The Murder of Demetrio López: Chronicle of Another Death Foretold

This article was originally published in La Silla Vacía

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“I fear for my life because the threats were very serious, and according to [a credible source] it appears that they were not playing around with the threats.” That is how Demetrio López Cardenas reported the death threats against him to the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la Nación) in August 2012.

López was the president of the Executive Board of the Afro-Colombian Community Council of La Caucana in Valle del Cauca. The prosecutor assigned to the case immediately asked the Commander of the Police in Buenaventura to carry out a risk assessment and provide his family with protective measures. Neither the risk assessment, nor the protective measures were implemented. Six months later, on February 23, Demetrio López was shot dead in Buenaventura.

Demetrio López and other leaders with Vice-Minister of Interior Aníbal Fernández de Soto

After the murder, Director of the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP) Andres Villamizar tweeted that López had not asked for protection or denounced the threats against him. This is not true, as evidenced by his denouncement and the subsequent letter from the prosecutor. In August 2012, López reported the threats against him, and the Attorney General’s Office asked the police to protect him and his family.

Demetrio López , born and raised in Buenaventura, was thirty years old and had three children with his wife. His family describes him as a noble man that was committed to promoting and defending the rights of his community. Beginning at an early age, he was instilled with a sense of responsibility and honesty, and he was loved by the community of La Caucana. His family was one of the founders of the Community Council. In addition to his role as a leader in the community, Demetrio was part of the team that monitored the Port Project of Aguas Dulces. His murder deeply affected all of the families that are part of the Community Council in addition to the black movement in Buenaventura.

López was running for the position of Legal Representative of the Community Council of La Caucana last August. This Community Council consists of 55 families and has a collective land title of 747 hectares. Despite its modest size, the Community Council of La Caucana is located in a strategic area: the two-lane highway between Buga and Buenaventura passes through more than five Community Councils, and La Caucana is one of them. This important infrastructure project for the government and the country is subject to a process of free, prior, and informed consultation with all of the Community Councils that it will affect. Meanwhile, the construction continues, and as one leader manifested before the Vice-Minister of Interior on March 11, “Why prior consultation when the highway is already built?”

In early February, the government declared that “prior  consultations are a process for recognizing the identity of ethnic minorities, but they cannot be turned into blackmail.” However, it appears that those that are most blackmailed are the communities and leaders that defend their right to autonomy and self-determination, and those that don’t accept the blackmail are met with threats and death.

The case of Demetrio López is one of many. Miller Angulo, a leader of AFRODES in Tumaco, received threats from the Aguilas Negras one month before he was murdered in December of 2012. Members of the Executive Board of the Community Council of La Esperanza, which is also located along the highway between Buga and Buenaventura, are currently displaced because of threats against them. The Community Council of Plata Bahía Málaga is receiving threats again after the government recognized their right to more than 30,000 additional hectares for their collective land title last December. They are also receiving threats because the Legal Representative, Hoover Carabalí, submitted a petition for protection of the community’s rights, which was recognized by the Constitutional Court in Sentence 823 of 2012. Meanwhile, the government avoids its responsibility to protect its own citizens as it moves forward with the projects that violate their rights.

Demetrio López was threatened twice on the Election Day in La Caucana. In his report to the Attorney General’s Office, López said that the threat declared “if he did not renounce as president or his candidacy they would fill him and his family with lead.” However, he continued with his campaign and insisted that the vote should be private in order to “guarantee that the people could vote according to their consciousness and without pressure.” However, the pressures to manipulate the elections were very strong, and, despite the fact that it appeared that López won, he was not recognized as the winner. According to his official denouncement, after he received the second threat, people from the community recommended that he “go to the Attorney General’s Office to report the threat in writing so that they would investigate where the threat came from and who could be behind it.”

López officially challenged the elections on September 3, 2012. The Vice-Minister for Participation and Equality, Aníbal Fernández, signed a resolution on February 7, 2013, that not only recognized that López was threatened but also nullified the August election. All of the officials that saw the resolution should have solicited his protection as part of their duty, just like the prosecutor on August 26, 2012. Two weeks later López was murdered in Buenaventura.

Two suspects in the murder of Demetrio were captured in the last few weeks. The government must ensure their protection and guarantee an investigation into the intellectual authors of the case. It must also guarantee the effective protection of all of the threatened leaders and communities, such as La Caucana, La Esperanza, and Bahía Málaga, so that this does not happen again.

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