Colombia human rights update May 2023

Colombia’s human rights crisis continued to impact many parts of the country throughout May. At least 11 social activists were murdered, including indigenous leaders, LGBTQ activists and community council members. Four former FARC guerrillas in the peace process were also killed.

According to the INDEPAZ human rights NGO, between the start of 2023 and the end of May, 69 social activists and 14 former guerrillas were killed. There have also been 40 massacres. Ongoing violent activity by armed groups caused the government to break off ceasefires which it had previously enacted.

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

2 May – Community leader Diego Fernando Papamija Chilito was murdered in Balboa, Cauca, near to where he was president of the community council board (JAC) in Puerto Rico, a district in the Argelia municipality. He was also overseeing a project to raise funds for local road improvements. INDEPAZ said he was the 59th social activist murdered in 2023 and the 1,468th since the signing of the 2016 peace agreement.

3 May – Human rights groups reported that fighting between rival armed groups in the vicinities of Pioyá in Caldono, Cauca, and nearby Jambaló, left a young indigenous guard member dead. William Vargas had been coordinating humanitarian relief when he was struck by gunfire. His companions were unable to evacuate 22-year-old William for medical assistance due to the intensity of the fighting and he died soon afterwards. In a statement, the Association of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca (ACIN) said ‘we call on armed groups to immediately end the confrontations in territories and that the civilian population is respected in the same way as international humanitarian law.’ Indigenous communities in north Cauca have faced extremely high levels of violence since the 2016 peace agreement.

4 May – The wave of violence impacting Cauca continued with the murder of former FARC guerrilla José Edgar Méndez in Guachené. He was based at the Cauca transitional zone Dagoberto Ortiz, where he coordinated protective programmes for the local branch of the ECOMUN cooperative, which is formed of former FARC members.

9 May – Social activist Joan Marcelo Montaño was murdered in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, home to Colombia’s main Pacific port. He organised local communities around improving social conditions for children, adolescents and senior people. Armed assailants attacked him near his home in the Los Pinos neighbourhood.

9 May – Journalist Luis Gabriel Pereira Arango was murdered in Ciénaga de Oro, Córdoba. He was director of the independent outlet Notiorense. He was attacked while riding his motorbike in the district of Julio Manzur.

10 May – The Tumbichuche indigenous reservation in Cauca issued an alert that three members of its indigenous guard had travelled to the departmental capital Popayan under duplicitous circumstances, having believed they were travelling to work on a construction site. However, this was likely a ruse to by an armed group to forcibly recruit the men, named as Cristian Fabian Saniceto, Javier Andrés Pame and Salvador Tambo Ule. The community said it was verifying reports that the men had been forced into combat with a rival armed group and that killings and a massacre had been committed in the vicinity.

11 May – Community leader Gildardo Hoyos was murdered in Sucre, Cauca, where he had been mayor in 2008-11, before standing again in 2019. At the time of his death, he was promoting increased citizen participation in upcoming elections. Armed assailants attacked him as he was travelling by car.

11 May – Social activist Jhon Fredy Rueda Rodríguez was killed in Sincelejo, Sucre, where he worked as a municipal inspector. Armed assailants attacked him outside his home in the Belén neighbourhood.

12 May – Human rights defender and LGBTQ+ activist Dania Sharith Polo was murdered in El Carmen de Bolívar, department of Bolívar. Dania, who was transgender, represented conflict victims in the municipality and in 2020 had campaigned for reparations. She had also provided testimony to the Truth Commission and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, transitional justice entities created in the 2016 peace agreement. She was shot in her home on 30 April and succumbed to her wounds almost two weeks later.

16 May – Social leader Yenifer Córdoba Henao was killed in Calamar, Guaviare, where she was a member of the JAC community council. She also hoped to represent the Democratic Pole political party in upcoming municipal elections. She campaigned for community land rights and against deforestation. Her body was found in the zone of Agua Bonita Media. She is the 65th social activist murdered in 2023, according to INDEPAZ.

17 May – There were heavy clashes between rival armed groups in Silvia, Cauca. Indigenous congress member Aida Quilcué tweeted that ‘Cauca finds itself in a grave humanitarian emergency and needs urgent attention from the national government.’

