Global Freedom of Expression

Carrillo and Barreto v. the National Protection Protection Unit (UNP)

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Public Speech
  • Date of Decision
    November 3, 2020
  • Outcome
    Reversed Lower Court
  • Case Number
    T 469/20
  • Region & Country
    Colombia, Latin-America and Caribbean
  • Judicial Body
    Constitutional Court
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Violence Against Speakers / Impunity
  • Tags
    Threatening Statements, Human Rights Defenders (HRDs)

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Constitutional Court of Colombia decided to grant protection to the rights to life, integrity and security of Saúl David Carrillo and Francisco Barreto, human rights activists, following the decision of the National Protection Department to remove or reduce their security arrangements. The Court found that the irregularities and omissions of the authorities created a reasonable doubt as to the real risk of the plaintiffs. It also evidenced a structural problem regarding the security of social leaders in Colombia.


In 2019, Saúl David Carrillo Urariyu and Francisco Barreto, two Colombian human rights activists, individually filed a Tutela (an application for the protection of constitutional rights) against the National Unit of Protection (NUP), a specialized agency that provides protection services to those facing security risks due to their political, judicial or trade union activities, for decreasing their security scheme without a proper risk valuation. The plaintiffs, in two separate cases, argued that the National Unit of Protection neglected key factors on their risk evaluation which ultimately resulted in a decrease in their security detail. They claim this decision threatened their fundamental rights to life, integrity and safety.

Carrillo is a social leader working with indigenous communities in the Colombian Caribbean coast. He had been granted protection by the NUP since 2014 on the account of several threats made by armed militia groups. The risk analysis in 2017 and 2018 determined that the plaintiff had an extraordinary risk. In this regard, he was assigned a security detail of two bodyguards and an armored vehicle. The 2019 analysis evidenced a decrease in his level of risk. Consequently, an adjustment in his protection measures, such as the removal of one bodyguard and the armed vehicle. The NPU argued that the plaintiff hadn’t been threatened since 2017. As a result, Carrillo presented a tutela action in April 2019 arguing that the partial removal of this security scheme compromised his fundamental rights because he had recently suffered threatening events in his residency.

Similarly, Barreto, a former member of the bygone political party Union Patriotica and currently a social leader working on reintegration programs of demobilized people, had also filed a case for the decrease in his personal security scheme. His case was evaluated by the UNP in 2015 and rated with an extraordinary risk. In this regard, he was assigned with a security scheme including an armored vehicle, two bodyguards, one communication tool, and one armored vest. In 2019, the risk analysis established a level of ordinary risk, which resulted in the removal of his security detail. The plaintiff presented a tutela action and argued that the study was not objective, and attached evidence such as an email sent by his bodyguard reporting the events in which Barreto’s vehicle was attacked.

In both cases, the First Instance Courts ordered the NPU to reestablish the protection detail for both Plaintiffs. However, both Second Instance Courts revoked the decisions claiming that the UNP was the competent technical body to assess the level of danger in which a person is in, as well as the measures to be taken.

The Decree 2591/91, which regulates tutela, establishes that once the regular proceeding is concluded every tutela file should be send to the Constitutional Court, which may decide to select it for a special review or not. Both cases were chosen by the Constitutional Court for review.

Decision Overview

The Court had to decide whether the actions of the National Unit of Protection, the State entity responsible for providing protection to leaders and defenders, violated the fundamental rights to security, personal integrity and life of the plaintiffs when deciding to dismantle or decrease its security measures.

The Court opined that the cases in question were not “easy” in the sense that the evidence and allegations did not conclude, without a doubt, that the lives of the plaintiffs were at serious and imminent risk. However, the Chamber considered that there existed a reasonable doubt as a result of the irregularities and omissions that evidenced the failure of the National Protection Unit to fulfill its function of protecting social leaders.

The Review Chamber of the Court concluded that the National Protection Unit disregarded the fundamental rights claimed, based on “(i) the failure to comply with the duty to periodically qualify the risk; (ii) the lack of sufficient, clear and specific motivation of the administrative acts; (iii) the absence of objective parameters to adjust a security scheme; and (iv) the disproportionate value given to the lack of results in the criminal process” [para. 111]. Thus, the Court questioned the actual security conditions of the plaintiffs and the need for results in their favor given the context of generalized violence against this population.

Finally, based on the evidence collected, the Chamber was able to identify the existence of a structural problem regarding the security of social leaders that requires a comprehensive public policy to overcome. Otherwise, “the disjointed and partial efforts of the State will be insufficient to guarantee the rights to life, integrity and security of social leaders and human rights defenders” [para. 196].

The Court decided to grant the protection to the fundamental rights to life, integrity and security of Saúl David Carrillo and Francisco Barreto. Consequently, it revoked both second instance rulings and ordered the National Protection Unit to conduct a new risk level study taking into account the contextual elements of the plaintiffs and the recent patterns of victimization against social leaders. Regarding the structural problem, the Court ordered the National Protection Unit to review and update the criteria for the identification of social leaders, as well as urged different government entities to issue a public policy for the protection of social leaders.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The decision expands freedom of expression by recognizing the importance of the protection and security of human rights activists as a prerequisite for the free exercise of fundamental rights. In addition, it recognizes a structural problem in the security of social leaders and urges the formulation of public policy to address it.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • Colom., Constitution of Colombia (1991), art. 1.
  • Colom., Constitution of Colombia (1991), art. 2.
  • Colom., Constitutional Court, T-719/03

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:


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