Assassination and intimidation of social leaders continues unabated in Colombia

The brutal assassination of María del Pilar Hurtado in front of her 9-year old son on June 21 shook the country to its core. The very next day, Andrés Chica, who demanded justice for Maria, was forced to leave his home after threats

June 26, 2019 by Zoe Alexandra
María del Pilar Hurtado

Last week, Colombians woke up to yet another tragedy. On the morning of June 21, María del Pilar Hurtado, a 34-year-old mother of four minors, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in Tierralta, in the department of Córdoba. Shortly after, a video circulated on social media showing her 9-year-old son, who witnessed her murder, screaming while her body lies in front of him.

The tragedy moved Colombian society, and was denounced widely by national and international human rights organizations, social movements and organizations and even Colombian politicians. The Cordoberxia Social Foundation, a regional human rights organization in the department of Córdoba, pointed out that her murder was not isolated, but part of a strategy of terror used by paramilitary groups in the region against organized communities. The foundation has been actively trying to draw attention to the intensification of violence in the region against social leaders and communities in the past several years.

In early June, the foundation had alerted authorities to the circulation of a pamphlet by the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), a paramilitary group active in the region. The pamphlet, released on June 1, threatened the lives of social and political leaders and specifically spoke about the people who were occupying private lands in Tierralta. It named community leaders such as Albeiro Begambre, María del Pilar Hurtado and several others.

These type of pamphlets are commonplace in rural regions across Colombia where paramilitary groups and criminal bands have occupied and asserted their control over the population and use violence and force to carry out political orders.

The foundation noted that a conflict had arisen in Tierralta after some families had occupied private lands. In Tierralta, like in the rest of Colombia, despite there being an abundance of land, it is held in the hands of a small number of peoplel. As such, many families do not have access to land, and resort to participating in collective land occupations in order to establish a place to build a decent home.

According to the Cordoberxia foundation, one of the properties that the organized families had occupied belonged to the father of the mayor of Tierralta, Fabio Otero. In the AGC communique, the group threatened the life of all of the people participating in the land occupation and stated that if they did not leave the private lands by that night, they would be assassinated.

While Colombian authorities alleged that the pamphlet was fake, following its release on June 1, three people who were involved in the land occupations were assassinated. One of the assassinations took place while the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron, a special unit of the Colombian National Police, tried to forcibly evict the families. During the violent eviction, armed men on motorcycles arrived and began shooting at the people with live bullets.

The assassination of María del Pilar Hurtado is the latest in what human rights organizations see as part of a systematic campaign of violence, intimidation and threats against those leaders and communities that challenge the status-quo imposed by the oligarchs and powerful. In Colombia, since 2016, more than 700 social leaders and human rights defenders have been assassinated.

Despite the clear political motivations behind the assassinations, Colombian authorities have refused to address the genocide with the seriousness it deserves and have taken no steps to dismantle the paramilitary structures responsible for the violence. Often times the assassinations are written off as crimes of passion or robberies. Furthermore, many leaders like Hurtado were already victims of threats and harassment by right-wing forces before their assassination, well documented through denouncements made to different authorities and institutions. Many of them even solicit government protection measures. Yet despite all of the precautionary measures they may take, they still end up dead.

Another recurring factor in this vicious cycle is that those who speak out against this violence are also in danger. Andrés Chica, a member of Cordoberxia Social Foundation, was active in denouncing the situation of growing violence in Tierralta and was one of the first to speak out after María del Pilar’s assassination.

On Saturday June 22, just a day after the assassination, Chica took to social media to announce that he had received several threatening messages on his phone and due to the gravity of the situation he would temporarily have to leave Tierralta. He said in a Facebook video: “We have been with great force denouncing certain incidents related to the assassination of Maria del Pilar (Hurtado) and other instances of human rights violations in the south of Córdoba. This has generated some backlash today in the afternoon and threats against me, and accusations by the chief representative of the municipality of Tierralta, where I live and from where today I am forced to leave, precisely because I have received a threat through a text message and it says that they will assassinate me.”

Andrés Chica receiving police accompaniment.

The same day, the Mayor of Tierralta and the son of the owner of the private land, Fabio Otero, accused the human rights defender of trying to tarnish his image with the assassination of Hurtado to look for political benefits in favor of his interests.

The humanitarian crisis in Colombia is a matter of deep concern. The over 700 social leaders who have been assassinated since 2016 and the 130 ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are more than numbers. They are people who are part of families, communities and organizations, whose right to life was taken away because their vision for a better, more just Colombia threatens the interests of the powerful. The movements and organizations in Colombia continue to mobilize and organize despite this difficult situation and demand their right to a dignified life and to peace.