19 activists have been murdered in Colombia since January 2017

Association

Community activist, Luz Herminia Olarte, was abducted on 28th January 2017. She was found dead almost two weeks later on 10th February 2017. Olarte, a 51 year-old mother of four, was a member of the Junta de Acción Comunal (Community Action Board) in Llano Ochalí, a rural area in the municipality of Yarumal, Antioquia, northwestern Colombia. With Olarte's death, the number of social and community leaders and activists assassinated in Colombia in the first months of 2017 has now reached 19. Five of the 19 activists were murdered in the province of Antioquia. And most of the murdered activists were active participants in Colombia’s peace process, which culminated in an agreement signed by the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - FARC) on 24th November 2016. 

The Colombian civic initiative, Proceso Social de Garantías para la labor de defensores de derechos humanos, spoke out against the growing number of abductions and murders of activists:

"A society that allows the assassination of its leaders is condemned to social deterioration leading to despotism, barbarism and an unending cyclical phenomenon that does not allow it to overcome its own conflicts and reach peace". (Translated from the Spanish)

Between 20th and 22nd March 2017, a joint operation of the Colombian army and police led to the unwarranted arrests of at least 12 civic leaders in Bolívar. The Federación Agrominera del Sur de Bolívar (Agro Mining Federation of Southern Bolivar) and Sembrar Corporation issued a public statement denouncing the arrests. Milena Quiroz, an Afro-Colombian representative from several prominent social organisations, including the Agrarian, Farmers, Ethnic and Popular Summit and the Peoples’ Congress, was among those detained. A capture order had apparently been issued against Quiroz for "associating to commit crimes".

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report with concerns on the status of the ongoing peace efforts in Colombia. UN High Commissioner Todd Howland highlighted, in particular, the "deeply worrying" pattern of violence against Colombian human rights activists and community leaders. According to the UN report, 127 activists - half of them community leaders - were killed in Colombia in 2016. Most of these murders occurred in areas that had previously been controlled by FARC guerrillas.

Peaceful Assembly

On 9th February 2017, the national police violently evicted a group of local residents and their families from a camp they had set up to protest against the Ecopetrol Corporation oil project CPO-9 and the construction of the Trogon oil well. El comité por la Defensa de la Vida y el Agua (Committee in Defense of Life and Water) of Guamal Meta reported that police forcibly entered the camp at four in the morning and destroyed the cellphone with which a local resident was trying to record the incident. The community members' protests have not been recognised or acknowledged, despite repeated attempts to communicate their views on the issure to Ecopetrol and government authorities.

Expression

On 8th March 2017, three journalists from the Cali newspaper El País reported being intimidated by two armed men who identified themselves as members of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army - ELN) in a rural area of the Cauca province. The alleged ELN members asked Hugo Mario Cárdenas López, Oswaldo Páez Fonseca and Octavio Villegas Salinas to explain their reasons for being in the area and warned them that they needed written permission from the ELN to travel around the area. As they were about to leave, a third individual with weapons ordered them to stop and confiscated their work equipment, vests, helmets with the press logo, personal documents and identifications, mobile phones and other belongings. They were held for more than half an hour before eventually being allowed to leave.

In a public statement, El País condemned the aggression shown towards the journalists:

"El País considers this aggression as a threat to the freedom of the press and the freedom of movement, both protected by the National Constitution, by an illegal group, which is currently in peace talks with the Colombian government.

We call on the authorities to investigate the facts and on the leadership of the ELN to clarify them. Situations such as this, which constitute an obstacle to the job of providing information and therefore limit the right of Colombians to be informed, cannot be repeated".

In many cases, such aggression towards journalists and human rights defenders goes unpunished. Jineth Bedoya, a Colombian journalist and human rights activist most known for reporting on Colombia's paramilitary groups and the FARC, has already testified 11 times about crimes committed against her. In May 2000 she was abducted, tortured and sexually assaulted by members of paramilitary groups, and in 2003, she was abducted by the FARC. As investigation and prosecution proceedings for these crimes have dragged on for nearly 17 years, Bedoya's story has become one of many examples of the widespread impunity and corruption within the Colombian judicial system. The global press freedom network IFEX and the Foundation for Press Freedom recently issued a statement calling for justice on Bedoya's behalf.