The U’wa Indigenous Guard, active in the cloud forest of Colombia near the border with Venezuela, were formed to nonviolently defend U’wa territory from a multitude of external threats from extractive companies and unwanted “eco-tourists”. In the era of COVID-19 – known to U’wa spiritual elders as “The Demon” – the Guard’s mission has expanded to include the protection of their territory from the spread of the deadly pandemic.
Over recent weeks, the Guard has controlled vehicular entry into the U’wa Reserve. According to Jesús Cobaria Bocota, coordinator of the U’wa Guard, they have only allowed a limited number of vehicles carrying food supplies in or medical patients out. Otherwise, governmental authorities – including the army – have been prohibited. Community leaders have once again told Colombia’s illegal armed groups – still active years after the country signed a peace agreement with the largest guerrilla group, the FARC, in 2014 – to stay away.
One threat has been the infiltration of non-U’wa fishermen up the rivers into the U’wa Reserve. Their travel up and down the river, significantly increases the risk of COVID-19 contamination. The Guard issued a public warning for fishermen to cease and desist from their activities and has been on regular riverine patrol, ready to confiscate fishing equipment and to turn interlopers over to the civilian authorities.
U’wa cultural practices have been key in helping their community cope with the threat of COVID-19. U’wa spiritual leaders – known as werjaya – have led rituals to confront “The Demon.” Communities have entered into extended periods of fasting (ayuno) which they traditionally do on an annual basis for collective spiritual cleansing.
To date, the U’wa’s efforts appear to have been successful in protecting the communities from a scourge that is threatening dozens of other indigenous communities with devastation. The other threats to their survival haven’t disappeared, however. Colombia’s armed conflict persists and indigenous peoples continue to be caught in the crossfire.
Colombia’s Army Assassinates U’wa Leader Joel Villamizar
On the evening of Sunday, May 31st, I started receiving messages from U’wa colleagues about the killing of the education coordinator of the U’wa Association. As relayed in further detail several days later, Joel was visiting his wife when he was shot by the Colombian army during an operation against Alias “Marcial”, a leader of the ELN guerrilla group. The military insinuated that Joel was part of the ELN, which the U’wa have rejected as a case of a “false positive”, the long-standing practice of the Colombian army killing innocent civilians and passing them off as dead guerilla soldiers.
Horrifically, this is just one case of a community representative, social leader, or land defender being killed in Colombia in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. As reported in NewsClick, “according to the Institute of Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ), 115 environmentalists, human rights defenders, indigenous, peasant and social leaders…have been killed so far this year.” The article features Joel as a recent case.
Following an outcry by not only the U’wa Association but also the Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), Joel’s killing has garnered national media coverage in Colombia, including a nightly news report on Noticias Uno. In coordination with EarthRights International, Amazon Watch joined a group of sixteen Colombian and international human rights organizations to publicly denounce the killing and call for a thorough investigation.
The fight for justice for Joel is just beginning. We will continue to collaborate with other allies to support the U’wa as they demand an exhaustive investigation into exactly what happened and precisely who within the Colombian army was responsible.
Communique for Colombian and International Public Opinion
JOEL AGUABLANCA VILLAMIZAR, one of our leaders of the U’wa Nation, was victim of a crime committed by the Colombian government through the government’s National Army, who due to a deficient intelligence process and inadequate following of the proper protocols during the development of their military operation against alias “Marcial”, third in command of the ELN’s Efraín Pabón guerrilla front, ended the life of our indigenous leader.
Joel was a spokesperson of our Main Council with functions as the Education Coordinator for the U’wa Nation, representative of the U’wa People before CONTCEPI, and who led the process of U’wa self education before the National Ministry of Education and the Education Secretariates of the departments of Santander, Norte de Santander, and Boyacá.
On May 29th of this year, Joel was in the ASOU’WA office in Cubará, Boyacá before leaving to visit his wife, in the area of Río Colorado, township of Chucarima, municipality of Chitagá, department of Norte de Santander. On the night of May 30th, the insurgent “Marcial” arrived along with other guerrillas to stay in the farm’s corral – found some 100 meters from the house – a situation that indigenous peoples and campesino peasants have had to suffer for decades, given that the region is entirely abandoned by the Colombian State.
On May 31st at 9:20 am, Joel was having his breakfast in the kitchen when a firefight broke out. The army soldiers yelled, “we have them surrounded” and continued firing. When all was done, the army medics moved Joel to the corral to perform first aid for 45 minutes. Joel died an hour and a half after being wounded. The insurgent leader “Marcial” had been running toward the house and was killed some 12 meters from where Joel was. Thereafter, the army captain ordered Joel’s brother-in-law to be brought and placed him face-down next to the insurgent “Marcial” and began to film a video, saying that no one else could record. The helicopter arrived four hours after everything happened, and the captain informed the judicial police that Joel was under the command of the insurgent “Marcial”, which is not true. In the end, in this operation the army made four captures, took down the guerrilla head “Marcial” and assassinated our U’wa indigenous leader.
Our indigenous leader had no connection to the ELN guerrilla group and was victime of the soldiers of the 13th Brigade, who belong to the National Army’s Second Brigade. They tried at the outset to create a “false positive”, saying that Joel was a member of the security detail of Alias “Marcial”.
Faced with these facts, the U’wa People as represented by the U’wa Association, is conscious of the irreparable loss represented by the assassination of our leader and we ask the National Attorney General’s office to investigate what happened and clarify who the material and intelectual authors were. We ask the Control Organisms of the government that they provide the correct accompaniment to an investigation and the penal process. Additionally, we ask that national and international human rights organizations provide accompaniment in the investigative and judicial process both nationally and internationally.