INFOBAE, February 19, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch says that there is a need for additional measures to help the vulnerable groups.

Miguel Vivanco, Director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, was discussing the report: “Unprotected Leaders and Defenseless Communities”, in which the organization details the situation of social leaders in the country.

In his presentation, Vivanco praised the Colombia representative of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, Juliette de Rivero, who a few weeks ago visited the areas near Catatumbo, confirming the presence of insurgent groups. In addition, he underscored the management by the former Public Defender, Carlos Alfonso Negret, and expressed his hope that that agency, together with the UN, could get in front of the complaints about that kind of criminal activity.

The Director of Human Rights Watch revealed the statistics registered by the United Nations with respect to the murders of social leaders. “According to the United Nations, from 2016 up to this date, 421 social leaders or human rights defenders have been murdered. According to the Public Defenders Office, in that same period, more than 700 people have been murdered.”

Besides that, according to the study by the organization, Vivanco established the reasons behind the increase in the killings.  “They have been increasing since the demobilization of the FARC. That demobilization, based on the Peace Agreement, in effect leaves a gap in many of the territories in the country. It’s a gap that is filled by multiple irregular armed groups, dissidents of the FARC; but also of the ELN, the EPL, groups that are successors of the paramilitaries, cartels, mafias of every kind and the AGC.

According to Vivanco, there is a lack of government presence in the areas most affected by these crimes. “In these regions of the country there are no better economic opportunities or public services like access to health care, education, or job opportunities. Neither is there any real and genuine access to the legal system,” he emphasized.

In addition, he pointed out that the management by Iván Duque, the President of Colombia, has been insufficient and, even, has generated a substantial increase in the killing of social leaders.

“The Armed Forces, which are present in some of these territories, are fundamentally oriented to capturing or killing the hit men or the leaders of these irregular armed groups; but that doesn’t provide protection for the communities, for the population, or making any effort to dismantle those groups,” he said, emphasizing that they have not reduced the strength of the groups.

The Director said that every time complaints are filed, the current administration’s answer is usually the deployment of troops with the mission to kill or capture. “But they don’t go further, offering or designing an effective plan for the protection of the population.”

He added that in Cauca as well as in Catatumbo, two highly dangerous sectors identified by HRW, the administration has increased troop strength considerably. While the organization does not object to that, the lack of additional security measures and lack of access to the legal system translates into “the murders of the social leaders continue and they are even increasing. Not just murders but also manslaughter. There is no correlation between the militarization of certain areas and an effective increase in the security of the communities.”

According to Vivanco’s presentation, the cases of murder have been increasing dramatically, and in 2021 there are 53 murders already confirmed and 80 cases still to be verified. Vivanco’s study determined that there was an increase in killings between 2019 and 2020, in spite of the pandemic and the measures taken to reduce movement in order to control the contagion of Covid-19.

The National Protection Unit, according to Vivanco, plays a key role in individual protection, with 400 defenders receiving security measures. Nevertheless, the Director argues that the Unit’s budget is insufficient for all of the vulnerable groups, with $250,000 for collective protection. However, the general budget for the agency is $300,000.

“We have to keep in mind that 99% of the people that were murdered did not have protection. The cases of the people that have been killed that did have protection from the Unit are very few. The numbers are very small,” he pointed out, calling the budget “laughable”.

Senator Iván Cepeda, a member of the Commission and present at the debate, also noted an undercount in the area of criminal investigations. “It’s evident that the statistics from the Attorney General’s Office are not from the real universe of crimes that are being committed, according to other government agencies or even to the United Nations.”

Finally, Roy Barreras announced that a subcommittee will be created to keep a close watch on the crisis in Buenaventura. The following legislators will be members: Alexander López, Antonio Sanguino García Realpe, Luis Fernando Velasco, Jhon Milton Rodríguez, and Roosvelt Rodríguez. In addition it is planned that the members of the Peace Commission will meet with Senator Patrick Joseph Leahy in the United States to seek funding for vulnerable areas.

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