An Expired Bulletproof Vest and Empty Promises

The Colombian government created the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP) in 2011 to provide protective measures for “people, collectives, groups, and communities that may be at extraordinary or extreme risk because of their work.”

After several interviews with individuals deemed by the UNP to be “under extraordinary risk,” it is evident that the UNP’s strategy is failing in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó.

 “They’ll kill me more quickly if I wear that bulletproof vest because they’ll just aim for my head.”
-Anonymous Leader Interviewed on November 15, 2012

In March 2012, the UNP provided one leader with the most common protection scheme for individuals deemed to be under extraordinary risk in the region: a cell phone, a transportation stipend, and a bulletproof vest. He, like the six other leaders provided with bulletproof vests that I interviewed, never received training from the UNP on how to properly use and maintain the bulletproof vest.[1] The only difference between his vest and the others is that it expired in November 2010 (see photos). It is worrisome that the UNP is redistributing bulletproof vests that were originally purchased by the DAS in 2008.[2] This same individual also affirmed that the UNP had not transferred his transportation stipend since August.

On another occasion in October 2012, five members of one community refused to accept bulletproof vests offered by the UNP because they feel that the vests are neither an adequate nor appropriate form of protection. Nevertheless, the insistent UNP official found another member of the community that was not present at the meeting and charged him with turning over the bulletproof vests. Interviews with members of the community also revealed that the UNP was late on transferring transportation stipends and cell phone credit. Meanwhile, they continue to receive death threats but are scared to denounce them before local authorities because of possible ties to paramilitary groups.

These developments lead to a series of concerning questions.

Is the UNP recycling materials that were initially purchased years ago by the DAS, a corrupt government agency that threatened the very leaders that the UNP is supposed to protect? Does the UNP consider that a cell phone, a bulletproof vest, and a transportation stipend truly protects the lives and safety of threatened leaders? Why are there delays in transferring transportation stipends for leaders deemed to be under “extraordinary risk” by the UNP? If this is the situation in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, what kind of protection is the UNP providing for communities, organizations, and leaders with much less visibility?

Distrust in government institutions exacerbates the communities’ concerns

In November 2011, leaders from Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó met with former Minister of Interior Vargas Lleras and other representatives of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the Colombian military. The leaders spoke candidly about the threats against them. Upon returning to the region, one of the leaders was informed that the paramilitaries obtained a voice recording of his statements at the meeting and that they wanted to discuss this with him. He declined their invitation. One year later, he continues to receive threats and does not feel safe living in his own community or traveling outside of it.

Bulletproof vests, transportation stipends, and cell phone credit hardly count for an effective protection scheme when three of the leaders murdered in Curvaradó since 2008 were forced off of public transportation and assassinated. The communities have therefore developed proposals for collective protective measures that they believe will provide more protection. They include the construction of cell phone towers for reception in areas where phones provided by the UNP do not work and collective modes of transportation such as trucks, buses and boats because their experience has demonstrated that traveling together provides more security for the group as a whole. The UNP has agreed to discuss these collective protective measures, but has not moved beyond that. However, the communities’ fundamental demand has been echoed by Colombia’s Constitutional Court on several occasions:  the government must remove the companies and individuals that acquired land in their collective territories in bad faith.

Violence in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó is not a thing of the past. The brutal murder of Manuel Ruiz and his son Samir in March is a haunting reminder of the present. Paramilitaries and their benefactors continue to use violence and intimidation to undermine the efforts of the Afro-Colombian communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó. Their hope is that by eliminating space for the communities’ organizational processes they can create a “secure” environment for investment in large-scale development projects. If the government wants to demonstrate its commitment to protecting these communities, it should listen to the communities’ pleas and respect its own Constitutional Court rulings.

[1] It is worth noting that the body armor clearly states “This panel should not be washed with any liquid and must be kept away from humidity”—the climate in Curvaradó is tropical and very humid.

[2] The DAS was eliminated in October 2011 and replaced by the DNI after a scandal revealed that the intelligence agency had ties with paramilitary groups and was conducting illegal surveillance of opposition politicians, human rights organizations, and journalists.

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