(Washington, DC) – Two armed groups competing for control over stretches of Colombia’s San Juan river are committing serious abuses against Afro-Colombian and indigenous Wounaan riverside communities, Human Rights Watch said today. The National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and the paramilitary successor group Gaitanist Self-defenses of Colombia (AGC) have been engaged in conflict with one another in the Chocó province for years.
Human Rights Watch has documented evidence of responsibility by both groups for a range of abuses against scores of victims in the Litoral de San Juan municipality and in rural areas of the Buenaventura district. The abuses include killings, child recruitment, planting landmines, and threats, and have resulted in the displacement of thousands of people in recent years. Armed groups have also limited families’ ability to work on the river and in the neighboring hills. Human Rights Watch research suggests that such abuses in Litoral de San Juan are illustrative of abuses in other municipalities in the province. The Colombian government is obliged to provide adequate shelter to those who flee, but its efforts to do so have fallen short.
“As they dispute control over the San Juan river, these two armed groups have displaced hundreds of families and forced many others to confine themselves to their immediate villages,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless the authorities protect them, the promise of peace in Colombia will continue to be only an abstract idea for these vulnerable communities in Chocó.”
The official estimate of almost 3,000 people displaced in 2016 from Litoral de San Juan, with a population of 15,000, makes it the municipality with the second highest number of displaced people after the big port city of Buenaventura, which has for years had high rates of forced displacement. In the first two months of 2017, over 1,300 people were forced to leave their homes in Litoral de San Juan, according to Colombia’s ombudsman’s office.
Even as the ELN, a leftist armed group, conducts peace talks with the Colombian government in Quito, Ecuador, its fighters are injuring and abusing community members. Abuses have occurred both during fighting against the government and the AGC and through the group’s efforts to impose social control on riverside communities. The peace talks started in February, after two years of exploratory negotiations. The parties are discussing an agenda item called “humanitarian actions and dynamics” which, according to an agreement reached in April, is meant to protect civilians from the armed conflict in conformity with international humanitarian law (the laws of the war).
“The negotiating parties in Quito should address the abuses inflicted on people in Chocó as part of their discussions,” Vivanco said. “If the ELN is serious about peace, it should at least respect the most basic laws of war.”
The AGC, which emerged after a flawed paramilitary demobilization more than a decade ago, has also been implicated in many abuses. On April 16, two boat drivers were abducted from the Afro-Colombian community of Pichimá Playa and killed. Local officials who had looked into the case told Human Rights Watch that they believe that the AGC were responsible. In August 2016, two members of the AGC allegedly attacked a woman on a hill, injuring her to force her to provide information about community leaders. Human Rights Watch also received credible allegations that both the ELN and the AGC recruit children by force to join their ranks or work as informants and that AGC members have pressed girls as young as 12 to become their sexual partners.
The hills flanking the villages provide cover for the armed groups, and the river is a vital, contested transit corridor to the Pacific Ocean. Both groups are seeking to control the area, so the villagers’ daily activities – fishing, tending crops, woodcutting, and foraging for materials for craftworks – expose them to threats and violence. Sometimes villagers are trapped by fear of crossfire or of landmines, and at other times, the armed groups impose restrictions on villagers’ movements, impeding their livelihoods.
In 8 of the 16 communities Human Rights Watch visited in March, residents said that one or both groups had inhibited their ability to engage in such daily economic activities as fishing, chopping wood, and growing crops. They said it was often difficult to get food and drinkable water. In one instance, on February 19, a Wounaan community reported that the ELN had “forbidden” residents from going out to fish, hunt, or harvest.
Many residents said they fear retaliation for reporting abuses in part because they believe that authorities or others may leak information to armed groups. “I am afraid” of reporting, one Afro-Colombian villager said. “Nobody knows who is who and what might get you killed.”
