Colombia human rights update May 2022

A combination of state abandonment, escalating levels of structural inequalities, the expansion of paramilitaries and other armed groups, and the government’s neglect of the 2016 peace agreement is having a catastrophic impact on communities across Colombia.

The human rights crisis continues to claim the lives of social activists, including community leaders, trade unionists and environmental defenders. Former FARC guerrillas in the peace process are also having to deal with crumbling security and the permanent threat of attack.

According to the Institute for Studies in Development and Peace (INDEPAZ), a Colombian human rights NGO which monitors violence, between 24 November 2016, when the peace agreement was signed, and 31 May 2022, Colombia has seen the murders of 1,307 social activists and 320 former guerrillas. Since the start of 2022 alone, 80 social activists and 21 former guerrillas have been killed, while there have also been 45 massacres. These horrifying figures reflect government’s failure to implement the peace agreement, despite the United Nations having repeatedly recommended that this represents the most effective means of addressing violence.

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

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 May – Riot police reportedly shot dead indigenous leader Luis Tombé in Miranda, department of Cauca, where communities continue to face very high levels of violence. A committed environmental defender, Luis was an indigenous guard for the community of Cilia La Calera. Agents in the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) violently arrested a number of people during an environmental protest. When community members approached the police station to demand their release, police opened fire, killing Luis and injuring two others. The ESMAD has an appalling record of violence against civilians, including during National Strike protests last year, which last year led National Strike protest leaders to call for the ESMAD’s disbandment. Since then, however, it has routinely been deployed in situations of public protest.

1 May – Trade unionist Misael Fernando Ávila Solarte was stabbed to death in Cali’s Alfonso López neighbourhood. The 37-year-old father worked as a chef in the university’s cafeteria and was a member of the SINTRAUNICOL trade union for university workers.

2 May – The frontrunner in Colombia’s upcoming presidential election, progressive candidate Gustavo Petro, suspended activities in central Colombia after his campaign warned that it had uncovered paramilitary plans to attack him. Petro announced that he would suspend rallies scheduled for the subsequent two days in the Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axis) region. According to a statement posted on Petro’s Twitter profile, ‘”La Cordillera” is a paramilitary organisation dedicated to drugs trafficking and contract killing which has achieved broad control over regional civil authorities and politicians in the Eje Cafetero, as well as some instances of the police and the army.’ The statement said the plot involved a police agent who had participated in the killing of student protester Lucas Villa in Pereira last year, a case which sparked outrage in the country.

2 May – A car bomb was detonated outside the town hall in the town of Argelia, Cauca. At least one security guard was injured, while other buildings damaged included a library and a cultural centre.

3 May – Trade unionist Mauricio Fory Balanta, who was 56, became the second trade unionist employed at the Universidad del Valle to be murdered in three days when he was attacked in the Cali neighbourhood of Valle de Lili. He sat on the human rights committee of SINTRAEMPUVALLE, a trade union representing workers at the university. He was shot several times by a gunman on a motorbike as he travelled to work. The assailant was subsequently detained and reportedly only 18-years-old.

3 May – Political activist Elkin Echávez Cañavera was murdered in the village of Buenos Aires in Sucre, where he was an agricultural worker and militant in the Historic Pact progressive coalition which has been polling strongly ahead of this month’s presidential election. Armed assailants arrived at the property where he was working and shot him dead. Elkin had recently reported cases of electoral fraud in recent congressional elections in Sucre. He was also preparing to participate as an electoral observer in the upcoming elections.

5 May – Community leader Rafael Rodríguez Barrios was murdered in San Pedro, department of Sucre, where he was community council president for the district of La Gloria. He was killed at his home in the area and is the second social activist killed in Sucre in three days.

5-7 May – The AGC paramilitary group initiated an ‘armed strike’ across ten departments in northern Colombia, which authorities and the press said was linked to the decision to extradite paramilitary commander ‘Otoniel’ to the United States. However, there were concerns that the strike was deliberately seeking to intimidate local populations ahead of elections. According to data from human rights groups, the AGC committed at least 127 violent actions in 73 different municipalities, including four killings, five threats, 36 cases of restriction of movement and one case of torture and another of kidnapping.

6 May – Community leader Ever Ortega was murdered in Norosí in the northern department of Bolívar, where he was community council president for the district of Santa Elena. Ever was socialising at a friend’s home when armed assailants entered and shot him dead.

