Wave of attacks against HRDs and journalists continues unabated

Association

The environment for human rights defenders in Colombia remains hostile. As reported on the Monitor, 106 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia in 2017, a 32.5 percent increase from 2016. A recent report by Colombia´s Ombudsman office confirms this trend. According to the report, 22 human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia between 1st January and 27th February 2018. In addition, in March 2018 the Washington Office on Latin America, (WOLA) documented eight assassinations of social leaders or members of vulnerable ethnic communities, bringing the total thus far in 2018 to 30.

Some of the cases reported in March are as follows: 

On 6th March, two men killed Arturo Royet in his home. Arturo was the president of the Santa Isabel Community Action Board. A few days later, in the same region armed men assassinated Tomás Barreto, a member of the Afro-Colombian Community Council of San José de Uré and the nephew of a local council representative. Both community leaders worked on the coca substitution programme, a government initiative to replace coca cultivation and encourage farmers to plant other crops. 

On 9th March, Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia - ONIC) reported that Nelson Pacue Pinzon from the indigenous community of Huellas Caloto was shot near his home and transferred to a hospital where he has been recovering at the time of writing. The organisation stated that Pacue had previously received threats  due to his work as a land defender in the community, but the authorities did not act promptly to protect him. 

On 19th March, armed men assassinated Silvio Durban Ortiz Ortiz and Javier Bernardo Cuero Ortiz, sons of Bernardo Cuero Bravo, former leader of Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados (National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians - AFRODES) in Tumaco, Nariño, who was killed in 2017.  These murders took place 12 days after the first public hearing on the father's murder. AFRODES issued a statement calling on the authorities to "provide security measures to Bernardo's family members [...] due to the multiple threats and their vulnerability".

On 18th March, armed men killed Juan Mena, a community leader in Quibdó, Chocó. According to reports, a criminal gang targeted Juan for his refusal to pay the gang so-called “taxes”, a method by which criminal networks use threats and violence to elicit money from people. Juan is the 15th social leader murdered in the area. 

The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) has expressed concern over the high number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders thus far this year in Colombia. The IACHR:

"urges the State to adopt urgent measures to protect those who defend human rights in the country, as well as to carry out diligent investigations that take into consideration the victim's activity as a human rights defender".

In a separate development, civil society organisations (CSOs) are at risk of losing their tax benefits due to a recent fiscal reform (Decree 2150, 2017) that imposes a series of changes for CSOs that should be complied with in a short period of time. On 6th April, Confederación Colombiana de ONG (Colombian Confederation of NGOs - CCONG), an umbrella organisation for non-profits, issued a public statement expressing concern about the decree and urging the sector to be aware of the changes and the implications they may have. According to CCONG, the fiscal reforms represent an attempt to weaken the sector. 

Expression

On 26th March 2018, in Mataje, a northern border area near Ecuador, a team of journalists from the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio were abducted and killed by the Oliver Sinisterra Front - a dissident group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Journalist Javier Ortega, photographer Raúl Rivas and driver Efraín Segarra were in the region to report on the clashes between government forces and armed groups that have been underway since January.

Several national, regional and international organisations have called on the Ecuadorian and Colombian authorities "to facilitate a prompt and thorough investigation of this tragic event to determine the circumstances under which the journalists lost their lives".

During April 2018 several local radio stations and journalists were threatened in different regions of the country as documented below.

On 14th April, in five of the 11 municipalities of Catatumbo, several journalists and directors of community radios received threatening messages via Whatsapp from the Libardo Mora Toro Front, part of the Popular Liberation Armed Forces, ordering them to communicate the start of an armed strike. When some of the stations refused to do so, they were forced to publish the statement. 

On 16th April, in Tunja, Boyacá journalists with Caracol Noticias Boyacá were threatened on Facebook for covering the clashes between police and residents of El Libertador de Tunja neighbourhood and reporting on possible violations of the police code during the clashes. 

On 18th April, a man who identified himself as a member of the ELN (National Liberation Army) made several calls to radio station Cardenal de Valledupar and threatened the director, Herlency Isabel Gutiérrez, and other members of the station, telling them that they had 72 hours to leave the radio and the city and asked them to stop talking about a man called “Gaucho”, because they were giving him problems. In response to the threatening calls,  Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (Foundation for Press Freedom - FLIP) requested the Prosecutor's Office:

"to diligently investigate the threats in order to find those responsible and that to put in place an inter-institutional coordination that guarantees the security of the station and the journalists, who have decided to continue reporting".