South America Newsletter January 2018



In this month’s report, we have urgent actions on Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia. In Peru, the President granted a humanitarian pardon to an ex-president who was serving a lengthy prison sentence, including for human rights abuses. Health in Venezuela continues to be undermined by the government’s failure to order the purchase of antiretroviral medication. The security forces violently broke up demonstrations in Argentina, Chile elected a new President, and human rights work in Bolivia was obstructed. Meanwhile communities across Colombia continued to find themselves under threat from paramilitary groups, and new data emerged in Brazil highlighting the overcrowding of its prison system and the extent of police violence.


President Kuczynski has granted a humanitarian pardon to ex-President Fujimori, who was serving a lengthy prison sentence for human rights abuses and corruption during his time in office in the 1990s.  Thousands of people have taken to the streets in Lima and other cities to protest against the decision.  Kuczynski has acknowledged the anger triggered by his decision but said he could not allow Alberto Fujimori to die in prison.  The announcement came days after Kuczynski had narrowly survived impeachment by Congress over allegations that he lied about his links to Odebrecht, the Brazilian contractor at the centre of a string of major corruption cases in Peru and elsewhere in the region.  Amnesty described the decision as a tough blow for the struggle for justice for victims of humanitarian crimes committed by Fujimori.  BBC report here.


Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly, along with “all political prisoners”, have been awarded EU’s prestigious Sakharov prize for human rights for 2017 (Guardian report here) while the government has expelled the senior diplomatic representatives from Brazil and Canada and those two countries have responded in kind (BBC report here).

We have circulated two Urgent Actions: one for prisoner of conscience Villca Fernández, whose transfer to hospital has been repeatedly postponed and whose health has continued to deteriorate (take action here); and the other highlighting the government’s failure to order the purchase of vital antiretroviral medication, putting the lives of at least 77,000 people living with HIV at risk (take action here).

For more on the current health crisis in Venezuela, including for those with HIV, and the rising numbers fleeing the country as refugees, see this interesting report.


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) have expressed concern over the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of force when, on 14 December, the Federal Police and the Gendarmerie violently broke up demonstrations heading for the National Congress in Buenos Aires to express opposition to a law reforming the pension and retirement system.  Further protests on 18 December culminated in violent disturbances and left more than 183 people injured, including at least 88 police and 95 citizens, among them seven members of Congress.  More information here.


Former President Sebastián Piñera has won the election for next president of Chile.  Piñera, described as a conservative billionaire, polled more than 54% in the run-off against his opponent.  He previously served as president from 2010 to 2014.  BBC report here.


A decision by Bolivia’s Constitutional Court has removed constitutional limits on re-election, arguing that they violated candidates’ human rights.  This will allow President Evo Morales to stand for a fourth consecutive term in office in 2019.  The ruling comes less than two years after Bolivians voted against lifting term limits in a referendum and has been described as a “blow to democracy” by his opponents.  BBC report here.

We have circulated an Urgent Action update reporting new threats to the human rights work of the Bolivian Documentation and Information Centre (CEDIB), including the freezing of its bank accounts. This is the latest in a series of attempts to obstruct CEDIB’s legitimate work and a worrying sign of shrinking civic space in the country.  You can take action here.


Amnesty International has issued three Urgent Actions on behalf of rural communities in Colombia in the month of December:

  1. Several Embera Indigenous communities and the Afro-descendent community of Taparal in the department of Chocó, Colombia, find themselves confined and terrified due to the presence of the Gaitanistas Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC), and due to the possibility of them clashing with the National Liberation Army (ELN) in their communities. Amnesty calls for “A State presence responsible for guaranteeing their rights to life, integrity and security.”
  2. Paramilitary groups continue their incursions and threats against the people of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó in Antioquia department and their leaders. Gildardo Tuberquia, one of their leaders, received eight death threats in 2017. Amnesty is demanding “urgent measures to guarantee the right to life and physical safety for Gildardo Tuberquia and other members of the community.” Threats come from the paramilitary AGC who appear to be working with the local unit of the Colombian military. On   29 December, the Peace Community reports, six paramilitaries entered the community to assassinate its leaders. They were disarmed by community members and two were handed over  to the authorities in the presence of the Bishop of Apartadó acting as witness. Both men were freed by the authorities and one of them has threatened revenge for the ‘humiliation’ of the 29th.
  1. Two land claimant leaders of collective Afro-descendent territories in Chocó have been killed by paramilitary groups belonging to the AGC. The inhabitants of these humanitarian zones and areas of biodiversity feel threatened. Amnesty calls for an “immediate and impartial investigation to be carried out into the killings of the two leaders, for the results to be made public and for those responsible to be brought to justice.”

All three urgent actions refer to the continued activity of the AGC paramilitaries, who are reported to be working closely with Colombian units of the armed forces. Although the Colombian authorities  deny that the AGC is a paramilitary group, which implies collaboration by the state, 13 new military units are being recruited to replace ‘contaminated’ units in these regions.

Richard Crosfield, of our team,  had meetings with the FCO and at the Colombian embassy with the Director of the new Agency for Territorial Recuperation, where he brought up the issue of recognising the role of paramilitaries in the violence in rural Colombia. The UK government is supporting the new Agency, which is designed to replace coca production with other crops and businesses and to develop rural areas currently beyond the control of the Colombian authorities. While the Agency’s plan is laudable, how it can be successfully implemented in these insecure zones is a question the Director was reluctant to answer. However, the 13 new units of the armed forces are expected to be deployed in these rural areas in the next four months, according to the Director.

Peace Brigades International (PBI), which has been working alongside many of these rural communities for 20 years, issued a damning statement on 13 December. PBI notes that “Despite the fact that the territories of both land claimant leaders are situated in a region where the Colombian Military Forces exert control through a strong territorial presence with different military operations, it has not been possible to avoid such killings. The presence of civil State Institutions is almost non-existent given the lack of security guarantees that the entities themselves highlight. In this context, in the field we come across checkpoints and graffiti with the acronyms of the illegal armed groups, amongst which those of the Autodefensas Gaitanista de Colombia (AGC).”


The Brazilian government published prison data for the first time since June 2016 revealing that levels of overcrowding had increased. The total number of inmates had increased by 17%, while prison capacity had actually decreased. In June 2016, facilities were already overcrowded at 197% of capacity. Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the government to expand its use of custody hearings, and abandon its “war on drugs” policy, which leads to the arrest of people in possession of small quantities of drugs. For HRW’s full account, click here

 The number of people killed by the police in Rio de Janeiro state reached 1,035 between January and November, according to figures compiled and published by the Institute for Public Security on 15 December. The figures eclipsed the 920 killed in the whole of 2016 and approached the highest recorded figure of 1,048 from 2009. During the opening 11 months of the year, 17% of all violent deaths were attributed to the police.

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Graham Minter (Rest of South America), Richard Crosfield (Colombia) and Joe Smith  (Brazil)

AIUK South America Team   6 January 2018