Category Archives: PBI Colombia

Call for applications: PBI Colombia Training

PBI Colombia would like to announce a call for applications to our 2022 Training Encounter

Applications will be accepted until June 5th, 2022.  All applications (with references) received until this date will be considered for the training and selection process leading to a training and selection encounter to be determined at a future date,  which will take place in Spain.

More information here (Spanish language only)

Protecting the Essence

“As women we are diverse and today we come together amid that diversity.” Those were the opening words at the Gathering of Women Defenders organized by PBI Colombia, held in La Vega this past 24 to 27 of February. Colombian women, from their Indigenous, Afro-descendant, and mixed-race ancestry of resistance have taught us something essential about protection: it is also necessary to protect our spirit, our sense of being, our center, our essence.

This protection is not as visible as a fence or armored car, but it sustains organizational efforts as roots hold up a tree. Many scientists now talk about the importance of roots in primary forests, how they are intertwined with the roots of other trees as a greater community that accompanies the forests, from underground.

We have also been shown how these roots, thanks to mycorrhiza, transmit information that keeps the forest healthy and favors growth in the smallest and sickest trees. This paradigm shift is still pending within the western perspective; an understanding of the connection between humans and nature (the nature that we carry inside us and the external nature that cares for us). This language reaffirms what women, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian peoples have been saying for so long: there is so much beyond what our eyes see.

Protecting our roots is protecting what remains invisible yet sustains us. Roots sustain the trunk, hold the earth in place, and maintain the forest even when it is burned. “If the forest burns, let it burn, that same vine will sprout again,” as a song states. This also happens with protection, strong and collective roots are part of the protection that we provide as individuals, communities, and organizations.

There are many ways to protect our essence, depending on our world vision and culture, depending on our history. Through the many spaces that PBI Colombia has shared with women leaders, defenders, and organizations we have identified the importance of once again asking ourselves: What keeps us united in our efforts? What are our values?  What connects us to life and the defense of rights and the territory?

Sociopolitical violence and abrupt and unexpected transformations, such as the pandemic, can lead us to lose sight of the horizon we are moving towards and where we came from. It can put us in a state of emergency, reacting to events. And over time we can lose that profound “why” in the essence of what we do and our connection to life.

We want to highlight three paths to protect that essence, which we identify as powerful, necessary, and inspirational

First, a coming together of the generations to dialogue on how we understand the values that sustain us as a community or organization and that connect us to the defense of human rights; second, the space for and vindication of our own culture, with the symbols, rituals, songs, languages, or education that comprise it; and third, a collective and creative construction of memory.

This dimension of protection, at times invisible, is fundamental, and like all the other dimensions it must be taken care, even when it is underground. For that reason, today on 8 of March, the international day for the rights of women workers and girls, we ask ourselves once again: Why do we continue accompanying after 27 years in Colombia?

Perhaps, as is reflected in the etymological meaning of spirit, it is because it helps us breathe. After all, it gives us air to walk the path of constructing spaces built on solidarity, peace, and friendship. Breathing in collective, with other women, allows us to recognize ourselves in others, to strengthen the invisible network of which we are a part, constructing safe spaces out of vulnerability and interdependence. Today, 8 of March, we do not want to forget all of the contributions made, day in and day out, by women leaders and defenders to understand protection from a holistic lens, understanding that protection and care always go hand in hand. A very special thanks to all the women, women leaders and human rights defenders, who inspire us every day.

PBI Colombia.

“Amid this fear, there is a desire to live”: Retrospective on the Nordeste Antioqueño

Remedios and Segovia are two municipalities geographically connected and historically hard hit by the armed conflict. Both rural municipalities are part of the Nordeste Antioqueño [Northeastern Antioquia] subregion, in the department of Antioquia, which is cared for by the many working hands of the peasantry and those focused on artisanal mining. From the small towns one can see the branches of the San Lucas Mountains, in the Central Mountain range, which hold enormous wealth: gold. According to the Segovia Mayor’s Office, 7% of the country’s gold is from just this municipality and 39% comes from the Nordeste Antioqueño.[1] This explains the large number of miners who, generation after generation, have transmitted their knowledge on artisanal mining, a technique that is less harmful to nature in comparison to large-scale mining.

