Peasants, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, women, social leaders, human rights defenders, trade unionists and essentially anyone in Colombia fighting for peace, social change and democracy continue to suffer from state and paramilitary violence. Colombia has historically had one of the worst human rights records in the American continent. The country has one of the world’s largest internally displaced populations at 7.2 million. The government signed peace agreements in Havana in 2016 with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), and is in peace talks with the second largest group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), but its suppression of civil liberties has continued unabated.
One of the most brutal expressions of the right-wing violence against communities in Colombia is the systematic assassination of social leaders. The violence peaked during the decade of the 2000s, when President Alvaro Uribe’s harsh anti-insurgency campaign resulted in the annihilation of generations of leaders and activists in Colombia. During his two presidential terms, at least 32,000 people were forcibly disappeared and presumably executed.
After Juan Manuel Santos assumed office, these numbers have dropped drastically. However, it is a matter of concern that despite signing a peace process and winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Santos government continues to be complicit in the assassinations of hundreds of social leaders even as the Attorney General’s Office refuses to conduct any sincere investigations. In 2017, more than 100 social leaders were assassinated (the exact figure is difficult to obtain as human rights organizations differ in their classification and many are not reported). There has also been a spree of assassinations of demobilised members of FARC, which is an alarming signal to those involved in peace processes.
Since the beginning of 2018, it is reported that around 50 social leaders have already been assassinated. During the Easter holy week, at least two social leaders were assassinated – Belisario Benavides Ordóñez and María Magdalena Cruz Rojas. Ordóñez. a social leader and human rights defender, was the delegate of victims of the armed conflict in the Territorial Committee of Transitional Justice in the Rosas municipality in the department of Cauca. On April 1, as he left his house with his 3-year-old son and 12-year-old nephew, he was accosted by armed men who shot and killed him.
María Magdalena Cruz Rojas was the leader of a crop substitution movement in Mapiripán in the department of Meta. According to human rights organizations of the region, she was assassinated in front of her husband and her son by armed hooded people at the farm where her family lived.
On March 22, José Aníbal Herrera, 37 years old, was found dead in the Cauca river after having been forcibly disappeared two days earlier. He was the co-founder of the Peasant Association of Lower Cauca, President of the Community Action Board of Mesetas, and held a variety of leadership positions in the community. Two social leaders were killed on March 25 – Víctor Alfonso Zabala Oviedo president of the Community Action Board of El Rizo, in the municipality Cáceres in Antioquia, and who was also part of the crop substitution program, and Jorge Miguel Polanco, the president of the Community Action Board of Caño Prieto in the same municipality. Polanco had alerted the authorities that he had been receiving death threats but clearly, not enough steps were taken to protect him.
These are just a few of the people whose lives were cut short because of their commitment to social justice and peace in Colombia though the right wing would rather paint these tragedies as accidents or common crimes. In December, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said that the vast majority of violent deaths of social leaders registered in Colombia was explained by personal conflicts like “fights [between neighbors] over fence placing, over women, over pride, or over illicit business”.
Last week, on March 28, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a statement where it expressed “concern over the high number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders registered this year in Colombia” and urged the Colombian state “to adopt urgent measures to protect human rights defenders and social leaders”.
The report states that: “…since the implementation of the peace agreements, the murders of human rights defenders has increased persistently. According to an Ombudperson’s report, between January 2017 to February 2018, there have been 121 murders of human rights defenders. The Commission observes with concern that plenty of those murdered human rights defenders carried out actions aimed at implementing the peace agreements related to land distribution. In addition, the Commission has received consistent reports indicating that indigenous and Afro-Colombians human rights defenders are exposed to aggravated violence.”
Meanwhile the threats and legal persecution against the same groups also continue. For example, communities in Chocó continue to denounce the presence of different paramilitary groups in their territories, despite being threatened with death for speaking out. The Chocó region in the north-west of Colombia, home to the armed actors in the conflict, has suffered mass displacement, massacres, and violence. The region has also seen very little state investment in infrastructure, schools and health (for example, the primary mode of transportation is by boat because there are practically no roads) and is also home to a great mineral wealth and immense biodiversity.