Amnesty's statement last week to the United Nations Human Rights Council couldn't be clearer. While the government of President Santos has made a number of important commitments to improving respect for human rights, "there have been few tangible improvements in the overall human rights situation".
What that means for civilians struggling to defend their land and livelihoods against powerful economic interests was underscored yesterday with the discovery of the body of Samir de Jesús Ruíz. The 15-year old boy and his father Manuel, members of an Afro descendant community in the Curvaradó River Basin of Chocó, were last seen on March 23 being forced out of their vehicle by paramilitaries near Mutatá.
Manuel's body was found on March 27. He had been scheduled to guide government inspectors under court order to conduct a census to determine the rightful owners of an area known as Los Piscingos. Manuel's family and others were displaced from Los Piscingos by paramilitary forces in a joint military-paramilitary operation in 1996.
The killings of Manuel and Samir de Jesús Ruíz are just the latest in a pattern of deadly attacks on civilians seeking the restitution of land stolen by paramilitaries under the cover of Colombia's armed conflict.
Manuel Ruíz, a member of the community council of Apartadocito, and his son, were abducted and subsequently killed by paramilitaries in northern Colombia on 23 March. Other members of the family and community may be in danger.
On 23 March paramilitaries abducted Manuel Ruíz and his 15-year-old son Samir de Jesús Ruíz, members of the Afro descendant and Afro mestizo community of Apartadocito in the Curvaradó River Basin, Chocó Department. They were travelling between the town of Mutatá, Antioquia Department, and the area of Apartadocito. According to witnesses, paramilitaries stopped them in an area known as “El Basurero” near Mutatá. Manuel Ruíz managed to telephone his family to tell them they had been forced out of the vehicle they were in and that their abductors were demanding a large sum of money for their release. Before their abduction, they had been approached by paramilitaries in Mutatá and accused of being guerrillas, and were subsequently stopped briefly by police.
On 24 March a paramilitary informed Manuel Ruíz and Samir de Jesús Ruíz’s family that they had been killed that morning. On 27 March, members of the communities of the Curvaradó River Basin, accompanied by national and international observers, found the body of Manuel Ruíz in the Río Sucio area. On 28 March the body of his son Samir de Jesús Ruíz was found near the river in the Cañaduzales area.
The killing of Manuel Ruíz and Samir de Jesús Ruíz occurred just before a government inspection was to be carried out of an area known as Los Piscingos. Manuel Ruíz was to guide the government inspectors. The inspection was a response to a court order of 7 March 2012 instructing that a census of the area be carried out to help determine the rightful owners of land. The family of Manuel Ruíz and others were displaced from Los Piscingos by paramilitary forces in a joint military-paramilitary operation in the area in 1996. Following the abduction and killing of Manuel Ruíz and his son the family have left Apartadocito fearing for their safety.
The Apartadocito community council is part of the body which governs the collective land holding of Curvaradó.
Since the 1990s, paramilitaries, either acting alone or in collusion with the armed forces, have been responsible for killings, death threats and the forced displacement of Afro-descendant and Indigenous People living in the Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó River Basins and the Indigenous resguardo (reservation) of Urada-Jiguamiandó. As a means to guarantee their safety, members of the Afro-descendant communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó created Humanitarian Zones to assert their rights as civilians not to be drawn into the conflict. The communities have sought to defend their land rights and prevent the expansion of illegal African palm plantations and other economic activities within their territory. Many of their members have been threatened and killed as a result. In the last couple of years a number of people living in the Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó region who have complained about the occupation of their lands by African Palm growers and other economic interests have been killed by paramilitaries, who continue to maintain a strong presence in the region despite the large army presence. Those living in the resguardo of Urada-Jiguamiandó have also been subject to repeated death threats and several have been killed since the late 1990s.
In 2011 a large-scale paramilitary presence an hour away from the Humanitarian Zones of Caracolí, Tesoro-Camelias and Caño Claro-Andalucía, and the area of El Firme and No Hay Como Dios, in the Curvaradó River Basin, was reported in the wake of a visit by government ministers to the area. It was hoped that this would result in commitments to return lands stolen, often violently, by paramilitaries operating on behalf of African Palm, banana and cattle-ranching interests operating in the region. The return of these lands was ordered by the Constitutional Court in a ruling in May 2010. Reports indicate that paramilitaries are plotting to kill Afro-descendants campaigning for the restitution of stolen lands. In recent years, attempts have been made on the lives of leaders and people living in the Humanitarian Zones. In 2008, Walberto Hoyos Rivas, a leader of the Curvaradó River Basin Community, was killed by paramilitaries.
Afro-descendant communities, along with Indigenous People and peasant farmer communities are among those most affected by Colombia’s long running internal armed conflict. They have been subjected to enforced disappearance by the security forces or by paramilitaries, either acting alone or in collusion with the armed forces and abducted by guerrilla groups.