The abundance of natural resources in these lands and the arrival of multinational companies, such as the Canadian Gran Colombia Gold,[2] has provided the illegal armed groups who are present in the region with an extremely lucrative funding source in mining. In the Nordeste Antioqueño, a highly militarized region, communities have resisted by activating their own protection protocols, in the face of a lack of state support to guarantee their safety.[3] Despite the enormous work carried out by human rights organizations such as the Peasant Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC) and the Humanitarian Action Corporation for Coexistance Peace in Northeast Antioquia (CAHUCOPANA), both accompanied by PBI, the violence seems to be endless.

Continue reading “Amid this fear, there is a desire to live”: Retrospective on the Nordeste Antioqueño

HUBER VELÁSQUEZ: “Today we marched to call for respect for life and so we can live in our territory.”

The 17th of December 2021, social leader Huber Velásquez was murdered in the rural community of La Balsa, township of San José. The incident occurred in “La Batea,” a place that is just a few meters from what was at one point his brother Iván Velásquez’s estuary. Iván was murdered on 2 January 2002 after refusing to participate in a food blockade imposed by the army as a strategy to pressure the Peace Community.[1]

Just like his brother, Huber sympathized with and had a close relationship with the Community, supporting its cacao commercialization. He also belonged to the peasant oversight board in his municipality and at the time of his death was participating in the inspection process for the paving project for the road between Apartadó and the township of San José. This project has generated major protests from the population due to delays in its execution and the damages caused to the surrounding homes and roads, among other issues. This situation led him to make several public complaints against the municipal administration, laying out how they were not taking steps concerning the irregularities.[2]

For years, Huber had been attacked because of his role as a community leader and he underwent an attempt to expel him from his land. However, in recent months, and due to his complaints about the paving project, he had mentioned a significant increase, to the point of receiving death threats from the paramilitaries at his house.[3] It should be noted that in addition to the intensification of violence and reconfiguration of the armed conflict that occurred nationally after the signing of the Peace Agreement, Otoniel’s capture has also marked an increase in the paramilitary presence and actions in the region and the township of San José. This has been reflected in denouncements made by the Peace Community with their public statements,[4] which refer to an increase in practices such as the forced recruitment of minors, death threats, murders, and territorial and social control, all amid a strong presence from the state security forces.[5]

According to data from Indepaz, including Huber, 165 leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered in 2021 and 1,280 since the Peace Agreement’s signature.[6] The Ombuds Office had warned of of systematic human rights violations and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) infringements in its December 2020 Early Alert.[7] Within this complex context of insecurity, the members of the Peace Community have decided to once again show the bravery and dignity with which they have been characterized throughout their history, convening peasants from all corners of San José to firmly condemn Huber’s murder. Thus, early in the morning on 23 December, dozens of people congregated in front of the Community to walk to the home of social leader Huber Velásquez, in a march for life and the defense of the territory.

People of all ages attended: children, youth, adults, and seniors, some on foot and others by mule. Everyone demanded respect for life in honor of the murdered gentleman, but they also marched as one more example of active resistance to those who today continue attempting, in vain, to silence their voices with violence. And they did this by filling the morning with colorful posters of protest, which they showed to neighbors along the way and then placed at the entrance of the house where Huber was murdered.

Despite the pain, there were also words of hope and fraternal solidarity because, as was stated by those who spoke at the event, even though today it is a place of emptiness and desolation, it was always a house inhabited by a smiling family that believes in the possibility of building a more just world, and there is no greater tribute than “continuing this journey to defend life, to fight against the silencing of truth, and for the memory of those who dared to defend the principles of justice and solidarity.”

Uraba Team, PBI Colombia.

[1]Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó: Se reconfirma pena de muerte contra denunciantes, 20 December 2021.

[3]Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó: Se reconfirma pena de muerte contra denunciantes, 20 December 2021.

[5]Comunidad de Paz: Constancias de la Comunidad de Paz Diciembre, December 2021.

[6]Indepaz (@Indepaz): Tweet, 18 December 2021.

[7]Defensoría del Pueblo: ALERTA TEMPRANA N° 051-20, 14 December 2020.

