Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights
Credhos was founded amid paramilitary violence in the petrol city of Barrancabermeja in the 1980s. Committed to the defence, promotion and protection of human rights and the promulgation of International Humanitarian Law in favour of vulnerable and victimized social sectors, the Corporation has established itself as a reference for communities in the Magdalena Medio region. In recent years, Credhos has played an important role in the search for routes that lead to peace in the region.
“Accompaniment by Peace Brigades International has been fundamental in the daily life of our organisation. Firstly, because of the fraternity that has been built between the PBI team members here in Barrancabermeja and the members of CREDHOS. Secondly, because of the deterrence which allows us to move, allows us to do this work. It also enables our recognition as human rights defenders, and the recognition of our work by State institutions.”
Iván Madero Vergel, CREDHOS President
Leading human rights organization in Magdaleno Medio
The Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (Credhos) was founded in 1987 in the city of Barrancabermeja, an oil enclave strongly affected by paramilitarism and the armed conflict.1 The purpose of the members of the Corporation was to denounce and seek answers to the serious humanitarian and human rights crisis in Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio region, which in many ways continues to this day.
For more than thirty years, Credhos has worked for the defence, promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). With its work extending to eight municipalities of Magdalena Medio, among others in Puerto Wilches, Yondó, Sabana de Torres, San Pablo, Cantagallo and Sogamoso, the Corporation has established itself as one of the most visible social organizations in this part of Colombia.
A large part of CREDHOS’ work consists of denouncing human rights violations in the region. Its legal area receives more than eight hundred cases annually from people who, as individuals or on behalf of their community, denounce violations of their rights.2 In addition, the Corporation promotes respect for human rights through workshops, training, and legal advice.
In recent years, addressing socio-environmental conflicts in the region has gained great importance within the organization. Credhos supports the fight against fracking by extractive industries and defends the communities’ rights to a healthy environment. It accompanies the work of small-scale farmers and environmental activists who have been subject to threats for denouncing the disastrous ecological impacts of the petrochemical industry, as well as the contamination of drinking water sources as a result of environmental mismanagement by companies in the region.3
History: extermination plan against CREDHOS members
CREDHOS was founded in response to the violence which followed the murder, of Leonardo Posada Pedraza, parliamentary representative of the Patriotic Union (UP) party, in 1986. Pedraza was the first victim in a series of murders where more than five thousand militants of this left-wing party died at the hands of the paramilitaries, with the participation of State actors.4
“The organisation has paid a very high price for its attempts to unmask those involved in this criminal network. CREDHOS lost seven of its members between 1991 and 1992 and almost all of its directors were forced to leave the city and even the country,” recalls Francisco Campo, a former member of CREDHOS.5 Some years later, when paramilitary groups seized the city of Barrancabermeja between December 2000 and January 2001, CREDHOS faced the exodus of a large part of its members, a situation that lasted until March 2005.6
In a report published in 2013, the Office of the Public Prosecutor revealed that CREDHOS and other social organizations in the region were the targets of a persecution and extermination strategy, carried out between 1998 and 2005. According to the report, this macabre plan involved an intelligence network of the National Armed Forces.7
Although the intensity of violence in Barrancabermeja and the surrounding region has decreased in the last decade, members of the Corporation have continued to suffer threats and attacks.8
Collective reparation recognizes the damages suffered
In 2016, Credhos was recognized as a subject of collective reparation for the damages caused throughout its existence. On that occasion, the Territorial Director of the Special Unit for the Attention and Reparation to the Victims of Magdalena Medio affirmed that by receiving collective reparation measures, CREDHOS was acknowledged “for its commitment and reparation in the region. This is a grassroots organization that has significant community support and represents the historical heritage of regional human rights defence.”9
The implementation of the measures officially started in March 2019, on the occasion of the presentation of the Corporation’s so-called Integral Plan for Collective Reparation (PRIC) to its affiliates in its General Assembly. The Plan contemplates sixteen measures that will be applied at its Barrancabermeja main offices and in the eight municipalities that are impacted by CREDHOS’ work. Among other measures, its legal and psychosocial departments will be strengthened, and local human rights committees will be created.10
First organization to present a report about victims to the JEP
According to CREDHOS, one of its objectives is “the search for routes that lead to national reconciliation and to the Peace with social justice that the inhabitants of the Magdalena Medio Region long for.”11
To achieve this, both before and after the signing of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC in 2016, the organisation has been actively promoting peace education to help the local populations understand what the agreement is about and to promote that they take ownership of it and demand its compliance.
