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Colombia: Fear and possible flight in north-west following murders

Briefing notes

Colombia: Fear and possible flight in north-west following murders

14 December 2004

A UNHCR team has reported that the inhabitants of the indigenous settlement of Las Playas, in Colombia's north-western Urabá region, are extremely frightened and are considering fleeing to the town of Apartadó following the murder of three of their leaders last week. Fear is also spreading to other indigenous communities in the Urabá region.

The team, led by UNHCR's representative in Colombia, Roberto Meier, visited Las Playas on Friday after receiving reports that the three leaders had been killed by unidentified armed men last week. Guerrilla groups opposed to the Colombian government are known to operate in the zone.

The small community, which UNHCR reaches by foot through the jungle, consists of some 300 members of the Embera-Catío ethnic group.

According to local witnesses, a group of armed men entered the settlement on the evening of 6 December and asked for the three indigenous leaders by name. They then took them to a riverbank and brutally murdered them with machetes. Before leaving the village, the armed men threatened that they would come back. The community had not received any specific threats from any armed group before.

The UNHCR team visited the village to show support to the community and as part of our regular monitoring of at-risk indigenous groups in the area. UNHCR is working to help the Colombian government respond to the needs of some 2 million displaced people. This includes supporting displaced and at-risk communities, particularly Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups who are often disproportionately affected by the conflict.

The UNHCR representative pledged that we would step up our activities and visits to Las Playas, security permitting, to improve protection for the community. The situation of the Embera-Catío will continue to be monitored closely. Government officials, including from the offices of the ombudsman, mayor and general prosecutor, as well as the police and the army have also visited the community following the killings. The mayor's office organized the funeral for the three leaders. In Apartadó, some 1,000 people participated in a silent march organised by the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia, a UNHCR partner, to protest the killings.

UNHCR has been visiting Las Playas regularly and just two weeks ago organized a documentation campaign with the National Registration Office to provide identification documents to residents. The community belongs to the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia, which UNHCR has supported through various projects, including an initiative to combat domestic violence among indigenous communities in Urabá.