On 4 November 2022, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) recognized the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) as a collective victim with a special intervention role in Case 08, the opening of which was announced in late August of this year. This case before the Colombian transitional justice system investigates crimes committed by members of the state security forces and other state agents, in association with paramilitary groups or third party civilians in the context of the armed conflict. Since 1987, when CREDHOS began its work to defend and protect human rights in the city of Barrancabermeja, the organization has documented, in detail, 16 cases of extrajudicial executions against its members, perpetrated by paramilitary groups with the connivance of Colombian state agents, in addition to 10 cases of forced displacement, four assassination attempts, and arbitrary arrests. “Today Like Yesterday: Report on the victimization of human rights defenders in the Magdalena Medio region in the context of the armed conflict (1987-2016) -CREDHOS Case” is the title of the report filed by the organization before the JEP, which details the incidents affecting over 80 members between 1987 and 2016. And, indeed, “today like yesterday” serious attacks continue against the emblematic organization based in Barrancabermeja: on 27 October of this year CREDHOS was declared a military target after publicly denouncing the authorities’ lack of response to escalating violence in Barrancabermeja. CREDHOS also called for answers relative to alleged ties between state authorities and the Gaitan Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) paramilitary group.
It is not easy to summarize the work and fight against impunity of CREDHOS during more than three decades. Manuel Camilo Ayala Sandoval, a young lawyer with the organization and transitional justice expert, tried to do just this during a torrential downpour in Barrancabermeja that awoke the smell of crude oil in the PBI house, a place that was one of the few safe spaces in the city for many human rights defenders during the most violent years. Camilo fondly remembers the stories told by those who have been with CREDHOS for the longest. For example, he mentioned a Christmas Eve at the end of the 90s, when CREDHOS members “were stuck at the PBI house because of the critical situation occurring in the city: they could be killed on any corner. Whenever I come to the PBI house I imagine them here.”
What is the background to the JEP recognizing CREDHOS as a collective victim?
The recognition in Case 08 is the result of the organization’s constant efforts before national and international bodies and support from multilateral organisms and international accompaniment organizations like PBI. CREDHOS has gone through diverse legal cases as a part of the struggle to clarify crimes committed in the context of the armed conflict. Founded in 1987, the organization arose out of a civil initiative to stop the killings that were taking place in the region. CREDHOS has helped to coordinate social movements and unions, peasant, and women’s organizations to defend, promote, and protect human rights and to demand an application of and respect for International Humanitarian Law. Understanding CREDHOS is understanding the diversity of its leadership.
From the begin, we were attacked by an organization led by state agents, known as the 07 Naval Intelligence Network (Red 07 de Inteligencia de la Armada) that operated in Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio region. This was a dark chapter in the armed conflict, but it is very useful to understand how the paramilitary policy functioned in Colombia. In this context, six of our members were killed in less than a year. This was when CREDHOS’ first board of directors was forced into exile. The end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s saw one the worst peaks of serious human rights violations by state security forces in the region. Now senator and CREDHOS founder, Jahel Quiroga, was displaced in ’92 when Blanca Cecilia Durán, secretary of the organization, was murdered.
In 1993, Iván Madero (current president) officially joined CREDHOS and became part of a generation that was the first to take over for the CREDHOS founders. This second generation began working to promote respect for humanitarian law, but in 1998 the violence against defenders began to intensify. Osiris Bayter, then president of CREDHOS, was forced into exile, threatened for their role in documenting and denouncing the 16 May 1998 massacre. And, between that point and 2003, another group of companions who worked to document war crimes and crimes against humanity were killed. Like others, Iván was forced into exile for 12 years, yet CREDHOS persisted, hence our motto: “today like yesterday, perseverance for life and dignity.”
During that same era, in 1996, the ACVC (Peasant Association of the Cimitarra River Valley) was created. The ACVC’s organizational process was supported, among others, by CREDHOS and international accompaniment. This all gave rise to new attacks. A leader from the CREDHOS board of directors, who was also on the ACVC board, was killed in Yondó.
