At the beginning of the New Year in 2019, there were concerns about the situation of defenders in Colombia. 2018 had been a particularly violent year, in which figures related to violence increased to an alarming extent, including reported attacks, killings and forced displacement. This pattern sadly continued throughout the year. However, despite difficulties with the peace process and the low moments, commitment to defending human rights and peacebuilding also continued.
The first two weeks of January 2019 were marked by a violent wave of attacks on leaders; including the attack against Alfamir Castillo, mother of a young victim of extrajudicial execution and a witness in the case against Mario Montoya being heard by the Special Peace Jurisdiction (Jurisdicción Especial de Paz – JEP), in the city of Palmira. The next day the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation (Fundación Nydia Erika Bautista – FNEB) found that the glass in their office facade had been shattered. The FNEB is an emblematic human rights organisation that offers holistic support to victims of enforced disappearance. Then, on 16 January, a terrible attack occurred against the Police Cadet School in Bogotá, which led to the government’s decision to halt the peace negotiations with the ELN guerrilla group.
In February, a plan was discovered to attack members of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz – J&P), an organisation recognised for its support to communities who are victims of armed conflict and land claimants in the Bajo Atrato region, and many other areas of the country. On 16 February, armed and camouflaged men from the self-styled neo-paramilitary group the Gaitanist Self-Defence Force of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) entered the village of El Tesoro, in the Curbaradó river basin area, beginning a strategy of threats and harassment to expand their territorial control in the Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó river basin areas, and throughout the Bajo Atrato area. This situation endangered the Afro-descendant and indigenous population of the Emberá Uradá Jiguamiandó indigenous territory. Many communities found themselves in a situation of confinement, threats, a lack of guarantees to cultivate their lands, and a lack of access to health, which caused a number of children to die from diseases such as malaria.
J&P provided constant support during this horrific situation, on a number of occasions reporting actions by the AGC to control the population and the presence of the ELN in violation of the rights of the inhabitants, a problem that continued until the end of March. The situation of territorial and social control is currently ongoing.
On 2 and 3 March, the first Festival of Memory in the Bajo Atrato Region was held in the Cacarica basin, during which the “Marino López” building of the Peace University was inaugurated: built entirely with recycled materials and where training courses will take place on environmental issues, agriculture, reconciliation and peace building. Then, on 4 March, which will be remembered as a historic day, JEP magistrates and Truth Commissioners visited the Nueva Esperanza Humanitarian Zone and held the first territorial hearing. Communities from the Bajo Atrato region, and also from different regions of Colombia, who have been victims of forced displacement, murder and harassment by different armed actors (both legal and illegal) have high hopes that the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition will uncover the truth behind these victimizing events. The communities have also made proposals for restorative sanctions to make progress on reconciliation, through the Peace University.
We celebrated International Women’s Day on 8 March, highlighting women’s key role in building peace and demonstrating the increasingly high risks faced by women and women human rights defenders: “In Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and Nepal women defenders face additional pressure and discrimination because of their gender and because they challenge entrenched discrimination and accepted norms of behaviour”. PBI values and supports the work of women human rights defenders and their specific care and protection needs. Indeed, in the month of March, PBI International initiated a campaign in which women human rights defenders from Latin America shared experiences and recommendations on self-care, entitled: Being a Woman Defender (Ser Mujer Defensora).
In April, former Prosecutor William Pacheco, who was responsible for the arrest of human rights defender David Ravelo, was arrested for his alleged involvement in the forced disappearance of a young man in 1991. David Ravelo was prosecuted in 2010 following the testimony of two paramilitaries jailed for their alleged involvement in a murder in Barrancabermeja. Multiple irregularities have been reported in the legal proceedings against Ravelo and although he is now free, he is still awaiting the review of his case.
At the end of the month, a humanitarian shelter was organised in Bogotá where thousands of the country’s leaders and social leaders joined together to request security guarantees from the Colombian State in the face of the numerous attacks they have suffered and continue to suffer.
Also in April, a major step was made towards achieving justice in the case of the forced disappearances of Ángel Quintero and Claudia Monsalve, members of ASFADDES disappeared on 6 October 2000 in Medellín, with the return to Colombia and a call for investigation into the actions of General Santoyo. This former security chief of former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, was at that time the director of the Gaula army intelligence unit in Medellín, and according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office “a prosecutor from the specialist unit against human rights violations found indications that could link General Santoyo with the disappearances of Claudia Patricia Monsalve and Ángel José Quintero”.
