Will Colombia’s next president stop the senseless murders of social activists?
Despite a historic peace deal in 2016, deaths continue – with least 70 activist leaders and human rights defenders assassinated so far this year
As we near the first round of Colombia’s presidential elections, the plight of the country’s social activists and human rights defenders has come under the spotlight. At least 70 have been killed so far this year, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies.
This is on top of the at least 1,279 rights defenders murdered in Colombia since a 2016 historic peace agreement between the government and the Leftist rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, using its Spanish initials).
Some 945 of these have been killed in the four years since Ivan Duque, leader of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, became president.
Victims are often leaders of Indigenous peoples or communities of Afro-descendant or campesinos (tenant farmers), seeking to protect their land and territory from illegal logging, mining and drug trafficking.
Yet, despite widespread concern for the communities most affected by violence, and calls from the United Nations, the government has failed to stop the intolerable violations of human rights.
Just last month, a botched raid by the Colombian army in Putumayo, in the south-west of the country, led to the deaths of 11 people, at least four of whom were civilians, including a child, a pregnant woman and a four-month-old baby.
It remains unclear why the army claimed some of the victims, who were part of a local Indigenous community, were guerillas. Several witnesses say the soldiers were not dressed in official clothing, instead presenting themselves as guerillas from a dissident group.
The government has yet to apologise for the deaths, despite mounting pressure for it to investigate. Meanwhile, Colombia’s army has denied any wrongdoing, with its head general, Eduardo Zapateiro, remarking: “It is not the first operation in which pregnant women or underage combatants fall.”
The operation – and Zapateiro’s comments – is reminiscent of Colombia’s ‘false positives’ scandal, in which the army killed thousands of civilians and then claimed they were enemy combatants whose deaths were ‘legitimate’. According to the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, there were 6,402 civilian ‘false positive’ victims between 2002 and 2008.
A peace agreement without peace
The 2016 peace deal brought to an end a 52-year conflict, in which 260,000 people were killed and six million displaced. The agreement, which earned former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize, was supposed to usher in a new era of peace.
Instead, 14 former FARC fighters have been killed in the first four months of 2022 alone, taking the total to 313 since the deal was signed. There have also been 37 massacres – defined in Colombia as the deliberate and brutal killing of three or more people – so far this year, and 302 since the deal was signed.
According to the fifth report of the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, implementation of the agreement was at just 28% as of November 2020, up from 26% the year before.
This lack of enforcement puts social leaders and ex-combatants at greater risk. They are left in the crossfire of battles for ex-FARC territories, while policies agreed upon within the accord, such as offering farmers feasible alternatives to coca plantations, have not been implemented.
Victor Moreno, a former senior councillor of the Association of Community Councils of Northern Cauca, has been threatened for his work as a social leader in the territory. He says the paramilitary presence has increased in the Indigenous territories of Cauca, the department with the most murdered social leaders, and that other than PDETs (Development Programmes with a Territorial Approach), no major advances have been made to implement the agreement.
Moreno’s sentiments are echoed by Ana Deida Secué, an Indigenous leader of the Nasa people, who was chief governor of the Huellas Caloto Resguardo, an Indigenous reservation. Secué says that during the four years of negotiations that preceded the signing of the peace deal, Indigenous people had high hopes.
But five years after the signing, their hope is gone. “We see they have not represented us,” she says. “With the current president [Duque], the agreement has been torn to shreds and now we are in a crisis of extermination.”
A decree protecting only the state
Former FARC members are often stigmatised by society and are unable to gain employment or gain political representation. The government’s failure to protect these former rebels was condemned by the Constitutional Court in January 2022, after a ruling recognised the violation of the peace deal.
In an effort to protect both social leaders and ex-FARC members, the government has turned to the National Protection Unit (UNP). This unit is in charge of articulating, coordinating and executing protection services to those the government considers ‘at risk’.
But the UNP is inefficient, say leading activists such as Diana Sánchez, a human rights defender and the director of the Minga Association. This is, in part, because simply using protection schemes, such as employing bodyguards, to tackle the killing of leaders fails to secure structural long-term change.
The government’s lack of direction on the protection of leaders was highlighted in September 2021, when it approved a decree to modify protection mechanisms for people at risk.
Previously, decisions over who needed protection were made based on information from various state entities, including those in the at-risk territories, and discussed with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The new decree puts the decision solely on UNP analysts, most of whom are based in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, far removed from the threats and violence.
On 28 April, the Constitutional Court met with representatives of social leaders and the government to discuss whether the protection mechanisms provided by the State are sufficient.
At the meeting, there were conflicting positions. The government representatives said new public policies will be created to improve the protection of leaders; while the leaders demanded the resumption of regional dialogue tables to effectively communicate concerns and risks to Bogotá.
While this meeting was a welcome step, what comes next remains unknown. Duque cannot rerun for a second term in the presidential election, the first round of which is due to be held on 29 May. The candidates hoping to succeed him hold differing positions on the murders of social leaders.
Sergio Fajardo, the centre candidate who is polling in third, has condemned the Duque government's inaction on the situation, but has not offered concrete actions with which he would put an end to the killing.
Currently in second, with 26.7% of the vote in a poll published on 29 April, is Federico ‘Fico’ Gutiérrez, a right-wing candidate who is not from Duque’s party but is aligned with his vision. He has not spoken about the issue at all – neither on social media nor in his manifesto nor in public appearances.
But Gustavo Petro, the candidate of the Left who is leading in the polls, with 43.6% of the vote, has said it is unacceptable that social leaders continue to be murdered.
His vice-presidential running mate, Francia Márquez, a human rights and environmental activist, has also used all her public appearances to say that stopping the murder of social leaders will be a priority if Petro is elected. She has even said the state has a responsibility to protect all Colombians – meaning the state must take responsibility for the killing of rights defenders.
But while the party leaders battle it out, a social leader is still being killed every two days. Whoever the next president is, they must take strong action to stop this tragic violence.
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