Human Rights Watch also documented that government assistance to displaced families is lacking. Under Colombian law, authorities must guarantee victims of displacement decent shelter and food. Yet scores of displaced people from Litoral de San Juan live in deplorable conditions. In one example, when a community of more than 450 people was displaced to the town of Docordó in May 2016, most of them had to sleep for more than eight months on the floor of a community center with no interior dividing walls. Some contracted preventable illnesses such as diarrhea. Many community members said that inadequate sustenance in host communities was forcing them to return to their villages even though they did not feel safe there.
“Residents of the San Juan riverside communities are often left to their own devices,” Vivanco said. “Many displaced families are forced to decide between overcrowded and unhealthy conditions in the cities and the very real threat of abuses by armed groups in their villages.”
Abuse from Both Sides
Human Rights Watch visited Litoral de San Juan and also communities farther south along the San Juan river in the Valle del Cauca province and along the nearby Calima river.
Human Rights Watch interviewed residents from 20 Afro-Colombian and Wounaan communities, as well as local officials and workers with aid organizations operating in the area. Most of the interviews were conducted in Litoral de San Juan in March. Some people were interviewed in Quibdó, the provincial capital, and some were interviewed by telephone. Many people interviewed said that they feared reprisals and spoke on condition that their names and other identifying information would be withheld, including the names of their communities. The research also drew on government data and official reports.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed officials, aid workers, and community leaders about the situation in other areas of Chocó, including the municipalities of Lloró, Alto Baudó, and Rio Sucio, farther north. The research suggests that the abuses documented in Litoral de San Juan are illustrative of abuses in other municipalities in the province.
Killings and Other Physical Violence
The research suggests that both the AGC and the ELN terrorize villagers to keep them from cooperating with government authorities, as well as to extract information on the activities of community leaders. Such abuses contribute to villagers’ flight from the area or to curtailing their ability to fish and grow crops. Cases of killings and other violent abuses, drawn from interviews and media reports, include:
- On April 19, Navy officers found two men dead from bullet wounds, a Navy commander told the media. Days before, Colombia’s ombudsman’s office had reported that the men had been kidnapped from the Afro-Colombian community of Pichimá Playa on the San Juan river, allegedly by the AGC. Two government officials and a leader of the General Community Council of the San Juan River (ACADESAN, Consejo Comunitario General del Río San Juan) – a representative body that includes members of 72 Afro-Colombian communities by the San Juan river – told Human Rights Watch that the men worked as boat drivers and that armed men the government officials believed to be AGC members abducted the men when they were on their way to pick up worshipers going to an Easter celebration. Initial investigations suggest that the men were killed shortly afterward, an official from the ombudsman’s office told Human Rights Watch on April 25. In a public statement released on April 26, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said that the victims were siblings of an imprisoned FARC guerrilla.
- On March 25, five people were killed in the riverside community of Carrá. The Attorney General’s Office reported that seven ELN members apparently killed the men and left an ELN flag in the community. The ELN first denied the claims, but one of their peace negotiators later said the group was not sure what had happened and would “acknowledge the mistake” if they were indeed involved. A justice official who took testimony from Carrá community members told Human Rights Watch that there was no clash between armed groups on the day of the deaths but that men wearing the ELN emblem had appeared in town and fired indiscriminately. An ACADESAN leader gave a similar account. She declined to say which group they were from.
- On February 4, four members of an armed group allegedly detained, beat, and interrogated a man from a Wounaan community on the Calima river. The man was working on a hillside near the village when armed men stopped him at around 11 a.m., Colombia’s ombudsman’s office reported. They released him nine hours later, covered with bruises. A leader from a neighboring village told Human Rights Watch that, as the assailants beat the man, they asked whether he knew a certain person. Wounaan groups said in a public statement that the attackers were “paramilitaries,” a term community members normally use for the AGC. After the incident, community members stopped leaving the village for fear of such crimes, and later the entire community left for Buenaventura.
