Threats to NGOs Prompt Calls to Colombian Gov't for Protection

A confederation of Catholic relief, development and social service groups is calling on the government of Colombia to guarantee safety to people carrying out humanitarian work in the violence-plagued country following threats from one of Colombia's most notorious drug-trafficking gangs.

Last month, over 60 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), senators and human rights activists reportedly received threatening e-mail and letters from "Los Rastrojos - Urban Commandos" that accused them of engaging in "subversive, archaic discussion which favors the rights and ideologies of the 'narcoterrorists.'"

"[W]e reserve our right to fight for a country free of scum like you," Los Rastrojos stated, accusing the recipients of their threats of "only … deceiv[ing] the people, teaching them communist doctrines."

The armed group vowed to "go beyond threats and return to actions of the [19]90s without any mercy or fear" if their targets failed to comply.

Following the dissemination of the warning, Caritas Colombia – part of the Catholic confederation Caritas Internationalis – urged the national government to provide protection to aid workers who help poor communities and made a plea to armed groups to let them work without risk.

Caritas also said it wants the government to present the findings of investigations into previous threats on humanitarian organizations.

Paramilitary groups in Colombia have a reputation for massacres, killings, rape, forced displacement and the repression of human rights. Though the government has made efforts to demobilize them, Caritas said they appear to be on the rise again.

"While there have been improvements in the situation in Colombia, there have also been worrying signs recently regarding the rearming of paramilitary groups," reported Hector Fabio Henao, director of Caritas Colombia.

"This along with renewed activities by the FARC (left-wing guerrilla group) over the past few months and extra-judicial killings causes us great concern," he added.

Two years ago, a Caritas aid worker was killed in the area near Tumaco, where the head of Caritas Tumaco was assassinated in 2001. Most recently, a missionary was reportedly killed in the northern town of Tierralta.

Right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas and the Colombian government have been fighting out a decades-long civil war in which many people have been injured through landmines and lost their lives, and millions of people have fled from their homes.

According to reports, more than 210,000 people have been killed in Colombia since 1985 and more than 4.5 million uprooted in the Western Hemisphere's worst humanitarian crisis.

Growing violence in Colombia has forced organizations such as Lutheran World Relief to increase their focus on protection and emergency measures, while limiting their ability to support development and rehabilitation programming, such as improving rural families' livelihoods and facilitating a return home for internally displaced people (IDPs).

In addition to calling on the U.S. government to work with Colombian officials to investigate all acts of violence in the regions such as the province of Córdoba and develop decisive plans to protect communities, groups such as LWR are pressing authorities to dismantle re-organized paramilitary groups operating in the region.