Colombia human rights update March 2021

As Colombian authorities appear incapable of containing the human rights violations taking place across the country – even in situations involving state security forces – March saw more murders of social activists and former combatants in the peace process. Despite urgent recommendations from international organisations, including the United Nations, certain security mechanisms have still not been implemented, while there is a backlog of requests for protective measures for at-risk individuals.

Here is an overview of cases of human rights violations in March 2021.

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

1 March – Indigenous leader Jaime Basilio was murdered in San Onofre, department of Sucre in northern Colombia. He was a senior community official in the village of Libertad. He was shot dead in his home at around 8pm and, according to INDEPAZ, is the 28th social activist murdered in 2021. 

2 March – An 82-year-old peasant farmer, named as Orlando Mesa, was killed during reported fighting between security forces and paramilitaries belonging to the AGC in Carmen de Bolívar, department of Bolívar. A 15-year-old boy was also injured. While the navy said the military operation killed two paramilitary commanders, community organisations said that no fighting had occurred and that gunfire from a helicopter struck Orlando’s house in the village of Huamanga.  

2 March – The Bishop of Buenaventura, Ruben Jaramillo, received death threats over his opposition to paramilitary groups operating in the city, Colombia’s largest Pacific port. The majority African-Colombian population continues to suffer high levels of human rights violations, including killings, forced displacement, threats and forced recruitment of minors. In January 2021 alone, Buenaventura saw 22 murders and at least 653 people forced from their homes.  

3 March – At least 48 indigenous families, totalling 168 people, were displaced from their homes in the Murindó zone of Antioquia, where fighting between armed groups has heavily impacted communities in recent weeks. More than 400 other people were at immediate risk. 

3 March – Indigenous political leader Carmen Ofelia Cumbalaza was murdered in Cumbal, Nariño, where she was standing as the first woman candidate for political party, the Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (AICO). The mother-of-three was found dead in her home with gunshot wounds. According to INDEPAZ, she is the 29th social activist murdered in 2021. 

3 March – Political candidate Luis Hermídes Álvarez was murdered in the town of Río de Oro, department of César, eight days after his 78-year-old father José Ever Álvarez was also killed there (25 February). Both men had stood for the Liberal party in Río de Oro in the most recent municipal elections. Luis’ murder takes the number of social activists killed this year to 31. 

4 March – Eight youths were reported missing in the Bajo Cauca region as they travelled from Puerto Valdivia, Antioquia, to the northern coastal city of Barranquilla, where they were scheduled to play a game of football. Several armed groups are active in Bajo Cauca, where they are known to have forcibly recruited young people and committed multiple other violations, including several killings of social activists. 

6 March – Five young peasant farmers were killed in a pool hall in Abrégo, Norte de Santander. Armed men entered the premises and ordered those inside to lie face down on the ground before proceeding to open fire. Five other people were injured. The five dead men were named as Winston Prada Puentes, Heimer Ortiz Ballesteros, José Luis Vega Plata, Jesús Alberto Vega and Robinson Garay Barbosa. ‘Our municipality is in mourning over this violent episode that has caused pain to many families, a bloody event that has abruptly ended the lives of a number of young peasant famers,’ said Ábrego’s mayor. In June 2019, the National Ombudsman issued an Early Alert for the town, urging authorities to take security measures to protect the community. In many cases, attacks have taken place in specific zones despite alerts already being in place. 

7 March – Nasa indigenous leader Bernardo Palco survived an assassination attempt in the Puerto Umbria zone of Putumayo, southern Colombia, when two men dressed in black opened fire at him. The attack took place just 4kms from a military station and close to mining operations owned by Canadian company Emerald Energy. Residents of Puerto Umbria have reported recent threats apparently distributed by paramilitary group Comandos de la Frontera.  

8 March – ESMAD riot police attacked indigenous community members with teargas and projectiles in operations to destroy coca crops in Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo. Community leader Jhon Fredy Narváez Acue was injured. 

9 March – Threats were sent to regional organisers in the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), whose members have faced previous acts of aggression, including in late 2020. The latest threats were directed at organisers in the Sucre region, named as Argemiro Lara, Andrés Narvaez, Gilberto Pérez Chamorro and Miguel Barreto. 

14-16 March – Five people were murdered across three days in the El Plateado zone of Cauca, in apparent related attacks. On Sunday 14 March, 31-year-old Maye Cuenú Valencia was killed, while the following day two men, Uber Tumbo and Luis Uber Camayo, were killed. Two more people were killed on Tuesday 16 March. 

15 March – More than 400 people were displaced from their homes in Olaya Herrera, Nariño, due to fighting between armed groups. Last year saw an almost 20 per cent rise in cases of forced displacement in Nariño. 

16 March – ESMAD riot police attacked women-led protests over the activity of palm oil company Palmagro and mining companies in El Paso, department of César, northern Colombia. The protests began on 15 March, with organisers saying the industrial operations have created an environmental and humanitarian crisis in the zone. A number of fatal cases of cancer have been linked to toxic mining expulsions, while several families have been forced to leave their homes. The diversion of a local river has left them struggling to access clean water, while wells dug in response have dried up due as the mining has drained water away. Protesters say they were attacked and beaten by ESMAD agents as they blocked a main road into the zone. 

