Call on the State Department to Protect Colombian Human Rights Defenders and
Dangerous Escalation of Targeted Murders
Deputy Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
Washington, D.C. 20520
Dear Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan,
We write with great urgency to express concern about the accelerating rate of murders
of social leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia. We respectfully call upon
you to ensure that the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development
and all other related U.S. departments and agencies are actively engaged – in word,
deed and resources – in bringing the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. We further
call upon you to protect these national and local leaders, their families and communities,
and ensure that these attacks do not undermine or debilitate the implementation of
Colombia’s historic peace accords. We emphasize that this human rights priority is
essential to the national security and economic interests of both the United States and
Colombian human rights defenders and social leaders have increasingly been targeted
for assassination. According to data from the Colombia Office of the U.N. High
Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHRO), attacks against human rights defenders in
Colombia have increased by thirty percent over the past year. In its 2017 report,
UNHRO-Colombia reported 121 killings, whose fatalities included 84 human rights
defenders with leadership roles, 23 members of social and political movements, and 14
people killed during social protests. Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman
(Defensoría del Pueblo) recorded between January 2016 and the end of February 2018 a
total of 282 murders of social leaders and human rights defenders in the country,
including 22 during the first two months of 2018. During the first two and a half months
of 2018, the Colombian human rights group, Somos Defensores, cited 27 killings.
This means that a Colombian social leader is murdered every two and a half days. On
March 27th, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed its
concern over the high number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders
registered this year in Colombia and urged the Colombian government to take urgent
measures to protect human rights defenders and social leaders. For your background, we
are including with this letter examples of some of these murders since March 1st.
As you know from your recent visit to the region, Colombia will soon hold a
presidential election, and it is implementing a complex peace accord that ended more
than 52 years of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Between the 1970s and the 2000s, thousands of political party candidates, rural leaders,
labor organizers and other social leaders were murdered. The peace accord is predicated
on the idea that all Colombian citizens can participate in politics and social projects
without fear of violence or being killed.
It is vital that Colombia demonstrate that activists and competing political actors can
engage safely in political and social discourse. If targeted murders continue unabated,
they will likely contribute to increased violence. That would be a blow to U.S.
economic, trade and national security interests in Colombia and Latin America, and a
major setback to decades of U.S. investments to strengthen Colombian civil society and
judicial systems and promote respect for basic human rights.
For these reasons, the recent explosion in attacks and killings of social leaders is of
utmost concern. Many local leaders who lived for years in territory under guerrilla
control have now begun to raise their voices. Ominously, they face efforts to silence and
terrorize them. Whether coordinated or not, these attacks are happening throughout the
country. Among the individuals and groups who appear to be most targeted are:
· People denouncing human rights abuses or acts of corruption in their communities.
· Indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders seeking to assert their communities’
cultural, collective land and property rights.
· Participants in non-violent progressive and grassroots political movements, whose
physical integrity and right of participation are guaranteed by the peace accord.
· Land rights advocates, small farmers and families trying to recover land that was
stolen or violently usurped by illegal armed groups during the conflict. In many cases
those targeting them are the current occupants of that land, or the locally prominent and
politically connected individuals for whom they serve as stand-ins and who use illegal
armed groups or hired assassins to carry out their bidding.
· Leaders of “Community Action Boards,” local advisory councils established by a
1960s law. Violent groups and local bosses often view these Boards as a threat to their
· People and campesino association members participating in crop substitution
programs mandated by the peace accord to help communities stop growing coca, which
is central to advancing anti-narcotics efforts and generating alternatives to the illegal
coca economy. In effect, they are being killed for their support of government crop
substitution and rural reform policies.
According to the UNHRO and credible Colombian and international human rights
organizations, the masterminds and perpetrators of these killings represent a specific
group of actors: paramilitary or organized crime groups; smaller guerrilla groups like
the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN); remnants of former guerrilla organizations
that resisted demobilization; those who control or benefit from local drug trafficking,
illegal mining, extortion and other illegal activities; and large landowners and regional
special interests who use violence against political rivals, small farmers they seek to
dispossess of land, and independent leaders and social organizations in order to
maintain their authority and control.
In the past, Colombian authorities have shown that when it is important to them to
lower the number of such killings, they are capable of doing so. And, while physical
protection is important for those facing the highest known level of risks, it is expensive
and impractical to provide it for every individual under threat.
We strongly believe protection mechanisms must be combined with other decisive
action. First and most importantly is to swiftly bring to justice those who plan and
orchestrate these murders, and not just the “triggermen” who execute the killings.
Second, is for Colombian authorities at all levels to send clear, public and consistent
messages that perpetrators, collaborators and beneficiaries of these crimes will face
consequences. Third, is to dismantle illegal and violent armed actors that continue to
murder and attack social leaders and the economic structures that support them. Fourth,
is for the Colombian authorities to establish security and provide state resources and a
functioning presence in regions vacated by the FARC guerrillas, as required by the
peace accords. And fifth, is for Colombia to achieve a complete peace by advancing the
Quito peace process with the ELN, understanding that successful negotiations require
good faith and the commitment to end violence and conflict on the part of the ELN.
We strongly urge the State Department and USAID to provide the resources and
necessary support for Colombia to achieve these objectives, including pressing the
current Colombian government and its successor to make these actions a priority.
Congress has provided ample funds in FY 2018 for Colombia for these purposes and
others. This should include more vigorous support for and insistence on results by the
special units and mechanisms within the Attorney General’s Office and those mandated
by the peace accords to address paramilitary violence and the dismantling of criminal
and other violent structures. It should also include continued support and more
demonstrated results on the ground from the Department of Labor’s International Labor
Affairs Bureau (ILAB), which has advanced labor rights and protections; and the State
Department’s Race, Ethnicity and Social Inclusion Unit (RESIU) and the Bureau of
Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), which play an integral role in assessing
the ongoing labor, human rights and civil rights challenges confronting Afro-Colombian
and Indigenous communities.
More specifically, we urge the State Department and USAID to provide more resources
for investigations, prosecutions and protection and to guarantee full compliance with the
U.S. conditions on military assistance to Colombia. This should include increased
support to the UNHRO-Colombia, the Human rights Ombudsman (Defensoría del
Pueblo), the Inspector General (Procuraduría), the Interior Ministry’s National
Protection Unit, and the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General) in the form of
technology, technical support, aid for administrative salaries and logistical expenses so
they can increase their coverage throughout the country. It is especially important that
within the Attorney General’s Office that the Special Unit to Dismantle Organized
Crime and Paramilitary Successor Groups and the Human Rights Unit demonstrate
The State Department and USAID should direct and coordinate with other U.S.
departments and agencies, including the Defense Department, to prioritize ending the
murders of social leaders and human rights defenders so that the U.S. Government
speaks with one voice and is publicly seen by all sectors inside Colombia to be engaged
on all fronts to address this priority.
The U.S. might also determine how best it can support and advance the elite corps of
National Police, formed by the peace accord, the unit which has been responsible for
most arrests so far of alleged material authors or “triggermen.”
Finally, when the National Commission for Security Guarantees, also created by the
peace accord, develops its action plan to address paramilitary networks responsible for
many of these killings, the State Department and USAID should determine how best to
support the Commission, Colombian authorities, and civil society in achieving the
People getting away with murder must know that there are and will be consequences to
their actions. It is critical for Colombia to demonstrate that it is a country where one can
freely and openly engage in non-violent political and social action without the risk of
Please know that we stand ready to work with you to advance these measures and
achieve these goals as quickly as possible.
Members of Congress