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Social leaders unprotected
Susan Abad
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Attacks and murders committed against human rights defenders in areas previously controlled by the FARC increased after the signing of the Peace Agreement.

While the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continue their efforts to bring to an end an armed conflict that has lasted for over half-a-century, and to prevent any more deaths, the murders of community leaders and human rights defenders are on the rise in the country.

The 2016 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) regarding the situation in Colombia, released on Mar.16, sounded the alarm regarding a problem that, while certainly is not, “has worsened since last year with the signing of the Peace Agreement,” just as Leonardo González, the coordinator of the Investigative Unit of the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ) tells Latinamerica Press.

Todd Howland, OHCHR representative in Colombia, denounced in that occasion the murder in 2016 of 127 social leaders. However, the Information System on Aggressions Against Human Rights Defenders (SIADDHH) of We are Defenders-Nongovernmental Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, assures us that there were 80 leaders and defenders murdered, while for INDEPAZ it was 117 the number of murders of men and women who were actively devoted to the struggle of their communities.

The alarm grew with the records kept by We are Defenders that revealed that “between January and March of 2017, 193 human rights defenders had been victims of some type of aggression that put at risk their lives and physical integrity.”

“Of these aggressions, 20 ended up in murders,” tells Latinamerica Press Leonardo Díaz, protection coordinator of We are Defenders. He highlights the increase in homicides of leaders holding high positions in small community action groups. “There were six cases recorded in 2015, but last year the number jumped to 20, followed by 15 cases of indigenous leaders and 13 of peasant leaders,” he states.

Although the number of those killed do not coincide, something in which several non-governmental organizations do agree on is that the main aggressors are paramilitary groups turned into criminal bands after their demobilization that took place between 2003 and 2006. According to We are Defenders, the paramilitary members were responsible for 45 of the 80 murders of leaders recorded in 2016; 28 were killed by unknown assailants, three by the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, and four by the Security Forces. INDEPAZ states that the paramilitary members killed 27 leaders and it does not rule out that this number is much higher among the 82 victims whose aggressors are still unidentified.

Polarized society
Howland explained that the cases occurred mainly in Antioquia, Cauca, Córdoba  and Norte de Santander, and that most of them took place in areas of illicit economy, where coca crops and illegal mining prevail. However, he stressed the “evolution of violence in areas that were previously under the control of the FARC-EP [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army].”

He cited as an example the municipality of Argelia, Cauca, where the “void [left by the FARC] is being filled by armed groups servicing drug trafficking.” He placed responsibility on the “weak comprehensive presence of the state in the entire territory,” something that results in “an increase in murders of people by the power of illicit economies.” Howland added that 27 of the victims recorded by the OHCHR died in areas under historical control of the FARC, while 48 were recorded in places where the guerrillas had control over other illegal armed groups such as the ELN or some criminal bands.

Díaz explains that “when the FARC abandoned the territories, paramilitary groups began to move in and started to take territorial and social control. They started to take control of these illicit revenues, something that triggered the communities settled in these territories to generate a response by denouncing this situation, and this action has turned them into a military objective for these armed groups.”

However, González cannot say for certain that these murders take place exclusively in the areas the FARC are abandoning, “but there is for sure a direct relationship between the Peace Agreement signed last year and the murders of these leaders. These killings had already been taking place, but the peace process and the Final Agreement have polarized society in such a way that these occurrences have increased.”

Meanwhile, the speculations and analysis do not alleviate the pain of the victims’ families. Martha López cannot help shed tears when telling Latinamerica Press about the death of her sister Alicia, who was riddled with bullets by an unknown person this past March when she was inside the business of one of her brothers.

“We were part of the UP [Unión Patriótica, political party created in 1984 as a result of the peace agreements between the government of Belisario Betancur (1982-86) and the FARC], and Alicia [in 15 years of social work] had gotten to open a health post in her neighborhood,” says López, who does not have any qualms in pointing a finger at the paramilitary as the authors of her sister’s murder.

And within this whirlwind of terror, the murders reached the FARC. Four guerrilla members and eight relatives of guerrilla members have been killed since the start of the implementation of the Peace Agreement.

Guerrilla leader Carlos Antonio Lozada recalled something said by the FARC’s highest leader Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko,” after the peace was signed: “I hope we won’t have to make an assessment one day and say: peace in Colombia cost us a certain number of more people dead. Now, what is most probable is that many of us will not make it to the end.” Looks like the prediction was coming true because “there is a paramilitary harassment that murders and persecutes relatives of the combatants,” he said.

“Isolated events”
The Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas stated that there is no proof that paramilitary groups are behind the murders of social leaders in the country, and also that the investigations indicate that these murders are isolated cases. The Minister of the Interior confirmed having received 41 murder complaints this year, out of which 14 have been verified as attacks against human rights defenders.

Meanwhile, Vice-President Óscar Naranjo has launched the “elite corps for peace,” made up by over 1,000 police members who have as their primary mission to contain the actions of criminal organizations that  attack social and political movements.

With reference to the protection of the former combatants, the general director of the National Protection Unit (UNP), Diego Fernando Mora, announced the creation of a special sub-directorate that will evaluate and determine the type of risk faced by each guerrilla member and who are to be assigned protection measures. He also announced the use of new security technologies as inhibitors that prevent the activation of explosives via cell phones and radios and cutting edge communication devices.

Also, complying with what was previously agreed on Item 3 of the Peace Agreement, that makes mandatory the creation of mixed protection schemes, with members of the FARC, the Armed Forces and the UNP, 315 former guerrilla members began a course to then select those who are qualified to provide security to the leaders of the political party to be integrated by FARC members.

Faced with the lack of protection felt by the social leaders in the country, the OHCHR made a recommendation to the government in its report “to recognize the killing of human rights defenders as a serious situation,  on which the state has the obligation to protect and provide life guarantees,” and “improve the implementation schedule for the social inclusion policies and of economic, social, and cultural rights of the areas that were most affected by the conflict.”

The organism noted that “the protection of life and the decrease of violence are directly linked to the opportunities of political inclusion and to the generation of employment, health, and education.” —Latinamerica Press.


Alicia López, one of the dozens of social leaders allegedly murdered by paramilitary members. / Courtesy of Martha López
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