Human Rights Advocates Under Attack in Colombia

The following is an excerpt from "Losing Ground: Human Rights Advocates Under Attack in Colombia," published in October 1997 by the Washington Office Latin America (WOLA). The entire report is available from WOLA for $7/copy + 1.75 s/h for 1st copy ($.75 @ additional), WOLA, Attn. Publications, 400 C. St. NW, Wash. DC 20002. tel. (202) 544-8045, fax (202) 546-5288, email, web:

Human Rights Workers Under Attack

On May 19, 1997, four men burst into the home of Mario Calderon and Elsa Alvarado and gunned them down. Elsa's father, Carlos Alvarado, was also killed in the attack. The researchers had worked for many years at one of Bogota's best known think-tanks and human rights organizations, the Jesuit-run Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP).

While international attention has focused on these murders, this incident was only the most recent of many attacks on human rights activists, ranging from threats and harassment to assassinations. Since October 1996, four nationally-known human rights defenders have been killed, as have 14 members of local human rights communities throughout Colombia and five local human rights ombudsmen (personeros). In statements to the press, military and government officials have repeatedly accused human rights advocates of being involved with guerrilla movements. These accusations have helped to create a climate of fear and suspicion regarding human rights work in general, and encourage members of paramilitary groups and security forces to view human rights activists as military targets.

Government Human Rights Workers Targeted

Government human rights advocates face death threats and attacks as well, forcing some to leave the country. Particularly at risk are investigators with the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General's office, or FiscalRa, and those working with the Ministry of the Interior's social welfare programs for the internally displaced. On a local level, the most vulnerable government human rights agent is the personero, or human rights ombudsman, the official within local municipal government responsible for human rights education and the registration of complaints of human rights abuses.

Personeros are targeted by all sides, including the guerrillas. Since March 1996, five personeros have been killed. Most recently, on August 8, 1997, Gustavo Nunez, the personero of San Alberto, Cesar, was killed only two weeks after publicly denouncing increasing paramilitary activity in his region and criticizing the government for failing to support and protect the personeros. His predecessor was killed by alleged members of a paramilitary group in 1995. To date, neither the President nor members of the Cabinet have spoken out consistently or aggressively in support of the threatened functionaries, nor have they offered them adequate protection, reflecting the government's failure to support and protect human rights work.

Meta: A Case Study in Terror

Meta, the first of the vast llanos departments that stretch from the foothills of the Andes to the Venezuelan border, is famous for its rough cowboys and beautiful land--but also as an example of the extremes of Colombian violence. In recent decades, Meta has been home to guerrilla strongholds, the extermination of alternative political parties, rampant abuses of the civilian population in the military's counterinsurgency campaigns, extensive coca cultivation and eradication, and the consolidation of one of Colombia's most brutal paramilitary regimes. The short life of the Meta Civic Human Rights Committee provides ample evidence of the difficulties faced by human rights committees throughout the country.

As the only non-governmental human rights organization in the region, the Committee continually denounced attacks against the civilian population and provided support for some of the hundreds of families forcibly displaced by political violence. However, Committee members themselves soon became targets of attacks. In an open letter explaining the decision to close its doors in 1995, members of the Committee wrote: "In 1991, the Committee consisted of 32 local social organizations; more than 60 people participated in meetings...[Today] the violence suffered by the Committee [includes] 4 assassinations, three disappearances, 25 displaced people, and the forced withdrawal of the majority of members for fear of being killed or disappeared. The few members who are left are threatened with death."