Colombia human rights update March 2023

The epidemic of violence continued throughout March. The first three months of 2023 witnessed 35 social activists and five former FARC guerrillas murdered, as well as 27 massacres. The alarming figures demonstrate the scale of the human rights crisis which the current government inherited from its hard-right predecessor. Violence is particularly concentrated in zones earmarked for developmental programmes created in the 2016 peace agreement.

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

Colombia human rights update March 2023

1 March – Former FARC combatant Eduardo Marlon Mejía Vargas was murdered at his home in Tame, Arauca, continuing high levels of regional violence in the past two years. His mother and a child were also injured in the attack. Since May last year, there had been reports of threats against him. While INDEPAZ registered Eduardo’s death as the 350th of a former guerrilla in the peace process, the United Nations recently released figures showing that 355 had been killed from the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016 to the end of 2022.

3 March – A teenage Awá indigenous activist was killed when armed assailants raided his home in Tumaco, Nariño. 19-year-old Marlon Hernando García Pascal belonged to the indigenous guard and coordinated community activities in the Awá reservation El Gran Sábalo. Indigenous communities in Nariño face extremely high levels of violence from armed groups operating in their traditional territories. According to INDEPAZ, three indigenous activists have already been killed in the region in 2023.

5 March – A police raid displaced Wayuu indigenous communities from traditional lands in Riohacha, La Guajira, according to the Sumain Wayuu Social Movement (MSSW), a local human rights organisation. The MSSW called on authorities to immediately halt the expulsions of Wayuu communities and requested that President Gustavo Petro, Vice-President Francia Márquez and Interior Minister Alfonso Prada visit the zone to observe the situation facing indigenous residents.

7 March – Following a spate of violence against Awá indigenous communities in Nariño, including four murders already this year, the Secretary General of UNIPA, an Awá human rights organisation, survived an assassination attempt in the zone of La Guayacana. The attack came as Floriberto Canticus Bisbicus was meeting with the family of Marlon Hernando García Pascal, who had been killed four days earlier. Armed assailants surrounded the group and opened fire. Floriberto was able to shelter inside a home, upon which the assailants fired at his security vehicle with bodyguards inside. Floriberto is a campaigner for the rights of the Awá population and had worked on a report on anti-Awá violence which was submitted to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice court created in the 2016 peace agreement. He is a former governor of the Gran Sábalo reservation, where Marlon lived and was killed, as well as an educator in Awá customs and culture. He had repeatedly reported attacks on local communities to authorities and campaigned for justice for victims.

7 March – The director of Colombia’s National Protection Unit (UNP), the state-run body that assigns bodyguards to at-risk individuals and organisations, escaped unhurt from an assassination attempt outside his home in Bogota’s Ciudad Montes neighbourhood. Armed assailants opened fire at Augusto Rodríguez as he entered the house with his daughter. Rodríguez is an associate of Gustavo Petro from when both were members of the M-19 guerrilla movement in the 1980s. Reports said that one of Rodríguez’s bodyguards returned fire, fatally wounding one of the four attackers. President Petro insinuated that the incident was connected to Rodríguez having reported corruption within the UNP, while Rodríguez said that his security team had been followed the night before the attack.

7 March – Armed assailants torched the security vehicle assigned to social leader Teresa Manjarrez in Santa María, Huila. The National Protection Unit had provided the armoured utility vehicle to Teresa in response to threats she had received. The attack came on the same day as UNP director Augusto Rodríguez survived an attack in Bogota.  

9 March – An activist in the Comunes political party, which was founded by former FARC guerrillas under the terms of the 2016 peace agreement, was murdered in Buga, Valle del Cauca. 35-year-old Andrés Felipe Herrera Mosquera campaigned for the party in Buga’s district of Arbey Cortés, having previously taken part in negotiations aimed at resolving protest demands during the massive National Strike in 2021. Several armed groups are present in Buga and the surrounding area. Andrés is the 25th social activist murdered in 2023.

13 March – Three people were killed while travelling by bus in a rural zone of Puerto Gaitán, Meta. Reports said that four armed assailants on motorbikes intercepted the bus, before forcing three men to disembark and killing them. It is the 22nd massacre of 2023.

13 March – The year’s 23rd massacre, and the second in one day, claimed three lives in Soledad, Atlántico. Armed assailants opened fire at a group of people outside a house in the neighbourhood of Los Almendros, killing three and wounding three more. The dead victims were identified as 23-year-old Jack Daniel Gutiérrez Plaza, José Luis Escobar Martínez, who was 30, and Omar Alberto Gutiérrez Urueta, 25. Several paramilitary groups are active in the zone.

14 March – The dead body of a former FARC guerrilla, named as Wilson Sarria Llanos, was found in Belén de los Andaquies, Caquetá. He had been reported missing on 6 March, shortly after visiting relatives, when a group of men were seen escorting him to an unknown destination.

15 March – Community leader Néstor Yesid Martínez Pinto was murdered in Riohacha, La Guajira, where he was affiliated to the National Ombudsman’s Office through his human rights work. Néstor campaigned to strengthen the rights of indigenous and African-Colombian residents in the northern region. The 49-year-old was intercepted on a main road in the morning, forced off his motorbike and shot dead.

15 March – During violent clashes between armed groups in Caldono, Cauca, armed men attacked a group of indigenous guards, killed community councillor Wilson Bomba. He had recently sent a request for security measures to the National Protection Unit which was under review. One other person was reportedly abducted. In video footage posted on social media, rapid bursts of gunfire could be heard. Senator Aida Quilcue, who shared the footage, called on the UN Human Rights Commissioner and other organisations to urgently assess the needs of local communities.

