In parts of Colombia, armed groups exercise a frightening amount of control over the population. Now, some groups are threatening to brutally enforce measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Armed groups have issued threatening pamphlets, which local humanitarian workers, community leaders, policemen, and prosecutors verified as authentic to Human Rights Watch.
The National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas announced on March 28 a one-month ceasefire as a “humanitarian gesture to the Colombian people, who are suffering from the pandemic.” Yet their fighters in Bolívar, northern Colombia, released a pamphlet announcing that they feel “forced to kill people in order to preserve lives” because the population has not “respected the orders to prevent COVID-19.” The pamphlet states that “only people working in food stores, bakeries and pharmacies can work,” saying others should stay “inside their houses.”
As Human Rights Watch research has shown, ELN guerrillas often engage in abuses to impose their own rules on the population. Civilians who disobey can be punished with forced labor or even murdered.
People in Tumaco, a city-port in southwestern Colombia, suffer similarly under armed groups that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Tumaco’s mostly afro-Colombian and often poor civilians endure horrific abuses, including rape and disappearances.
There, the “Oliver Sinister Front,” a group that emerged from the FARC, released a pamphlet on March 22 announcing a “curfew due to the emergency in the country because of COVID-19.” The group announces “sanctions” for establishments that are still open, as well as pharmacies and supermarkets that “have large numbers of people.” The group’s “sanctions” are often brutal. Another pamphlet, released on April 1, makes “recommendations” and warns that “those who do not comply will be military targets.” The group orders the “closing of establishments such as bars, canteens, billiards and night clubs” and imposes a “curfew from 8 pm to 6 am.”
Like in Tumaco and southern Bolivar, communities across Colombia suffer pervasive abuses by armed groups, especially in areas where state presence is weak and dysfunctional. The government should protect these at-risk populations. The COVID-19 pandemic has made survival a challenge for poor families and threatens everyone’s health. It should not be an excuse for further abuse by armed groups.