Despite a peace deal being signed two years ago, there appears to be a rise in activist murders in Colombia. Although the overall homicide rate has dropped considerably, statistics shows that social activists, indigenous leaders, environmentalists, local councilmen and union organisers are being murdered in greater numbers. In 2018, almost 200 community leaders have been killed and in March alone, eight activists were murdered. According to Colombia’s Institute of Studies for Peace and Development, this indicates that the by the end of the year there will have been far more activist murders than the number recorded for all of 2017.
Many of the murders have taken place in regions of the country that were abandoned by the largest and most infamous rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), following the peace deal. Previously, in provinces such as Cauca, Antioquia, Nariño and Putumayo, the government was absent which allowed guerilla groups to prosper. The peace deal, signed by the Colombian government and FARC, signalled the end of fifty-two years of civil war that left almost a quarter of a million civilians dead. As part of the demobilisation process, many FARC guerillas left the rural areas where they once exerted power.
During the civil war, the FARC controlled regions saw some of the worst violence. After the peace agreement, these regions saw an increase in the number of community organisers and social activists pushing for changes in areas once marred by political upheaval. Leaders of these communities demanded better infrastructure and services having been ignored by the government during the period of their rebel governance.
Since the peace agreement, the government still has not succeeded in governing these provinces, resulting groups of drug traffickers, and breakaway rebel factions who opposed the deal, to fill the power vacuum left by the FARC. An analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, Adam Isacson, told the New York Times that despite the peace agreement, the beginnings of a larger social breakdown could be brewing. He said, “There was a period of tranquillity where people were holding their breath as town councils and social leaders were practicing politics freely for the first time. But that is over now. There was a window which opened up, and the state did not jump through — but other armed groups did.”
Now it seems the killings could be a result of the government’s attempt to reassert control. This is in part because the economic development provisions outlined in the peace accord formalised landownership for peasants. Allowing those who illegally grew coca, the plant that cocaine is derived from, to plant legal crops such as cacao and coffee. Historically, narcotrafficking has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on Colombia and its citizens. The provisions were designed so that peasants who live in rural areas have the opportunity to make a profit while also eliminating coca production.
Problematically, many cartel groups have become rich thanks to the processing and trafficking of coca. Therefore, the government’s recent attempts to secure the peace agreement’s economic development initiatives have obstructed certain cartel groups’ ventures. Residents say that activists’ development projects are associated with an increase in monitoring by the government and thus interfere with illegal activities. It is being suggested that local organisers who support the government’s plans are being targeted.
In August, Holmes Niscué, an indigenous leader, was attending a community meeting with his wife when he was shot multiple times. It is suspected that local guerrilla groups saw him as being the instigator of a government raid against drug traffickers. Niscué’s widow, Marisel Tascus Pai, said that she has been in hiding since her husband’s murder. A month earlier, in Valle de Cauca, Libardo Moreno, a farming activist, was shot in the neck and chest and left to die. He had started a project within his village for farmers to pool their resources to support various development projects. One of Moreno’s in-laws, Alex Moreno, told journalists, “Paving a road or bringing an aqueduct is good. But for a few, it is bad. It means there’s more access, more people — and more authorities can come.”
Datasketch, a Colombian investigative news outlet, found earlier in the year that almost 75% of activists who had been murdered since November 2016 live in the coca-growing countryside of Colombia. However, despite the targeted nature and the increasing number of activist murders, response from the Colombian government so far has been underwhelming. In the general election earlier this year, only one presidential candidate, the former FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño, mentioned the issue of the murders, but dropped out of the election race due to poor health.
In a statement to the New York Times, Ivan Duque, the newly-elected right-wing president, said that the systematic violence against activists is “a grave phenomenon which deeply worries the government”, but did not offer any insight as to how the government was prepared to tackle the issue. While many of these activists’ murders are under investigation, many remain unsolved with no perpetrator being identified in most cases. In December last year, the Minister of Defence, Luis Carlos Villegas, insinuated that the murders were crimes of passion, saying in an interview with Noticias Uno that he didn’t think there was any organisation responsible for the killings.
It is hard to know what this might mean for the peace process in Colombia and the effect it could have on civilians’ confidence in their government’s ability to execute an agreement that keeps everybody safe. Last year, a human rights advisor to the Colombian government, Paula Gaviria, stated, “I do not think there’s a group of people who sit down to say, ‘Let’s kill these people because we do not like peace’. But obviously killing social leaders is generating a sense in communities and public opinion that there is no positive impact of peace”.
As the number of murdered activists and leaders continues to climb, Gaviria’s statement rings true. Violence has a devastating impact on the sense of community and the level of human security that people living in Colombia’s rural areas feel. What is certain is that the government needs to do more to ensure the safety of all its civilians, particularly those who are trying to defend human rights and improve the livelihoods of those around them.
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