7 May – 58-year-old community leader Aldemar Urquina Cruz was murdered in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá. He was community council president in the district of Morrocoy. Another man, 45-year-old Samir Sáenz Carvajal, was also killed in the attack.

8 May – The 38th massacre of 2022 claimed four people’s lives in Nóvita, department of Chocó. The victims, a woman and three men, were transporting produce from Istmina to sell in Sipí when they were abducted. They were named as Euner Alexander Bedoya Pérez, Jairo Alonso Acevedo Zapata, Yelissa Martínez Mosquera and Alexander Barrio López.  

8 May – Death threats signed by a group identifying itself as the Black Eagles targeted political activists in the Caldas region of central Colombia. Those named in the threats included Historic Pact activists, former combatants in the peace process, the Comunes political party (formerly the FARC) and indigenous leaders. The ‘death sentence’ announced that ‘we know where you live’ and ‘we will enter your homes like we’ve done before.’

9 May – Indigenous activist Oveimar Tenorio escaped unhurt after gunmen on motorbikes opened fire at him as he travelled from the community of López Adentro to the town of Santander de Quilichao in Cauca. The Association of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca (ACIN) denounced the attack and said Oveimar was a Kiwe Thegnas indigenous guard member. He had received prior threats but authorities had not allotted him a security detail.

9 May – Former FARC combatant José Evangelista Monroy Vargas was killed in San Vicente del Caguán, department of Caquetá. He was based at the formal transition zone Héctor Ramírez and belonged to the peace collective Foundation of Seeds for a New Colombia (FUNDESPAZ). He is the 318th former combatant killed since entering the peace process, according to INDEPAZ.

10 May – Social leader Adin Cerquera Huaca was murdered in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo, where he had formerly been the community council president in the district of El Paujil. Armed assailants reportedly abducted his son, who had succeeded him in the community leadership position. Adin was killed when he sought his son’s release.

10 May – Colombia’s National Ombudsman issued an alert over the presence of paramilitary group Comandos de la Frontera in the region of Caquetá. It said those most at risk were social activists and former FARC combatants in the peace process. It also warned of the possibility of the paramilitary group forcibly recruiting minors into its ranks.

11 May – A councillor in the Conservative Party, Humberto de Jesús Ramírez Palacio, was shot dead by armed assailants on a motorbike in the town of Ansermanuevo, Valle del Cauca.

11 May – The INDEPAZ human rights organisation drastically raised the figures of violence committed during the AGC’s armed strike over 5-7 May. The NGO’s latest findings registered 14 killings, with four others awaiting verification, and multiple other abuses committed across 90 municipalities.

11 May – Human rights organisations reported that more than 4,500 people were being prevented from leaving their homes or moving freely in the zones of Nóvita and San José del Palmar in Chocó, western Colombia. The region has seen particularly high levels of forced displacement and forced confinement since last year due to the presence of paramilitaries and other armed groups and the very limited state presence. There were also reports of armed groups laying landmine, further restricting local movement.

12 May – Armed assailants attacked and killed former FARC guerrilla Franklin Bejarano Mosquera in a bar in Cali. He had been based at the Mariana Páez reincorporation zone in Mesetas, Meta. According to INDEPAZ, he is the 319th former guerrilla killed since the signing of the peace agreement.

13 May – Three young people were killed in a massacre in Buga, Valle del Cauca. Armed assailants opened fire as a group of young people socialised, killing Bryan Stivens Rodríguez, who was 18 years old, Germán Valdez Rodas, 19, and Jean Pierbi Cardona, 25. A 16-year-old was injured. The zone where the attack took place is subject to an alert warning by the National Ombudsman’s Office.

13 May – Émbera indigenous activist and teacher Socio Fernando Domicó was murdered in Dabeiba, Antioquia. He coordinated traditional cultural activities and was the son of a well-known community leader. The attack was committed late in the evening in the Choromandó reservation, as Socio and one of his sons returned home from playing football with students from the Llanogordo college where he worked. Armed assailants intercepted them and told the son to leave before they killed his father, who had five children. The Antioquia Indigenous Organisation said Socio was one of the best teachers in the region. The National Ombudsman has issued warnings over paramilitary activity in Dabeiba.

