By María Fernanda Barreto
In the streets of some Colombian cities, and as it is in the news, the war looks distant. Everyday life seems to be immersed in the official history and there are even those who refer to the armed conflict as being in the past. But in reality, it is peace that is still far away. In Colombia, genocide is being perpetrated against social leaders to impose the interests of transnational corporations, the large land owners, drug trafficking, illegal mining and, above all, to prevent communities from exercising power in their own territories.
For Paula Companioni, a journalist from Colombia Informa, “you are always much closer to war when you are outside of Bogotá, that is why there is a distance from the day to day of the social leaders who are being killed, because most are in rural areas where you enter the areas of mega-mining and energy exploitation. Campanioni said that Colombian society is not alien to this genocide, but it does not know how to position itself before it, because the narco-State has managed to impose an image through the entertainment industry, novels, series and music that legitimizes the mafias and the fear of confronting them.
In light of the 1948 United Nations convention, which defined the killing of members of a group, the serious injury to the physical or mental integrity of members of a group, or the intentional subjection of a group to conditions of existence that has to bring about its total or partial physical destruction, with the intention of destroying it totally or partially, the extermination of social leaders in the Colombia qualifies without a doubt as political genocide.
Companioni goes on to explain, “If there is a specific profile of the victims, of the perpetrators, and it is possible to map the places where these crimes happen most frequently, then one may wonder why the state refuses to admit that an intentionality and pattern exists?”
At the September 2017 plenary session of the Colombian House of Representatives, Senator Iván Cepeda emphasized that it is important to highlight that these crimes have an economic and political essence to them. He also denounced that many of the social leaders are assassinated in the vicinity of police installations or in heavily militarized zones. He insists that these are systematic and generalized murders, which constitute crimes against humanity. He said that a large part of the victims receive previous threats from paramilitary groups such as “The Black Eagles,” whose structure nobody knows, their commanders are unknown and photos of their camps have never been seen, so he concludes that this gang does not really exist and is simply a name used for covert operations of this type.
In conversations with Cristian Delgado, coordinator of the National Operative Team of Guarantees and Human Rights of the Social Coordination and Political Patriotic March, concurred that there is a resurgence of false positives and forced displacements in several regions of Colombia. In his opinion, what is happening can be classified as genocide because the violence is directed against a specific group of people; former FARC-EP guerrillas in reincorporation, social leaders and human rights defenders, which also happened to be concentrated in specific regions such as Cauca, Antioquia, Nariño, Valle del Cauca, Córdoba, Norte de Santander and Putumayo. These are also areas that are highly militarized zones where specific interests related to biodiversity and natural resources coincide, zones of high geostrategic value where illegal drug trafficking and mining economies operate concurrently and where there are land disputes.
Delgado added that there is a common mode of operation. The murders are committed by hired killers who combine firearms and knives, they occur in the vicinity of the victim’s place of residence or work, and are generally preceded by threats from paramilitary groups.
Lack of protection for victims
The peasant leader of Cauca, Marylen Serna, a national spokesperson of the Peoples Congress, told us that not only are social leaders being murdered and disappeared, but they are also being prosecuted and imprisoned without evidence, with the sole purpose of removing them from their territories during the time of the investigation and thus trying to deactivate their positions of leadership.
The organization in which Serna is involved in fights for a system of protection to be collective and concerted, according to each territorial context. Until now, the so called National Protection Unit has minimized its attention that usually only consists of providing a bulletproof vest and a cell phone, and often suggests to the victim that the best solution is to abandon their struggle or diminish their participation.
We asked Serna about the actual numbers of these murders, but he replied that they are very difficult to determine. Those offered by the Colombian state are so unbelievable that Vivanco himself, leader of the NGO Human Rights Watch, which is connected to sectors of the local right wing, declared that the government is playing with the figures to lower the tone of the crisis. Therefore, it is normal to find dissimilar data between state institutions, non-governmental organizations and the UN.
According to the government, for example, between 2016 and May 2019 there were 281 homicides of social leaders in the country. Meanwhile, Legal Medicine reported that 317 social leaders were assassinated from January 1, 2018 until April 30, 2019. And the Ombudsman’s Office reported that between January 1, 2016 and January 31, 2019, the figure was 462 and more than 164 in 2018.
The UN Human Rights Office, for its part, recorded 115 murders of social leaders in 2018, a figure backed by Somos Defensores. Meanwhile, Marcha Patriótica, Indepaz and Cumbre Agraria report 282 cases in 2018 and 702 from 2016 to April 2019. Marcha Patriótica also counts 99 murders of this type so far this year.
As for former FARC-EP guerrillas, Delgado reported that since the signing of the peace accords 135 have been killed and another 28 have been killed so far in 2019. They counted 36 relatives of ex-combatants in reincorporation executed since the signing of the agreements and 9 so far in 2019.
The Center for Popular Research and Education reported that these social leaders have received about 1,100 threats in 2018.
Marylen Serna warned that the dispute for local power, such as the mayoral election next October in Colombia, are a threat to the territorial control that legal and illegal armed actors want to exercise and represent a peak in the occurrence of these crimes.
The truth is that the most modest figures speak of a leader or social leader murdered every four days, and the highest records speak of one every day and a half. However, there are days like March 21 of this year, when eight leaders of the Cauca indigenous minga were assassinated on the same day.
We asked Marylen why in the face of this reality, which undoubtedly frightens people like her, keep fighting and new leadership continues to emerge. She responded that Colombia has decades of armed conflict and in the midst of it they have managed to move forward their struggles and contribute to a political solution to the social and armed conflict so that the new generations do not have to endure a reality as difficult as the one they are currently living. “Those of us who have been fighting for so many years can no longer imagine life without fighting, and we have lived through such painful moments that we are not afraid of threats,” she said.
This brave generation of leaders facing extermination is concerned about building new leadership, because in their opinion “Colombia deserves a stable and lasting peace” and they are aware that this peace can only exist with social justice.
The hard evidence of a genocide in progress is that while we were writing this report Gustavo Zapata Raves, in the department of Meta; and María del Pilar Hurtado in Córdoba, who were fighting for the right to land; and Carlos Biscué, a Nasa indigenous leader in the department of Cauca, were murdered. The world cannot continue unmoved by this tragedy.