Urgent: Humanitarian Crisis in Colombia

It is with grave concern that ABColombia has received reports from our partners on clashes between armed groups in the Southern Bolívar Department, and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (the Heart of the World for the Wiwa, Kankuamo, Arhuaco and Kogui Indigenous Peoples). In both cases the civilian population are caught in the middle with dire humanitarian consequences. Many are fleeing to nearby villages and towns seeking protection, whilst others are being forcibly confined and used as human shields, as the different armed groups seek to gain control of the territory, people, licit and illicit economies. Six municipalities in southern Bolívar – Cantagallo, San Pablo, Simití, Santa Rosa del Sur, Morales and Arenal – are in imminent danger due to increased armed clashes between the Ejército de Liberación Nacional-(ELN), FARC dissidents and the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia/ Clan del Golfo (AGC). A statement from the Arenal mayor’s office confirmed that from 17:00 on 9 October 2023, confrontations intensified near the town centre.The Defensoría del Pueblo (Ombudsman) reports three armed groups in dispute for control of territory, illicit economies and extorsion rackets. The dispute intensified due to FARC dissidents retaking territory at the same time as the AGC were engaged in territorial expansion. Leading to an intensification of the violence threatening the lives of the civilian population, causing displacement and confinement.

A local source reports that in the villages of Mina Café and Mina Gallo, in Morales municipality, people are being confined by paramilitaries and used as human shields.  While other villages are being overwhelmed by the numbers of fleeing people seeking refuge. A local source reports approximately 1300 people have been displaced (it’s not possible to confirm the final figure as the situation is changing hourly). In addition, two people have been kidnapped by the AGC and were last seen close to the village of Dorado, where there is a permanent paramilitary base. Those displaced and taking refuge, including children and pregnant women, are now without food.

The analysis from the region is that this situation will intensify (imminently) as there are no indications that the armed groups in dispute will give way. People in Southern Bolivar and the San Lucas Mountain Range before these new armed confrontations were already suffering a historical humanitarian emergency exacerbated by the pandemic.

In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta armed clashes are taking place between the paramilitary groups the Autodefensas Conquistadores de la Sierra (ACSN) and the AGC as they seek to dominate and control the territory. Representatives of the Wiwa Indigenous Peoples report serious damage and crimes against several of their communities. The fighting started last week in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SNSM). According to the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (Cajar), “25 people have been killed, and two Wiwa indigenous people are missing “.

Since October 2021, the indigenous organisations have been denouncing the reconfiguration of violence in the SNSM region, where armed groups control the main licit and illicit activities. This new situation has resulted in the destruction of cultural property, killing of people, confinement, forced recruitment of minors and forced displacement of the population. In 2022, according to the National Commission of Indigenous Territories (CNTI) 108 indigenous people from 15 communities were killed, and in 2023 this trend continues.

There are a variety of reasons as to why conflict is increasing across Colombia, resulting in terror, forced displacement and confinement of the civilian population including for control of illicit economies and territory, a show of strength before entering peace negotiations, and whilst groups engaged in peace negotiations have a bi-lateral ceasefire in place the majority of the fighting in recent months has been between illegal armed groups in territories occupied by the civilian population.

It is essential to achieve Humanitarian Accords, with all armed groups in local territories agreeing to respect the civilian population’s right to remain out of the conflict and to have their lives and territory respected (as IHL dictates).

Due to the absence of effective protection and guarantee actions, the massive imminent risks to the populations in these two regions it is essential that the national, departmental, local government and all state institutions urgently deploy contingency plans to address the displacement, the humanitarian situation current and historic and guarantees for return.

ABColombia recommends that:

The State

  • Pursues regional humanitarian accords with all armed groups to respect the rights of citizens to remain outside of the conflict and have their lives respected.
  • Provides immediate Humanitarian Aid to the displaced communities. This needs to come from central government as the local governments are struggling to find resources.
  • Fulfils the recommendations of the Defensoría del Pueblo in Alerta Temprana 034
  • To move forward promptly in dialogue with the armed groups that are present in these regions, as well as in agreeing a cessation of hostilities.
  • The State complies with the 2016 Peace Accord and in particular, the ethnic chapter and the recently adopted public policy for the dismantling of criminal organisations that threaten the implementation of the Peace Accord and the lives of communities.
  • Urgent provision in Southern Bolivar of food, blankets, mats and medical care and psychosocial support.

The International Community

  • International Aid agencies should respond rapidly to this humanitarian crisis.
  • The diplomatic community and multilateral funders should assist Colombia with resources and expertise to implement the policies produced by the Comisión Nacional de Garantías de Seguridad for the dismantling of the illegal armed and criminal groups.
  • Crimes committed against indigenous peoples must be examined by the International Criminal Court (ICC).