SANTANDER DE QUILICHAO, Colombia (Reuters) - Indigenous leader Edwin Mauricio Capaz pulls on a bulletproof vest every day before getting into the armored 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 demobilize 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 organizations 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, U.S. 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.
Think-tank INDEPAZ says 734 activists have been killed in the same January 2016-June 2019 period.
Those figures do not include the FARC tally of 138 former guerrillas it says have been killed since the peace deal, in assassinations the group attributes to crime gangs formed by former members of right-wing paramilitary groups.
“When you threaten or kill a leader or human rights defender, you attack democracy,” said human rights ombudsman Carlos Alfonso Negret. “Without social leaders there is no democracy, so this is supremely serious. We don’t want to repeat these assassinations.”
The killings have sparked fears of an organized assassination campaign like the one carried out against the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) party in the late 1980s.
The UP, the FARC’s first attempt at forming a political party, lost more than 3,000 members and two presidential candidates to assassinations carried out by paramilitary gunmen sometimes backed by members of the Colombian military.
Duque denies the killings since 2016 are part of a systematic plan to eliminate activists or community leaders.
But the government’s failure to occupy former FARC territory after the peace accord has allowed for the proliferation of armed groups with no qualms about killing people like human rights advocates, said Alberto Brunori, who represents the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia.
“These groups that kill, that threaten - what they want is to silence free voices,” he said. “Human rights defenders are bastions of democracy - silencing these voices puts an end - a limit - to freedom of expression, among other freedoms.”
Duque says the killing of activists fell 35% during his first year in office and has made repeated promises to confront threats and murders.
“We want to completely end this tragedy and confront all the criminals that are behind it,” Duque told Congress last month. “Not one more, not one more!”
The numbers appear stacked against Duque. Some 7 million Colombians, just over 14% of the population, are considered social leaders - including the presidents of more than 1,100 neighborhood organizations.
The sheer number of activists makes individual protection nearly impossible - just 4,500 have bodyguards or other protection schemes.
Some activists are among more than 100,000 candidates running in October’s local and regional elections, complicating protection efforts.
Despite the threats, leaders like Capaz - who carries a walkie-talkie so he can notify authorities and other activists of any attack - continue their work.
“The feeling of insecurity is permanent - these security arrangements can isolate you from risky areas, from risky moments, but they don’t take the risk away.”
Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown