VERDADABIERTA.COM, February 11, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
President Iván Duque has announced that he will create an intersectional committee with the objective of unifying methodologies of investigation and information related to the murder of social leaders. It will be based on the investigations that are being carried out by the Attorney General’s Office. This is a frontal attack on the mission of this agency of the Inspector General’s Office.
“We will not be submissive.” This was one of the announcements from the Public Defender, Carlos Camargo, in his inaugural speech on September 1 of last year, in the presence of President Iván Duque and several members of his cabinet. And he repeated, “the Public Defender’s Office will raise its voice; we will not be silent. They will have to hear what we say.”
In that speech, he also made promises for the leaders and ethnic authorities, who have suffered a high number of sacrifices for defending the vital rights of their communities: “I want to tell you that we are going to improve the Early Alert System (SAT in Spanish); we are going to look for technological and humane methods and procedures that will allow us to manage the risk effectively (…) In this area, it’s important to support us with technology and a massive and intelligent interchange of data.”
But five months after that speech, President Duque put a muzzle on his promises, subordinating the work of his mission regarding the murders of social leaders to the work the Attorney General’s Office is doing. That’s what the chief executive did by announcing, last February 3, the creation of an intersectional committee to attend to this tragic phenomenon.
“This coordinated effort allows not just the Public Defender, the Inspector General, and the national government to work jointly, with exact information on the investigations that the Attorney General’s Office is always working on, but also it permits us to unify the reports among all of the entities, so that the common battle against this scourge allows us to work using accurate indicators, and to be more and more effective,” said Duque.
He made the announcement at the end of a work session in the President’s Office with different agencies to evaluate the 2020 results of the Timely Action Plan (PAO in Spanish) for the protection of social leaders, human rights defenders, and journalists, and to outline the strategies for this year.
In reaction to the measure, the President’s Councilor for Human Rights, Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, stated that “the consolidation of information will also permit harmonious work among the investigation agencies and the judicial branch, so as to be able to capture and prosecute those who have affected the social fabric of the communities where the leaders and defenders have been playing a fundamental role.”
Nevertheless, Camargo has kept silent about the decision that, in the judgment of analysts, spokesmen and women for international agencies, and social leaders, is an attack on the mission and independence of the Public Defender’s Office, established in the Constitution of 1991. The Public Defender’s submissive attitude is at war with his promises.
His passivity toward this “assault” on the Public Defender’s Office was predictable. Camargo, who’s from Córdoba, came to this office after being elected by the Chamber of Representatives by 140 votes out of a possible 155, from a list that had been submitted by President Duque, his friend and classmate at the Sergio Arboleda University; he had no experience in human rights, and had been suspected of corruption in his previous position, Executive Director of the National Federation of Provinces.
Behind the Strategy
“I’m very pleased with the formal announcement of a plan that will take effect very soon to establish the methods of coordination, and I can tell the country that the best thing that could happen is that there will be accuracy in our statistics, because statistics give us a level of respectability in our management of these matters,” said Attorney General Francisco Barbosa, in reaction to the President’s announcement.
His satisfaction is more than justified. Sources consulted by VerdadAbierta.com state that the initiative to create one single registry of the killings of social leaders, and with that information only being accessible to the Attorney General’s Office, withdrawing the jurisdiction from the Public Defender’s Office, has two proponents: Attorney General Barbosa and President Duque.
“Barbosa has been talking about this ever since he was the Presidential Councilor for Human Rights, and now here he comes with the idea of unification. Obviously, unification to manipulate the registries; and it’s not because we’re thinking evil thoughts, but because he’s already done it in a report in 2019, showing an unrealistic reduction of homicides,” relates a person who is aware of the tragedy that the social leaders are suffering.
In fact, Rodrigo Uprimny, a lawyer and researcher with the Dejusticia organization, filed a complaint about that situation in August of 2019. He warned of the manipulation of statistics, contexts, and methodologies used to attribute a 35% reduction of murders of defenders of human rights to the Timely Action Plan (PAO), created by the Duque administration to combat the tragedy.
And with relation to the PAO, a source that attended one of its meetings, where the administration’s top leadership was present, including the control agencies and the Armed Forces, told this site that President Duque expressed his concern about the minimal results that were being achieved in the protection and reduction of violence against social leaders.
“He indicated,”—according to the source—“that it was not fair that while the agencies had worked so hard to get results, public opinion was going to crucify them, saying that they hadn’t done anything. And that’s why he thought that if he let the agencies unify the statistics, the advances would be recognized.”
Up until Wednesday of last week, not only the national government, like the Attorney General, were taking the cases documented by the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (OACNUDH in Spanish) as the official register, discrediting the work of documentation by the Public Defender’s Office. That day it was announced that the official statistics would be under the leadership of the prosecutors and that the Public Defender no longer would have any authority in the area.
