Violent crackdown on peaceful protests by Indigenous peoples in Colombia cause for concern

By Kathy Price, Colombia campaigner with Amnesty International Canada

Witnesses report that security forces fired tear gas canisters filled with shrapnel directly at demonstrators.

The voice at the other end of the line was grim, the tension palpable as I received news from the front lines of a nationwide, peaceful mobilization of Indigenous peoples in Colombia, organized to draw attention to ongoing assaults on Indigenous lands and lives.

“State security forces are firing on people,” said Juan Pablo Gutíerrez, whose photographs of threatened Indigenous peoples have toured communities across Canada as part of Amnesty Canada’s Make It Visible campaign. “The number of injured keeps growing. We are in shock. This is a state of emergency.”

Only days earlier, Juan Pablo had reported miraculously escaping an attack by men on two motorcycles, who shot at the vehicle in which he was travelling, after leaving a meeting. The photographer works with the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, whose members decided to take to the streets across the country to publicly protest repeated failures by the Colombian government to uphold promises to protect Indigenous rights.

Like Juan Pablo, the Indigenous men, women, and young people taking part in this social protest remain in danger. A paramilitary group sent a written threat demanding that Indigenous demonstrators marching in Cauca, Caldas, Risaralda, La Guajira, Huila and Antioquia Departments return to their communities within 24 hours or face “social cleansing” killings. The paramilitaries warned they would declare Indigenous leaders and organizations as military targets if protests continue.

Such threats have to be taken incredibly seriously, given the bloody record of paramilitaries in Colombia.

The violent response of Colombian security forces is also cause for enormous concern.

In Valle del Cauca, witnesses report that security forces fired tear gas canisters filled with shrapnel directly at demonstrators. Over 60 people were injured. Yet security forces reportedly prevented the wounded from being taken to medical centres for several hours. Evidence of shootings and excessive use of force used against Indigenous demonstrators in other parts of the country are no less horrifying.

The time is now to speak up for the safety of Indigenous men, women and youth, and their right to freedom of expression via peaceful social protest. The time is now to investigate who gave the order to fire and bring to justice anyone responsible for human rights violations. The time is now to address the legitimate concerns of Indigenous peoples about licences granted for resource extraction by third parties, including Canadian companies, in Indigenous territory, without respect for the right of Indigenous peoples to be consulted and make decisions about what happens on their land. The time is now to prevent further bloodshed and to join our voices in calling for guarantees to protect the very survival of Indigenous peoples in Colombia.

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