- On August 15, 2016, two AGC members attacked a woman who was with her husband on a hill overlooking the San Juan river. A community leader and a Chocó official who took testimony from the victim said the attackers slashed four of her fingers with a knife and hit her chest and back, demanding information about various community leaders. Human Rights Watch researchers saw photos of the victim’s cut fingers. Days later, all the families in the village and a neighboring village fled as a result of this incident and fearing new abuses, community leaders told Human Rights Watch. When Human Rights Watch interviewed them in March in the town to which they had fled, they said most had yet to feel safe enough to return.
Recruitment and Use of Children, and Interference with Education
Both the ELN and AGC have in recent years recruited children in communities of the Litoral de San Juan and have attempted to recruit many others. Several justice officials and representatives of aid organizations said that recruitment of children is common but that victims’ relatives typically do not report it for fear of reprisals. An ACADESAN leader said that since early 2015, 30 children have been forcefully recruited by armed groups in communities ACADESAN represents by the San Juan river. Examples include the following:
- In February, armed men forcefully recruited a 15-year-old girl from the Wounaan community of Chagpien Tordó on the San Juan river, an aid group working in the area reported. After that, 106 community members fled to Buenaventura. Families who stayed in the village fear that four remaining young girls will be forcefully recruited, the organization reported. From Buenaventura, a leader of the community told the media that the ELN had taken three children from the community recently and that the guerrilla supposedly had a list of more children there it planned to recruit.
- In June 2016, three armed ELN guerrillas accosted a Wounaan village on the San Juan river, brandishing a list of five boys they wanted to join their ranks, a community leader told Human Rights Watch. The children’s families fled to Buenaventura, he said, but had to return shortly thereafter because they could not get humanitarian assistance in the city. Several teachers at the community’s school said that since that recruitment attempt, many parents have kept their children out of school. Children must take a boat at dawn to attend school, and parents fear they will be forcibly recruited during the journey, teachers said.
- Human Rights Watch received credible allegations that groups use children as informants about their communities. In one Wounaan community on the San Juan river, for example, a teacher said that the ELN uses many children ages 16 to 18 to tell them what is going on in the village.
- Because parents are often reluctant to report recruitment, some cases are revealed only when children are killed in combat or arrested. A Chocó justice official told Human Rights Watch that a girl in the ELN ranks was killed during a bombing by the Colombian armed forces in 2016. Members of an indigenous community by the San Juan river later recognized her as a relative, the official said. In April, the Navy arrested 12 alleged members of the AGC, including three children, the Attorney General’s Office reported.
- AGC members asked a 17-year-old boy from an Afro-Colombian community on the San Juan river to join their ranks in December 2015, a neighbor told Human Rights Watch. The boy refused and fled with his family, who feared the group would take him by force. A member of the AGC had also threatened to kill the boy’s sister, the neighbor said.
Human Rights Watch also received credible allegations that AGC members coerced girls as young as 12 to be their sexual partners. In one Afro-Colombian community, two residents said that at least five girls under 18 have become pregnant by AGC members in recent years. A 12-year-old girl gave birth to the child of an AGC member in March 2016, and fled with her newborn daughter for fear of the group, a relative said. A 15-year-old girl became pregnant with the child of an AGC member in 2012. “My parents didn’t do anything because they are afraid,” her sister said.
A Chocó justice official and an official with the ombudsman’s office said in separate interviews that child pregnancies by AGC members are common in other nearby communities as well. The official from the ombudsman’s office said that, in some cases, such pregnancies resulted from rapes, but that families generally refrain from reporting rapes for fear of reprisals.
In addition to depressing school attendance through the threat of recruitment, armed groups disrupt education through firefights and by seizing schools for use by fighters. In several communities, leaders and teachers said that classes had been interrupted in 2016 and 2017, sometimes for weeks, because children and teachers feared abuses or getting caught in confrontations, which have at times taken place near schools. On February 19, for example, the Colombian navy engaged in a shootout with the AGC for 45 minutes behind the school that serves the Afro-Colombian community of Carrá, residents told Human Rights Watch.