In recent years, the Corporation in alliance with other organisations has undertaken efforts to uncover the human rights violations that occurred during the armed conflict in the region, and present these cases to the institutions of the Integral System of Justice, Truth, Reparation and Non-repetition (SIJVRNR) which was created as a result of the 2016 peace deal. In April 2018, CREDHOS was the first organisation in the country that, in its representation of the victims, presented a report about the events in the region to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).12
The document includes thirty cases of human rights violations committed in the Magdalena Medio region during the armed conflict. CREDHOS president Iván Maduro explained that these were chosen among the three thousand cases registered in the organisation’s database, for being “the most emblematic cases, that were forgotten or lost in endless administrative and criminal lawsuits, etcetera.” The alleged perpetrators of these crimes are members of the National Army and Police.13
In addition, CREDHOS supports the implementation of the National Search Plan for Missing Persons of the Search Unit for Missing Persons (UBPD), an entity that is also part of the System. The organisation has formed a specialized team that travels to places where there may be clandestine mass graves, to clarify the whereabouts of the remains of the victims of enforced disappearance in the region.
Denouncing neo-paramilitary structures
Throughout its history, CREDHOS has persisted in its actions to uncover human rights violations committed by criminal structures, paramilitaries and other armed groups in the oil city and the region.14
Despite the fact that Government officials of recent administrations have maintained that paramilitarism no longer exists in Colombia15, evidence gathered on the ground demonstrates the opposite. In recent years, CREDHOS has documented the presence and actions of so-called neo-paramilitary groups in the city of Barrancabermeja. In addition to collecting victims’ testimonies directly, the organisation uses social media to uncover data about the movements of these groups.
“We receive information in real time from the city’s communes, which has enabled us to identify who commits the attacks, who carries out the killings, and who is in charge. We know that, after the demobilization of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia a few years ago, the paramilitary structure did not entirely disappear,” says Ramón Abril, one of CREDHOS’ directives. “In fact, while previously the armed confrontation took place in rural areas, paramilitary groups now have a marked presence in the city. And since they no longer respond to a single command centre as they did before, this may involve more risks.”16
“We receive information in real time from the city’s communes, which has enabled us to identify who commits the attacks, who carries out the killings, and who is in charge. We know that, after the demobilization of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia a few years ago, the paramilitary structure did not entirely disappear”
At the same time, CREDHOS is investigating the historical links between the oil industry in the area and paramilitarism, a task that may also raise the profile and lead to increased vulnerability for its members in the medium term.17
By researching and documenting cases of paramilitary and neo-paramilitary actions, CREDHOS alerts public entities such as the Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office, with the aim of generating political pressure and having these institutions open formal investigations and carry out arrests. At the same time, CREDHOS reveals its findings to the media and through platforms and alliances of social and human rights organisations.18
Threats and attacks
Since its creation, CREDHOS has repeatedly been subject to harassment and threats due to its public denouncements of human rights violations in the city of Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio region. Among these, the organisation’s members have received calls, stigmatizing and threatening messages on social networks, via email and text messages by cell phone, as well as threatening pamphlets that were often sent not only to CREDHOS members themselves, but also to their families.19
The organisation thinks that the rise in threats in recent times is related to its work in favour of the peace process and the implementation of the peace agreement in this part of the country, but above all, to its work of denouncing neo-paramilitary structures operating in the Magdalena Medio region. In the short and medium term, CREDHOS predicts that its investigations of alleged relations between officials working in the local oil industry with paramilitary groups will raise its profile, which will lead to a rise in security risks.20
In 2000, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures to the members of the CREDHOS Board of directors.21 These were renewed in 2011.
Several members of the Board have protection schemes from the National Protection Unit (UNP).
Awards and recognition
CREDHOS has received several awards and recognitions for its work in favour of human rights and peace. For example, in 2008 and 2009, the Municipal Council of Barrancabermeja, the Mayor’s Office of Barrancabermeja and the Departmental Assembly of Santander publicly recognized the organisations work. In 2009, the Diocese of Barrancabermeja granted the San Pedro Claver Statuette to former CREDHOS leader David Ravelo, in recognition of his work.
In 2017, CREDHOS received the National Award for the Defence of Human Rights by Diakonia, in the category of “Non-Governmental or Collective Organization of the Year”.22
Profile: Iván Madero, CREDHOS president
A decade of exile, with an ocean in between, has not distanced him from the problems of his country. Perhaps because exile is another form of struggle and the desire to return was always there. After returning to his home country, Iván Madero Vergel has taken on the leadership of CREDHOS, the organisation which he joined a few years after its founding and from which he had to leave in 2001 to save his life.
Iván joined the organisation’s Board of directors in 1993, after dozens of political murders, including those of several CREDHOS members. After a period in which each night they slept in a different place, accompanied by PBI, he and his wife were forced to leave the country.
After ten years of exile in Spain, Iván returned to Colombia in 2012. Upon his return, he assumed the presidency of CREDHOS. In this new role, he has been accompanying another episode in the history of the organisation, marked by the imprisonment of David Ravelo, a former member of the Corporation, by the actions of the neo-paramilitary groups and their allies, as well as by the implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement and the search for the long-awaited peaceful coexistence and reconciliation in the region.
We have accompanied Credhos since 1994.
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