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22 March 2019

Police repression of indigenous and peasant ‘Mingas’ infringes right to freedom of association in Cauca

Indigenous and peasant human rights defenders who form part of social “Minga” camps for the Defence of Life, Territory, Democracy, Justice and Peace (Minga social por la Defensa de la Vida, el Territorio, La Democracia, la Justicia y la Paz) in the region of Cauca have been subjected to raids, threats and armed violence by members of the ESMAD, the Anti-riot Mobile Police Squad (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios), on a number of occasions in the past week. In Colombia, the “Mingas” refer to a series of marches and protests related to the pursuit of rights by indigenous groups.

Recent police attacks have taken place in the camps of Cajibío, Caldono, and Santander de Quilichao, where indigenous groups have been organised since 16 March. The groups are demanding that the government complies with agreements previously reached with the social organizations of Cauca and that it implements the peace agreements with the FARC-EP. One of the main requests of these groups is that President Ivan Duque visits the region to speak directly with communities.   In the past week, there have been regular reports of harassment and attacks against human rights defenders and protesters, as well as the permanent presence of hundreds of members of the National Army, ESMAD and others in the vicinity of the camp sites. On several occasions ESMAD agents have approached human rights defenders and have questioned their work and demanded identification.

Since 20 March, human rights defenders have reported that a number of unidentified men have been loitering close to the camps sites, while explosions close by have also been heard. In the afternoon of 19 March, ESMAD forces tried to evict camp members installed in Santander de Quilichao. The anti-riot police shot indiscriminately at protesters, leaving at least three injured, including a member of a humanitarian assistance contingent who provided medical care to camp members.

On 16 March 2019, at around 10am, simultaneous eviction attempts by ESMAD squads also took place in the Cajibío and Caldono camps. ESMAD members destroyed and burned the cambuches (tents) of human rights defenders and protesters, along with their belongings and food supplies. Other items, including motorcycles, were confiscated by police. The ESMAD also fired tear gas and pellet shots indiscriminately, leaving a number of human rights defenders injured.

During the eviction attempt in Cajibío, 10 women and 20 men were detained for over an hour and threatened with firearms. The community also reported that prior to the raid they were the target of surveillance from a police drone which had been seen flying over the camps immediately before the attack and in the days preceding it.

During the most recent raid, on 19 March, an ESMAD commander claimed that the attempted eviction was a result of  the indigenous groups’ invasion of property to build the camp. However, the ESMAD did not present a warrant, failed to acknowledge the peaceful nature of the movement and used excessive violence in attempting to disperse the protesters. Human rights organisations and collectives including Cima, Ordeurca, Acaami, Acader, Acaragro and Proceso de Playarrica Huisitó were also present at the scene. Following these incidents, a human rights commission composed of local and international institutions arrived at the camps to document possible human rights violations.

The indigenous peoples and peasants who engage in the camp protests are currently negotiating with national authorities at Monterilla, Caldono, where their spokespersons are requesting that the government provide them with humanitarian assistance and put in place policies that safeguard the rights of indigenous and peasant populations in the Cauca region.

The social “Minga” camps for the Defence of Life, Territory, Democracy, Justice and Peace have been the target of a stigmatisation campaign by national authorities, including the Defence Ministry, who publicly claimed that the movement had been infiltrated by guerrilla members.

In his 2018 end of mission statement on the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia, United Nations Special Rapporteur Michel Forst urged the country to “step up its efforts to prevent all forms of excessive use of force by members of the security forces and ensure that all allegations of excessive use of force are investigated promptly, thoroughly and impartially, and that the perpetrators are prosecuted and punished”. The Special Rapporteur further urged Colombian authorities to ensure its police forces acted in compliance with the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and ensure the rights to freedom of assembly, opinion and expression and the right to participate in public affairs.

Front Line Defenders expresses its concern regarding police violence perpetrated against indigenous peoples and peasants who engage in public demonstrations in the Cauca region, and draws attention to the pattern of repression and attacks on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Colombia. Front Line Defenders is further concerned by the attacks on human rights defenders engaged in the Mingas, and urges the national authorities to open a full and transparent investigation into the attacks and to refrain from stigmatizing the work of human rights defenders in Colombia.