Indigenous leader Edwin Mauricio Capaz pulls on a bulletproof vest every day before getting into the armoured car he uses to travel around the restive part of southwest Colombia he calls home.
Despite this protection, the 34-year-old worries he could soon join hundreds of human rights activists and community leaders assassinated since a 2016 peace deal, many of them for confronting drug trafficking or illegal mining.
“If they haven’t threatened us already we are certain that one day they will — or that one day our lives will be at risk,” said Capaz, who lives in the Pacific province of Cauca and has been getting threats from different armed groups since 2014.
The 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels ended more than 50 years of war between the government and the group. But though violence fell overall after the deal, so-called “social leaders” continue to be threatened, attacked and killed — many in cases which remain unsolved.
The murders have become a political headache for right-wing President Ivan Duque, who is coming under pressure internationally to stop them. The government attributes the killings to still-active National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels along with crime gangs and dissident FARC guerrillas who refused to demobilise after the peace accord. All are fighting for control of lucrative drug production and illegal mining areas previously ruled by the FARC.
Community leaders and activists involved in efforts to protect the environment, stem illegal mining, oppose the presence of armed groups or promote the eradication of coca — the base ingredient in cocaine — risk the ire of multiple armed groups, human rights organisations say.
“The drug trafficking economy is very powerful and is the principal threat because they’re using indigenous land,” said Capaz, the father of a 9-year-old son, as he prepares to travel the steep mountains of his community in the company of a driver and a bodyguard.
Though Duque says the number of assassinations fell by more than a third since he took office just over a year ago, he was greeted during a June visit to London by protesters yelling “killer!” In the late 2000s, US lawmakers pushed back against a trade deal with Colombia to protest the killing of union leaders. If outrage over the new wave of killings grows loud enough, it could hurt the Andean nation’s ties with the United States and the European Union, which help finance the reintegration of former rebels, coca substitution and other programs.
There is no definitive tally of how many activists and community leaders have been murdered since the peace deal. The attorney general’s office pegs the figure at 292, between the start of 2016 and June of this year, while the office of the country’s human rights ombudsman says the number is at least 486. — Reuters
Luis Jaime Acosta