Armed groups apparently have at times used local schools as military bases or taken up positions in schools during hostilities. Around August 2016, ELN guerrillas temporarily occupied a Wounaan village school and threatened the teacher, an aid group that works in the area told Human Rights Watch. The teacher was forced to flee to a neighboring city, Wounaan leaders said in a public statement, after ELN members phoned and threatened to “disappear” him if he did not either leave the school or pay them five million Colombian pesos (around US$1,720). The ELN denied the allegations in an online public statement.
A teacher in an Afro-Colombian community said that AGC members, during a firefight with the Colombian army around September 2016, took cover in another school while classes were in session. A justice official said that the AGC often uses that particular school for military purposes.
Use of Antipersonnel Landmines
The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, to which Colombia is a party, bans antipersonnel landmines. Their use is a violation of international law. Yet Human Rights Watch received credible reports of ELN and AGC use or possession of antipersonnel landmines in riverside communities. As noted above, fear of incidents with landmines or other explosive devices have curtailed villagers’ movement and their ability to carry out their economic activities. Credible reports on the use or possession of antipersonnel landmines include the following:
- In January 2017, three antipersonnel landmines exploded near the water main used by an Afro-Colombian community on the San Juan river. The explosions injured a Marine, officials reported. The ELN later acknowledged in a public statement that it had used the landmines and said that “three state agents were mutilated and others [had] other types of wounds.” When Human Rights Watch visited in March, community members said that fear of landmines had kept them from cleaning the water main since December 2016, and that access to drinkable water was dwindling.
- On February 19, 2017, Marines arrested two AGC members who possessed three antipersonnel landmines near an Afro-Colombian village on the San Juan river, the Attorney General’s Office reported. Human Rights Watch saw photos of the landmines and interviewed a Navy officer who participated in the operation and confirmed the detention of AGC members and the seizure of landmines.
Threats, Social Control, and Restricted Movement
Whether deliberately or as a result of the violent insecurity they create, armed groups have limited the ability of many riverside communities to work and feed their families. Harvesting crops, logging, fishing, and foraging for materials for crafts are core economic activities of Wounaan and Afro-Colombian riverside communities – and all require leaving the confines of the immediate village. “We are often hungry because the armed groups are in the hills where we work,” a Wounaan woman said. “We can’t chop trees, do craftworks, or harvest.” In February, Colombia’s ombudsman’s office estimated that most communities in Litoral de San Juan faced restrictions on movement. The Constitutional Court, in a ruling that month about the government’s compliance with a 2004 decision on the rights of displaced people, described the restrictions on movement as “widespread.”
In some cases, armed groups have told communities that they cannot use the river at certain hours or during certain periods. The biggest displacement resulting from such restrictions that Human Rights Watch documented involved 94 Wounaan families – an entire village – that fled to Docordó in April 2016. They fled in part because of what the village teacher called “rules and conditions” from an armed group. “We couldn’t go down the river,” he said. “We couldn’t harvest our crops. And if we don’t obey, they’ll hurt us.”
Similarly, in January 2017, members of an armed group told people from another Wounaan community that residents could not leave the village after 6 p.m., a teacher told Human Rights Watch. The teacher did not identify the group for fear of reprisals, but an aid group working in the area said it was the ELN.
On February 19, after an armed confrontation between ELN guerrillas and government security forces on communal land held by a Wounaan village on the San Juan river, community leaders issued a statement saying that the ELN had “forbidden” residents from going out to fish, hunt, or harvest.
In May 2016, Colombia’s ombudsman’s office reported that armed groups were using threats to “restrict the civilian population from using the river between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.” Such threats prevent fishing and hunting at night, traditional practices in many Wounaan and Afro-Colombian communities. A Chocó justice official told Human Rights Watch in April that the ELN imposes such restrictions in virtually all the communities in the area under the pretext that it is unsafe for people to move at night. Similarly, an ACADESAN leader said that all of the 72 Afro-Colombian communities they represent by the San Juan river had suffered such restrictions in recent years.