The month of May also brought hopes for truth and justice with the announcement of the sentencing of six soldiers for their participation in the massacre of Mulatos and Resbalosa (San José de Apartadó) on 21 February 2005. This ruling recognises the alliance between these members of the XVII National Army Brigade and paramilitaries from the Bloque Heroes de Tolová of the AUC, and sentences them to 34 years in prison. “The ruling proves the premeditated, permanent and coordinated action of the military and ‘paramilitaries’ against the Peace Community and the extermination attempts to which it has been subjected by the XVII Brigade”, said lawyer German Romero.
On 10 May we accompanied the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos – FCSPP) during a ceremony in which members of the National Army 1st Brigade apologised for their responsibility in the execution of a civilian named Jorge Enrique Hernández. The search for justice and truth about extrajudicial killings, known as “false positives” remains an important claim of Colombian victims’ organisations and civil society. These executions cast a terrible shadow over the actions of the Colombian National Army, and it seems that they are still occurring, as became clear in 2019 with different possible cases of new executions, including the case of former combatant Dimar Torres, killed on 22 April, and revealed in ambiguous National Army guidelines published by the New York Times on May 18: “One order causing particular worry instructs soldiers not to “demand perfection” in carrying out deadly attacks, even if significant questions remain about the targets they are striking.”
At the end of the month we accompanied J&P during a visit from an Amnesty International delegation in the department of Putumayo, more particularly in the “La Perla Amazónica” Small-Scale Farming Reserve Zone (Zona de Reserva Campesina “La Perla Amazónica”– ZRCPA). The situation in Putumayo is also very complex, with the presence of different illegal armed actors including neo-paramilitaries and FARC dissidents. The rural and indigenous population has been the main victim of their actions, living in a constant state of vulnerability due to possible armed confrontations, attacks and threats. The ZRCPA is also being threatened by the possible expansion of oil industry projects in other parts of the territory, which the community rejects.
In the Bajo Atrato region, the second edition of the Festival of Memory was also held in May, in the So Bia Drua Humanitarian Environmental Reserve, in Jiguamiandó, between Alto Guayabal and Coredocito.
For the second time in their recent history, the Wounaan community of Pichimá Quebrada del Litoral San Juan (Chocó) were harassed amid fighting between illegal armed actors, and therefore had to leave their territory for their own safety at the beginning of the month of June.
In the Magdalena Medio region, we accompanied the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos – CREDHOS) during an international mission to verify the state of pollution in the rivers and marshes of Barrancabermeja. Oil exploitation has had its impact on the environment, which is important to monitor and mitigate. Water protection is more than a necessity; it is a fundamental right.
Also in June, we had the honour of accompanying three diplomatic advisors from the embassies of the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom, the ambassador of Ireland and the ambassador of Denmark to the Humanitarian Zone of Nueva Esperanza in Jiguamiandó. In the context of the harassment and terror that communities have been experiencing since February, the international community has shown attention and support for the civilian population, by calling for their protection.
However, at the end of the month, threats and harassment were once again made against human rights defenders from the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission. These included a direct mobile phone threat received by Carlos Fernández, who accompanies the ZRCPA process and the Nasa community in Putumayo.
In July, we accompanied NOMADESC in Bahía Malaga during a session of the Peoples’ Intercultural University (Universidad Intercultural de los Pueblos – UIP). This leadership school allows young people and others from different territories in Valle del Cauca and Cauca, to learn about their economic, cultural and environmental rights, as well as about joint social, ethnic, small-scale farming and grassroots processes. The participants come from territories that have found themselves in the middle of the armed conflict and have become leaders to defend their community and land rights.
Also this month, the journalist and human rights defender Claudia Julieta Duque, suffered a new blow against her freedom of expression during her legal process against former agents of the DAS state intelligence body, for their (alleged) responsibilities in psychological torture against her. Emiro Rojas Granados’ defence lawyer requested a review of the journalist’s right to express herself publicly, in the media and in through her networks, about this judicial process. The Prosecutor accepted this request and ordered Claudia Julieta not to publish any information regarding this case, revictimising the journalist.
On 26 July, the French Ambassador visited the offices of the FNEB. Yannette Bautista, the organisation’s president, was chosen by the Embassy as part of the European Union campaign “Let’s Defend Life” (“Defendamos la Vida”). That same day, Colombian society mobilised to defend the right to life and reject attacks and murders against defenders and leaders. This call was extended to different cities in the world, in a show of solidarity with Colombian human rights defenders.
