Armed and criminal groups in Colombia's Cauca department appear to be taking advantage of restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to expand their presence and control over the territory, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warned on Friday.
At least 13 human rights defenders have been killed so far this year, including three in recent days, a situation that is "deeply worrying" for Michelle Bachelet's office.
"Although these latest cases are still being verified by our office, we have received reports that on April 22, Hugo de Jesus Giraldo, a social leader, was murdered in the city of Santander de Quilichao. Last weekend, two other social leaders, Mario Chilhueso and Teodomiro Sotelo Anacona, were also murdered, as well as Andrés Andrelio Cacimanca Burbano, the husband of another social leader," reported the Office's spokesman, Rupert Colville.
A growing number of armed groups, as well as criminal groups fighting for control of illegal markets in the area, are behind most of the attacks, which have increased in recent months.
"The COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions imposed by the government and by communities themselves to prevent the spread of the virus seem to have aggravated an already violent and volatile situation," the spokesman explained.
According to the Office, in addition to what appear to be targeted killings of human rights defenders and social leaders, there have been daily reports of threats, including death threats, and harassment against the local population, including farmers, indigenous peoples and communities of African descent, who are trying to ensure that confinement and prevention measures are enforced.
In some parts of the Cauca district, clashes between the security forces and armed and criminal groups have intensified, including in the indigenous territories. Civilians have been caught up in the violence, resulting in the death of an indigenous child in Toribio and the forced displacement of rural communities in Argelia and El Tambo.
The Office is also concerned about attacks on former FARC-EP fighters. According to the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, 36 have been killed in Cauca since the peace agreement was signed in November 2016.
"We call on all those involved in the violence to stop the fighting, in line with the UN Secretary-General's call for a global ceasefire, so that measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can be properly implemented," Colville said.
Michelle Bachelet's office reminded officials of their obligation to prevent attacks and protect the local population. Any attack on human rights defenders undermines democratic space, including the right to participate. A comprehensive response by civilian and security authorities is particularly relevant in rural areas.
"We call on the Government to conduct thorough, prompt, independent and impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations and to hold those responsible accountable. All victims and their families have the right to justice, truth and reparations," the spokesperson concluded.