U.S. Human Rights Group Threatened By Colombian Death Squads

On May 13, 2010, staff from the Washington Office on Latin America ("WOLA"), a D.C.-based human rights organization, met with long-time Colombian Ambassador Carolina Barco at the Colombian Embassy in Washington. At this meeting, WOLA staff, including Gimena Sanchez, expressed their concern for the safety of a number of its human rights partners in Colombia who, in the words of WOLA, have been victimized by "threats, sabotage of activities and baseless prosecutions." WOLA is taking the threats against its partners very seriously as a number of leaders from social groups, particularly from Afro-Colombian and Indigenous groups, have been killed in recent months.

On May 14, the very next day, WOLA received a death threat directed to itself as well as 80 other Colombian human rights, Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, internally displaced and labor rights organizations and individuals. See, WOLA Press Statement. This threat, from the Colombian paramilitary group known as "The Black Eagles," stated: "as so called human rights defenders don't think you can hide behind the offices of the Attorney General or other institutions . . . we are watching you and you can consider yourselves dead." As WOLA noted in an open letter dated May 17, The Black Eagles go "on to falsely accuse the listed organizations of having links to the FARC guerillas and as such declaring themselves military targets."

WOLA further notes in this letter that "[o]rganizations listed in the death threat are long time partners of WOLA who work on internal displacement, Afro-Colombian and indigenous issues." In addition, a number of labor unions are also listed, including the SINALTRAINAL union which I have personally worked with over the years in their lawsuit and campaign against The Coca-Cola Company. This threat was sent by e-mail to, among others, Gimena Sanchez herself who had been to the Colombian Embassy the day before.

These threats against a U.S.-based human rights group, as well as scores of Colombian organizations, comes as new revelations about the Colombian government's own misdeeds have come to light. Thus, the Washington Post reported over the weekend that more evidence has come out linking the brother of Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe with right-wing paramilitary groups. This same news story alludes to the scandal over the Colombian intelligence services' spying on Colombian politicians and organizations critical of the government. This scandal involves the Colombian DAS (an analogue to the U.S. FBI) whose own documents reveal an aggressive, and sometimes violent camaign against dissenters both domestic and foreign.

Thus, as has recently been revealed by Colombian journalist Hollman Morris, Semana magazine, and is now being investigated by the Colombian Attorney General (note the reference to him in the paramilitary threat), the Colombian Department of Administrative Security (DAS) has been engaged in a detailed plan to undermine both domestic as well as international critics. Documents from the DAS, an agency receiving direct funding from the U.S., show that the DAS has declared "political warfare" on various individuals and groups, including prominent Colombian Congressional Representatives and Senators, Colombia's own Constitutional Court, Colombian journalists and even "foreign citizens who attack state security."

The tactics the DAS outlines for carrying out this "political warfare" include everything from public "smear campaigns" linking these individuals and groups with guerillas and "narco-terrorists"; "sabotage" including actual "terrorism" involving explosives; and various forms of "pressure," including stealing the passports and identification cards of targeted individuals and intervening to suspend their U.S. visas. The stated goal of this DAS program is to undermine the credibility of dissenters with the public as well as their influence in such international bodies as the UN High Commission for Human Rights, the Inter-American Human Rights Court and the European Parliament.

When I asked Gimena Sanchez from WOLA about the intimidation, she readily told me that, in her opinion, the threatening of groups critical of the Colombian state has been intensifying in recent months. She believes that this rise in intimidation is directly related to the renewed debates in the U.S., Canada and Europe for Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Colombia - agreements which the Colombian government desperately wants but which are almost universally opposed by human rights and labor organizations as well as Afro-Colombian and Indigenous groups who will lose even more land through these agreements. In terms of the loss of land, I note that Colombia already has the second largest internally displaced population in the world (second only to the Sudan) with over 4 million internally displaced peoples -- a situation which will only be exacerbated by the proposed FTAs which will wipe out the livelihood of small farmers just as NAFTA did to 1.3 million Mexican farmers, with the result being the societal disaster which we are witnessing today in Mexico. One impediment to the FTA between the U.S. and Colombia is posed by U.S. House Resolution 1224 - a Resolution supported by WOLA and many of the groups receiving The Black Eagles death threat. This Resolution, if passed, would give U.S. Congressional support to the decision of the Colombian Constitutional Court (a target of the DAS's "political warfare" campaign) to provide protections to Afro-Colombians and Indigenous - groups disproportionately affected by displacement - from further displacement from their land.

All of this underscores the need to continue the struggle against the Colombian Free Trade Agreement and to stand up for those organizations and individuals in the line of fire, like WOLA, who continue this struggle in the face of fear for their very lives.