Zenú Indigenous Peoples from the Alto San Jorge Resguardo Cordorba

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The Zenú Resguardo of Alto San Jorge in Cordorba consists of 47 communities numbering 19,022 people distributed in three areas: San Jose de Ure (15 Communties); Puerto Libertado (22 communities); Montelibano (10 communties).

In 2008 the Zenú community intensified efforts to obtain the land titles to their communal territory. This coincided with an increase in violence against the community and in the number of assassinations of leaders. In 2009, the Zenú People were listed by the Colombian Constitutional Court as one of 34 Indigenous Groups at risk of physical or cultural extinction. In the same ruling, the Court ordered the Colombian Government to work with the Zenú community to design and implement an Ethnic Rescue Plan (Plan de Salvaguardia) within six months. Six years later very little progress has been made. Since 2009, 49 Zenú leaders and community members have been assassinated, the Zenú Peoples have been petitioning the government to investigate and punish these crimes but to no avail, all of the 49 crimes remain unpunished. Leaving them unpunished has created a culture of impunity that has fuelled further violence.  Like indigenous communities in other areas of the country, the Zenú have declared their neutrality in the conflict. This independent stance has provoked violence on the part of all armed actors against them. This has resulted in human rights violations and abuses against the Zenú Peoples. They have suffered periods of forced displacement and caught in crossfire between all of the armed actors, who have not respected their neutral stance.

The Zenú have been raising the issue of the alleged impacts of the nearby BHP Billiton Cerro Matoso Ferro Nickel mine and processing plant on the health of the Zenú People and the contamination of the environment. The mine was formerly owned by BHP Billiton, and since 2015 by South 32 (both UK registered companies). 

The Cerro Matoso nickel mine in Cordoba.

The Zenú People in this context rely on the Indigenous Guard to protect their communities and to reject the intrusion of armed groups into their territory. As well as asserting their neutrality, by patrolling their territories and demanding that armed actors leave their lands, the men and women of the Indigenous Guard also strive to protect community members from becoming involved in the conflict, particularly the young who are at risk from forced recruitment. Additionally, the Indigenous Guard promote food security and human rights and develop protection mechanisms such as early warning systems to alert the community to the presence of armed actors. The Indigenous Guard are able to mobilise their members very quickly and rely on their strength-in-numbers approach to confront armed actors.

On 22 November 2014 the Defensoría del Pueblo issued an imminent risk report No. 034-14 which states that the risk in the region where the Zenú live consists of ‘a territorial dispute between the fronts 18 and 58 of the FARC-EP and the post- demobilized AUC group the Autodefensas de Colombia Gaitanistas who until recently, by agreement, had delimited control of certain areas … [the report goes on to say that] there is evidence of increasing death threats against community leaders, indigenous authorities and … forced recruitment and illegal use of children and adolescents, mobility restrictions, anti-personnel mine accidents, forced displacements, confinement of the population, extortion charges disappearances and killings.’

The Zenú Peoples received a commitment from the Colombian State to provide collective protection measures to the Indigenous Guard due to their precarious security situation in December 2013, nearly two years ago; despite growing concern for their safety the National Protection Unit still has not implemented these measures. The National Protection Unit cites budgetary constraints as the principal reason for their failure to fulfil their obligations.

British MPs wrote a joint letter which was supported by members from all parties as well as various All-Party Parliamentary Groups to the Colombian Ambassador to the UK (March 2015) about the security situation of the Zenú people and asking the Colombian Government to implement the collective protection measures; in addition to the visit of the UK Embassy in 2015, there have also been visits by the French and Belgian Embassies to the Zenú Peoples territory in 2015.

In November 2015 the Zenú people told ABColombia that the paramilitary groups had been growing in number and are permanently in their territory. The Gaitanistas de Colombia (post-demobilised paramilitary group), are moving around once again in uniform, well armed, in large groups of 50 to 200+ and they are once again structured in terms of top, mid and lower-level commanders. They also have to contend with mobile Units 18 and 58 of the FARC. All these groups threaten leaders and seek to exercise social and territorial control. The paramilitary groups restrict the movement of leaders, permanently questioning them and implementing curfews in the towns. There is considerable tension at the moment in the region. There continues to be verbal, written (pamfletos) and text threats made against the Zenú leaders approximately 15 leaders are threatened at the moment. There is surveillance of their houses and their movements. In October 2015 there was also an attempt on the life of one leaders who only escaped with his life by jumping in the river. There were three Zenú killed earlier in the year (2015).[1] The leaders and the community are all living with an extremely high level of tension and vigilance. The leaders rely on the rest of the community to remain alert and warn them of any danger.

ABColombia recommends that the Colombian Government:

  • Immediately identifies the funding and insist that the National Unit of Protection implements the collective protection measures granted to the Indigenous Guard: they are waiting for the motor-bikes and petrol promised, the radios and mobile phones for communication and the uniforms and strong boots. In discussion with the Zenú People ensures that the protection measures remain adequate to confront the current, deteriorating security situation.  
  • Ensure that the individual measures to all 18 leaders are also fully implemented – some have been partially implemented but the measures are also inadequate (small amount of money towards transport, bullet proof vests and mobile phones but the transport allowance and the minutes for the mobile phones have not been paid in the last three months).
  • Ensures that the Attorney General’s Office prioritises tackling impunity of armed groups targeting Indigenous Communities, by investigating and bringing to justice those responsible for the three recent assassinations as well as, those responsible for the other 46 assassinations.
  • Ensure that the Zenú Ethnic Rescue Plan (Plan de Salvaguardia) is accepted by the State and fully implemented.

[1] Wilfrido Morales de 22 años, miembro del Cabildo Bello Horizonte, el día 18 de junio;  Wilmer de Jesús Suarez Sierra de 23 años, comunero del Cabildo la Lucha, el día 23 de junio; y Daniel Dario Peñate Peña de 22 años,  guardia del Cabildo Centro América, el día 22 de agosto.