Operation Injustice: Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Human Rights Defenders and Community Leaders Face Mass Arrests and Arbitrary Detention

Throughout June 2012, dozens of indigenous and AfroColombian civilians, human rights defenders, community leaders, and politicians in the department of Cauca were arrested under suspicion of guerrilla collaboration. These arrests are part of the new counterinsurgency strategy of the Colombian government – Operation Sword of Honor.

Throughout June 2012, dozens of indigenous and AfroColombian civilians, human rights defenders, community leaders, and politicians in the department of Cauca were arrested under suspicion of guerrilla collaboration. These arrests, as part of the new counterinsurgency strategy of the Colombian government, Operation Sword of Honor, are an attempt to weed out support networks that are thought to function in the FARC’s primary strongholds. The effort, which has included the issuing of 140 arrest warrants since June 13 [1], is a central component of joint operations between Colombian military and police forces, and in coordination with the Attorney General and the Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación(Technical Investigation Unit). Mass arrests have also occurred in the Departments of Arauca, Caquetá, Huila, and Nariño. Human Rights Defenders claim these occurrences are reminiscent of mass arrests carried out in 2003 under the Presidency of Álvaro Uribe, where hundreds of people were detained under suspicion of guerrilla collaboration, and eventually released due to lack of evidence.[2]

Included in the list of those detained were: AfroColombian community leader and Secretary of Culture to the municipality of Guachené, Felix Manuel Banguero; indigenous leaders Sergio and Rafael Ulcué of Caloto, the latter of which has been denouncing the FARC and working for the well-being of his community for many years; and the Secretary of the Government of Guachené, Neisair Ramos [3]. Those arrested are being investigated for alleged ties to the FARC’s Sixth Front, one of the armed group’s most active contingencies. Their operations are centered in Northern Cauca along principal corridors for the cocaine and arms trades. Police commander, General Jose Angel Mendoza, reported that those under investigation face charges of rebellion, terrorism, conspiracy, murder, and kidnapping, though it has been reported that no official charges have been made in many cases, and that evidence is thin. [4] Many of those arrested are known locally to be longtime defenders of community rights, or to have been active in human rights documentation and victim’s rights advocacy, often working in protest of mega-development projects. These projects have drastically affected their communities’ physical, social, psychological, spiritual, and historical well-being, and have been pushed to advance the economic interests of the Colombian State and Colombia’s elite citizenry. [5] Many of the victims of these detentions come from families who have been targeted by the Colombian State or paramilitary forces in the past, including having faced previous arbitrary or illegal detentions, enforced disappearance, or torture.[6] These indigenous and AfroColombian leaders continue to be targeted by the State, despite decades of work defending the neutrality of their communities and working in opposition to the armed conflict.[7]

On June 19, over 800 people marched in protest in the town of Caloto, in Northern Cauca, aiming to bring attention to the injustice of the government’s new strategy. Protesters expressed confusion as to why their family members would be detained without having any connection to guerrilla groups, and were mobilizing to visibilize the issue, as many of their loved ones were being held by the Army’s Third Brigade in the area, and scheduled to be transferred to prisons in Valle de Cauca.[8]

The Colombian Government’s new counterinsurgency strategy, Operación Espada de Honor (Operation Sword of Honor), was designed in the Defense Sector and is part of the National Development Plan, a collaboration between National Armed Forces, National Police, the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Transportation, and the Office of the Attorney General. According to a report by Stratfor Global Intelligence, there are two major components to this new strategy: a shift from targeting the top leaders of the FARC and ELN, towards targeting the remaining guerrilla fronts through further militarization of their geographical strongholds in order to to protect areas of economic and military interest to the government; and a change in the approach to combatting Colombia’s Bandas Criminales Emergentes (Emergent Criminal Groups), which have allegedly posed the largest and most disconcerting threat to national security in the last couple of years. These groups are reconstituted of the remains of supposedly demobilized paramilitary forces following the 2005 Peace and Justice Law (975), which has claimed to have halted the paramilitarization of the country. The shift in efforts to eliminate and weaken these groups will happen as the military and national police begin to collaborate in unprecedented ways, and seek to improve “intelligence capabilities through the creation of a joint fusion center among all branches of the armed forces and national police and increase the size of the army by 5,000 troops and the National Police by 20,000.” [9] The government also has stated its intentions to win over the hearts of the civilian population. Santos’ administration has admitted to the immense difficulty of completely ridding any country of illegal armed groups, and instead, aims to wipe out half of the guerrilla population in the next two years, thereby weakening their forces; protecting land rich in natural resources such as oil, and gold; patrolling regions of drug and arms trade; in the interest of impeding the funding of insurgent activities.