During the Álvaro Uribe administrations (2002-2010) another phase of work began. CREDHOS denounced a video where Álvaro Uribe met with people who were later convicted of parapolitics and paramilitarism. It is in 2008 when the so-called “false positives” became known internationally as a result of the Aicardo Ortiz case. It was CREDHOS, along with the ACVC and other organizations, who brought this case before the UN. In 2012, Iván Madero returned from exile and, in 2016, CREDHOS was recognized by the Victims’ Unit as a beneficiary of collective redress. As a lawyer, it was helpful to be able to tell the JEP, “we were already recognized by a Transitional Justice institution of the Colombian state, it is important that you also recognize us as a collective victim and with a special intervention role at the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.”
And what does this recognition mean?
The struggle in the JEP is for truth and justice in the framework of the right to comprehensive redress, in other words, an elucidation of the events, knowledge of who is responsible, how they will be sanctioned, and what will be done to ensure non-repetition. However, this is not a process that we started in 2022. We presented the first report in April 2018 and we were the first civil society organization in the country to present a victims’ report to the JEP. Later we presented a total of eight reports with 364 victims who placed their trust in us to accompany this process. Within those eight reports, we made the decision to present the CREDHOS case in December 2021, where we requested collective accreditation.
Why has the recognition taken so long?
And why wasn’t the Magdalena Medio region prioritized until now?
Precisely because the JEP has used a methodology where when reviewing the presented reports, they see in numbers the high peaks of violence. And this is sad because a victim ends up as a number. But I couldn’t necessarily propose an alternative methodology to investigate the macro-criminal patterns. It would be important for differentials perspectives and the principle of maintaining victims at the center as guarantees for participation.
In Magdalena Medio, specifically in the 1990s, the Colombian state perpetrated most war crimes using paramilitary structures. In other regions, direct criminal actions perpetrated by state agents is clearer. Even though the XIV Brigade is in the region, with the Calibío and other battalions that committed extrajudicial executions, this occurred in the Nordeste Antioqueño. Hence, the JEP prioritized Antioquia in Case 03 (extrajudicial executions) but not Magdalena Medio.
Why was Case 08 opened?
The JEP has a fifteen-year mandate and must resolve what occurred during the last 60 years of the conflict and define the maximum responsible parties. The methodology has been “bottom up” (the objective is to identify the direct perpetrators and reach those who gave the orders), but they have realized that they will not reach the level of maximum responsible parties. That is why there was a methodological shift, with investigations by actor and macro-criminal patterns in what are known as “umbrella cases.” That is how Case 08 came to be, with its focus on investigating crimes executed by state agents: all crimes, with the exception of those presented as battle casualties (extrajudicial executions), as Case 03 already exists. Nor will they investigate crimes against UP (Patriotic Union) members as they are already included in Case 06. This new case lumps together association with paramilitary groups, third party civilians, and state agents who are not members of the state security forces. And it is a case that initiates with 70,000 victimizing events throughout the country and 2,800 appearing parties.
So, what is novel about case 08, beyond prioritizing the Magdalena Medio region, is that it will investigate the ties between state agents and paramilitarism and other actors. Do you think this is sufficient to clarify what happened?
This what we all hope for, what we all want. We are talking about a case that starts with 70,000 victimizing events. Our projections are that it could reach or exceed 100,000 victimizing events nationally, and we are talking about 2,800 individuals called to provide their version of the events and potentially be brought to trial. So, we do not know where this will end up when the JEP is already five years old and has ten years left. The JEP says that it has a methodology to make the process more agile. However, there are businesspeople who still have economic power, there are politicians who are still in office…
Do you expect to face retaliation due to the JEP decision to accredit you as collective victims in Case 08?