“Who Gave the Order?”: A Call for Justice and Truth

The story of the “Who gave the order” mural was wrought with censure from the start. The image was covered with white paint just hours after it was painted on 18 October 2019, in front of the General José María Córdova Military Academy in Bogotá. According to statements from the Movement of Victims of State Crimes – MOVICE [1]—the organization that promoted the initiative—the mural was censured in an operation by the 13th Brigade of the National Army when over 20 armed men intimidated the young artists who painted the mural. [2] A day later, MOVICE published on Twitter that the mural had been censured. Despite numerous attempts to halt its dissemination, the symbol of memory for victims of extrajudicial executions and the call for truth, justice, and guarantees of non-repetition is once again in front of the Military Academy and is now protected by the Colombian Constitutional Court.

The image was designed in 2019 by the Campaign for Truth [3]—a coalition of several human rights organizations—and portrays the faces of five high-level military commanders, under the command of whom 5,763 extrajudicial executions were perpetrated during the 2000 to 2010 period. [4] These are the cases of the so-called “false positives,” a euphemism that refers to the murder of youth who are presented as guerrillas killed in combat. This is one of the darkest chapters of the Colombian armed conflict and a central element to be addressed by the transitional justice system.

The first mural from the Campaign for Truth (2019) with the faces of five generals from the National Army, with the number of victims of extrajudicial executions from each of the battalions that they commanded between 2002 and 2010. After this first mural, and as investigations by the organizations and the transitional justice system advanced, three other murals were designed, which contain higher numbers and the maximum responsible parties.

At the end of 2019, one of the commanders who appears on the mural, General Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo, commander of the 13th Brigade, filed a tutela (writ of protection of constitutional rights) to have the mural erased from social media given that, according to him, MOVICE actions damaged his honor and good name. This legal action [5] was joined by the Commander of the National Army of Colombia between 2006 and 2008, General Mario Montoya Uribe [6] who also appears on the mural. In February 2020, Civil Court 13 of Bogotá ruled in favor of the military high commanders’ request, arguing that while there are no judicial rulings against the military leadership, the victims could not express their opinion. [7] Hence, the court ordered that the mural be pulled within 48 hours from the streets and social media. [8] However, it was impossible to comply: the image of the mural had already been shared hundreds of times by digital users and around 5,000 posters with the mural image had flooded the streets of Bogotá[9] and, later, other Colombian cities. MOVICE accepted the judicial ruling that censured the important call to clarify “who gave the order” while, as the investigations advanced, the increasing magnitude of extrajudicial executions in Colombia was corroborated.

On 12 July 2018, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) decided to open case 003: “Illegitimate deaths presented as individuals killed in combat by state agents.” As a part of the process to establish the extent of extrajudicial executions as a phenomenon, the JEP studied a vast amount of information. Even though sources differ on the magnitude of the crime investigated by the JEP, they all indicate that the largest number of victims was during the 2002 to 2008 period. Investigations show that during this period, a historic 78% of the total victimizing events were registered. The methodology for Case 003 is “from the bottom upwards,” and seeks to investigate the phenomenon first on a local level to later move to the regional and national levels. Regarding the responsible parties, the mural promoted by the “Campaign for Truth” indicates that “who gave the order” must be clarified, in other words, an identification of the high-level commanders of the Colombian Army who ordered the crimes.

After carrying out a verification process among different commissions and entities, [10] the Chamber to Acknowledge Truth of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which arose out of the Peace Agreement, declared that “throughout the national territory at least 6,402 individuals were illegally killed and presented as killed in combat between 2002 and 2008.” The numbers revealed in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace report also confirm the hypothesis presented by the organizations on the existence of a military policy that favored the persistence of this crime, which was perpetrated without any control, verification, or punishment for the responsible parties. The policy combined methods from the dirty war with personal and institutional incentives and benefits that lacked transparency and sought to give the appearance of military success and security. [11]

The 6,402 cases of “false positives” are from the 2002 and 2008 period, during the administration of ex-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, and the statistics show that 66% of victims were concentrated in ten departments. In the first stage of the investigation, the JEP’s Acknowledgement Chamber prioritized the events that occurred in the departments of Antioquia, Norte de Santander, Huila, Casanare, Meta, and the Caribbean Coast. Although there are no official priorities among the six subcases, it should be noted that Antioquia is the department with the most victims: the department has registered 25% of all victims in Colombia between 2002 and 2008; 2004 had the most victimizing events and according to investigations and confessions from the ex-military members before the JEP, the 4th Brigade—which had jurisdiction in the area—could be responsible for 73% of the identified deaths.[12]

