Luis Carlos Pérez Collective Lawyers Corporation
The Luis Carlos Pérez Collective Lawyers Corporation (CCALCP), made up entirely of women, has been working for twenty years for peasants, indigenous peoples and communities affected by the armed conflict in the Colombian Northeast and Magdalena Medio regions. With their litigation work and defence of victims, CCALCP has made significant progress in the fight against impunity and the defence of collective and environmental rights.
“PBI means having one more political ally, one more ally in the raising of awareness, one more ally to tell the world about the realities that keep the communities we accompany oppressed, that have them in the grip of a humanitarian crisis, where the State maintains the impunity for all the crimes they have suffered. Thanks to their awareness raising campaigns, their political advocacy and extensive international network, PBI has provided us effective security.”
Julia Adriana Figueroa, CCALCP director
The beginnings: “Our critical and self-critical stance united us”
CCALCP began its work in the city of Bucaramanga in 2001. At the time of its founding there was a serious humanitarian crisis in the Colombian Northeast and Magdalena Medio regions where the city is located.
Julia Figueroa, director of CCALCP and one of its founders, recalls: “We, the founders of CCALCP , met at a public university. What united us was our critical and self-critical position against the dominant urban-rural system, and concern about what was happening around us. We were confronted with paramilitaries, criminals, guerrillas, and thousands upon thousands of displaced people. We lived moments of catharsis when our parents were killed by State forces. As lawyers, our intention was to create a space to do something about this situation.”1
Almost twenty years later, CCALCP is now established as a reference for accompaniment, legal advice, and litigation to claim the rights of the social, popular and unionist sectors as well as of displaced people in the Colombian Northeast and Magdalena Medio regions. It has promoted the creation and strengthening of various grassroots organizational processes, supporting their mobilisation and human rights actions directed at national and international organizations.2
Strategic litigation in defence of displaced populations
The political, social and armed conflict suffered by the population in the Northeast and Magdalena Medio regions has meant that they now have the highest number of forced displacements in the country. According to official calculations, between 1985 and 2015 in the Magdalena Medio region more than one hundred and forty six thousand people were displaced as a result of the conflict.3
Despite the fact that the scourge of mass displacement has diminished, in the current context of the regrouping of illegal actors after the signing of the peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, new cases have been registered in the region. At the end of 2019, nearly a hundred peasant families from areas where CCALCP works fled to the municipality of Ocaña and Barrancabermeja in search of help, after threats from the ELN guerrilla and FARC dissidents.4
CCALCP’s lawyers are strongly committed to defending displaced people and communities, with several important achievements. Among these is its judicial representation of twenty-seven families displaced by the armed conflict and relocated in the Llano Grande district of the municipality of Tibú, in the Catatumbo region, which, to this day is heavily affected by violence. Thanks to this effort, they were prevented from being displaced once again. They won the lawsuit that threatened to take away the lands that these families, in good faith, had inhabited for seven years.5 The legal accompaniment of communities in Catatumbo that have been threatened, displaced or affected by the presence of paramilitaries is an important focus of the Collective’s work.
Promoting diversity and women’s leadership
Over the years, little by little, the men pulled out of the organization until only women were left. In 2015, CCALCP made the decision to mainstream the gender approach at all levels, from the day-to-day operation to the assembly and the Board of Directors. Today, among the members of the Collective are single mothers, women living alone, women who study and pursue their professional growth, lesbians, bisexual women.
Promoting diversity of lifestyles among its members has become CCALCP’s explicit intention, and it has also borne fruit in their work in the regions. As Julia Figueroa comments: “While we built up our experience we realized that being female lawyers and companions on the ground is a strength. We made significant progress without the need to raise our voices or flexing our muscles.”6
Women’s perspectives are always incorporated in the design of the actions undertaken by the organisation, including in the litigation work and accompaniment on the ground. Figueroa: “We’ve come to realize that we are role models for other women, who want to be like us and finding their confidence. Many members who started their careers in the Collective are now prosecutors or judges. This is how we begin to build a world where diversity is possible.”7
Defending victims of State crimes: “Every ruling is a truth”
Through judicial decisions, over the years CCALCP has managed to demonstrate the Colombian State’s responsibility in commissioning serious human rights violations. Thanks to these convictions, the names of the victims of extrajudicial executions or disappearances are finally cleared: “with the conviction, the fact that the victim was in fact a teacher, a peasant, a trade unionist, or a human rights defender comes to light publicly, and they finally stop being falsely accused of being a guerrilla terrorist,” explains Julia Figueroa. “Every ruling reveals a truth. It helps to tell the world: ‘What we always said was true.’ This of tremendous importance to the victim’s families.”8
Despite the efforts of CCALCP and fellow organizations that defend victims of the Colombian conflict, many cases have continued in impunity. That’s why the Corporation has embraced the transitional justice system, created as a result of the Peace Agreement with the FARC, as a new opportunity. Although, as Julia Figueroa points out, the JEP has its shortcomings and its effectiveness has yet to be proven. But for Figueroa it opens avenues to continue fighting against impunity and achieve reparation9.