Furthermore, one of the sources consulted said that, technically, that unification could not exist, because it would be necessary to rewrite the Constitution of 1991 to modify the authority of the Public Defender: “Public Defender Camargo can’t say that now he can be made aware of those cases, because that is part of his job: and even less in the matter of the defenders of human rights, where the first entity charged with understanding those attacks is the Public Defender’s Office.”
Edwin Mauricio Capaz, the former coordinator of Fabric of Defense of our Lives from the Association of Indigenous Councils from Norte del Cauca (Acin in Spanish) sees in this presidential decision a setback for the Public Defender’s Office in its awareness of the things that are happening to the human rights defenders and the community leaders.
“The Public Defender’s Office has done an enormous job in covering the territory and if he cannot go to a remote territory, he won’t be able to communicate with their social sectors and their communities,” stated Capaz, and, expressing disagreement, he said that “there is very limited presence of Attorney General’s staff in those areas.”
“It’s both a technical and a practical matter,” –he added—“regarding the capabilities that the agency has that they are taking away, jurisdiction to document the slaying of social leaders and what those leaders are offering. Besides that, the Attorney General’s Office has not built the necessary legitimacy among the social sectors. Those are the ones that have been most damaged by this phenomenon of violence.”
Contrary to the Peace Agreement
Muzzling the Office of the Public Defender is one more step, this time a powerful one, to strike at the Peace Agreement signed in 2016 with the former FARC guerrillas. In what was agreed upon in Havana, during four years of negotiations, a number of actions to strengthen the Public Defender’s Office were established. Among them was one of its strictest branches: the System of Early Alerts (SAT), created in 2001.
Through its officials in the countryside, supported by a network of sources, the SAT was able to probe situations of risk in the communities, and send out warnings to local, regional, and national authorities, for the purpose of curtailing possible violent actions that would violate human rights.
But the beaurocratization of the Public Defender’s Office, along with the interests of some of its managers, who had come into the agency with the support of powerful politicians, had led to the shelving of SAT reports. So, to make the alerts work better, the Peace Agreement established the need for “a new system of prevention and alert for the quick reaction to the presence, operations and/or actions of criminal organizations.”
To make that initiative a reality, the national government, supported by the Peace Agreement, issued Decree 2124 on December 18, 2017. It “regulated the system of prevention and alert for quick reaction to the presence, actions and/or activities of the organizations, criminal events and conduct that place the rights of the population and the implementation of the Peace Agreement at risk.”
The regulation established that the system of prevention and alert for quick reaction would have two components: “One is the early alert in the Public Defender’s Office, developed in accord with the legal and constitutional jurisdictions; and another of response and quick reaction by the national government, with the participation of the regional agencies, coordinated by the Ministry of the Interior.”
In addition, it stated 16 principles for its operation, among which impartiality stands out: “The system of prevention and alert for quick reaction will be carried out by monitoring and warning of risky situations, based on objective criteria through collection and analysis of information.”
The Decree also emphasizes the principle of speed, so that, by means of quick reaction, the system can “warn and react in a timely manner to situations of risk that are identified by the civilian population, and generate a rapid, integrated, and coordinated response.”
And, finally, it established the principle of participation, to see that the rapid reaction keeps “in mind the reports and requests from civil society, including movements and political and human rights organizations.”
The importance of this system was such that on August 1, 2018, the United Nations, through the United Nations Refugee Agency (Acnur) and the United Nations Colombian Women’s Program, endorsed the project “Fortifying the System of Prevention and Alert for Quick Reaction” in facing the criminal organizations and activities that are placing the implementation of the Peace Agreements at risk.”
On that occasion, Martín Santiago Herrero, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Colombia, stated that this project is intended to fortify the measures of prevention of violations of human rights in the country. He stressed that “the numbers, even though they are important, are not what’s essential. One murder would be enough to say that here in Colombia we are in a situation that is not just worrisome, it’s shameful.”
Different social and political sectors and international agencies have questioned the decision to place the Attorney General’s Office at the head of the unification of statistics on the murders of leaders and ethnic authorities. They make arguments such as that too much emphasis is being placed on statistics and not enough on solving the cases; a loss of independence of the Public Defender’s Office, and the lack of credibility of the Attorney General’s Office, especially in the regions that have been hard hit by the violence.
One of the strongest reactions came from Juliette de Rivero, a representative in Colombia of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OACNUDH). Issuing a public statement, she stressed that “the statistics are not what’s important here. It would be a mistake to believe, looking at all that’s going on in this country, that the principal objective is to get figures to agree.”
