On June 23, Colombian Attorney General Francisco Barbosa announced charges against seven soldiers for the gang rape of a 13-year-old indigenous girl. According to Lejandrina Pastor, an advisor to the Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC), the girl is a member of the Emberá people, an indigenous group highlighted by the UN Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia as being specifically vulnerable to Colombia’s violent military conflicts. Pastor told the New York Times that the attack occurred after the girl disappeared temporarily, likely sometime on Sunday. Six of the soldiers have been charged with the rape, while one has been charged as an accomplice, according to the Attorney General’s office. All originally confessed to their crimes and have plead guilty. This crime falls perfectly between two dangerous trends in the region as a whole: targeted violence against both indigenous communities and women and young girls. It is especially significant in the Colombian context, knowing that the country has been embroiled in a civil war for nearly 60 years.
Major General Eduardo Zapateiro, commander of Colombia’s army, has stated that this incident “does not represent the ethical conduct of the men and women of the military.” While the crime has clearly shocked and horrified both civilians and military personnel, many have directly refuted Zapateiro’s statement. In a press conference held to address the crime, Aida Quilcué, another advisor to the ONIC, told reporters that “this is not an isolated issue, it is structural.” Mafe Carrascal, a Colombian human rights activist, specifically described this type of violence as “systematic” and pointed to the need to reform security training with a greater emphasis on human rights.
Indigenous communities have often been the targets of violence in Latin America, and the ongoing conflict between the Colombian government and paramilitary organizations has left them particularly vulnerable. The UNHCR claims that of Colombia’s 90 recognized indigenous groups, over a third are directly at risk by the conflict. Along with targeted killings and sexual violence, indigenous peoples are also often victims of forced occupation and land exploitation by both government sanction and private companies seeking resources. They also make up a large portion of the people internally displaced by the conflict – approximately 8% of all registered IDPs are indigenous, according to the United Nations, although they make up less than 2% of Colombia’s population. This violence is just as often committed by soldiers as it is by insurgents. In 2015, Human Rights Watch published a report showing large-scale extrajudicial “false positive” killings by the Colombian military and, in 2019, Major Gen. Nicacio Martínez Espinel even ordered his troops to double the number of people they kill to force a surrender.
Violence against indigenous women in particular is also prevalent, and there have been several high-profile cases with eerie similarities to this one in the past few years. In 2016, seven-year-old Yuliana Andrea Samboní was kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered by a wealthy architect in the capital city of Bogotá. Her family was originally from Cauca, a Department embroiled in the violence of the civil war. In 2012, an 11-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted by four members of the military at her home in the capital. While the police and military have vowed to launch investigations each time incidents like this occur (as long as they are high-profile, that is), indigenous communities themselves have repeatedly demanded that the perpetrators stand trial under indigenous law. Though this is allowed by the Colombian Constitution, the government continuously refuses.
In 2015, Colombia finally legally designated femicide as a unique crime. Less than a week before the latest attack, the Colombian Congress passed a bill legalizing life imprisonment for child rapists. Even with these laws in place, it is unclear whether this latest crime will instigate some form of structural change when it comes to violence against indigenous women and girls. The Colombian military has a long and detailed history of human rights violations, much of which has gone without justice. The government has focused so heavily on ending their civil conflict by force that they have neglected the necessary adjustments to rule of law that must take place in order to facilitate a lasting peace. This conflict is not only gunfights between militants – it is also rape, forced sterilization, and forced abortion. The sooner the government takes the steps to rectify not only the crimes of the guerrillas, but also those of their own soldiers, the sooner Colombia can transition toward reintegration and peace.
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