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Colombian Lives Matter: For peace and social justice in Colombia

It is past time for the international community to cease colluding with, or blithely ignoring, what is going on in Colombia.

Toby Miller Joan Pedro-Carañana Ledy Armirola-Garcés Nencatacoa Fu Juan López Juan Ramos-Martín
4 December 2020
Students hold a sign that reads ''Dilan didn't died, You killed him'' during a vigil in honour for Dilan Cruz outside the Universitary San Ignacio hospital on November 26, 2019 in Bogota, Colombia
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Juan Carlos Torres/NurPhoto/PA Images/All rights reserved

Dilan Cruz, Javier Ordóñez, Juliana Giraldo, Juan de Jesús Monroy Ayala, Luis Alexander Largo. These are a few names of the many people murdered in Colombia recently because of their peaceful opposition to environmental destruction and political corruption. So far this year, there have been more than 50 massacres, with 200 people assassinated. Massive protests against these infractions of human rights continue in the capital Bogotá and elsewhere. But as they say in Colombia, everything happens and nothing happens.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the US has been a beacon of hope for Colombian descendants of African slaves and the numerous indigenous peoples resisting destruction of their territories and livelihoods. It has helped revitalise grassroots organising, both nationally and internationally. The Minga, an indigenous Colombian group, have marched for justice against the criminalisation and stigmatisation of social protest—regrettable colonial hangovers. These demonstrations have shown exemplary strength, will, and solidarity. But they have largely been ignored by the government.

Interconnections between the Colombian state and big business, drug traffickers, paramilitaries and other groups outside the law, with the support or silence of other governments and transnational companies, enable human rights violations, inequality, and violence, not to mention denying the nation’s great cultural and environmental diversity.

Protests inside the country should be supplemented by international pressure, so that violence and injustice give way to peace and social justice

That must change; protests inside the country should be supplemented by international pressure, so that violence and injustice give way to peace and social justice. The world cannot remain silent in the face of such atrocities.

We want to highlight some everyday aspects of life in Colombia, such as violence, structural conflict, stereotyping, and threats to journalism. These are interrelated phenomena, so activists stress the need to reduce physical violence in combination with economic justice and recognising diversity and safeguarding journalism.

Armed violence

Historically, indigenous people, Afro-descendants, and the working class have been the main victims of violence in Colombia. It is worth remembering the assassination of the presidential candidate Jorge Gaitán in 1948. He had denounced the ongoing violence between religious and economic oligarchs and the horrendous impact on the population more generally.

Starting in 1964, armed violence increased with confrontations between the military, the police, and guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Since then a quarter of a million people have perished and eight million displaced. Over the decades, several peace negotiations took place. Most ended in failure. One success was the 1990 Agreement with the guerrilla 19th of April Movement (M-19). That led to its demobilisation, social reintegration, and conversion into a political party.

28 social and community leaders were assassinated during the first two months of confinement and there were seven massacres in less than two weeks during August.

But the principal conflicts continued, with devastating results, many of which are only now coming to light. Consider the “false positives” scandal between 2002 and 2010, when members of the military murdered 10,000 civilians whom they represented as guerrillas to improve their killing statistics and obtain US military aid. This figure is three times the number previously calculated by human rights organisations. There have also been untold massacres by paramilitary organisations made up of former and serving offices from the police and military.

The Peace Agreement signed with the FARC-EP in November 2016 brought hope to much of the population. But the violence has continued. The Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz) indicates that 971 leaders and human rights defenders were assassinated between the signature of the Agreement and July 2020. Conflicts associated with ownership of the land, drug trafficking, mining, and natural resources in general account for 70% of these homicides.

As reported by the BBC, armed groups have taken advantage of the limitations on mobility imposed by Covid-19 to attack social activists. 28 social and community leaders were assassinated during the first two months of confinement and there were seven massacres in less than two weeks during August.

Structural conflict

Together with the high concentration of wealth and resources and a neoliberal economic model based on extractivism, corruption makes Colombia the most unequal country in Latin America and the seventh in the world. The richest 10% of the population has four times the wealth of the poorest 40%.

Colombians have lost confidence in their institutions as a result of centuries of corruption and patronage. The state has failed to respond effectively to the country’s social problems, while supporting supposedly illegal groups that operate in different regions of the country—so-called parapolitics.

According to the latest report from the Transparency for Colombia Corporation, obstacles to reporting acts of corruption in the country include popular ignorance of the relevant channels and procedures, lack of interest in public affairs, mistrust of authorities, and, especially, fear of retaliation.

Stereotyping and threats to journalism

It is common for people who demonstrate to be stigmatised in the media as vandals, guerrillas, communists or pro-Venezuelan. Social networks are frequent instruments of hate speech and sources of fake news. Their symbolic violence legitimises physical assaults and creates a feeling of impunity among perpetrators. For example, Juan Carlos Vélez, the campaign manager for ‘No’ in the 2016 plebiscite on the Peace Agreement, acknowledged that he manipulated public opinion by encouraging anger and avoiding serious discussion of the Agreement’s actual contents.

The national media and government both direct and restrict information and opinion.

Evangelical churches in Colombia, supported by their ideological confreres in the United States, campaigned against the Peace Agreement because it promised marriage equality and women’s rights. The president of the Evangelical Confederation of Colombia, Edgar Castaño, estimates that two million of the faithful voted against the Agreement, which was narrowly defeated in the popular vote but resurrected in Congress.

The national media and government both direct and restrict information and opinion. The Media Ownership Observatory, run by Reporters Without Borders and Intervozes, has found that three business groups account for 57% of radio, television, press, and internet content. The three biggest media proprietors also own large companies and banks and are among the principal funders of election campaigns. Most of Colombia’s Presidents over the last half-century have been scions of media families—members of this cosy oligarchy.

Recent indictments initiated by the Prosecutor’s Office against journalists who denounce censorship are an added limitation to freedom of expression and the right to information. These processes sit alongside the routine threats and systemic violence suffered by journalists, especially in small towns and isolated regions. In the world ranking of press freedom in 180 countries carried out by Reporters Without Borders, Colombia ranks 130th.

Towards peace and justice

Social organisations continue to mobilise to end structural, symbolic and direct violence. We believe these grassroots movements are the greatest hope for truth, diversity and a lasting peace based on equality.

The obstacles are enormous, but, with international support, human rights defenders in Colombia can initiate a transitional justice process that leads to national reconciliation and respect for the dignity of all. It is past time for the international community to cease colluding with, or blithely ignoring what is going on in Colombia.

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