By Red Power Media, Staff | July 17, 2016
534 activists were assassinated across Colombia between 2011 and 2015, around 17 percent of them indigenous-rights or environmental activists.
- While many assassinations remain unsolved due to corruption or the state’s inability to carry out effective investigations, human-rights watchdogs say the majority is orchestrated by paramilitary groups.
In the oil-rich department of Casanare in eastern Colombia, Daniel Abril Fuentes was known as a peasant farmer leader, defender of human rights, and constant critic of the oil interests he saw as a threat to his community and environment. Now, eight months after being shot dead, Trinidad, Abril’s name appears next to more than 500 others in a briefing documenting the assassinations of political activists in Colombia.
Published in April by the NGO Justice for Colombia (JFC), the briefing lists 534 political activists who were assassinated across the country between 2011 and 2015. Of these, 83 were indigenous-rights activists and 10 were environmental activists — a total of more than 17 percent. On average two activists were killed per week over the five year period.
“These are horrifying figures, and seeing the names written out it makes it more real. But this overall picture of political activists being killed [in Colombia] on a regular basis, unfortunately, isn’t a surprise to us, because it’s what we hear about every week,” Hasan Dodwell, JFC’s Campaigns Officer, told Mongabay.
However, contrary to the country’s declining homicide rate, data shows that murders of activists are actually increasing and are largely carried out by right-wing paramilitary groups.
The JFC briefing published by five different Colombian organizations, the human-rights monitor Programa Somos Defensores among them, shows Colombian activists are often targeted for their work against the expansion of natural-resource exploitation projects.
41 percent of activist assassinations in Latin America are linked to the defense of the environment, land, or indigenous rights.
Peasant activists are often targeted for defending their right to the land.
Attacks for economic interests
The JFC briefing documents assassinations in 26 of Colombia’s 32 departments. Of these, Antioquia in the northwest had the highest number of activists killed, followed by Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño in the west, and then Cordoba in the northwest.
According to Carlos Guevara, communications coordinator for Programa Somos Defensores, while these have been key zones, the high number of attacks on activists is largely driven by economic interests.
These include the cultivation of illicit crops and illegal gold mining — an industry the government regards as rivaling the drug trade in terms of revenue and the threat it poses.
A five decades-long internal conflict between the state and leftist guerrillas has normalized violence in these areas and is being used as an excuse or platform for the murders of political activists.
Peace talks in process since 2012, might be able to bring an end to the armed conflict but much more needs to be done to end to the political violence.
“Civilian rights violations directly derived from the armed conflict have decreased drastically,” Guevara said. “But what we see now is that the violence is becoming a phenomenon that is more localized and focused. It is now being more effectively directed at community leaders.”
Much like Daniel Abril in Casanare, Adelina Gómez Gaviria was reportedly gunned down for her stance against illegal mining in the western department of Cauca. At 36, Gaviria was known as a charismatic community leader with a local land-rights group who had organized a Mining and Environmental Forum that was attended by more than 1,200 local peasant farmers and indigenous people. After receiving death threats by phone warning her to stop her activist work, Gaviria was shot dead and her 13-year-old son wounded in 2013.
Paramilitary groups biggest threat to activists
While many assassinations remain unsolved due to corruption or the state’s inability to carry out effective investigations, Guevara asserted that the majority is orchestrated by paramilitary groups.
Although these groups officially laid down their arms under an agreement with the government in 2006, many local rights groups highlight their ongoing activity. However, the government does not officially recognize their existence. Instead it has relabeled them as BaCrim (for bandas criminales; “criminal groups” in English) so as not to undermine the 2006 demobilization process.
“Paramilitary groups, neo-paramilitary groups, BaCrim, or whatever you want to call them, are the biggest threat to activists. In our [recent] report we identify that they are responsible for 63 percent of attacks this year alone. Last year they also had a high percentage; they almost always have the highest percentage,” said Guevara.
Yet the state’s reluctance to recognize the existence of these groups makes it difficult to focus attention on them and protect activists, he added.
“There are far right sectors in the country that are hiding under the facade of BaCrim, and they have been doing so for years, such as the Aguilas Negras,” he said, referring to a paramilitary group active in drug trafficking.“
According to Guevara, in the last five years more than 800 activists have been threatened.
The quarterly report Guevara mentioned analyzed 113 reported aggressions against human rights defenders in Colombia between January and March of this year. It documents a total of 19 activists assassinated during that period, two of them environmental activists.
The JFC briefing inadvertently highlighted another major issue in Colombia: state negligence and abandonment. This is arguably most apparent in the Caribbean department of La Guajira, a region known for corrupt institutions and as a haven for criminal activities, including drug trafficking, the contraband gasoline trade, and extortion.
Despite this reality, the JFC briefing identified only one activist death in La Guajira since 2011, a figure that both local rights organizations and JFC admit is “unrealistic.”
“La Guajira is one of those departments submerged in darkness…the social fabric and organizations there are very weak, because the forms of violence that dominate ensure that silence governs. We are absolutely sure that that number is completely unrealistic,” said Guevara.
The problem, no organization is able to maintain a constant presence in the region due to ongoing threats and the immense level of fear felt by the population means that few reports of attacks or assassinations can be fully confirmed.
Dodwell from JFC said that the briefing’s assassination figures are “at least” numbers highlighting areas that require increased monitoring to obtain realistic figures.
Colombian State increasing efforts
Despite the high assassination figures, the Colombian state has made increasing efforts in recent years to ensure the safety of activists throughout the country. The National Protection Unit (UNP) within the Ministry of Interior is tasked with protecting threatened individuals, while the state’s human rights agency, the Ombudsman’s Office, continuously highlights human rights violations. Additionally, mechanisms such as the Ombudsman’s Office Early Warning System (SAT) have been important in the contextual analysis and prevention of many attacks.
Although SAT has become one of the best resources for activists around the country, Javier Orlando Tamayo, director of the complaints processing and monitoring department of the Ombudsman’s Office, agreed that more must be done to protect activists. But he asserted that the government is addressing the issue.
“In the case of Marcha Patriotica, the government has made the effort. It has visited the areas, conducted interviews, carried out the investigations, and given orders and directions to overcome these issues,” he said, referring to ongoing investigations into assassinations of members of the left-leaning Marcha Patriotica political party. The party reports that 113 of its members have been assassinated since 2012.
Tamayo said he could not comment on the JFC briefing as the numbers were “not official.” However, he said the Ombudsman’s Office is working closely with other state agencies to verify all reported assassinations and ensure the necessary preventative and judicial steps are taken.
Video: Indigenous Rights and Neo-Paramilitary Control. In this short documentary; Four different Indigenous communities tell their tales of violence, displacement, return and resistance, while shinning a light on the human rights atrocities that continue in Colombia.
A version of this article originally appeared in the July 15, 2016, issue of Mongabay under the title “Heavy toll for green and indigenous activists among Colombian killings” published by Rebecca Kessler.