Still no peace in San José de Apartadó

By Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

San José de Apartadó has historically been hit hard by violence resulting from the armed conflict in Colombia. Despite having lived through terrible events, including forced displacement, targeted killings, raids by illegal armed actors and other grave human rights violations, the people of San José de Apartadó have provided an example of peaceful resistance to being drawn into the Colombian armed conflict.

The creation of the Peace Community more than 20 years ago has provided a nationally and internationally recognized symbol of the civilian population’s collective fight to assert its right to not take part in the armed conflict.

Despite persistent efforts to stay out of the armed conflict, the San José de Apartadó communities have suffered raids from paramilitary armed groups in recent weeks. These groups are trying to establish control over the area, taking advantage of the exit of FARC guerrillas since the peace agreement was signed in November 2016 and the minimal presence of the state in the area. San José residents say these developments constitute a clear repetition of the lead-up to the massacres that took place more than a decade ago, when state security forces stood by while paramilitary groups invaded every corner of the territory, destroying the social fabric and eliminating local leaders that stood in their way. A resident told Amnesty International: “We are really afraid, we see the same pattern of events that occurred ten years ago just before the massacres.”

Since the end of 2016, the Peace Community has reported an increase in paramilitary activity in the area, especially by the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC). This has been accompanied by complaints about the lack of action by Brigades 11 and 17 of the Colombian National Army in Cordoba and Antioquia respectively, as well as by the National Police. Despite the serious accusations made by residents, no attempt has been made to halt the paramilitary advance in the area. The community complains that state security forces have often worked with paramilitary leaders instead of taking action against them: “they often meet (…) [and] when they are unable to hold these meetings, they communicate by firing into the air, indicating that they are present so as to avoid mistakenly attacking each other.” 

They are using many strategies to terrorize San José de Apartadó. It is increasingly difficult to work on our land and we have fewer options when it comes to organizing our lives in our own territory
Peace Community of San José de Apartado

In a recent statement, on 20 July, the Peace Community said that: “they are using many strategies to terrorize San José de Apartadó. It is increasingly difficult to work on our land and we have fewer options when it comes to organizing our lives in our own territory.” San José de Apartadó residents do not know what it is like to be anything other than afraid and are fearful of the regular illegal patrols, forced entry into their homes, theft of agricultural produce, attacks and threats in the form of graffiti in the streets, specific threats to leaders and forced attendance at meetings organized by the paramilitaries.

In this serious situation, it is a matter of grave concern that the Colombian state is ineffective and negligent in failing to provide protection and security guarantees against illegal armed raids and failing to ensure respect for the basic rights of its residents. It is in this period of building peace that the state must acknowledge that many forms of violence persist, take decisive action to investigate the community’s complaints, comply with its duty to dismantle paramilitary groups and have more than just a military presence in the area.

In this serious situation, it is a matter of grave concern that the Colombian state is ineffective and negligent in failing to provide protection and security guarantees against illegal armed raids and failing to ensure respect for the basic rights of its residents
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International

The community is protected by provisional measures issued by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and Constitutional Court, while national and international organisations have made repeated complaints. However, the Colombian authorities have not responded adequately. In a recent announcement, the Inter-American Human Rights Court urged the Colombian government to protect the civilian population. It said that the government should do more than “verify” the existence of paramilitaries in the region and take immediate action to protect the population. The government must understand that it is not enough to maintain military bases nearby, which, in fact, increases the risk in a context of armed conflict. It should establish a stronger presence and provide effective responses that allow the communities to recover their confidence in the authorities. 

Guarantees of non-repetition are the key to ending more than fifty years of violence. Until the Colombian government acknowledges the problem and takes immediate action against the potential threat posed by paramilitary groups in this and many other areas in the country, human rights violations will continue, leaving the civilian population unprotected from the clashes resulting from the conflict. This continuum of violence must stop if progress is to be made in introducing effective measures to guarantee full respect for the human right of everybody in the country. The government must focus on the needs of victims of the conflict and the violence. Terror and threats cannot be allowed to destroy hopes of achieving a lasting and sustainable peace.

The government must focus on the needs of victims of the conflict and the violence. Terror and threats cannot be allowed to destroy hopes of achieving a lasting and sustainable peace
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International