Priests Forced to Flee After Death Threats

News from Colombia | on: Sunday, 20 April 2008

Death threats against trade union, community and religious leaders in the southern part of Colombia's Bolivar department have forced several people, including three priests that work in the region, to flee their homes in fear for their lives. The threats are part of a pattern of violent harassment that the paramilitaries have carried out against civil society organisations in the region. Human rights groups and locals say that two specific units of the Colombian Army are collaborating with the paramilitaries.

An e-mail threat on April 10th explicitly targeted several groups and individuals working in the region including the local mineworkers' trade union FEDEAGROMISBOL and human rights group SEMBRAR. Several priests based in southern Bolivar department were also mentioned by name as were two people working on a European Union-funded development programme in the area.

Signed by the 'Black Eagles' paramilitary group, the threat stated that "you are on a list of people that are unwanted by the government and you will be eliminated" and went on to accuse all those listed of being supporters of leftwing guerrilla groups and to declare them as military objectives. The threat also said that those named should prepare for their burials. Three of those named, Father Rafael Gallego, Father Danuil Manjarres and Father Leonel Comas, all Catholic priests, subsequently fled their homes.

A further threat was received on April 19th specifically targeting one of the priests and the local mineworkers' union leader Teofilo Acuna.

A communiqué from human rights groups has stated that the paramilitaries are operating openly in southern Bolivar department and that two units of the Colombian Army – the 'Narino' Battalion and the 'Nueva Granada' Battalion – are collaborating closely with them. Locals have reported that soldiers have threatened to send the paramilitaries to kill "those who complain or do not do what they are told".

Civil society groups in southern Bolivar have long been subjected to harassment at the hands of the Army and paramilitaries and the region has seen numerous extra-judicial executions, massacres, forced disappearances and other violations.

According to union leader Teofilo Acuna, "The abuses are being committed every day but people are too scared to speak out. The army and paramilitaries have made it clear that they will kill anyone who talks. And we believe them."

In February this year human rights activist Miguel Daza and a colleague were assassinated by the 'Black Eagle' paramilitaries in the same region. Justice for Colombia reported on it here:

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