But with the recent wave of mass arrests, the claims of the Colombian Government to be investing more energy in fulfilling its obligations under international law to protect human rights within the country, as disparate from the everyday reality of Colombia’s civilian population, seem at best a sustained posturing for the purpose of vetting by international human rights bodies and an improvement in the nation’s global reputation in order to draw in international investment and trade for the profit of Colombia’s elite. Local community leaders in the Cauca region have expressed the need for the international community to recognize the facade of security which the government’s new strategy poses, and are seeking international solidarity in addressing the ongoing violations of human rights, particularly violence perpetrated by the state against human rights defenders, community leaders, and communities fighting for their land against mega-development projects in the region, such as the large-scale mining and dam projects which are displacing thousands of Afro-Colombians in Northern Cauca. The human rights situation, local leaders contend, has not improved despite the government’s claims that it has. With reports indicating that in 2011, a human rights defender was killed every eight days, the call to international attention remains urgent. [10]

In particular, the State’s response to the parapolitics and false positives scandals of the last few years, has been to make changes in the mechanisms of terror enacted on the civilian population in order to inhibit dissent. For decades, the Colombian military and state-backed paramilitary groups have used threats, forced displacement, sexual violence, torture, enforced disappearance, and extrajudicial killings as a means to regulate Colombia’s rural populations, to repress social and political resistance, and appropriate thousands of hectars of land that have been the ancestral territories of AfroColombian and indigenous populations. Additionally it has been evidenced that the Colombian Army made a practice of extrajudicial executions of civilians as “false positives”, wherein Army personnel were killing civilians and dressing them in FARC or ELN uniform, in order to inflate the body count and publicly foment nationalistic pride through display of their supposed military victories. When the scandal broke, these extrajudicial killings decreased, and there was an increase in enforced disappearances. It has been suggested by human rights organizations that this shift is due to orders within the army calling for more diligence in cleaning up the evidence of human rights violations. While killings, disappearances, and other violence against civilians continue to be perpetrated by military and paramilitary forces, the recent practice of mass arrests appears to distract public attention through yet another guise of justice, namely the repression of civilian dissent cloaked in claims of diligent and ethical national security policy.

Heidi Andrea Rhodes is a scholar and activist working from the San Francisco Bay Area, on issues of human rights and social justice. She may be reached at heidiarhodes@gmail.com.

[5] For example, Felix Banguero, according to a letter from FIAN International, Sr. Banguero “enjoys the respect of his community, is a reputed leader of the peaceful PCN Process of Black Communities, and in recent months, had been working in the project ‘Lands and Rights’ (LAR) which is coordinated by [an international consortium]”. The letter also states that “As part of this project, one of the most persistent complaints from the communities is the constant exercise of stigmatization and discrimination by the States or local economic and political power of people and organizations by peaceful means require the guarantee of their rights…” This arrest is made more serious by the fact that PCN has been granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Colombian government, under the agreements of the G-24, for the commitment to protect their leaders, organizations and ethnic communities.(See http://landsandrights.blog.com/files/2012/06/carta_F%C3%A9lix-Banguero.pdf)

[6] See Colectivo de Abogados. http://www.colectivodeabogados.org/El-Estado-responde-a-la-campana

[8]  See Confidencial Colombia. 19 June 2012. http://confidencialcolombia.com/33222.html

[9]  See Stratfor Global Intelligence, 29 March 2012. http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/colombias-new-counterinsurgency-plan