Globe, Human Rights, Latin America, Politiks

Social leaders: silenced voices, massacred bodies


In Colombia, the average is one murder every two or three days. They are identical and systematic. The threats and attacks are constant. In most cases, the perpetrators and brains behind the crimes are unknown. The government has been lacking in terms of its will and interest to deal with the horror. Of the crimes committed between 2009 and 2017, 91.4% have gone unpunished.


Photo by Silvia Andrea Moreno. Flickr

Tania Peña


Figures relating to the murders of social leaders in Colombia are becoming increasingly alarming.

The latest report submitted by the Patriotic March Social Organisation and the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz) indicates that between 1 January 2016 and the first few days of 2019, 566 social leaders were killed.

In this regard, the Institute of Political Studies and International Relations of the National University of Colombia stresses that these crimes against defenders of human rights are not accidental: they are identical and systematic. The Centre for Research and Education of the People, Indepaz and the Colombian Commission of Jurists further specify that the attacks and murders are being carried out in 27 of the country’s 32 departments.

Most affected are the departments of Cauca and Nariño in the southwestern corner of Colombia, Antioquia in the northwest and Norte de Santander in the northeast.

In the opinion of deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation of Colombia, Ariel Ávila, the State must act immediately to avoid a situation that is taking on the form of a systematic extermination of leaders.

“Sin Memoria me moria” GUACHE . Photo Wikimedia Commons. Licencia

Avila, alluding to the concern expressed last December by UN special rapporteur for Colombia, Michael Forst – who said that the situation regarding the matter was terrifying – warned that In Colombia one leader is killed every four days.

Forst’s opinion was that there was a pattern of systematic attacks on social leaders, a fact that has recently been acknowledged by Colombia’s General Prosecutor’s Office.

For 10 days, the UN rapporteur visited the regions of Catatumbo, La Guajira, Antioquia, Norte de Santander and Cauca to assess the conditions for human rights defenders, which he described as serious and shocking.

The high-ranking UN official said that it showed the fear in which social leaders live in many of the areas that were hit by the armed conflict and where, paradoxically, they are saying insecurity has grown.

He also warned of the high levels of impunity in the country, which encourages homicide.

In most cases, the perpetrators and brains behind the crimes go unidentified, although responsibility is attributed mostly to paramilitary organisations and illegal armed groups linked fundamentally to drug trafficking.

Human rights defenders Somos Defensores warned that the situation is such that 91.4% of the murders of social leaders in Colombia between 2009 and 2017 went unpunished.

According to research carried out by this group, out of almost 600 cases of homicide perpetrated against human rights defenders in this timeframe, only 49 ended in conviction or acquittal. Since the signing of the Peace Agreement in November 2016, of all the social organisations Patriotic March – which reported having lost 169 of its members between 2012 and July 2018 – has suffered the greatest number of attacks and murders against its leaders.

Photo by Silvia Andrea Moreno. Flickr.

The new head of the UN Verification Mission monitoring the peace process in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, expressed on 15 January, additional concern about the murder of ex-combatants of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia – People’s Army FARC-EP (almost a hundred have been murdered since the signing of the agreements).

Given this shocking reality, the president of Colombia, Iván Duque, launched in November 2018 a new strategy to guarantee the protection of social leaders and human rights defenders in the country.

The president signed a decree which creates the so-called Plan of Action (PAO) which involves: a coordinated approach including prevention; immediate response with early warnings; research to establish who the perpetrators and brains behind the crimes are; and the implementation of exemplary sanctions. However, to date the murders have continued.

According to the head of state, in the implementation of the PAO, the Ombudsman’s Office, the Office of the Prosecutor, the Treasury Inspector’s Office, the Office of the Inspector General of Colombia and the Police Force will participate in a coordinated and permanent manner: all as part of the declared ‘Peace with Legality’ strategy.

But House of Representatives member Ángela María Robledo believes that this policy should incorporate the dismantling of paramilitary organisations and acknowledgement on the part of the government, the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Nation, the Ombudsman and the Office of the Inspector General of Colombia, of the systematic murder of social leaders (something that the government refuses to acknowledge).

Photo: Pixabay

“We are reverting to violence, the massacres are back and what Duque says – that there has been an effort to seek peace with legality – is not true,” stated Robledo, former candidate for vice-president of the Human Colombia (Colombia Humana) party.

For weekly Voz magazine, an organ of the Colombian Communist Party, society is being revictimized by the petty interests of big capital, landowners, multi-nationals and their paramilitary organisations that want to institutionalize this model of terror and fear with the systematic murder of social leaders

Voz believes, moreover, that in Colombia sectors of the extreme right and local business have not renounced the use of paramilitaries to benefit their specific interests.

Juan Fernando Vargas, professor at the Faculty of Economics at the Rosario University in Bogotá, says that the information about these deaths is mainly based on anecdotal accounts of isolated cases, and there are few systematic and rigorous studies aimed at shedding light on the scope of and reasons behind what is happening.

The UN and community organizations agree that social leaders are being killed mostly in areas where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) previously operated and where today the presence of the State is minimal or non-existent. The hypothesis given is that paramilitary and illegal armed groups perceived the abandonment of FARC-EP arms as an opportunity to gain control of these territories.

Given this escalation, the ombudsman of Colombia, Carlos Alfonso Negret, said at the beginning of this year: “the most serious thing is that we are getting used to news of deaths on a daily basis”.

“How far will this hostility with social leaders go?” asked Negret in whose opinion the fundamental causes of the murders are related to drug trafficking, illegal mining and the recovery of dispossessed land.

In addition, Colombia’s Congressional Peace Commission expressed serious concern about the marked violence against social leaders in the departments of Cauca, Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Caquetá, Norte de Santander, Antioquia, Córdoba, Cesar, Meta, Nariño, Sucre and Putumayo.

Photo: Pixabay

The parliamentarians called on the General Prosecutor’s Office of Colombia, the Ministry of Defense and other agencies of the government and State for an effective plan to protect the leaders. Likewise, the Colombian General Prosecutor, Fernando Carrillo, recently described the escalation in crimes against social leaders as unacceptable and deemed the government’s personal protection schemes a failure.

According to assessments of social organizations, 80% of the crimes are related to land claims and the protection of natural resources.

They are also directed against leaders who promote the replacement of illicit crops with legal alternatives and against residents and environmental spokespersons who oppose large scale projects that compromise the country’s water reserves. Colombian lawyer Reynaldo Villalba said that the murders are fundamentally motivated by financial interests.

According to Villalba, they thus attack the heart of a community, attempt to put an end to communal organisations (whether made up of peasants, Afro-Colombians or natives) and almost always endeavour to displace them in order to keep the land in the hands of multinationals and large scale projects. (PL)

(Translated by Nigel Conibear MCIL)

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