Even when not verbally threatened, many communities have curtailed their movements for fear of abuses, of being caught in cross-fire, or of stepping on landmines. In one Afro-Colombian community, many people said that they had stopped growing crops after three landmines exploded nearby. They also feared abuse if caught in the hills. “If they find us in the hills, they’ll think we are going to inform [the authorities], and they’ll kill us,” one villager said.
The groups seek to dominate and govern the riverside communities, including by punishing those who do not obey their “rules.” More than 160 Litoral de San Juan inhabitants reported threats by armed groups in 2015 and 2016, and Colombia’s Constitutional Court said in its February 2017 ruling that it had received reports of “systematic” threats against community leaders and teachers. Threats documented by Human Rights Watch include:
- During the first months of 2016, armed AGC members visited one Afro-Colombian village four times, residents said, ordering mandatory meetings in the streets for all adults. During the meetings, AGC members reminded people “how we silence an informant” and threatened those who, they believed, had informed authorities about their activities. During 2016, at least three families who had been threatened in this way left the community at dawn, a resident said, taking the belongings they could carry in their hands.
- ELN guerrillas visited another Afro-Colombian village frequently, a community leader said, under the pretext of “protecting the community.” In November, the ELN ordered everyone in the village to attend a meeting in which guerrillas suggested that those who informed authorities about the group’s actions would have “problems.” At this and other meetings, guerrillas forbade teenagers to smoke or consume drugs, and set punishments for defiance. In February 2016, the group forced two young adults to perform community service as punishment for brawling, a village leader said. The ELN imposes such sanctions in many San Juan river communities, a Chocó justice official said, and reprimands boys who wear earrings or long hair.
- In mid-January, armed men whom a local leader described as “the owners of the river,” reprimanded members of a San Juan river Wounaan community, accusing them of requesting Navy protection. The leaders denied requesting Navy protection but promised that the community would punish those the armed men identified as responsible. “We don’t want [them] to do what they’ve done in other communities,” one leader said, presumably referring to punishments the group has imposed for infractions of its rules. While locals refrained from identifying the group, a humanitarian organization working in the area told Human Rights Watch it was the ELN. The community had itself already suffered ELN intimidation – and family displacement. In December 2015, ELN guerrillas told various leaders and teachers that they would be “held responsible” for a killing. Days later, 26 families fled to Buenaventura, a teacher who had fled and returned said.
- In 2015, armed men threatened to kill eight leaders and rape the women in a Wounaan village if leaders continued to claim land in a neighboring community, two of those threatened told Human Rights Watch. In December 2016, an unknown man came and showed pictures of the leaders who had been threatened, they said, asking where he could find them. The men remained unharmed when Human Rights Watch visited in March 2017.
- The director of Litoral de San Juan’s Personería – a municipal human rights agency – said that armed groups have threatened her repeatedly. On October 20, a Wounaan man came to her house to inform her of a plan to kidnap her, and she has since refrained from visiting many communities that she would normally cover as part of her mandate.
Forced displacement is widespread in the riverside communities that Human Rights Watch researched. The abuses and fighting have driven thousands of residents from their homes. In Litoral de San Juan, the number of people displaced in 2016 was the second highest in the country in absolute terms and the highest on a per capita basis: the number of people displaced represents 20 percent of the population.
Newly displaced Litoral de San Juan residents
Source: Victims’ Unit. Cut-off date: April 1, 2017
Forced displacement is chronic for many San Juan river families. Members of one Afro-Colombian community Human Rights Watch visited fled in July 2015, and again in March 2017. The first time, 18 families fled to Docordó after ELN guerrillas came asking for people who they said had cooperated with the AGC. The families returned after three days. In March, 52 people fled after armed men killed five residents.
Similarly, members of a Wounaan community fled in April and again in May of 2016. In April, 466 people fled to Docordó, returning 15 days later due to lack of access to decent housing and food. Threats from an armed group sent them fleeing again on May 4, and they returned in December because of poor living conditions in Docordó. When Human Rights Watch visited in March 2017, teachers said families feared renewed abuses and might soon be forced to flee again.
