(Bogotá) – Groups that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas are terrorizing the mostly Afro-Colombian municipality of Tumaco, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 57-page report, “Recycled Violence: Abuses by FARC Dissident Groups in Tumaco on Colombia’s Pacific Coast,” shows how flaws in the demobilization of FARC guerrillas – and in their reincorporation into society – helped prompt the formation of these new dissident groups. These groups, including United Guerrillas of the Pacific and the Oliver Sinisterra Front, now batter urban neighborhoods and rural hamlets of Tumaco. These groups have engaged in scores of killings in Tumaco, contributing to a dramatic spike in homicide rates.
“Tumaco residents hoped that the accord would finally bring peace to their communities and neighborhoods, but their hopes were soon frustrated,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “FARC dissidents are killing and disappearing those who dare defy them, raping women and girls, recruiting children, and forcing thousands of people to flee.”
Tumaco residents have, for many years, endured horrific abuses at the hands of armed groups, including right-wing paramilitaries and groups that succeeded them, as well as the FARC. Before the peace accord, in 2014, Human Rights Watch documented abuses in Tumaco by the FARC and the Rastrojos – a group that grew out of paramilitary death squads. Now, the violence is dominated by FARC dissident groups that formed, in part, as a result of blunders in the demobilization process and a failure to reincorporate former guerrillas into society.
In 2017, the homicide rate in Tumaco was four times the national average, and data through September show killings are up nearly 50 percent during 2018. For residents of Tumaco, simply crossing an “invisible border” into neighborhoods where the group in control doesn’t know them – or entering from an area dominated by a rival group – can be a death sentence.
Murder victims include rights defenders. With at least seven rights defenders reported killed since January 2017, Tumaco is the municipality with the highest number of such killings in Colombia, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Armed groups in Tumaco, including FARC dissident groups, are also committing rape. Nowhere else in Colombia does sexual violence by armed groups appear to be so widespread in absolute terms as in Tumaco. Human Rights Watch documented the case of a 14-year-old girl who was raped in rural Tumaco in October 2017. Four armed men arrived at her home one night around 11 p.m. and told her parents that “the commander” had asked for her. They took her away, returning her the next morning with various wounds. She told her parents that several men had raped her.
FARC dissident groups have also been responsible for disappearances and kidnappings in Tumaco. Residents believe that the bodies of the disappeared are thrown into the sea, estuaries, or rivers.
In March, the Oliver Sinisterra Front kidnapped three employees of the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio who were reporting on the group’s operations in Mataje, Ecuador. The group held the men hostage, demanding that the Ecuadorian government release three imprisoned members. The bodies of the newspaper employees were found in rural Tumaco in mid-June.
“The brutal kidnapping and murder of three Ecuadorian press workers on the border with Colombia wasn’t just an isolated incident,” Vivanco said. “It was part of a trend of widespread abuses by FARC dissident groups in the area.”
In early 2018, the Colombian government began a powerful military and police operation to curb abuses by armed groups, deploying thousands of security officers to Tumaco, and nine neighboring municipalities in Nariño Province. Yet since then, serious abuses in Tumaco have continued at comparable or higher rates. And a new group, led by a former FARC guerrilla known as Mario Lata, has emerged in the area.
Impunity remains the norm for abuses in Tumaco. In the more than 300 murders officially counted there since 2017, only one person has been convicted. No one has been charged, let alone convicted, for any of the disappearances, child recruitment, or forced displacement.
When President Iván Duque took office in August 2018, he prioritized actions to capture or kill high-level commanders of FARC dissident groups, especially a man known as Guacho, head of the Oliver Sinisterra Group.
The Colombian government should increase the number of investigators, prosecutors, and judges in Tumaco who handle forced displacement, disappearances, sexual violence, child recruitment, and other serious abuses. It should also increase efforts to reduce coca cultivation in Tumaco, including replacing it with food crops. The government should take steps to ensure that Tumaco residents have adequate services, displaced people have shelter, and rape victims have the services they need.
“The government’s focus on capturing Guacho is certainly understandable,” Vivanco said. “But Tumaco residents who have endured years and years of abuses from many sides of the conflict need much more to ensure that violence isn’t recycled again.”