COLOMBIA: El Guayabo and Bella Union leaders free after turning themselves in


1 November 2016
COLOMBIA: El Guayabo and Bella Union leaders free after turning themselves in


Erik Payares, Santos Peña and Jhon Fredy Ortega embrace their family in celebration outside the court in Barrancabermeja. (CPT/Caldwell Manners)

After six months of avoiding arrest under false charges,
three land struggle leaders from the communities of El Guayabo and Bella Unión
have returned home.

On 25 October, Erik Payares, Jhon Fredy Ortega and Santos
Peña turned themselves into the Barrancabermeja’s prosecutor’s office to defend
their innocence against charges of possession of weapons, personal injury and
conspiracy to commit crime.  The judge
dropped all but the last charge.  He also
ruled against the need to imprison them since they were not a risk to the
community and had demonstrated their intentions to fully cooperate with the
remaining investigation.

Earlier this year, on 24 April, authorities raided
the homes
of the three leaders, and the home of currently imprisoned Bella
Unión community leader, Alvaro Garcia. Charges against the four leaders relate
to alleged shots fired in December
during a confrontation with Rodrigo Lopez Henao’s armed security
guards. Henao claims the communities, working with the guerillas, forcibly
displaced his father in the early 1980s and demands that the courts recognize
him as a victim. Under this presumption, local authorities have failed to
respond to the
security needs of the villagers
despite Henao’s continual attacks against
the villagers’ property and persons. They have filed over twenty complaints
against him.

Garcia, arrested on 24 April, remains locked up at the local
Barrancabermeja prison although his charges are the same as the other three
land activists. His next defense hearing is scheduled for 4 November.

The imprisonment of human rights defenders and activists is
right out of the historical playbook used by the government to criminalize and
derail community and organizational processes. Since the enactment of the Land
Restitution and Victim’s Laws in 2011, corrupt authorities have targeted
activists with criminal charges intending to divorce them from their social
justice work in and in general delegitimize and depoliticize social activism.

The three human rights defenders returned home on Tuesday.  The entire village came out to welcome them
along the banks of the Magdalena River.


The community of Guayabo welcome the leaders home. Photo by Hannah Redekop – follow her on Instagram for insight into the daily life of a CPTer.


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