“We can be suspicious, desperate… But in the end, we want to make the State justice institutions work for victims, however weak they may be,” she says. “This is a political gamble. Without it, we will not be able to see an end to the conflict in Colombia.”10
By submitting research reports to the JEP, CCALCP provides information on the facts of the conflict from the victims’ perspective, as a way to support the work of transitional justice. For example, in December 2018 the Collective, together with some allied organizations, presented two reports that include 158 cases of extrajudicial executions in the Catatumbo region in the department of North of Santander. According to the organisations, the crimes were committed by members of the Army’s Mobile Brigade No. 15. The reports provide evidence for Case 003: “Deaths illegitimately presented as casualties in combat by State agents”, investigated by the JEP.11
Defence of the Santurbán paramo: water as a human right
Since 2009 CCALCP has joined the growing movement that defends biodiversity and natural resources. An emblematic case that the organization has been working on for years is that of the Santurbán Paramo in the region of Santander. This paramo is one of Colombia’s important natural resources and it provides water to more than two million inhabitants of the region. However, concessions to multinational companies have been granted that give them the right to exploit mineral resources, causing serious environmental impacts.12
Together with the Santurbán Páramo and water defence committee, CCALCP has obtained a ruling by the Constitutional Court in 2016 in favour of a tutela (a judicial petition to protect fundamental rights) filed by both organizations. The Court affirmed that in the process of delimiting the paramo, the effective and democratic participation of the affected communities was lacking.13 In addition, it determined that the Environment Ministry, instead of prioritizing the protection of this important ecosystem, favoured the interests of mining companies that had concessions to continue operating in the area.14
However, this victory is at risk of being reversed. The organisations involved in the 2016 court case fear that the new delimitation of the paramo, scheduled for 2020, once again may be carried out without due study.15 According to Julia Figueroa, this means that for CCALCP “more years of litigation are lying ahead in the Santurbán case.”16
Opposition to fracking in the Magdalena Medio region
San Martín, a municipality in southern Cesar, is at risk of becoming the first place in Colombia where fracking – the controversial unconventional oil and gas extraction technique – will be implemented.17 When, in March 2016, some social leaders and counsellors from San Martín learned of the plans, they began to alert the community.18 Up to today, the inhabitants have opposed the fracking project because of its enormous environmental, public health and human rights risks.
Together with the Water, Territory and Ecosystems Defence Corporation (CORDATEC), CCALCP presented the first so-called “Popular Action” in Colombia, in defence of environmental and collective rights and against fracking. In March 2017, the Santander Administrative Court admitted the Action against the National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH) and two oil companies in order to protect the collective rights that would be violated and threatened by the execution of a hydrocarbons exploration contract.19
CCALCP and the inhabitants of San Martín continued their opposition through demonstrations and protests, complemented by legal and administrative actions. In October 2018, the National Authority for Environmental Licenses (ANLA) decided to deny the application to license commercial fracking projects scheduled in the municipality.20
However, recently uncertainty has again returned. In December 2019 the Ministry of Mines approved the regulatory framework for the implementation of exploration pilots for fracking, and several blocks under the management of multinational companies have already been identified, putting populations in San Martín and other municipalities of the Cesar and Santander departments at risk.21
On a tour of Canada organised by Peace Brigades International in November 2019, Julia Figueroa and Iván Madero, president of Credhos – also accompanied by PBI – called attention to the serious risks that fracking in the Magdalena Medio would entail. According to Reuters news agency, at least five Canadian companies have got their eyes on six fracking blocks in Colombia.22
Threats and attacks
Between 2005 and 2016, CCALCP members were subjected to forty-three threats and other security incidents, including physical assaults, false accusations, harassment, unlawful interception of communications, and information theft.23 According to Julia Figueroa, the systematic attacks that CCALCP members have had to face are specifically related to the fact that they are being women24.
In recent years, with varying intensity, CCALCP has continued to be subjected to threats and attacks.
In the short and medium term, the Lawyer’s Collective thinks the planned elaboration of investigative reports that will be presented to the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP) may further increase the risk of its members. These documents deal with cases of military commanders allegedly involved in human rights crimes, who to date have not contributed to revealing the truth.25
In 2010 the National Protection Unit (UNP) granted the organization some protection measures to the organisation, including an armoured door, a video intercom, a bulletproof vest and a cell phone. Since 2017, the organization has a collective protection scheme that includes a car and a bodyguard. However, CCALCP members emphasize that this scheme is not sufficient to guarantee the safety of the lawyers. On the contrary, it actually constitutes an added risk, as is shown by a series of security incidents involving UNP guards.
Awards and recognition
One of the many outstanding awards and honours received by CCALCP is the National Award for the Defence of Human Rights in Colombia. It was given in 2012 to Judith Maldonado, CCALCP lawyer until 2015. Maldonado received the award in honour of her dedication – against all odds and often met with strong pressure and threats – to give legal advice and accompany victims of the armed conflict and land claimants in regions such as Catatumbo.26
In 2016, the Collective was awarded the National Prize for the Defence of Human Rights in Colombia in “Experience or Collective Process of the year, NGO / accompaniment level” category.27 Julia Figueroa received the award with great emotion: “Hearing that we were the winners made me feel proud and excited. CCALCP is a life project of women who one day decided to say no to more human rights violations, land theft, impunity, and to the economic model which they impose on us.”
Other honours include recognition by the German Embassy in Colombia for CCALCP ’s work, delivered in October 2019.28
We have been accompanying CCALCP since 2006.
- Twitter: @CCALCP
- Facebook: @CCALCP -Corporación-Colectivo-de-Abogados-Luis-Carlos-Pérez