Colombia rebuked over continuing rural violence

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on March 27 issued a statement calling on the government of Colombia to "take urgent measures" to protect social leaders and human rights defenders in response to the wave of assassinations over recent months. The statement asserted that 22 rights defenders had been killed in Colombia in the first two months of the year, and over 100 more threatened with death. The assassinations come in an atmosphere of violence across much of the country's rural areas, with some 2,500 displaced in recent months. Just three days after the IACHR statement, on Good Friday, community leader and local rights advocate Belisario Benavides Ordóñez was slain by unknown gunmen on motorcycles as she was leaving her home accompanied by her two young children in the town of Rosas, Cauca department. Benavides was a leader of the Rosas Victims' Table, made up of local residents displaced by political violence over the past generation and now demanding restitution for lost lands and property. In a second case that same day, a community leader in Cauca's village of Corinto, Héctor Janer Latín, was slain in a road ambush while riding his motorcycle to an outlying hamlet. These attacks spurred renewed calls from the National Confederation of Communal Action (CNAC) for a response from the government and IACHR. (El Tiempo, April 2; El Colombiano, March 27)

There have been several more such assassinations since then. On April 4, a local leader of the Catatumbo Campesino Association (ASCAMCAT), Álvaro Pérez, was slain by unknown gunmen near his home in San Calixto, Norte de Santander department. He was the brother of the town's mayor, Jairo Pérez. (Prensa Rural, April 9; El Tiempo, April 5)

Neo-paramilitaries resurgent
Much of the violence is taking place in areas that have been particularly taregted by right-wing paramilitary groups over the course of the war—such as Ituango municipality, Antioquia, seemingly a renewed focus of para terror. A campesino leader in Ituango, José Herrera, was reported slain March 22, but authorities are now classifying the case as a "disappearance," as the body initially identified as his has been determined to be that of another local peasant. (El Colombiano, March 24)

Community leaders in Rio Sucio municipality, Chocó, reported that a group of some 80 paramilitary gunmen on March 26 invaded the vereda (hamlet) of Jiguamiandó and forced local residents to gather for a meeting, in which they threatened to kill "sapos" (informants). The gunmen were identified as members of the Gaitanista paramilitary network, and community leaders charged they were operating with the knowledge of the official security forces. (Contagio Radio, April 2)

The authorities have been making some efforts to crack down on the Gaitanistas, the most powerful of the "neo-paramilitary" networks. On April 11, eight National Police troops were killed in a shoot-out at vereda El Tomate, San Pedro de Urabá municipality, Antioquia, in what was said to be an attack by the "Clan del Golfo," the regional crime machine behind the Gaitanistas. (Nuevo Siglo, April 11)

Demobilized guerillas targeted
Demobilized former FARC guerillas appear to be especially taregted. On April 8, two houses that had been built for demobilized fighters at a FARC "transitional camp" in  Caquetá department were burned down by unknown assailants. (Prensa Rural, April 8)

But "dissident" or "renegade" FARC units that have refused to lay down arms are also accused in attacks on civilians. On March 30, community leader María Magdalena Cruz Rojas became the lastest to be killed in a series of attacks by presumed FARC "dissidents" in Mapiripán municipality, Meta department. She was apparently targeted for her participation in the government program of voluntary eradication of coca crops. (Prensa Rural, April 2; El Colombiano, April 1)

As usual, the campesino and indigenous commuities are caught between both sides. On March 25, one resident was killed and six injured as security forces carried out an operation with a "military objective" at the Nasa indigenous community of Palo, Caloto municipality, Cauca. The "military objective" was presumably a renegade FARC unit, but those attacked by the government troops were said to be local youth who were coming out of a discotheque. (Contagio Radio, March 27)

The coca eradiction program continues to be a harshly contested. In early April, cocaleros in Ituango blocked roads to protest what they said was "forced eradication" of their crops by government troops, in violation of an agreement with the local communities. (El Colombiano, April 6) Despite such episodes, the government still hails the program as a success, annoucning in late March that Arauca had become the first departament officially declared free of illegal crops in Colombia. (Prensa Rural, March 26)

Uribe links to paramilitarism
Despite official denialism from authorities that paramilitaries are behind the assassinations, the government is starting to respond to international pressure. In late March it was announced that the Elite Corps created as a condition of the FARC peace accords to combat paramilitarism will investigate the ongoing assassinations.  (El Espectador, March 26)

Colombia's Supreme Court of Justice has meanwhile ordered prison aithorities to step up security around an incarcerated leader of the demobilized Metro Bloc paramilitary force, Juan Guillermo Monsalve Pineda, who is preparing to testify against ex-president Álvaro Uribe and his brother Santiago Uribe Vélez about their links to the 12 Apostles death-squad. (Contagio Radio, April 9)