For Immediate Release
Colombia: Protect Witnesses in Paramilitary Cases
WASHINGTON - The Colombian government should act swiftly to protect witnesses in
criminal cases against members of groups that are successors to
demobilized paramilitaries in the city of Medellín, Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch called on the government to investigate attacks
on witnesses and to bolster law enforcement efforts to stem the rapidly
rising violence in the city attributed to the successor groups.
On December 20, 2009, unidentified armed men repeatedly shot and
killed Alexander Pulgarín, a community leader in the La Sierra
neighborhood of Medellín. Pulgarín was a key witness in the
prosecution of John William López (known as "Memín"), a demobilized
paramilitary member who was recently convicted of ongoing criminal
activity. Pulgarín had been receiving frequent threats as a result of
his testimony and community work.
"Alexander Pulgarín took enormous risks in testifying against the
demobilized paramilitaries who brutally controlled his neighborhood,"
said Maria McFarland, Washington deputy advocacy director at Human
Rights Watch. "His shooting in broad daylight shows that the
government is not protecting witnesses adequately or providing
desperately needed security in Medellin."
Local authorities told Human Rights Watch that several armed men
accosted Pulgarín as he stepped out of a community soccer game that he
had helped to organize in La Sierra. The men shot him multiple times,
Human Rights Watch had interviewed Pulgarín at length in 2007 about
alleged abuses in La Sierra by "Memín" and Antonio López (known as
"Job"), both of whom were demobilized members of the Cacique Nutibara
block of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United
Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC). The AUC was a coalition of
mafia-like paramilitary groups, deeply involved in drug trafficking,
which committed horrific and widespread abuses for decades in Colombia
before it began a demobilization process in 2004.
Job and Memín were also members of the "Democracy Corporation," an
organization that for years worked closely with the municipal
government to coordinate the activities of demobilized paramilitaries
in Medellín. Job gained national prominence after Semana, a
leading newsmagazine in Colombia, reported in mid-2008 that he had met
with advisers to President Álvaro Uribe in the Presidential Palace in
Bogota in April 2008. Job was killed in Medellin a few weeks later.
Memín was subsequently arrested and tried for multiple crimes
related to his efforts to maintain control over criminal activity in
his neighborhood after the demobilization. News reports and local
authorities reported that during the trial, at least four witnesses
against Memín were killed. He was reportedly convicted in March 2009
and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Pulgarín had been assigned an armed escort by the Colombian Ministry
of Interior's Protection Program for threatened human rights defenders
and community leaders. The escort is reported to have been shot and
wounded during the attack on Pulgarín; a policeman who ran to the scene
was also reportedly killed.
Because of the serious threats against him, for the last five months
Pulgarín had been living at the offices of a non-profit organization.
At a November 20 meeting with the Interior Ministry sponsored by the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Pulgarín's lawyers had
requested that he be temporarily resettled and receive additional
protection. The ministry reportedly agreed to provide the additional
protection, but it had yet to deliver when Pulgarín was killed a month
Violence in Medellín has been rising dramatically in recent years.
In the first ten months of 2009, the homicide rate has more than
doubled, from 830 killings in the same period in 2008, to 1,717 this
year, according to the Instituto de Medicina Legal (Forensic Medicine Institute) of Medellín.
Most of the increase is attributable to the AUC's successor groups,
which control criminal activity in the city. The groups fight among
themselves over territory, and also frequently commit targeted
killings, forced displacement, extortion, and threats against other
Human Rights Watch has documented the forced displacement of dozens
of residents from the Pablo Escobar neighborhood, also allegedly by a
successor group. In a positive step, prosecutors in Medellín arrested
18 members of that group. However, three others with pending
warrants remain at large.
Many of the displaced residents attempted to testify in the Pablo
Escobar case. However, Human Rights Watch has received information
indicating that as many as five of the witnesses have been killed in
In June, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Office of the Attorney
General of Colombia to request that these witnesses be included in the
office's Witness Protection Program. The office replied that the cases
were under review. Most of the witnesses have yet to be included in
Human Rights Watch urged the government to take prompt and effective
measures to prevent killings of witnesses in existing and future
cases. These would include expanding and adequately funding the
witness protection program, ensuring that requests for protection are
processed rapidly, and establishing procedures to protect victims who
may not meet the requirements of the program but are at risk.
"It is good that some prosecutors are trying to investigate these
groups," McFarland said. "But with witnesses being killed left and
right, you have to wonder how hard the government is trying to break
the power of the successor groups."
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