(Washington, DC) - The Colombian government should act swiftly to protect witnesses in criminal cases against members of groups that are successors to demobilized paramilitaries in the city of Medellín, Human Rights Watch said today. 

Human Rights Watch called on the government to investigate attacks on witnesses and to bolster law enforcement efforts to stem the rapidly rising violence in the city attributed to the successor groups.

On December 20, 2009, unidentified armed men repeatedly shot and killed Alexander Pulgarín, a community leader in the La Sierra neighborhood of Medellín.  Pulgarín was a key witness in the prosecution of John William López (known as "Memín"), a demobilized paramilitary member who was recently convicted of ongoing criminal activity.  Pulgarín had been receiving frequent threats as a result of his testimony and community work.   

 "Alexander Pulgarín took enormous risks in testifying against the demobilized paramilitaries who brutally controlled his neighborhood," said Maria McFarland, Washington deputy advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.  "His shooting in broad daylight shows that the government is not protecting witnesses adequately or providing desperately needed security in Medellin."

Local authorities told Human Rights Watch that several armed men accosted Pulgarín as he stepped out of a community soccer game that he had helped to organize in La Sierra.  The men shot him multiple times, killing him. 

Human Rights Watch had interviewed Pulgarín at length in 2007 about alleged abuses in La Sierra by "Memín" and Antonio López (known as "Job"), both of whom were demobilized members of the Cacique Nutibara block of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC).  The AUC was a coalition of mafia-like paramilitary groups, deeply involved in drug trafficking, which committed horrific and widespread abuses for decades in Colombia before it began a demobilization process in 2004. 

Job and Memín were also members of the "Democracy Corporation," an organization that for years worked closely with the municipal government to coordinate the activities of demobilized paramilitaries in Medellín.  Job gained national prominence after Semana, a leading newsmagazine in Colombia, reported in mid-2008 that he had met with advisers to President Álvaro Uribe in the Presidential Palace in Bogota in April 2008.   Job was killed in Medellin a few weeks later. 

Memín was subsequently arrested and tried for multiple crimes related to his efforts to maintain control over criminal activity in his neighborhood after the demobilization. News reports and local authorities reported that during the trial, at least four witnesses against Memín were killed.  He was reportedly convicted in March 2009 and sentenced to 22 years in prison.   

Pulgarín had been assigned an armed escort by the Colombian Ministry of Interior's Protection Program for threatened human rights defenders and community leaders.  The escort is reported to have been shot and wounded during the attack on Pulgarín; a policeman who ran to the scene was also reportedly killed.

Because of the serious threats against him, for the last five months Pulgarín had been living at the offices of a non-profit organization. At a November 20 meeting with the Interior Ministry  sponsored by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Pulgarín's lawyers had requested that he be temporarily resettled and receive additional protection.  The ministry reportedly agreed to provide the additional protection, but it had yet to deliver when Pulgarín was killed a month later.

Violence in Medellín has been rising dramatically in recent years.  In the first ten months of 2009, the homicide rate has more than doubled, from 830 killings in the same period in 2008, to 1,717 this year, according to the Instituto de Medicina Legal (Forensic Medicine Institute) of Medellín.

Most of the increase is attributable to the AUC's successor groups, which control criminal activity in the city.  The groups fight among themselves over territory, and also frequently commit targeted killings, forced displacement, extortion, and threats against other Medellín residents.

Human Rights Watch has documented the forced displacement of dozens of residents from the Pablo Escobar neighborhood, also allegedly by a successor group.  In a positive step, prosecutors in Medellín arrested 18 members of that   group.  However, three others with pending warrants remain at large. 

Some of the displaced residents have come forth as witnesses in the Pablo Escobar case. However, Human Rights Watch has received information indicating that three peopleone witness, the son of another witness, and a displaced residentand possibly other neighborhood residents have been killed in recent months.

In June, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia to request that these witnesses be included in the office's Witness Protection Program.  The office replied that the cases were under review.  Most of the witnesses have yet to be included in the program. 

Human Rights Watch urged the government to take prompt and effective measures to prevent killings of witnesses in existing and future cases.  These would include expanding and adequately funding the witness protection program, ensuring that requests for protection are processed rapidly, and establishing procedures to protect victims who may not meet the requirements of the program but are at risk.

"It is good that some prosecutors are trying to investigate these groups," McFarland said.  "But with witnesses being killed left and right, you have to wonder how hard the government is trying to break the power of the successor groups."