In Rivero’s view, “what’s important is to prevent the killings, the attacks, and the threats against defenders of human rights and social leaders—whether it’s 10, 20, or more than 100 cases. Every threat, every attack, and every murder of human rights defenders has as its objective to silence their work, and this whittles away at democracy and the rule of law.”
Before issuing the statement, a source explains that the President’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office were not pleased with an announcement by the UN High Commissioner’s Office that it had documented 53 murders of social leaders during last year, and that they are working on verifying 80 more possible cases. That would be counter to their speeches about historic reduction of the rates of violence in 2020. If this figure is corroborated, it would be the highest number of such murders registered by the United Nations since 2016.
Rivero’s position was supported by seven members of Congress in a letter they sent to President Duque: “We agree that in this situation a supposed articulation has the potential to affect the independence of the Inspector General’s Office and to impact negatively on the prevention, verification, and follow-up on the attacks on social leaders and people that are defending human rights.”
For the members of Congress that signed the letter, “it’s imperative that the System of Early Alerts in the Public Defender’s Office, a system that records more attacks than just homicides, be fortified and recognized as a key ingredient for decision-making that leads to prevention, verification, and follow-up on every attack on people that are social leaders and defenders of human rights.”
As a result, they asked that President Duque withdraw the proposal to create an intersectional group and instead, to promote “the harmonious collaboration among agencies, in the framework of respect for autonomy.”
For her part, Lourdes Castro, Director of We Are Defenders, a nongovernmental organization that since 2002 has been monitoring the situation of the defenders of human rights, expressed her concern about the measure adopted by the President’s Office: “In the first place, if the government wanted to respond to a serious situation, it should take effective measures to face the violence in the countryside, and not just unify statistics.”
This activist also called attention to the loss of independence of the Public Defender’s Office. In her judgment, that agency of the Inspector General’s Office “is an independent and autonomous entity of control. The recently announced measure is attacking its exercise of monitoring that it accomplishes through the Early Alert System, which also strengthens the Peace Agreement.”
At the same time, Diana Sánchez, Director of the Minga Association that safeguards respect for human rights in different regions of the country, believes that the creation of the intersectional group that President Duque has announced, has various problems.
“We believe that the institutions of control and investigation don’t need to be connected with those of the government, because the separation of powers takes care of that. The role of the Attorney General’s Office is one; the role of the Public Defender’s Office is another, and the role of the Inspector General’s Office is still another, and the government carries out policies,” Sánchez detailed.
And she added that involving all of the government’s authorities is not healthy: “So, who controls, investigates, and keeps an eye on what the government is doing? We don’t think that unification is healthy; it’s improvised and it’s going to end up glossing over the number of homicides, as if the quantity were the problem.”
In addition, she calls attention to the “dismantling” of Subparagraph 3.4 of the Peace Agreement, which guarantees human security: “With this improvised decision, the government pulls out lower ranking policies than those contained in the Peace Agreement, which are decrees having the force of law. For example, the PAO, which is nothing, is just a plan, not a legal tool or a superior regulation, and with that they took out the National Commission on Guarantees of Safety, which has the mandate to create a public policy that will lead to the dismantling of the criminal groups.”
Camilo González Posso, President of Indepaz, adds to this chorus of criticism. Indepaz systematizes reports on the killing of social leaders. He believes that the President’s proposal “is a violation of the autonomy of the Public Defender’s Office” and insists that the national government is looking for a way to manipulate the statistics to improve its image “instead of doing the prevention and of having a policy for human security.”
Posso also made clear that the Attorney General’s Office has all of the statistics on the murders of social leaders: “They have unified all of the sources, we have turned over our registers; and they have told us that those consolidations are a benchmark for their investigations, but when the time comes to make the information public, they do a political manipulation of the numbers, taking the lowest and the partial, and that’s what they give the United Nations.”
Another critical voice is the international organization Human Rights Watch. This Wednesday they published a report in which they describe 400 killings of social leaders that have taken place since 2016, and they evaluate the failures in the policies of prevention and protection. In one of their most highlighted subparagraphs, they indicate that “the Colombian government has been using two mechanisms (SAT and UNP) for a long time, and they have been shown to be important for the protection of human rights, even though both are lacking sufficient financing and have other serious deficiencies.”
Is there really any clarification?
In his announcement of the creation of the intersectional group, President Duque emphasized that “the investigations that the Attorney General’s Office has carried out show incontrovertibly that the narcoterrorists are behind the highest percentage of the murders of social leaders.” Nevertheless, for those who are familiar with what’s going on, that affirmation is the result of a rigged manipulation of the data.
That is the argument made by Castro, of We Are Defenders: “The Attorney General’s Office is characterized by its attempt to mask the statistics with the term ‘clarification’, making it look like the results of investigations, which are not really clarification.”
