Last week in Bogotá, more than 3000 social leaders from all over Colombia came together as part of the event, ‘Humanitarian Refuge’, an almost week-long protest to demand better protections for human rights defenders threatened with violence.
The social leaders took to Santamaría square in Bogotá where they camped out for five nights, whilst they visited Congress and various European embassies to request international protection measures due to the lack of response of the government up-against what is perhaps the most acute crisis in post-peace accords Colombia.
Since the peace accords were signed and up until the 31st of July 2018, 257 social leaders were murdered, according to a study carried out by Colombia’s National University. The Cauca region is the most dangerous for human rights defenders, followed by Antioquia, North Santander, Valle del Cauca, Córdoba, Putumayo, Nariño and Chocó, where 70.42% of all murders have been concentrated.
The scenario does not appear to be improving. During the first six days of 2019, another six social leaders were brutally murdered, and the new conservative government of Iván Duque, that wishes to tear the peace agreements to shreds, has been unable to create measures of protection for those who are currently under threat.
We went to the ‘Humanitarian Refuge’ to speak to some of the leaders about the challenges they currently face, and the important role that governments of the world can play in assisting those affected by this crisis.
María Susana Perdomo
Even in Bogotá we don’t feel safe
I was given 24 hours to leave my territory by armed gangs who threatened to kill me and harm my family. I’m an indigenous social leader, member of the LGBT+ community, and I’m from a town of the Valle del Cauca that’s called Florida, but I’ve been living in Bogotá for the past three months in hope of finding safety here for my family. Despite having moved to Bogotá with them a short time ago, we’re now currently trying to leave the country and find asylum elsewhere, because the death threats continue and those who are threatening me were able to find me here. If they kill me, they affect an entire family unit, an entire community, which is why I took the extremely difficult decision to leave behind an entire life’s work in Florida. The biggest fear is that they won’t give up until they find you.
Johany Romaña Escobar
Many social leaders have been doubly displaced
I’m a political activist for the movement ‘Colombia Humana’, and a victim of illegal military groups who have wrongly accused me of belonging to the guerrilla group the ELN and as a result have declared me as a military target. I’ve been displaced ever since I was 12 years old. My mother, frozen with fear, packed me off, and I had to catch a bus alone when I was just a child to Barranquilla because the paramilitaries and the guerrilla wanted to recruit me. Now I’ve been living in Medellín for 18 years but I’m currently displaced within the city, because of the threats and the attacks I receive due to the false accusations. People shout things like guerrilla fighter, go to Bogotá because we don’t want you here. Despite this I’ve never had my status as a displaced person recognised, and I haven’t received any kind of protection from the government.
Defending the environment comes at a high price
I’m a social leader from the region of Orinoquía of Colombia, and for the past 30 years I’ve dedicated my life to everything to do with the environment and nature. The indigenous communities of Colombia are here in Bogotá to camp out, and we’ve travelled from far and wide. We’re fighting to achieve better protections from the Colombian government and from foreign governments, and reparations for the victims of the armed conflict which has yet to be provided. Our current government has embodied a terrorist government of the past, and that’s why there are still so many death threats and displaced leaders throughout Colombia, especially among those of us who defend the environment and human rights. The political system is responsible for massacres and killings, and we’ve yet to achieve justice.
Angela Ester Golu
In Cauca, they’re killing us more than anywhere else
I’m an activist and social leader from Cauca, an active member of the Association of Community Councils of the North of Cauca. There I worked with afro communities in the region to improve living conditions for the people there, but I was recently displaced to Bogotá after receiving death threats from armed groups that operate in my territory and I couldn’t stay. We worked a lot to include the afro community in public spaces in the region, and to include them in decision making processes, but unfortunately my territory is very dangerous and there, they’re killing social leaders more than anywhere else in the country. Being a social leader in Cauca is putting yourself at risk, and putting your family at risk too.
Julián Muñoz Álvarez
The huge foreign multinationals are complicit
I’m a former member of the FARC, also an ex-political prisoner, but when I got out of jail, I began to dedicate myself to community work in Roncesvalles, Tolima, fighting to protect our mother earth. I’m part of the Environmental Committee of Roncesvalles, and due to my work as an environmental activist, I’m currently under threat. The previous Colombia governments have sold all our land to multinationals for the extraction of minerals, and now we must give our lives to protect our environment. In the Guajira region for example, mineral extraction has caused great droughts, and terrible problems with child malnourishment. Children are losing their lives due to the North American and European companies that have destroyed our land. These are the kinds of problems we are currently facing but the death threats make it difficult for us to do our jobs well.
María Cristina Monroy Torres
Female leaders are more vulnerable
I’m part of the program ‘Somos Uno Solo’, and we work with 127 threatened social leaders in Colombia. The leaders we work with often have to leave their territories abruptly, and so their entire social circle and support system is broken. It’s been difficult because there aren’t many resources to deal with this issue, and even less political will, whilst there are many situations in which resources should be delivered to social leaders but never get there. Female social leaders must face a whole other reality because Colombia is a patriarchal country, and a female social leader is more vulnerable because often she’s the head of a family, and she’s more at risk of gender based violence.