17 February 2021
Human rights defenders and community leaders in Uraba, are not only being killed but they are now also being criminalised. Community leaders from Jiguamiandó and Curvarado, Erasmo Sierra, Félix Alvarado Zabaleta, Wilson Mena Romaña, Ovidio González Cabrera and José Yesid Guzmán Rodríguez, are facing criminal charges.
These Afro-Colombian and Mestizo community leaders were exposed to terrible atrocities, forced to displace from their communally owned territory, later they returned with the help and accompaniment of the NGO the Comision Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Inter-Church Comision for Justice and Peace).
Their return was achieved in a small part of their territory where they established Humanitarian Zones, territory clearly demarked with fencing as hamlets where the civilian population were living. They insisted that all armed actors honour International Humanitarian Law and not involve the civilian populations in the conflict, and that all armed actors refrain from entering these zones. They had special protection measures from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and International Accompaniment by organisations like Peace Brigades International.
The Humanitarian Zones were a way of using International Humanitarian Law (IHL), that includes not involving the civilian population in the conflict, to protect communities. These leaders and their communities sought to maintain control over their territory, through peaceful resistance in their communally owned land and to prevent land-grabs. Therefore, these trumped-up charges do not make any sense in this context.
The leaders of these communities stood their ground in a brutal conflict which claimed the lives of leaders like Orlando Valencia (2006) forcibly disappeared, tortured and assassinated, Ualberto Hoyos (2008) shot several times in front of the community, Benjamín Gómez (2009), Argenito Díaz (2010) and Manuel Ruiz (2012). The communities of Jiguamiandó and Curvardó returned to a small portion of their territory in the midst of an ongoing conflict in an effort to prevent their territory from being turned into palm plantations or cattle ranches by large land owners with links to paramilitary groups who had grabbed their land. Paramilitary bosses in that region testified that they had forcibly displaced the Afro-Colombian Communities and brought in the palm plantation owners.
These community leaders are accused by the Attorney General’s Office of belonging to the extinct FARC-EP guerrillas. Previous attempts to criminalise them were dropped in 2004 due to the lack of any credible evidence. These communities continue to peacefully resist very powerful economic and political actors with links to illegal armed groups. In fact, in April 2011 testimonies from the Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó communities led to 23 palm cultivators and councillors being formally charged. The charges brought against them included: conspiracy, forced displacement, falsifying public documents and environmental crimes.
For further reading on Humanitarian Zones see Self-Protection Mechanisms: Colombian Rural Defenders and Communities