Colombia human rights update January 2023

It has been a very violent start to 2023, despite the government’s attempts to improve the security situation since taking office in August last year. In addition to the murders of eight social activists, there were 12 massacres carried out, an alarming rate that if it persists would see 2023’s total far exceed the 94 cases documented in 2022. Indigenous communities, peasant farmers, trade unionists and political candidates were among those targeted.

Here is JFC’s monthly update on the human rights crisis for January 2023.

N.B. This article does not provide a definitive list of all human rights violations committed in Colombia. Various others are likely to have been committed during the period. 

1 January – The first day of the year saw its first massacre. Four people were killed on the road linking the towns of Ocaña and Rio de Oro in César department. Armed assailants shot dead two men in a public establishment before stabbing two women who were with the men. They were taken to hospital where both died soon afterwards. Colombia has seen a massive rise in massacres (attacks in which a minimum of three people are killed), with 95 and 94 cases registered in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

1 January – A 20-year-old indigenous man, Eibar Augusto Guetio, was killed in Caldono, Cauca. His brother Luis Eduardo Guetio was killed in 2020, while his brother-in-law, Julián Baltazar, was murdered two months ago. Eibar lived in the Kweth Ki´Na-Las Mercedes reservation.

2 January – An Awá indigenous youth activist, José Taicus Pascal, was murdered in Tumaco, Nariño. He was only 16 years old and an indigenous guard for the Alto Peñalisa community. José’s brother, 21-year-old Javier Taicus, was injured in the attack. The ORIPAP Awá organistion based in Nariño condemned what it said was ‘an attack on the integrity and life of members of the Awá people who were in a family gathering near to the Alto Albí reserve in the city of Tumaco, an incident in which there was a fatal victim.’ According to the UNIPA social organisation, Awá people suffered 93 acts of violence in 2022, including 22 murders, as well as ten cases of mass forced displacement and eight of an individual nature. José is the first social activist murdered in 2023.

2 January – Trade unionist Mariela Reyes Montenegro was killed in Santander del Quilichao, Cauca. An organiser in the SINTRAEMDES trade union for public services workers, she was attacked while carrying out trade union activity as she visited members. Reports said her assailant shot her in the back before fleeing with an accomplice on a motorbike. Several armed groups are active in the north Cauca region where the killing was carried out and which has seen more murders of social activists than anywhere else in Colombia since the signing of the 2016 peace agreement. Colombia remains the world’s deadliest country for trade unionists, with the International Trade Union Confederation registering 13 killed between April 2021 and March 2022.

8 January – Community activist Cristian Salinas was murdered in Ginebra, Valle del Cauca. He belonged to Comunes, the political party formed by the FARC following the 2016 peace agreement. A Comunes statement said that ‘for his social leadership and his prominent role in the community, Cristian had faced multiple persecutions, harassment, threats and stigmatisation from his detractors.’

8 January – Human rights groups reported the abduction of social activist Noraima Carrascal in Catatumbo, northeast Colombia.

8 January – The year’s second massacre claimed the lives of three people gathered in a bar in the city of Cucutá, close to the border with Venezuela. Armed assailants entered the venue at around 9.45pm and opened fire, killing José Francisco Quintero Robles, Darkis Lorena Acevedo Villamizar and an unnamed man. Another man, Junior Alexander Gaona Cuadros, was injured.

10 January – Vice-president Francia Márquez reported that an explosive device had been discovered and deactivated close to her family home in Suarez, Cauca. It is the latest attempt to target Márquez, who in June was elected to the vice-presidency as part of the Historic Pact coalition. Alongside racist and misogynistic abuse on social media, Márquez received at least three death threats during election campaigning. The United Nations Mission was among those to condemn the incident.

11 January – Fighting between rival armed groups reportedly left at least ten combatants dead in Puerto Rondón, Arauca, a region that seen a major escalation in armed conflict since last year. Social media footage showed armed combatants firing machine guns amid a heavy barrage of gunfire and explosions. While several armed groups have expressed interest in opening dialogue with the government, under President Gustavo Petro’s ‘Total Peace’ strategy, violent confrontation is still taking place in different parts of the country.

13 January – Three people were killed as they left a bar called the ‘Punto Eléctrico Chávez’ in Ipiales, Nariño. Three armed assailants opened fire as the victims approached their car, with two dying on the spot and a third in hospital shortly afterwards. It is the third massacre of 2023.

13 January – The day’s second massacre, and the fourth of the year so far, was carried out in Riohacha, La Guajira. The bodies of three people, two men and a woman, were found burnt in a rural zone known as Puerto Caracol. Police said that forensic teams were working to identify the victims and ascertain the circumstances behind their deaths. Several armed groups are active in La Guajira, Colombia’s northernmost regional department.

13 January – The AGC paramilitary group, also known as the Gulf Clan, issued threats against several environmental activists based in the Magdalena Medio region. Describing them as ‘communists’ and accusing them of ‘opposing economic development,’ the AGC said they had 72 hours to leave the region or become ‘military objectives.’ Those named were Oneida Suárez, Amilkar Monsalve, Luis Corena, Mauricio Meza, Cristian Garzón, Isabel Rey, Carlos Moreno, Jorge Oliveros, Miguel Rodríguez, María José Hernández, Edwin Romero, Isnardo Vega, Mauricio Gómez and Camilo Ochoa.