16 March – Three days after the massacre in Soledad, Atlántico, community activist Miguel Ángel Arrieta was murdered in the city. He had stood for election to the local council as a representative of the left-wing coalition Colombia Humana and the Patriotic Union party. He had recently reported corruption within municipal authorities. Miguel was shot dead at his home.

19 March – A prominent African-Colombian social activist was killed in Puerto Tejada, Cauca. As an activist of Palenque heritage (a term for the descendants of slaves), Weimar Possu Díaz was president of the Monte Oscuro Peasant and Palenque Community Council, as well as a community representative to the Puerto Tejada planning council. He body was found in the district of Las Brisas de Puerto. With Puerto Tejada located at a strategic route for illicit activity, human rights groups have warned that local communities, particularly of indigenous and African-Colombian heritage, have been left severely exposed to violence.

19 March – Social leader José Eduardo Cardenas Sánchez was killed in Quibdó, Chocó, where he was community council president in the Sub Estación district in the north of the city. He is the 30th activist murdered in 2023.

19 March – Former FARC guerrilla Javier Sánchez Ortega was murdered in Ábrego, Norte de Santander. He was based at the training and reincorporation zone El Negro Eliécer Gaitán de Caño Indio in the nearby town of Tibú.

19 March – On what was a particularly violent day, a 22-year-old indigenous woman, Ruby Eliana Mestizo, was killed in Santander de Quilichao, Cauca. She lived in the Guadualito indigenous reservation.

19 March – The year’s 24th massacre was committed in the northern city of Barranquilla. Armed assailants attacked a social gathering at a house in the Villanueva neighbourhood, opening fire indiscriminately on the inhabitants. Three women and two men were killed, while 14 other people were injured. The dead were identified as Moisés Rafael Pacheco De La Cruz, Dailés Mar Coronel Álvarez, Alberto Enrique Guerrero, Ludy del Carmen Londoño Muñoz and Georgina Ortíz Berrio. Several paramilitary-successor and criminal groups are active in Barranquilla, which as a large port is an important route for drugs trafficking and other illicit activity. Alongside the murders of three social activists and a former FARC guerrilla, the massacre contributed to making 19 March one of Colombia’s most violent days in recent months.

21 March – Three people were killed in Balboa, Cauca, the 25th massacre of the year. The two men and one woman were intercepted by armed assailants and summarily killed at the side of a main road.

21 March – Indigenous leader Alberto Camilo Mendoza Corzo was murdered in Valledupar, capital of the César department. He was the current legal representative for indigenous Kankuamos communities. The 56-year-old was attacked at a farm in the zone of Sabana Crespo. Alberto was the fourth social activist murdered in Colombia’s Caribbean region in a fortnight, with regional human rights organisations warning that 35 per cent of killings of social leaders and 40 per cent of massacres in 2023 had been carried out in the Caribbean region.

21 March – The day’s second murder of a social activist was committed in Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo. Nasa indigenous leader Diego Jair Orbes was legal representative to the community council for the district of Jerusalén. Also killed in the attack was farmer Luis Fernando Malpud, whose wife is a former president of the same community council.

22 March – The epidemic of massacres continued with the killing of four people in El Rosario, Nariño. They were attacked on a road during fighting between armed groups in nearby Cumbitara.

23 March – The Carribean region saw yet another massacre which claimed three lives in Albania, La Guajira. The victims were named as Aldair Arafat Marchena Gil, Luis Gregorio Brito and Rafael Antonio Sapuana.

24 March – Embera indigenous community members reported that members of an armed group had terrorised and threatened residents in Alto Baudo, Chocó.

25 March – Social activist Gonzalo de Jesús Parra Forero was murdered in Maripí, Boyacá, where he represented around 200 locally-based independent miners in the ASOMIPAZ organisation. The perpetrator was arrested a few hours after the attack.

26 March – Social leader and health activist Mariela Marínez Gaviria was killed in Tumaco, Nariño. She promoted public health at the local Divino Niño hospital and was community council president in the district of Villa del Prado. Armed assailants attacked the 68-year-old at her home.

26 March – Two men, Jeider Omar Conda Pillimue and Flower Alfonso García Julicue, were murdered in separate attacks in Corinto, Cauca.

27 March – Community activist Linder Stiven Sepúlveda was murdered in Tumaco, Nariño, less than 24 hours after Mariela Marínez Gaviria was also killed in the city. Nicknamed ‘Sepu’, he was a prominent youth worker, artist and cultural promoter addressing themes relating to human rights and peace. Linder was 24 years old and, according to INDEPAZ, is the 1,444th social activist murdered since the signing of the peace agreement.

28 March – The Association of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca (ACIN) issued an alert over high levels of violence in the departmental zones of Corinto and Caloto, which it said had seen 11 and 18 murders respectively since 1 January. In the most recent case, a local man, Roberto Caracol, was killed on 28 March, two days after Jeider Omar Conda Pillimue and Flower Alfonso García Julicue were murdered there.

30 March – Community councillor John Jairo Valencia Soto was murdered in Abejorral, Antioquia. During last year’s presidential election, he had campaigned in the town for the left-wing Historic Pact coalition of Gustavo Petro. He is at least the seventh Historic Pact activist murdered since the election in June 2022.

31 March – Former FARC combatant Levinson Valoys Mosquera was killed in Bahía Solano, Chocó. He is the fifth former guerrilla killed in 2023, taking the total figure since the signing of the 2016 peace agreement to around 360. Levinson had reported threats to the National Protection Unit and was in dialogue with lawyers over his security.