FARC-EP, on 26 June. This means that a total of some 50,000 weapons have been handed over by this guerrilla group, a figure confirmed afterwards by President Santos.
Communities from Mapiripán (Meta department) commemorated twenty years since a horrific massacre was committed in the area. Between 15 and 20 July 1997 around 100 men arrived in Mapiripán who were part of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia paramilitary group (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), and killed at least 49 inhabitants. During the commemoration of the massacre, the victims stated that they have not received comprehensive reparation, and that in fact they have been revictimised.
Family members and victims of forced disappearance organised a symbolic event to commemorate thirty years since the disappearance of Nydia Erika Bautista. On 30 August 1987, Bautista was arrested in Bogotá and taken to a farm by armed men dressed as civilians, as part of an operation between the 3rd and 10th Brigades of the Colombian Army, which included a number of forced disappearances, killings and raids against members of the M-19. Despite international recommendations calling for those responsible to be prosecuted, the officials and sub-officials who coordinated the crime have not been brought to trial.
Every year the most outstanding human rights defenders receive the National Human Rights Award. This year, Enrique Chimonja of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – CIJP) was the winner of the “Defender of the Year” Category. Chimonja accompanies communities and victims of the armed conflict in the Valle del Cauca department, especially in Buenaventura. Since the creation of the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space in 2014, he has documented and reported harassment against the community, as well as the presence of and fighting between armed groups. In addition, CREDHOS won the prize in the category “Collective Experience or Process of the Year”. This organisation has been working since 1987 for the promotion, defence and protection of human rights in the Magdalena Medio region. PBI has been accompanying CIJP and CREDHOS since 1994.
On 26 November one of the most well-known leaders from La Larga Tumaradó, named Mario Castaño (Bajo Atrato area), was murdered. He was a key figure in the struggle for land restitution, as well as a witness in a trial against businessmen and spokesperson for his community which is requesting the withdrawal of a mining project.
On 8 December Hernán Bedoya was murdered. He was a well-known social leader and land claimant from Pedeguita y Mancilla (Bajo Atrato area), who had reported illegal associations, fraudulent contracts and the presence of paramilitaries in the region. Bedoya was also opposed to the implementation of agro-industrial projects in the collective territory of Pedeguita y Mancilla.
“There is no peace in the territories, but there is still hope”. The International Mission concluded its visit to Colombia with those words. In spite of the lack of compliance by the Colombian State with a significant part of the commitments acquired in the Peace Agreement; in spite of the lack of security guarantees for former combatants and the increase in attacks against human rights defenders and leaders; despite the arrival of new armed actors and renewed armed confrontation; the Mission met with communities, organisations, social movements and former combatants who continue to believe in and work towards peace.
The year ended with news on 29 December of the attempted murder of Germán Graciano, the legal representative of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Four armed neo-paramilitaries arrived at the storehouse where the community buy and sell cacao. Members of the community managed to disarm these men, however, in the struggle, the legal representative and other community members were injured. Thirty-five year old Graciano is a direct victim of violence as thirteen members of his family have been murdered, including his father and two of his brothers. In 2015 he was recognised as one of the twenty best leaders in Colombia.
*Cover photo: Bianca Bauer