In August, we accompanied Berenice Celeita, from the NOMADESC Association, on an advocacy tour in Bogotá. The situation in the territories accompanied by the organisation is very worrying and they wanted to draw attention to the security situation of the Civic Strike Committee (Comité del Paro Cívico), after the attack against Carlos Tobar, leader of the Committee, and harassment against Danelly Estupiñan. In solidarity, Lars Bredal, Deputy Director of the European Union Delegation in Colombia, travelled to Buenaventura and visited the communities of the La Isla de la Paz neighbourhood together with a delegation from OHCHR.
In the region of Northeast Antioquia, the “Braulio Enrique Gracia” house of memory was inaugurated, which includes an exhibition of photos and stories by victims of the armed conflict in the region.
We also accompanied Sister Maritze in the Memorial Monument Park for the twentieth pilgrimage in memory of the victims of the Trujillo massacre, as well as to pay tribute to the victims of different massacres and socio-political violence in Colombia.
In response to the situation of violence in Bajo Cauca, the Corporation for Legal Freedom (Corporación Jurídica Libertad – CJL) together with other organisations belonging to the Social Process for Guarantees in Antioquia (Proceso Social de Garantías de Antioquia), organised a humanitarian caravan travelling through different municipalities in the region in order to meet with the civil population, organise cultural and recreational activities and make visible the tragedy that these territories face.
We accompanied J&P on a verification mission in the territory of Pichimá Quebrada, Litoral San Juan (Chocó department), together with a delegation of organisations and the Wounaan community, in order to verify the situation in the territory, two months after the forced displacement of the population, to verify the damage caused by the clashes between illegal armed groups and to gradually prepare the return of the community.
At the end of the month of August, we accompanied the FNEB and Adriana Quintero in the city of Pasto where the Truth Commission and the Search Unit for Persons Given to be Disappeared (Unidad de Búsqueda para las Personas dadas por Desaparecidas – UBPD) carried out an act of homage to the women who are searching for their loved ones, entitled “we recognise your search”. As the world marks the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, Colombia is facing a search for more than 80,000 people who have been reported missing in the country. In this context, we would like to mention a the publication produced by Erik Arellana Bautista and Fidel Mignorance, who together coordinated a team to make visible the Cartography of Forced Disappearance in Colombia (Cartografía de la desaparición forzada en Colombia), which shows that of the 1,151 municipalities in the country, only 66 do not register any cases of forced disappearance.
The month ended with the announcement by “Iván Márquez”, the former FARC commander and former member of the Peace negotiating team, of the reconfiguration of a new dissident group of the ex-guerrilla, which represented a new blow to the Peace Agreement.
In September we celebrated the human rights defender community in Colombia at the ceremony for the National Prize for the Defence of Human Rights, organised by Diakonia and the Church of Sweden, and in particular the prize won by the Small-Scale Farming Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (Asociación Campesina del Valle del Río Cimitarra – ACVC) in the category “Experience or Collective Process of the Year (NGO Modality)”.
On the 12th and 13th of this month, representatives from the Embassies of Norway, Canada, France, Switzerland and Spain travelled to Buenaventura to visit communities accompanied by NOMACESC. These visits are important for the international community to learn about the situation in the regions, as well as work taking place to defend human rights.
At the end of the month, the 25th anniversary of PBI in Colombia was celebrated in the Humanitarian Zone of Camelias, in Curbaradó, where accompanied people and different communities gathered together to share knowledge, memories and artistic activities, including creating a song entitled “Sing Resistance” (Cantar Resistencia).
Also in September, human rights defence lawyer Germán Romero, from the organisation DH Colombia, had his computer stolen, which contained sensitive information on the cases he is working on. Over the past few months, the lawyer had been the victim of several threats and harassment, culminating in a direct threat to his home phone on the morning of 3 October during which an unknown person said “I’m not going to let you live your whole life, do you hear?”. We therefore held several meetings with embassies and state institutions to convey our concerns regarding German Romero’s situation, and in order to request guarantees for human rights defence work and particularly for lawyers representing victims of state crimes. This work still lacks the necessary guarantees, as is also demonstrated by the case of lawyer Daniel Prado, representative of victims of the “12 Apostles” paramilitary group, in a case in which Santiago Uribe Vélez, brother of the former president, is currently on trial. Throughout the legal process, J&P has repeatedly reported attacks and threats against the human rights defence lawyer.
In October, we also accompanied Olga Araújo from the NOMADESC Association on a tour of Europe where she was able to participate in different events with the aim of making visible the situation of defenders in Latin America and in particular defenders of land and territory.
