Colombia: Activists killed for exposing rights abuse

Massacre survivor blasts gov’t statements about decrease in homicides of human rights defenders

Diego Carranza   | 15.01.2020
Colombia: Activists killed for exposing rights abuse Delis Palacios Herron is a social leader

BOGOTA, Colombia

Delis Palacios Herron is a social leader who works with victims of displacement and armed conflict in Colombia in Quibdo and Bojaya in the department of Choco. 

She is also a delegate of the National Prior Consultation Space of Black Communities, an official instance of interlocution between the government and the ethnic groups.

But she is also a survivor of the Bojaya massacre, one of the toughest episodes of the war in Colombia, in one of the areas t most affected by violence.

According to the National Center for Historical Memory, she was one of the people who was in the church of San Pablo Apostol in May 2002, when in the middle of a confrontation between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and paramilitaries, a gas pipette launched by the guerrillas exploded and killed at least 79 people, including 45 children.

In an interview with the Anadolu Agency, Delis rejected what the government said about a 25% reduction in the murders of social leaders in 2019, and the executive's denial that the crimes are systematic.

“Over the years, the assassination of the leaders has been systematic, it has not reduced. What happens is that in many cases leaders are killed and this is not published. It does not have the relevance it deserves. Or if it is a woman, media says that it is femicide or a murder related to drug trafficking.”

Palacios says the state is diverting attention to the issue, something that "further worsens the situation."

“This is systematic, it is a tremendous situation. It's embarrassing, it's something that should shame Colombia. It shows a reality that nobody wants to assume and is that the issue of murders has to do with the entire state apparatus, government,” she said.

"What do leaders normally do? Report all the neglect of the government. The indifference of our people, and all the systematic violations of our rights, we are constantly denouncing, and that is why they displace and threaten and kill our people.”

The crimes are for the exploitation of the "resources of our peoples."

In recent days, while he announced 2019 security results, President Ivan Duque said that behind the killings of social leaders are "drug trafficking, illegal mineral extraction and organized armed groups."

Palacios dismisses the president statement and said what exists is "exploitation of resources that belong to ethnic peoples, both black and indigenous."

“There is a very frail situation. With the argument of development, many megaprojects are being implemented in our regions and violence strategies are applied to push people to leave the territory,” she said.

In the case of megaprojects in the department and other areas of the Colombian Pacific, she says: “The territory of Choco is largely titled to black and indigenous peoples. We are supposed to be the owners, but at the same time, we do not have the domain or control of the resources that are there. Then, those exploration and exploitation licenses are given to large transnationals and mining companies in the country.”

“In the case of the Atrato River, for example, the interoceanic canal, which passes through Bojaya, is being planned many years ago; also, a railway line from Baudo to Bojaya. But there are other projects that have not been very public but and have been leaked as the big dams.”

- Bojaya’s situation has worsened

The area in which this social leader works has a strategic location since it has very large rivers such as the Atrato, the San Juan, the Baudo, and the affluent that feeds the Atrato. It also has many swamps and it is an area full of biodiversity and resources. However, peace has not arrived and its inhabitants have been victimized on different occasions, said Palacios.

According to her "everything has worsened" after the signing of the peace agreement.

“In Bojaya ,the situation has not changed. Today there are no major massacres like the one in 2002, but the facts of violence have been systematically seen by one actor and another. The departure of the FARC guerilla generated an express peace of mind, but violence resurged with the arrival of the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the paramilitaries.”

Palacios make a special reference to Opogado area, the towns of Napipí and Carrillo, and Cuia, "where people have been heavily hit by these situations of violence and confinement."

Besides, she mentions the village of Pogue, that has been in focus since the end of 2019, “for the actions of the paramilitaries (the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia or Clan del Golfo), the dispute with the ELN, and now with the arrival of the army, which comes to deny what is happening in this area.”

According to Delis, several Bojaya massacre survivors, arrived in Quibdo, a municipality “recipient of displacement,” but in which the situation has not improved either.

“Quibdo received the great majority of the Bojaya people who were displaced in 1997, in the years of 2000 and 2002. [But there] we faced several years of fierce violence. From Bojaya we run away from the conflict and arrive at Quibdo, where we live a systematic murder every day. Hundreds of young people are being killed” she said.

- The paramilitary structures 'are getting stronger'

The social leader said in Choco’s capital "they make people believe" that the murders that occur daily are due to crime and vandalism.

But throughout the process, she has carried out in peripheral areas of Quibdo, she has been able to see that "there are large structures of paramilitary groups generating all this situation."

“They use young people for all their interests and that in that point, the reality is not coming to light: that these structures are becoming stronger and controlling everything,” she warns.

Delis Palacios says that although she has not received intimidating calls for her work, she feels “at too much risk, because there are many people who have been killed without being threatened.”

“I was threatened after the massacre for all my work in Choco, in 2007 and 2012, then I leftuntil 2013. I have not received threats at this moment. Once, my photo appeared in pamphlets, and later I was searched in different places and my colleagues and family were pressed to say where I was,” she said.

*Maria Paula Trivino contributed to this story

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