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Latin America - Colombia:  Increasing tensions between the government and indigenous communities

María Luisa Rivera for Wikileaks, 9 December 2010, 13.30 GMT

On  September 15, 2010 the U.S. State department certified to the U.S. Congress that the Colombian government and military were meeting statutory criteria related to human rights. The State department certification was rejected by human rights organizations like Amnesty International and the Washington Office for Latin America because of an alleged increase in "collateral damage" in the war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

A cable from the U.S. embassy in Bogota  dated February 12, 2010 obtained by Wikileaks, shows that the State department was aware that civilians had been injured as a result of  Colombian military operations.

On January 30, 2010, an air strike was carried out by the Colombia Air Force near Embera - Katio indigenous territory  at 3am.  No guerillas were killed but three civilians -  a couple and their 20 day old baby - were badly injured by bomb fragments. According to cable 248745 (click here) the Colombian military “knew of the sensitivities of mounting an operation so close to the indigenous reservation, but believed it took the appropriate precautions.”

The   embassy officials noted that they believed that the reports that "a   sensitive high-value target operation failed to hit the objective" were   essentially correct but were unsure of the details of the casualties.

U.S. embassy officials attempted to clarify the incident by interviewing indigenous leaders, human rights activists and members of civil society - all of whom blamed the government for the civilian injuries and rejected the Colombian Air Force’s explanation that the strike targeted the FARC outside indigenous territory. 

"(T)he father was hit by shrapnel in  the spine and will be unable to walk, while the mother had shrapnel  removed from her leg," one of the interviewees told embassy officials. "XXXXXXXXXXXX who visited the father  in the hospital, confirmed he was in "serious" condition. The couple is  currently being treated in a hospital in Medellin. XXXXXXXXXXXX said  the baby "looked" burned."

A report in El Tiempo newspaper quoted General Hernan Giraldo, the Commander of the 17th Brigade  saying that the military "accepts responsibility of the  incident." Giraldo argued that it was "bad  luck" adding that the "family strayed from their  territory when they went out to collect food."

Civil society people noted that this displayed "a lack of understanding of their culture" on part of the Colombian military as "Embera-Katio people often rise well before dawn."

"The Indigenous Organization in  Antioquia (OIA), which initially denounced the incident, is preparing a  formal complaint against the military personnel responsible for the  operation," the cable writer noted. "He told us the Embera-Katio want the military to assume the  medical costs of the injured indigenous, provide reparations to the  whole community, and leave their indigenous territories."

The embassy officials concluded: "What is certain is this incident  will increase tensions between the GOC and the indigenous, who are  facing an increase in conflict-related violence."