17 March – The bodies of two young Awá indigenous men were found with signs of torture in Tumaco, southern Colombia, a month after they were abducted by an armed group. Miguel García Pai, 23 years old, and Alvaro Pascal García, 18, of the San Jacinto community had been missing since 16 February.  

17 March – Indigenous leader María Bernarda Juajibioy was murdered in Orito, Putumayo. María was the current mayor of the Camentzá Biyá reservation. At around 6.45pm, she was attacked while travelling with a group of women. Her one-year-old granddaughter was also killed. She is the 34th social activist killed in 2021. 

17 March – A couple were murdered, Lorena Escobar and Armando Nuñez, along with the boatman who was transporting them, Duber Scarpeta, after armed assailants intercepted them in the vicinity of San José de Fragua, Caquetá.  

20 March – Colombia’s 18th massacre of 2021 was committed in Cáceres, Antioquia, with three members of the same family killed: a 60-year-old woman, her 38-year-old daughter and 17-year-old grandson. Reports said the attack was carried out by paramilitary organisation Los Caparros after the teenager refused to join their ranks.  

21 March – Three men were killed in an attack in the northern city of Barranquilla, after armed assailants attacked them in one of the victims’ home. The dead men were named as Hernando Padilla Aguirre, Léider Anaya Martínez and Carlos Osorio Marín.  

22 March – Four young members of the indigenous community San Andrés de Pisimbalá were abducted in Cauca. The captors subsequently killed Gilberto Findicué and wounded Alex Cunacué, while the other two managed to escape unharmed. Gilberto is the 35th social activist murdered in 2021, according to INDEPAZ. 

23 March – Residents of the Parte Baja del Río Saija community in Timbiquí, Chocó, have been facing forced displacement and confinement by fighting between security forces and an armed group which operates in the zone. Reports said over a thousand families, predominantly indigenous and African-Colombian, had been affected since violence escalated at the weekend.  

23 March – FARC former combatant Carlos Andrés Bustos Cortes was killed in Puerto Asís, a zone in southern Colombia where several social activists have been murdered amid widespread human rights violations. Carlos was in the reincorporation process and based at the ETCR transition zone Heiler Mosquera. He and a friend were travelling by motorbike when armed men intercepted them, before killing Carlos and injuring the woman he was with. Although registered with the National Protection Unit – the official security organ for those at-risk – Carlos had not received any protective measures. He is the 262nd FARC former combatant murdered since entering the reincorporation process, and the 13th in 2021, according to INDEPAZ. 

26 March – A car bomb explosion in front of the town hall in Corinto, Cauca, injured 43 people, at least four of whom were in a critical condition. Eleven of the injured were employed at the town hall. Corinto is located in a major drugs trafficking route, where several armed groups are believed to be active. In a statement condemning the attack, the UN Mission in Colombia called for ‘the implementation of concrete measures for the comprehensive protection of all communities as well as the strengthening of security guarantees in the territories affected by this violence.’ 

26 March – The offices in Bogota of the MAIS indigenous political party suffered a break-in in which a computer containing sensitive information was stolen and a party member violently assaulted. It is the latest in a series of assaults on the offices of progressive parties and organisations in the capital.  

26 March – Up to 3,000 residents of five villages in the Charco zone of Nariño were forced to leave their homes because of fighting between different armed in groups. The mayor called for international organisations to intervene in the instability, which he said had prevented hundreds of people from evacuating the area. The affected villages were Santa Catalina, Mata Plátano, El Carmelo, Las Mercedes and El Guil.  

27 March – Four people were killed in Cartago, Valle del Cauca, in what INDEPAZ said was the 22nd massacre of the year so far. The attack was carried out close to the central market and claimed the lives of two men and two women, named as John Denis Aguirre Sánchez (36 years old), Julio César Montaño Betancourt (54), Leydi Yohana García Restrepo (28) and Milagros Wilquin Hernández (40). Earlier that same day, a taxi driver was murdered in the town, with two other people injured in the incident. 

28 March – The 23rd massacre of the year took place in Jamundí, Valle del Cauca. Two men and a women were found dead in the centre of the Villa Colombia zone, apparently after being forced into a vehicle by armed assailants. The victims were named as Ramiro Delgado, who was a local community organiser, Melba Carreño and José Mestizo. 

28 March – 35-year-old Ramiro Ascue Yule, an indigenous community member, was killed at his home in Toribío, Cauca. He was the son of indigenous leader Carmelina Yule and his brother was also murdered last year. He is the 37th social activist murdered in 2021.  

28 March – Environmental defender Geovanny Hoyos survived an attack in Cali, when gunmen opened fire after he had attended a community meeting in the city’s Comuna 18 neighbourhood. 

29 March – Trade union leader Carlos Vidal was murdered in Florida, Valle del Cauca. He was president of the SINTRACOS union for workers in the sugar industry. He was shot dead while walking his dog close to his home at around 5pm. Colombia is by far the world’s deadliest country for trade unionists. He is the 38th social activist murdered in 2021. 

29 March – The bodies of Awá indigenous leader José Santos López, 54 years old, and Jhon Edwar Martínez, 22, were found, the day after four armed men abducted them in Tumaco, Nariño, one of the worst-affected regions of the country in terms of violence against indigenous communities. José was a former governor in the reservation El Gran Sábalo. His death is the 40th murder of a social activist in 2021.