And he referred to the statistics furnished last February 3: “In issuing this new methodology for consolidation of the cases, the Attorney General’s Office said that there is progress of 63% in clearing up cases, but they are including in that term every legal case they are bringing and that came out of an investigation. This is not clarification: a crime is clarified with a court decision.”
Carlos Zapata, Coordinator of the Observatory of Human Rights and Peace (IPC) adds to that criticism: “Clarifying is a euphemism to say that they are making progress, but if you ask the prosecutors about what clarification is—‘an arrest’—‘a charge’—‘an investigation’—We don’t know what clarification means.”
Zapata also said that while criminal claims against those responsible for the murders of social leaders and human rights defenders are only based on suspicion of the guilty parties, “without arrests, without charges, not even convictions, the Attorney General’s Office is lying to us.” And he added that impunity in these cases is more than 85%.
The activist repeated that with the strategy of unifying statistics, to be headed by the Attorney General’s Office, the only thing they are trying to do is “make them look lower to avoid international pressure because of the high statistics that are being reported and that make our country look like it is the least protective of its human rights defenders and local leaders in the world, at least in this hemisphere.”
The Attorney General’s Office, not very believable.
One of the reasons invoked by those who are questioning the proposal that the Attorney General’s Office take the lead on tracking the numbers and the documentation of cases is the lack of confidence that office has generated in those regions convulsed by the armed conflict and where their presence in not sufficient.
Zapata, of IPC, described a specific case, to exemplify the unfavorable situation of the prosecution agency. It has to do with the murder of Edier Adán Lopera Restrepo, that occurred on July 15 in the town (vereda) of Caracolí, in the Municipality of Tarazá, in Bajo Cauca, Antioquia Province: “His body was removed ten days after the murder, the Sijín (National Police) and the prosecutor’s office were not able to get there in less than ten days, until the Army could come with them.
“The investigators from the Attorney General’s Office,” added Zapata, “are the ones that have the least presence in the countryside; they are concentrated in less than half of the municipalities in Colombia. The others just have the Sijín. We believe that is not an efficient strategy and we think it’s very sad, because who is going to do the control and verification? Civil society has to do it, because the agencies of control are not disposed to exercise the government’s control effectively.”
Another critical voice comes from the human rights defenders labor organization in the Public Defender’s Office (Sindhep). Its President, William Salazar, repeated that, among the citizens, there is a profound lack of confidence in the Attorney General’s Office, especially in the regions most affected by the war.
“Those of us who live in areas most bitterly affected during the time of the paramilitaries, we knew most of the victims in Tumaco or in Sincelejo were slow to complain to the Attorney General’s Office, because you would be murdered just a few days or weeks after you reported anything to the Attorney General’s Office,” Salazar recalled. “The communities know perfectly well that the Attorney General’s Office is one of the most corrupt organizations and most permeated by the dynamic of the armed conflict.”
In contrast to the lack of confidence that, historically, the Attorney General’s Office has suffered in regions convulsed by the armed confrontation, the SAT has risen to be a trustworthy agency among the communities. They give details to its officials about the risks to the communities and about the actors, legal and illegal, that are violating their rights.
“There are 20 years of cooperation and of working on the side of the people,” insisted Salazar, “and that has allowed the regional analysts to get information that is trustworthy, including the statistics. This data allows not just monitoring and warning, but also, above all, fortifying the processes of organization in the countryside.”
This labor leader believes that beyond a discussion of statistics, what’s behind the muzzle imposed on the Public Defender’s Office is a strategy of weakening the “accompaniment that is autonomous and independent” that is done in the most vulnerable communities, and in their processes of organization. They want to break down that confidence. “To the extent that we cannot warn, we won’t be able to provide information. They want to block our work in the countryside.”
To this preoccupation, Salazar adds one more: the omission of the implementation of the Peace Agreement in the Institutional Strategic Plan of the Public Defender’s Office, issued two weeks ago by Public Defender Camargo. “It’s not an involuntary omission, but rather they are deliberately going to contribute to the weakening of the Peace Agreement,” he insisted.
Because of that, he linked the issue of the Attorney General’s Office with the omission to establish that, “the matter of the statistics is not an isolated matter, but rather, it has a more structural character, that of banishing the constitutional mandate of the Public Defender’s Office and of affecting its autonomy and independence as an organ of control and part of the Inspector General’s Office.”
As an example of that situation, the President of Sindhep (the union) described what happened with a document that the SAT regional analysts had prepared about the situation of the former FARC guerrillas who had signed the Peace Agreement.
“My colleagues prepared, from last year, a report about the risks that are affecting the processes of re-incorporation, not just on the subject of statistics, but also with recommendations and measures that ought to be taken, in the contexts of their re-incorporation spaces, but also in the contexts of their resettlement, such as their political participation that they had carried out as a Party. That report was just stored away on a shelf.”