13 May – The 40th massacre of the year claimed the lives of four people in Alto Baudó in Chocó. Three of the victims were of Émbera indigenous heritage, while another man was also killed, in the attack carried out in the Peña Alta reserve. The discovery of the four bodies sparked a major displacement of residents from Peña Alta to neighbouring areas, including to the African-Colombian community council in Chachajo.

14 May – Colombia’s Foundation for Press Liberty (FLIP) warned that police had detained journalist, Luís Ángel, without justification as he reported on the high-profile murder of Paraguayan prosecutor Marcelo Pecci near Cartagena on 10 May.

14 May – Indigenous community leader Edgar Quintero was killed in Santander de Quilichao, Cauca. The northern part of the department, where the town is located, continues to see extremely high levels of violence that disproportionately impacts on indigenous communities. Edgar was also community council president for the district of Lomitas. He coordinated land claims among local communities, many of which have been forced from their territories by conflict, and oversaw pineapple cultivation which brought economic benefits to residents. He was also involved in reparation claims for victims. He was shot dead as he left his home in Lomitas and is the 75th social activist murdered in 2022, according to INDEPAZ.

15 May – Social activist Alexander Espinosa Valencia was killed in Tuluá, Valle del Cauca, where he community council president in the district of Retiro. He was shot dead while driving home. The National Ombudsman previously issued an alert over the zone where Alexander was attacked.

16 May – African-Colombian community leaders raised the alarm that a young activist had been abducted in San Isidro, Valle del Cauca. Communities in and around the port city of Buenaventura face a humanitarian crisis due to chronic poverty, state abandonment and the presence of armed groups.

19 May – Former FARC guerrilla Gerardo González Correa was killed in the Ciudad Bolívar area of Bogota. Two armed men reportedly shot him dead.

19 May – Two Wayuú indigenous infants were reported to have died of malnutrition in the northern region of La Guajira, taking the total number of deaths among young children there to 21 in 2022. The nine-month-old and two-year-old lived with their families in communities in rural zones of Uribia and Maicao. La Guajira’s indigenous population faces a long-running humanitarian crisis, largely caused by the devastating impact of coalmining and exacerbated by huge inequality and state abandonment. Since 2008, thousands of children have died from preventable diseases, hunger and lack of access to clean water.

20 May – The latest death threats purporting to be from alleged paramilitary group the Black Eagles named indigenous organisations, the CRIC, ACON and ACIN, as well as social activists. It threatened indigenous politicians backing progressive candidates in the presidential elections.

22 May – A massacre was committed in the northern city of Barranquilla, when armed assailants on motorbikes opened fire at a group of people, killing three of them. The victims were identified as Robinson Enrique De Alba Herrera, who was 37-years-old, Edwin Guillermo Sandoval, 39, and 24-year-old Juan Carlos Mojica. At least one other person was injured.

22 May – Community leader Alconides Vallejo Álvarez was killed during a police operation against an alleged armed group in Vegachí, Antioquia. The 64-year-old was reportedly shot while carrying out agricultural activities. His wife was prevented from boarding the police helicopter which was taking away his body. He was subsequently located in a hospital in Barrancabermeja. Alconcides was community council vice-president in the district of La Clarita.

23 May – A political councillor for the Radical Change party, Juan Felipe Fernández Bustamante, was killed in Anorí, Antioquia. 

24 May – Four people were killed in the 44th massacre of 2022, carried out in Chaparral, Tolima. The victims all belonged to one family and were named as 36-year-old Elizabeth Mendoza, who was community council president in the district of Calarama Tetuán, and her husband, 51-year-old Marco Tulio Molina, her son Carlos Andrés Molina, 16, and her cousin Fabián Ricardo Berján, 24. They were killed inside the family home, with Marco’s body subsequently dumped into a river. An alert is in place for the Chaparral zone.

27 May – Another threat signed by the so-called Black Eagles targeted supporters of presidential candidate Gustavo Petro and vice-presidential candidate Francia Márquez in the north Cauca region. It warned that ‘we continue with the civic and patriotic work of cleansing our homeland of left-wing trash.’ Human rights groups warned the threats were a clear attempt to influence the 29 May election.

31 May – Indigenous teacher Edison Gómez Ortiz was murdered in Solano, Caquetá, the same day as a Justice for Colombia delegation visited the department to meet with former FARC guerrillas at the Héctor Ramírez transition zone at Agua Bonita. Edison campaigned to ensure educational access for indigenous children. Reports said that armed groups had threatened local communities that they would face reprisals if they took part in the presidential election.