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Heavy toll for green and indigenous activists among Colombian killings

  • A report by the London-based NGO Justice for Colombia documented activist killings across the country between 2011 and 2015.
  • On average two activists were killed per week over the five year period, according to the report.
  • The figures are “at least” numbers that highlight areas of the country that require increased monitoring to obtain realistic figures; the actual number of killings is likely much higher, according to a Justice for Colombia representative.
  • 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 campesino 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 outside a bakery in his native municipality of 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 London-based 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.

The country is on the cusp of ending five decades of internal conflict between the state and leftist guerrillas, and violence between the two sides has steadily deescalated since peace talks began in 2012. However, contrary to this trend and 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, representatives of local organizations, including the human-rights monitor Programa Somos Defensores, told Mongabay.

Daniel Abril Fuentes, a human-rights and environmental activist in Colombia’s department of Casanare, was killed last November. Photo courtesy of Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado.

The JFC briefing collates information published by five different Colombian organizations, Programa Somos Defensores among them. According to Dodwell it represents just a snapshot of reality in which threats and attacks are carried out with impunity. The actual number of activists killed is likely to be much higher, he said.

As the briefing shows, Colombian activists are often targeted for their work against the expansion of natural-resource exploitation projects, according to Dodwell. An analysis this year by Irish NGO Front Line Defenders corroborates that assertion, finding that 41 percent of activist assassinations in Latin America are linked to the defense of the environment, land, or indigenous rights.

A more focused violence

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.

Carlos Guevara, communications coordinator for Programa Somos Defensores, told Mongabay that while these have been key zones in the internal conflict, 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.

Dodwell from JFC agreed, adding that the decades-long internal conflict has normalized violence in these areas and is now used as a façade for silencing activists.

“Generally, the conflict is being used as an excuse or platform for the murders of political activists. For example, peasant activists are targeted a lot as they are often defending their right to the land. And this is the concern: the peace process might be able to bring an end to the armed conflict but much, much more needs to be done to bring an end to the political violence,” he said.

Guevara described how the shift in violence across the country is creating an increasingly dangerous situation for activists.

“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 campesinos 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.

According to Guevara, the departments of Valle del Cauca and Cauca are seeing a particularly strong intensification in violence as activists there push a human-rights agenda.

Adelina Gómez Gaviria, an anti-mining activist in the Colombian department of Cauca, was killed in 2013. Photo courtesy of Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado.

“These regions contribute the most to these figures, both in attacks and deaths of activists, because they have become laboratories for peace. Civil society there is talking more and more about peace in zones where they face real enemies,” he said.

Continuing influence of paramilitary groups

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. “But for the state, the Aguilas Negras do not exist. So I can’t explain how in the last five years they’ve threatened more than 800 activists.”

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 report notes that although the number of aggressions decreased in comparison to the same period last year, the number of activists killed remained the same.

Unavoidable discrepancies

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, Guevara pointed out, is that no organization is able to maintain a constant presence in the region due to ongoing threats. 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.

Positive steps

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, political negligence and bureaucratic processes mean that the early warning reports it releases often go unnoticed or are delayed, said Guevara from Somos Defensores.

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.

When asked about La Guajira, Tamayo said the region has experienced an insufficient effort from “everyone.” But, he said, it is not an isolated case, pointing to departments in the country’s natural-resource rich Amazon in the south and Orinoco River watershed in the east as also being “completely unprotected.”

“We lack a permanent and inter-institutional presence in these regions,” Tamayo said.

Red passion vine flower in the Amazon rainforest of Colombia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.