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Colombia: Investigate Massacre in Southern Region

Possible Army Involvement and Effort to Eliminate Witnesses in Killings of 12 Indigenous People

(Washington, DC) - The Colombian government should ensure a prompt, independent, and thorough investigation of the killings of 12 members of the Awá indigenous community, and take immediate measures to protect the community, Human Rights Watch said today.

Armed men in camouflage broke into a home early on the morning of August 26, 2009, shooting and killing 11 people, including four children and three teenagers, and wounding three more. The killings took place in El Rosario, Tumaco, in the southern border state of Nariño. The massacre came on the heels of the killing of Gonzalo Rodríguez, another member of the community, on August 23. Rodríguez's wife, Tulia García, who had witnessed his abduction, was among those killed on August 26.

"Initial reports suggest that members of the Army may have massacred these people, with the purpose of eliminating and intimidating witnesses of atrocities," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to make sure there is an effective investigation of this horrific crime."

Official sources who spoke to Human Rights Watch reported that Rodríguez had been killed by members of the Army's Counter-guerrilla Battalion No. 23, who later told prosecutors that he was a member of the FARC guerrillas and that they killed him as he tried to escape. According to news reports, García saw armed men detain Rodríguez on August 23 and later found his body on the side of the road, his head riddled with bullets. She accused the Army of extrajudicially executing her husband. New armed groups linked to paramilitaries are also known to operate in the region, and may have assisted in the killings.

According to reliable sources, the August 26 killings took place in García's home. The armed men killed her two children, a 6-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy. They also killed another woman, a 6-month-old baby, a 12-year-old, a 17-year-old, two 18-year-olds, and two men. The three people wounded included the son of the governor of the Gran Rosario Awá indigenous community and an 11-year-old boy.

There is a heavy presence of various armed groups and Colombian military forces in Nariño, creating one of the worst human rights and humanitarian situations in Colombia. Civilians from the most vulnerable sectors of society, including Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups, are among the most adversely affected by the violence there. The government routinely fails to respond adequately to reports of abuses there, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the Awá Indigenous Association (known as UNIPA), 38 members of the Awá have been killed so far this year. In February, at least 11 Awá were killed by the left-wing FARC guerrillas in one massacre. Human Rights Watch has met with Awá leaders in Nariño on several occasions, most recently in July. The Awá leaders reported a wide array of abuses, in addition to the killings, including death threats, the use of antipersonnel landmines in their territory, recruitment of children to serve as combatants in armed groups and massive forced displacement by various armed actors, including the FARC and new armed groups that the UNIPA describes as paramilitaries.

Despite repeated calls on the national government to improve protection of civilians in Nariño, Human Rights Watch has continued receiving complaints that the state fails to act promptly to prevent abuses - even in the face of serious risk reports from the Early Warning System of the ombudsman's office. Human Rights Watch has also received numerous reports of inadequate investigations and insufficient humanitarian assistance by the state once abuses or displacements occur.

"In Nariño, as in many parts of Colombia, the conflict rages on and abuses are rampant, yet often civilians feel ignored by the state," said Vivanco. "Instead of pretending the conflict doesn't exist, the national government needs to do much more to protect civilians, ensure accountability for abuses, and provide assistance to the victims."

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