On 8 October, after the investigation of Álvaro Uribe Vélez regarding the alleged manipulation and bribery of witnesses regarding allegations of his links with paramilitary groups, Franklin Castañeda, President of the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (FCSPP), was subjected to accusations by Senator Uribe and other members of the Centro Democrático political party, related to events that had already been addressed previously during the process, in which the Supreme Court had not found any irregularity. The FCSPP is one of the first human rights organisations founded in the country and also represents victims of state crimes. In light of these accusations, there was a wave of support for the CSPP, at the national and international level, requesting respect for due process.
In November, Julia Figueroa and Andrea Nocove of the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers Collective (Corporación Colectivo de Abogadas Luis Carlos Pérez – CCALCP) and Iván Madero, president of CREDHOS, carried out a speaking tour in Canada, accompanied by Javier Gárate, representative of the PBI Colombia project for North America. During this tour, the organisations were able to raise awareness of their work on environmental protection and request support from Canadian organisations in this fight. The defence of the earth and the environment is a worldwide struggle.
Then, on 20 November, the event commemorating 25 years of PBI in Colombia was held at the National Museum of Bogotá, where a conversation was held with international experts and an act of recognition for human rights defenders and organisations that we have accompanied throughout these 25 years. This was an important moment to remember the path we have shared and the struggles of these brave and tireless people.
The next day, all of Colombia mobilised in the National Strike: after months of frustrations over economic policies that did not convince part of the population, as well as frustrations over the breach of the Peace Agreement, attacks on leaders, and the bombing in Caquetá, where at least eight minors died, Colombian people took to the streets to request the implementation of the Peace Agreement and respect for their rights. This march ended with a “cacelorazo” (in which pots and pans are used to strike out a protest beat) and will be remembered for what it implied and how it lasted during the weeks that followed, and also for the repression by the national police, especially the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios – ESMAD) and the murder of the young man Dilan Cruz, a protester who received a projectile wound to his head, bringing the number of victims of ESMAD violence to 34.
On the first day of December, the Wounaan community of Pichimá Quebrada returned to their territory. They had been displaced since June of the same year, and despite multiple meetings and requests to state institutions, they finally organised their return without government guarantees and without institutional support. Nevertheless, it was a great moment of joy for the community.
In December, the first mass grave of victims of extrajudicial executions known as false positives was also discovered in Dabeiba. The hearings of soldiers and former soldiers in the JEP helped to locate the site and put together the pieces of what happened in this region of the North of Antioquia. The Colombian people and, above all, of the victims and relatives of the victims continue to hope that the truth will be revealed about the victimising events they have suffered, about the reasons, the people responsible and the whereabouts of those who never returned to their homes. It is a right that belongs to them. This meeting therefore represented a step forward along this pathway of hope, which will continue to be a priority for human rights organisations: the fight against impunity, revealing and sharing the truth to build a new country where these events are not repeated, and building a more just society where the environment and the land rights of people and communities are respected.
The year ended with a new wave of violence: nine people were killed between 19 and 26 December, raising the number of defenders and leaders killed to 250. Beyond the debates about numbers and about who can be classified as a defender, or whether or not these are systematic attacks, what Colombia is losing is irreplaceable. Fortunately, a generation of young, talented leaders continues to build a more just and peaceful society, who believe in another way to resolve conflicts, defend the environment, ancestral and ethnic communities, natural treasures and cultural aspects of a country that has a wealth of incomparable biodiversity. Hopes for peace continue, even though the 2016 Peace Agreement has received a number of setbacks. The lack of guarantees to carry out human rights defence work, as well as building political participation from different perspectives, mean that this is all still high-risk work, as demonstrated by the violent campaign during the regional elections this year.
After 25 years of PBI’s presence in Colombia, we also continue to hope that peace will be achieved and that a society can be built where conflicts will be resolved peacefully, through active listening and dialogue. Meanwhile, we will continue to accompany human rights defenders and organisations who are threatened because of the work they do.