After almost two years of legal actions to resolve the issue of the legitimacy of this emblem of memory for victims and their fight for truth, the Constitutional Court ruled, [13] on 9 November 2021, to protect freedom of expression and the victims’ memory. The Court argued that the mural “Who gave the order” must be protected due to the gravity of the incidents that surround extrajudicial executions, the immense impact on Colombian society, and the responsibility of army members who are currently being investigated for their alleged participation in incidents, which the petitioners have presented as systematic actions. In turn, the Court declared that “Who gave the order” is a critique of the state, which is clearly part of the public debate, given that government employees could be involved in serious human rights violations. Hence, the Court noted that the victims have the right to an extrajudicial truth as it “contributes to the construction of historical memory. The public narrative that these provide, in addition to being an inclusion mechanism, also restore the victims’ right to honor and allows them to materialize the guarantee to tell their own truth. Therefore, it can be stated that attempted censorship can result in a revictimization of those affected by these crimes.” [14]

On Saturday 4 December 2021, PBI Colombia accompanied the process of putting up the mural “Who gave the order?”, coordinated by the “Campaign for Truth,” made up by 10 civil society organizations. The political, cultural, and, commemorative event took place after the Constitutional Court ruled on the tutela presented by General Marcos Pinto and issued Ruling T-281/21. The ruling was a demonstration of its support for freedom of expression for the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes – MOVICE.

Thanks to the work of social organizations, human rights organizations, and victims this jurisprudence in favor of freedom of expression made it possible for artists and human rights organizations to repaint the mural in front of the Military Academy on 4 December. This time it reflected the shocking 6,402 victims of extrajudicial executions and 14 high-level commanders who are allegedly responsible. The mural “Who gave the order” has in itself a very important meaning as it was possible due to a ruling that favors freedom of expression and, at the same time, is a strong vindication of justice and truth. Until Colombia can answer the question “who gave the order?” the families of the victims of extrajudicial executions will continue the search for truth and justice in a brave and necessary exercise of active memory.

 “Society needs to know what happened. This is also a part of the victims’ and society’s right to speak out against impunity on the serious crimes that have hurt them and to demand a full truth so that this is never repeated.” [15]

PBI Colombia.

[2] CAJAR: SOS Contra la Censura, October 2019.

[3] The iniciative is from the #CampañaPorLaVerdad (Campaign for Truth), which unites several human rights organizations that have historically represented victims of state crimes, such as MOVICE, CAJAR, CSPP, CJL, and JyP. It is an iniciative to make state crimes visible in the context of transitional justice.

[4] This number comes from a report published in 2014 by the Working Group on Extrajudicial Executions of the Coordination Colombia Europe United States and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR): “The Rise and Fall of ‘False Positive’ Killings in Colombia: The role of US Military Assistance, p. 69 and 126. Research titled “Extrajudicial Executions in Colombia, 2002-2010. Blind obedience in fictitious battlefields” was also published and refers to 10,000 extrajudicial executions, just during the 2002-2010 period.

[6] The most emblematic case is that of General Mario Montoya Uribe, Commander of the Army between 2006 and 2008, who the Prosecutor’s Office has accused of being responsible for the murder of 104 individuals—five of whom were minors presented as combat casualities. At the end of August 2021, the Superior Tribunal of Bogotá, denied the Prosecutor Office’s request that the case of Mario Montoya—accused of aggravated homicide and concealment and tampering of evidence in “false positives” cases—be charged by the ordinary justice system. Hence, , his case will remain at the JEP.

[8] El Confidencial: ¿Quién dio la orden? Un asunto de interés público, 21 November 2021.

[10] The Prosecutor General’s Office, the Inspector General’s Office, the Accusatory Penal System, the Observatory on Memory and Conflict of the National Center for Historical Memory, the Coordination Colombia Europe United States.

[13] Corte Constitucional: Sentencia T-281/21, 23 August 2021.

[14] El Confidencial: ¿Quién dio la orden? Un asunto de interés público, 21 November 2021.

[15] José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective – CAJAR.