17 May – Former FARC guerrilla Henry Buitrago was killed in Vista Hermosa, Meta, a region which recently has seen an escalation in violent activity involving armed groups. Henry, also known as Miguelito, was based at the formal transition zone La Cooperativa in Meta. INDEPAZ said he was the 12th signatory to the peace agreement to be murdered in 2023 and the 360th since the agreement’s signing in November 2016.

17 May – Four indigenous youths who had been forcibly recruited by an alleged dissident group were killed in Solano, Caquetá, reportedly after fleeing their captors. Luis Alberto Matías Capera and three other teenage boys left the group two days earlier but were tracked to Solano, recaptured and executed. In response to the attack, the Colombian government announced the suspension of a ceasefire with the dissident group known as Estado Mayor Central.

18 May – Social activist Sergio Luis Castro was murdered in Tibú, Norte de Santander, where he was planning to stand as a candidate in upcoming municipal elections. He had previously denounced irregularities in local administration, including the absence of contracts in school transport and other issues relating to municipal management. He was shot five times in the neighbourhood of La Esperanza and subsequently transported to hospital, where he died.

19 May – The paramilitary Gulf Clan killed two men, Denilson Iglesias and Yeison Orozco, in the Zona Bananera, Magdalena. Reports said that threats against the two were distributed via pamphlets, to which authorities did not react despite knowing the dangers facing them.

19 May – Armed assailants murdered the president of the JAC community council for the district of Guavarin in Tame, Arauca. Herinsol Libardo Mora Rodríguez was fatally struck in an attack that left at least two other people injured. He was an activist in the ASOJUNTAS rural organisation.

20 May – Three days after Henry Buitrago was murdered in Meta, another former FARC guerrilla, Alfonso Correa Zapata, was also killed in the department. Armed assailants attacked him in the zone of San Juan de Arama.

20 May – Human rights groups denounced reported threats made against Cauca-based African-Colombian community activist Rossana Mejía Caicedo.

20 May – The day’s second killing of a former FARC guerrilla took place in El Retorno, Guaviare. Víctor Manuel Caicedo Nuñez was participating in the reincorporation process in the region.

21 May – The 37th massacre of 2023 claimed an unconfirmed number of lives in Riohacha, La Guajira. Human remains belonging to at least three people were discovered on a riverbank in the district of Pelechua.

21 May – The day’s second massacre left three men dead in Sincelejo, Sucre. Armed assailants reportedly entered a public establishment and opened fire indiscriminately at those inside. The victims were named as Osmar Damián Padilla Sierra, Daniel Alfonso Aguas Muñoz and Hugo Rafael Camargo Herrera. Numerous paramilitary-successor groups are active in the Sucre region.

22 May – Human rights groups called for the safe return of 86-year-old community leader Heriberto Urbina after he was reported to have been abducted in Curumaní, César, almost a month earlier. As well as agricultural work, Heriberto is known for managing a rural school.

24 May – The bodies of an indigenous ancestral educator, Libia Quiguanás, and her husband were found in the Nasa reservation of Jambaló, Cauca, two days after they were abducted by members of an armed group. Indigenous communities in North Cauca have faced extremely high levels of violence since the 2016 peace agreement.

29 May – Three people were killed in Soledad, Atlántico, in the 39th massacre of 2023 according to INDEPAZ. Armed assailants on a motorbike arrived at a home and attacked the people inside. The three dead were a seven-year-old child, a 32-year-old-man and a 76-year-old woman.

31 May – Three people were confirmed dead after having been abducted by an armed group in Jamundí, Valle del Cauca, on 28 May. Two bodies were found in the same zone on 30 May while the third was discovered in Buenos Aires, Cauca, the following day. Several armed groups are active in the region that adjoins Valle del Cauca and Cauca. It was the 40th massacre of 2023.

31 May – Social leader Hugo Horacio Ramírez Burgos was killed in Corinto, Cauca. He was an active community organiser in neighbouring Valle del Cauca, with his murder coming on the same day as the murders of three people abducted in the department were confirmed. Hugo belonged to rural organisations UPAZUR, ASTRACAVA and ASOCAMPPTIN and coordinated developmental programmes created in the 2016 peace agreement. His death takes the number of social activists murdered in 2023 to 69.