The Colombian government is failing in its obligation to protect social leaders targeted by illegal armed groups following the country’s historic peace agreement, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
A new report based on more than 130 interviews conducted across Colombia reveals that the protective mechanisms put in place by the government still leave some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens at risk of attack.
The deployment of soldiers has not led to a reduction in killings of human rights officials in areas where illegal armed groups still control the territory. Leaders with cell phones or panic buttons cannot always use them as they are often found in areas with no signal or police presence. Although prosecutors have made arrests for such killings, dismantling the power structures behind the deaths is proving more difficult.
United Nations data indicates that more than 400 human rights defenders have been killed in the South American country since 2016, when the agreement was signed with the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
âColombia has recorded the highest number of human rights defenders killed of any country in Latin America in recent years,â said JosÃ© Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas. “But the government’s response has been mostly talk.”
President IvÃ¡n Duque said reducing crimes against social leaders was a top priority; his government recently announced a plan with the UN to invest several million dollars in the security of human rights leaders.
Tim Rieser, foreign policy assistant to Senator Patrick Leahy, D-VT, said the issue touches a critical part of the implementation of the peace agreement and its success going forward.
âThe peace deal cannot survive if this continues because these people have risked their lives to support it and they are essential to its success,â said Rieser. âUltimately, it will require what Senator Leahy has been saying for years – establishing a semblance of security, economic opportunity and social service in a part of the country where it never existed. It’s a tall order, but they have to show it can be done. “
Several armed groups remained active after the peace agreement, including dissident rebels who chose not to sign the agreement. When the FARC rebels began to demobilize, various criminal groups linked to drug trafficking intervened to fill the void, the report notes, with several now fighting for territorial control.
IvÃ¡n Rosero, a community leader from Tumaco, a municipality in southwest Colombia that has experienced some of the highest levels of coca production in the country, compared the current situation to “a Colombian version of the Old West.”
Rosero said he himself created a small safety manual for local leaders because there was nothing similar available from the government. He became chairman of a community council after the previous leader was killed in a crime that remains unsolved. Rosero said he felt intimidated by the harsh environment.
âThe government does not have a real prevention strategy to protect leaders,â he said.
According to the Human Rights Watch report, leaders have been assassinated for failing to abide by the rules imposed by armed groups. Opposing illegal mining, forced recruitment or the launch of coca crop substitution schemes, an initiative launched under the peace agreement to give peasants a viable economic alternative, can be deadly.
“We want to support substitution, but they won’t let us do it,” a local official told investigators. âIn addition, the government let us down […] we have no choice but to sow.
The deployment of soldiers did not improve the situation, the report said. The Duque administration sent thousands of troops to the worst affected areas. In Catatumbo, the number of military officers increased by 5,600. Nevertheless, the total number of homicides increased from 190 in 2017 to 228 in 2019. The same pattern follows in other regions: despite the increase in the number military officers, crimes, including homicides, have increased, Human Rights Watch found.
Due to budgetary issues, protection programs provided to human rights defenders tend to be insufficient, the study concludes.
Rodrigo Salazar QuiÃ±ones, an indigenous leader, was granted three bodyguards and an armored car in 2014 due to multiple threats. In 2020, the National Protection Unit reduced its security program to a bodyguard and a cell phone. He was killed in July.
Francisco Barbosa Delgado, Colombia’s attorney general, recently said that despite the pandemic, prosecutors have made progress in solving crimes, after determining who is responsible for more than 50% of the killings.
Human Rights Watch noted progress in prosecuting those responsible for the killings of human rights leaders, but noted that it is often contract killers, rather than the so-called intellectual perpetrators of a crime, who are arrested. Shortages of prosecutors, judges and investigators in affected areas also complicate the accountability of officials.
âOne hitman can easily be replaced by another,â Vivanco said.
Rosero said human rights leaders feel stigmatized and isolated.
“The process of investigating the killings of leaders is very nascent and slow,” he said. âThere is a government apathy in the face of this situation, a law of silence imposed on communities by illegal groups. “
This story has been updated to clarify that Rosero felt intimidated by the harsh environment but not directly threatened.
This story was originally published February 10, 2021 4:20 pm.