Social Leaders In Colombia Increasingly At Risk During FARC-EP Peace Process

On March 7, 2016, William Castillo Chima was having a drink at a bar in El Bagre, Antioquia, when all of a sudden he was shot and killed. Chima was a proud member of the Marcha Patriotica, a left-wing Colombian political and social movement, and the founder of AHERAMIGUA, a human rights organization founded by farmers and miners that work to defend land rights. One year later, Franciso Gomez, a social leader in the Arauca province, barely escaped death after two men entered his home in the middle of the night and repeatedly stabbed him in the stomach, chest and legs. Luckily, Gomez was living with Juan Torres, a member of the Marcha Patriotica, at the time of the attack and was able to save him. Just this past month, Fernando Asprilla, an active member of Marcha Patriotica and the vice-president of the local Communal Action Board, was shot numerous times and was found dead by locals of the community of La Tigre in Cauca. The murder of Asprilla comes just two days after the tragic killing of another social leader, Idalia Castillo Narvaez, who was brutally tortured and raped.

To many, the stories of Chima, Gomez, Asprilla, Narvaez and the several other social leaders who have fallen victim to such violent attacks come as a surprise considering it was just last year that the Government finalized a historic peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP). Deadly attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders have since been increasing at an alarming rate, for a social leader is killed every four days in Colombia despite the ongoing peace process according to TeleSUR. Since the signing of the historic peace deal in November of last year, a total of 181 attacks against social leaders and human rights activists have been reported as stated by TeleSUR. In addition, 194 social leaders have received death threats and there have been 484 reported human rights violations between January and August of this year according to the non-governmental organization Indepaz.

In addition to the many social leaders that have been killed, there have also been a number of reported disappearances of activists that appear to be a result of foul play. One victim is Henry Perez, president of a community organization, who went missing last January from the northeastern municipality of Tibu and has yet to be found. According to a report by the Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia, Perez’s wife had been receiving threatening demands to stop looking for him.

Not all areas of Colombia have been impacted by the violence against social leaders in the same way, however. Cauca, located in the southwestern part of the country, has the highest reported number of deaths, for 31% of all social and community leaders murdered last year took place in Cauca according to Colombia Reports. The four areas most affected by the killing of social leaders are Cauca, Antioquia, Norte de Santander and Valle de Cauca, all of which share very similar geographical characteristics. Firstly, these areas used to have a FARC-EP military presence and as they demobilized, paramilitary and illegal rebel groups looked to take over control, leading to an increase in crime and other activities such as illegal mining and drug trafficking operations. In fact, according to the office of the UN Higher Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, more than 60% of reported killings of social leaders in 2016 took place in areas where the FARC-EP previously had a military presence. Many Colombians have viewed the historic peace agreement as playing an indirect role in the increase in social leader deaths since the demobilization of the FARC-EP has left certain territories vulnerable to other illegal groups and criminal gangs to take over. Another common characteristic of these regions is that they are all along key drug trafficking routes and territories where gangs grow and produce cocaine, again making them easy targets for illegal activity.

Although the takeover by paramilitary groups and criminal gangs puts all villagers at risk, those who oppose them and speak up for the community such as human rights activists and social leaders are the most at danger. Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said that “The peace process poses an invaluable opportunity to reinstate the rule of law in areas long battered by violence and abuses. But peace and rights are unlikely to flourish if abuses dissuade rights defenders from playing their indispensable role.” The killing and violent attacks on social and human rights leaders is a strategic way for paramilitary groups to instil fear in those who may want to play an influential role in their community in the future. According to the UN, human rights defenders are seen as obstacles to paramilitary and illegal criminal groups in achieving their political and economic interests. Leaders of communal action boards and farmer’s associations are the most targeted victims in these areas, followed by members of the Marcha Patriotica and indigenous communities according to Colombia Reports.

Not only are social leaders vulnerable to violent attacks, even former members of the FARC-EP have been made targets by those who do not agree with the peace process. According to TeleSUR, there have been eight deaths of former FARC-EP rebels and 10 deaths of their family members by paramilitary groups since the signing of the peace deal. Rodrigo Londono, leader of the newly founded political party the Revolutionary Alternative Forces of the Commons (formerly the FARC-EP), said that the murders of former members and the security gap is a major concern according to TeleSUR.

Most experts believe that the homicides of social leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia are likely to continue to increase if the government does not take action. The Colombian government should look to double its security efforts to protect activists, social leaders and demobilized FARC-EP fighters in order to preserve their influential roles in society. The government should also ensure that every murder case is investigated thoroughly and that the killers are brought to justice. In 2016, only four convictions on cases involving activists killed that year were made, leaving most killings in 2016 and 2015 uncharged according to Human Rights Watch. If paramilitary groups and criminal gangs believe that their actions against community leaders can be conducted without any consequences, then it is likely that they will continue to use such intimidation tactics. The Colombian government has made tremendous progress over the past few years through the signing of the historic peace deal, but it is important not to forget the implications of the demobilization of the FARC-EP. Although the country has ended the violent FARC-EP war that plagued the nation for decades, it is crucial that the government ensures that the areas once controlled by the FARC-EP are not taken over by other rebel gangs, otherwise history may just repeat itself.