In 2016, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize for his landmark peace agreement with the leftist guerilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Since then, however, more than 300 social group activists have been killed throughout Colombia, and the frequency of these violent attacks seems to be increasing.
Over the weekend of Aug. 4-5, two more social leaders, Alfredo Alonso Ruiz Higuita and Hernán Darío Chavarría Areiza, were killed in the Antioquia region. According to the Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos (CCEEU), there have been 21 assassinations in 2018 in Antioquia alone. In Colombia as a whole, various NGOs have reported more than 100 and counting in this year.
Most of these assassinations have been conducted in rural areas formerly under guerrilla control—specifically Cauca Nariño, Norte de Santander and Valle del Cauca, hotbeds for conflict that have experienced the brunt of the recent violence. However, leaders have been assassinated in nearly every part of the country.
The prevailing assumption is that the targeted assassinations of prominent social leaders are meant to prevent the local stabilization that theoretically should come from the peace deal. In the disarray of the guerrilla demobilization, other groups with nefarious objectives have attempted to seize power.
“In many cases, criminal activity has increased in the last case [of Higuita and Areiza] because the vacuum left by the demobilization of FARC has not been filled by the state,” explained William Spindler, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Land rights is a critical issue. Roughly 80 percent of the victims had previously spoken out against the unequal allocation of land resources in impoverished areas, largely in the face of extractivist policies. And with the recently elected Iván Duque-led regime being largely supportive of extractivism, social leaders could have reason to distrust the government.
Some activists believe the reason for this new spike is the recent presidential elections, where the right-wing Duque won over ex-guerilla member Gustavo Petro. Similar to the Trump-era United States, many right-wing groups have become emboldened by the winning regime.
“These kinds of murders were gone from Colombians’ reality for a long time, but they’re back and they started happening after the presidential elections in which Iván Duque won as the new president,” said María de la Torre, a columnist for El Tiempo, “Neither him or [former president] Santos has said a word about these murders of people that are just standing up for the peasants and the rights of the weakest and the most vulnerable people in Colombia.”
Impunity and a lack of justice for the victims remains widespread. In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrators are neither known nor actively pursued by law enforcement.
“What we see is that in countries where there is no social order it’s very difficult to fight impunity, it’s important to train judges, and to pay good salaries to judges so they are not tempted to receive bribes, and are able to fight effectively against impunity,” explained Michel Forst, UN special rapporteur on human rights.
Many believe that organized paramilitary groups—long a problem in Colombia—are the main culprits. In July, a far-right paramilitary group known as the Aguilas Negras issued a threat to all social leaders who they claim are “guerillas in disguise.” A statement, widely circulated among social groups throughout Colombia, issued a clear threat to those who went against their interests.
“Guerrilla organizations and leaders will disappear. Our country cannot be home of guerrillas and militias disguised as supposed social leaders,” the statement read. “Because of this we have begun our extermination effort in all Colombian territory, and nothing or nobody will stop us.”
For his part, Duque recently spoke out against the violence. In a meeting with the Colombian Ombudsman Carlos Alfonso Negret, he laid out his intentions: “We are going to work together to avoid the assassination of social leaders, to work for indigenous and campesino communities, and for there to be no further violation of human rights in Colombia.”
Activists both inside and outside the country are mobilizing to spread visibility to the conflict. Surviving social leaders have organized a Twitter campaign titled #NosEstanMatando in order to raise public awareness of the conflict. Protests have been organized in Bogotá and spread throughout other regions of the country.
Colombian social leaders are continuing to fight even in the face of death, but it is uncertain how much longer can they hold out.
“I am here because the only thing that remains is to resist with many people who sympathize with us,” Catherine Rivera, a university student, said at an organized rally in Bogotá last month. “We can only resist.”
Michael Middleton is an intern at El Tecolote and is currently studying to obtain his Master’s degree in International Studies from the University of San Francisco. He is currently living in Medellín, Colombia, where he’ll be for the entirety of the summer in order to conduct research for his capstone project.
Story by: Michael Middleton