**Cover picture is a courtesy of Gabriel Galindo, photograph and journalist of Contagio Radio
 See PBI Colombia: Between hope and disappointment: a summary of 2018, 31 December 2018
 El Espectador: Masacres, homicidios y agresiones a líderes: el violento inicio de 2019, 15 January 2019
 El Tiempo: Repudian atentado contra madre de víctima de ‘falsos positivos’, 13 January 2019
 El Colombiano: Duque rompe diálogos con el Eln y reactiva órdenes de captura, 18 January 2019
 CIJP: Nuevo plan contra Justicia y Paz por promover verdad, derecho a la tierra y al ambiente, 2 February 2019
 CIJP: Operaciones neoparamilitares en Territorio Colectivo de Curvaradó, 16 February 2019
 El Espectador: Una universidad para restaurar los lazos rotos por la guerra, 6 October 2019
 CCAJAR: Capturado ex fiscal William Pacheco por desaparición forzada de un joven en 1991, 3 April 2019
 PBI Colombia: David Ravelo: the voice that prison could not silence, 18 April 2019
 El Espectador: ¿Por qué se instalará un refugio humanitario para líderes sociales en Bogotá?, 23 April 2019 ; El Espectador: ¿Qué lograron los líderes sociales que instalaron el refugio humanitario en Bogotá?, 4 May 2019
 El Espectador: Capturan a General (r) Santoyo por desaparición forzada de dos defensores de derechos humanos, 29 April 2019
 RCN Radio: Por estos delitos tendrán que responder el General Santoyo y Leonardo Gómez ‘porcino’, 29 April 2019
 El Tiempo: Histórica condena por masacre ‘para’ en San José de Apartadó, 12 May 2019
 New York Times: Colombia Army’s New Kill Orders Send Chills Down the Ranks, 18 May 2019
 PBI Colombia: International Solidarity with Community Struggles in Putumayo, 6 June 2019
 Contagio Radio: Festival de las Memorias en Alto Guayabal: un encuentro para construir la paz, 20 May 2019
 CIJP: Confinados indígenas Wounan de Pichimá por enfrentamiento armado, 2 June 2019 ; CIJP: Contactos armados obligan a desplazarse a indígenas Wounaan, 4 June 2019
 PBI Colombia: The importance of protecting the Magdalena River and the Wetlands of Barrancabermeja, 25 June 2019
 PBI Colombia: The International Community Visits the Bajo Atrato Region, 4 July 2019
 CIJP: Amenaza a defensor de derechos humanos de Justicia y Paz, 27 June 2019
 PBI Colombia: Gathering Knowledge, Protecting Life: the Peoples’ Intercultural University , 23 July 2019
 FLIP: FLIP rechaza orden de censura en el caso de la periodista Claudia Julieta Duque, 25 July 2019; PBI Colombia: “Freedom of Expression is a utopia to which I aspire”: Claudia Julieta Duque, 16 August 2019
 El Tiempo: Así transcurrió la marcha por los líderes en las principales ciudades, 26 July 2019
 Pacifista!, Atentan contra líder del paro cívico en Buenaventura, 26 July 2019
 El Espectador: ¿Agentes del CTI asedian a una lideresa social de Buenaventura?, 2 July 2019
 El Espectador: Caravana humanitaria recorre el Bajo Cauca Antioqueño para exigir el derecho a la vida, 26 August 2019. Three were held in total, one in the north of Antioquia in October and one in the north-east of Antioquia in November-December.
 Son of Nydia Erika Bautista who has a victim of focred disappearance on 30 August 1987
 Who was a PBI volunteer between 1999 and 2003
 See PBI Colombia: Of the 1,151 municipalities in Colombia only 66 have not registered forced disappearances: Erik Arellana, 4 October 2019
 Semana: Todos los ojos en la JEP: el duro golpe del rearme a la justicia, 29 August 2019
 Contagio Radio: Ganadores y ganadoras del Premio Nacional a la defensa DD.HH. 2019, 4 September 2019
 DH Colombia, Nueva amenaza a representante de víctimas y defensor de derechos humanos Germán Romero Sanchez, 4 October 2019
 BBC News: Paro nacional en Colombia: 3 factores inéditos que hicieron del 21 de noviembre un día histórico, 22 November 2019
 Amnesty International: Colombia: Las autoridades deben investigar imparcialmente la represión de las protestas, 22 November 2019
 El Espectador: Tipo de muerte de Dilan Cruz es “violenta – homicidio”, señala Medicina Legal, 28 November 2019
 El Espectador: 34 personas han muerto por acciones del Esmad desde su creación: ONG Temblores, 1 December 2019
 Semana: CIDH le recuerda a Colombia que debe buscar la verdad sobre fosa común de Dabeiba, 19 December 2019; Semana: La verdad oculta en Dabeiba, 22 December 2019; Contagio Radio: Las memorias de Dabeiba: en busca de la Verdad, 20 December 2019
 El Espectador: Violenta Navidad en las regiones para líderes sociales, indígenas y campesinos, 26 December 2019
 El Tiempo: Con 250 asesinatos, termina un difícil año para los líderes sociales, 30 December 2019