Limited Assistance to Displaced and ‘Confined’ People
Under Colombia’s Victims Law, municipal governments must provide victims with humanitarian assistance, including decent shelter and food, as soon as they ask to be registered as victims. The law provides that if a municipal government is unable to offer such aid, a provincial government or national agency must assist. Yet Human Rights Watch found consistent shortcomings in government assistance to displaced and confined people.
The municipality of Litoral de San Juan does not have a shelter for displaced people, despite its high levels of displacement. Almost 4,000 people were displaced to or within Litoral de San Juan in 2015 and 2016, according to Colombia’s Victims’ Unit. Scores of internally displaced people in Litoral de San Juan have lived in substandard conditions. In one community, all the displaced families were living in houses with plastic roofs, which they said made the heat unbearable and contributed to unhealthy living conditions.
Several people who had fled in fear of abuse said that they returned to their communities even though they felt unsafe because the assistance they received in Docordó, the municipality’s capital, or Buenaventura was inadequate. A teacher from a community of more than 450 people, many of whom were displaced to Docordó in April and May of 2016 for fear, at least in part, of ELN abuses, said that the people went home in December because they “felt abandoned.”
Most had been placed in a community center with no interior dividing walls where, for eight months, they slept on the floor. Others had been required to pay rent, which the mayor’s office had promised to repay but never did, a teacher said. The Constitutional Court concluded that the reception of these families was “characterized by overcrowding, insalubrious conditions, and limited food.” In March 2017, when Human Rights Watch visited the community to which they had returned, residents said abuses by armed groups were once again forcing them to consider fleeing to Docordó.
Displaced people and representatives of aid organizations said that conditions for families who flee to Buenaventura are also troubling. In early 2017, 10 displaced families from a Wounaan community by the San Juan river slept for over a month on the patio of a public building. The patio does not have walls, so families were exposed to the elements, an official from an aid organization said. A leader of another community that was recently displaced to Buenaventura told the media in April 2017 that several community members were sick and that they were drinking rain water.
In 2013 and again in 2014, Human Rights Watch recommended that, given the very high number of displaced families, the City of Buenaventura should build a shelter. It has yet to do so, although more than 15,000 people were displaced to or within Buenaventura in 2015 and 2016, according to Colombia’s Victims’ Unit.
Many interviewees said that poverty, a lack of economic opportunities, and limited access to basic services in Litoral de San Juan have created an environment in which armed groups thrive by easily recruiting members, including children.
According to the latest government figures, from 2011, almost 80 percent of the population in Chocó has unsatisfied basic needs – like housing, public services, and access to education – and over 30 percent live in extreme poverty. Figures from 2011 also show that almost 40 percent of Litoral de San Juan residents live in extreme poverty – almost four times the national average.
Residents said that health services were especially limited in Litoral de San Juan. For example, many residents cited difficulties in getting malaria medicine. Colombia’s Health Ministry reports that 208 people suffered malaria in Litoral de San Juan in 2016. A nurse, working without pay, told Human Rights Watch that she had diagnosed dozens of cases in her community in 2016, and that it was hard to get medicines to treat the patients.
Fear of Reporting
Many residents said they fear retaliation for reporting abuses – in part because they believe that authorities or others may leak information to armed groups. During Human Rights Watch interviews, many people changed the subject or interrupted the conversation when others approached them. Later, they would explain that it was hard to know who might be an informant for the armed groups. “Nobody knows who is who and what might get you killed,” one Afro-Colombian villager said.
Human Rights Watch witnessed a conversation between a Navy captain and several villagers in which the captain identified communities that were helping him identify members of the ELN and the AGC. Residents and a justice official later said that the captain’s statements placed the communities identified at risk. Human Rights Watch received credible allegations of similar statements from public security officials.