15 January – Two teenagers and an eight-year-old girl were killed in an attack in La Unión, Valle del Cauca, the fifth massacre of 2023. 18-year-old Jhoan Steven Dávila and a 17-year-old friend were killed in the initial attack, with the child dying shortly afterwards in hospital.

17 January – Three men were killed when armed assailants attacked the vehicle in which they were travelling between the town of Orito and nearby village of Bella Vista in Putumayo.

17 January – Social activist and cultural practitioner Genivero Méndez Buelvas was murdered in Morroa, Sucre. A well-known musician, he had founded the Voces de la Luna (Voices of the Moon) festival which promotes historical memory through music and creativity. He was attacked while speaking with a friend.

19 January – The seventh massacre of the year claimed the lives of a woman and two men in Rionegro, Antioquia. The attack was committed in the early morning.

20 January – The Ukawe´sx Nasa Cxhab indigenous association reported that armed assailants detonated an explosive device in the community De Nuevo Pueblo Caldono in Caldono, Cauca. Four indigenous guards and a minor were injured in the attack. The organisation called on national and international organisations to urgently attend to the ‘physical integrity of our residents.’ Indigenous communities in north Cauca have faced extremely high levels of violence in recent years.

20 January – Death threats purporting to be sent from the AGC paramilitary organisation reiterated the warnings to several of the activists targeted on 13 January (see above). Among them is María José Hernández, a mayoral candidate in San Vincente de Chuchurí for the Soy Porque Somos party, led by vice-president Francia Márquez. These are the latest threats targeting political activists affiliated with the progressive Historic Pact coalition that was elected to government last year. A number of Historic Pact activists have been killed in recent months.

21 January – Social activist Samuel Sabí Dorado was murdered in La Montañita, Caquetá, where he was the former president and current secretary of the community council in the district of Reina Baja. Reports said armed assailants forced him from his home before killing him. He is the sixth social activist murdered since the start of 2023.

22 January – Fighting between armed groups had left the Awá communities of Piedra Sella and Sangulpi ‘in the middle of crossfire, displacement and confinement’ in Hondita, Putumayo, according to the UNIPA social organisation.

22 January – Two unidentified people, a man and woman, threatened to kill human rights defender Carmen Elena García, as well as members of her family, in a series of phone calls. A women’s rights activist based in Catatumbo, northeast Colombia, Carmen has campaigned in opposition to the forced recruitment of minors into armed groups, while also campaigning against high levels of violence towards women in Catatumbo, where 16 were killed and 52 others forcibly displaced in 2021 according to human rights organisation the Observatory of Gender Affairs in Norte de Santander. The group warned that threats and violence intended to silence demands for equality and justice for women victims in the region. Carmen has received several previous threats that have left her in need of bodyguards at all times.

24 January – Community leader Arley Jaramillo Monsalve was murdered in Yarumal, Antioquia. Armed assailants attacked the 50-year-old at his home. Arley promoted sports activities for disadvantaged residents in Yarumal.

25 January – The well-known social and political activist Yolanda Perea reported that she had received death threats.

25 January – Three people were killed in Colombia’s eighth massacre of 2023, when armed assailants attacked them at a house in which they were gathered in El Banco, Magdalena. The victims were identified as William Hernández, his son Adrián and Juan Rincón. Authorities have issued previous alerts over the strong paramilitary presence in the region.

28 January – Armed assailants killed three men in San Carlos, Córdoba. The victims were reportedly gathered at a cockfighting venue when they were attacked. Two were killed outright, named as Kevin José Aguilar and Alfonso Aguilar, while the third, Eder Plaza Argumedo, died later in hospital.

28 January – The day’s second massacre, and the tenth of 2023 already, was carried out in Ciudad Bolívar, Antioquia. The victims were gathered in a bar when they were attacked. Two of them were named as Deison Alberto Durán and Jorge Armando Barcos.

29 January – Indigenous activist Berna Nastacuas Pai was killed when he stepped on a landmine while out walking with his wife and brother-in-law in Tumaco, Nariño. He was an Awá indigenous guard for the community of Sabaleta Sábalo. Awá organisations such as UNIPA have issued several alerts recently about the extremely high levels of insecurity faced by communities in Nariño, where several leaders have been killed and large numbers of people have experiencedÅ forced displacement and forced confinement.

30 January – Four people were killed in the city of Barranquilla on Colombia’s northern coast. Armed assailants arrived on motorbikes at a public establishment and opened fire on those gathered there. The victims were named as Reinaldo José Orozco Picalua, who was an off-duty police officer, Javier Andrés Guevara Correa, Ever José Lizama Melgarejo and Ronald José Zabala Sarmiento. Six other people were injured.

30 January – Human rights groups warned that fighting between rival armed groups was presenting major risks to the Émbera indigenous population of Santa María de Condoto, Chocó.  

30 January – Another three people were killed in the 12th massacre of this month and year, committed in the village of Frisolera in Campamento, Antioquia. At this rate Colombia is on course to significantly overtake 2022’s total of 94 cases. Three young men were forced out of the home of one of them and subsequently killed. One of them was identified as Erley David Sánchez Madrid.

30 January – Social activist Gerardo Vásquez was murdered in Mogotes, Santander, where he was planning to run as a political candidate for the progressive Colombia Humana coalition in upcoming elections. Two armed assailants intercepted Gerardo and shot him dead as he made his way home.

31 January – Environmental and community activist Edilsan Andrade was murdered in Rosas, Cauca. She had stood as a local council candidate for the Independent Social Alliance (ASI) party in the last elections.