Colombia: Justice Needed for 2017 Police Massacre

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Colombian police officers during an operation in December 2020 to eradicate illicit crops in Tumaco, Nariño state, Colombia. Over three years earlier, in October 2017, seven civilians protesting eradication operations were killed in the same state.
© 2020 Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images

(Washington, DC, October 5, 2021) – Colombian authorities should ensure independent and impartial investigations against police officers allegedly responsible for the killing of seven protesters during an October 2017 demonstration, Human Rights Watch and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights said today as they submitted an amicus brief to the country’s Constitutional Court. Four years after the so-called “El Tandil massacre,” no meaningful justice has been delivered.

The amicus brief calls on the high court to ensure that the investigation into these killings, in the town of El Tandil, Nariño state, is carried out in the civilian justice system—not in military courts, where it currently stands. The brief also outlines Colombia’s obligations to protect and respect the right to peaceful assembly, as well as to ensure victims’ rights to justice.

“Investigations into El Tandil’s massacre have been marred with lies and delays,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Colombian authorities should transfer the case to the civilian justice system and ensure independent and impartial investigations.”

The National Police initially alleged that the protesters had died after the Oliver Sinisterra Front, a group that emerged from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, fired “at least five cylinder bombs” and later “fired indiscriminately with rifles and submachine guns” at protesters and members of the security forces.

A day later, the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office visited the area and collected testimony from witnesses who said that the Oliver Sinisterra Front had not attacked the protest and that the protest instead was “attacked by members of the anti-narcotics police.” Witnesses told the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office that there had been “no intervention of armed groups,” the office said, and it did not find evidence of the effects of cylinder bombs.

In January 2019, the Attorney General’s Office, which pursues criminal investigations in the civilian justice system, charged the army and police commanders responsible for the operation with aggravated homicide. A prosecutor told Human Rights Watch in 2018 that he and his colleagues struggled to identify the perpetrators because the police delayed investigators’ access to information about the police operation.

In August 2019, however, a Nariño judge ordered the case transferred to the military justice system, where it has made little if any, progress. So far, no officer has been brought to trial in connection with the massacre. 

Demonstrators in El Tandil were protesting against coca eradication and delays in the implementation of plans established under the peace accord with the FARC to provide economic and technical assistance to farmers to replace coca crops with food.

Government’s efforts to carry out these plans continue to move slowly. In August 2021, the Inspector General’s Office, an independent government body, said that the plans faced “important delays” and “budgetary limitations.”

In December 2020, the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) said that 98 percent of the more than 80,000 families who had joined coca substitution plans had voluntarily eradicated their coca crops. But the government had put in place “productive projects” for only 7 percent of the families, though many others received short-term subsidies to replace their coca crops.

Many peasants in Colombia grow coca because it is their only profitable crop, given weak local food markets, inadequate roads, and lack of formal land titles. In many remote communities, which have few civilian state institutions to protect them, local farmers grow coca under pressure from armed groups. In December 2020, the Colombian government told Human Rights Watch that 47 people involved in coca substitution plans had been killed since 2019. Several more have been killed in 2021.

The authorities have ramped up efforts to forcefully eradicate coca crops and pursued plans to reinstate the fumigation of coca crops with glyphosate, a policy that was suspended in 2015 because of its risks to health and the environment. Glyphosate is considered a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Colombian authorities have also repeatedly violated demonstrators’ rights in recent years. Between April and June 2021, members of the national police committed egregious abuses against mostly peaceful demonstrators in protests across the country. Human Rights Watch documented evidence linking the police to 25 killings, as well as dozens of beatings, hundreds of arbitrary detentions, and some cases of sexual violence.

“Colombia needs to take urgent steps to protect the rights of protesters, as well as those of vulnerable farmers who in many cases grow coca under pressure from armed groups,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Ensuring meaningful accountability for the El Tandil massacre would be an essential step—and that won’t happen as long as the case is handled by the military justice system.”

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