We have insisted with the JEP, asking “what happened to the guarantees of non-repetition?” The conflict is ongoing here, we are being threatened, there are attempts to kill people and the victims are calling us. So, we presented a request for precautionary measures, which were granted in May 2022, but beyond the symbolic weight, they have not managed to establish comprehensive protection measures. And that is where the AGC videos from this October came from. The threats could be the result of our habitual work writing denouncements, but they could also be related to the transitional justice cases. In the last four years we had not experienced this level of threats. Just when the JEP published its decision about this case, when we are saying that we will participate fully in Case 08, the attacks increase.
In the case of women leaders and defenders, there are specific forms of violence used against them because they are women. How is this addressed in the framework of transitional justice? Within the documentation of victims, have concrete practices used against women defenders been identified?
Against the grassroots, of course. For example, there is a woman leader who is almost eighty years old and is helping us to document cases of sexual violence. She has suffered gender-based violence in the context of the conflict on multiple occasions. She has organized her own association of victims from Santa Rosa del Sur. There are also cases of women whose children were killed in front of them. We have several examples of women who led work at CREDHOS and who were key. Now we are working with the new generation, trying to establish a new group of women leaders who can take over and that is where we see Gloria, Angie, Laura… We are in what the women have named the purple month and there is a series of activities, that includes the participation of victims of sexual violence in the context of the armed conflict. We are also including this issue in the transitional justice process.
We are the first organization in Colombia to be recognized in Case 08. And that has a symbolic and historical importance, we hope that it has an impact in the organizations: that they see the possibility to continue the fight against impunity. This serves as precedent for other organizations like ACVC, the USO (Workers’ Trade Union) and all the organizations that are near us, that they can request recognition as we did and hopefully, they will obtain it.
I consider transitional justice to be a field of dispute. There the victimizers will want to give their version and as victims we will have to fight to achieve guarantees in the framework of international standards for comprehensive redress. And it is going to be a long process, ten years. Today, the news is that we are an organization that, against all odds, has been able to demand and achieve the rights that were denied to us by other institutions. The first big step that we must take now is to accredit the 364 victims who hope to be recognized in this case.
Three years ago, on our way to the PBI Office in Bogotá, we reflected with Iván about what this would be like, with the work that we had been carrying out after the CREDHOS board decided to prioritize participation in the Comprehensive Peace System. That is why we were writing victims’ reports for the JEP, and we decided to present a report as CREDHOS. As an organization we thought it was important because it is the vindication of our companions who have given their lives in the defense of human rights. Today, given the national and international context these colleagues who are no longer here physically are being given a space, and we must persist to vindicate their fight as human rights defenders.
Inés Moreno Martin-Pozuelo
 City where a recent Early Alert from the Human Rights Ombud’s Office (AT 027 of 2022) determined a high risk for communities, leaders, and human rights organizations, mentioning CREDHOS among others, due to an expansion of the Gaitan Self-defense Forces of Colombia, the ELN, and FARC dissidents in the Magdalena Medio region.
 On 26 October, video a was published where heavily armed men, who identified themselves as members of the Gaitan Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), confirmed their presence and “social cleansing” actions in the city of Barrancabermeja accusing members of the police and public servants—including the mayor of Barrancabermeja and the police inspector of Yondó—of failing to comply with an alleged agreement with the illegal armed structure. At the same time the video declared a “hit plan” against public servants who failed to fulfill the agreement, as well as threatening a community leader. On 27 October, subsequent to the CREDHOS denouncement, a new video was published, where another heavily armed group self-named as the “Criminal Gangs of Barrancabermeja”, directly accused CREDHOS of being AGC allies, stigmatizing human rights defenders and declaring them as “military targets.”
 In February 2022, the JEP announced it would open three new macrocases:
– Case 08: Crimes committed by state security forces and state agents in association with paramilitary groups.
-Case 09: Crimes against Ethnic Peoples and Territories.
– Case 10: Crimes Not Eligible for Amnesty Committed by the Former FARC-EP in the context of the Colombian armed conflict.