Killings of Colombia rights activists casts shadow over peace deal

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Even with two bodyguards, a government-issued bulletproof vest and bulletproof car, human rights activist Doris Valenzuela still does not feel safe in her native country, Colombia.

Her work denouncing rights abuses by criminal gangs has led to an attempt on her life, the murder of her teenage son and rape of her daughter.

After fleeing her home six times to escape death threats, Valenzuela now hopes to find refuge in Europe.

The last death threat came in December when two men approached the 37-year-old on the street in her home city of Buenaventura on Colombia’s Pacific coast - even as she was flanked by her bodyguards.

“One of the men had a gun tucked into his belt and told me, ‘We will make you disappear’,” Valenzuela, a mother of three, said.

It’s no empty threat.

Last year 117 rights activists were killed compared with 105 in 2015, with many murders attributed to shadowy right-wing paramilitary groups furious that Marxist FARC guerrillas have been allowed to join society and form a political party under a historic peace deal, according to the Bogota-based Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ).

A November peace deal signed between the government and the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ended Latin America’s longest-running guerrilla insurgency that has killed 200,000 people.

But despite the accord, violence against community leaders and human rights activists is only getting worse, raising questions if peace will bring an end to political bloodshed.


Activists are being targeted for speaking out in favor of the peace deal and for being sympathetic to the FARC cause, INDEPAZ and other rights groups say.

They blame the wave of killings largely on criminal gangs, many composed of former paramilitaries, who they say were not dismantled by state security forces after they demobilized as part of a peace deal from 2003 onwards.

Five activists have already been killed in the first weeks of this year alone.

One victim was indigenous leader Olmedo Pito, shot by unidentified gunmen in a rural part of Colombia’s western province of Cauca earlier this month, INDEPAZ reports.

A member of Marcha Patriotica, a leftist political movement loosely aligned with the FARC, activists say Pito’s murder marks rising political violence - a long-standing problem in Colombia that the peace accord aims to eradicate once and for all.

“Activists are the people who are going to be monitoring and helping to solidify peace on the ground. The violence undermines the very structures that you will need to make peace a reality,” said Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Colombia rights advocate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Such political violence is a stark reminder of past atrocities that Colombians had hoped would end with the accord.

The last time the FARC attempted to make inroads in politics was in the 1980s when some 5,000 members and supporters of the rebel-backed Patriotic Union political party were killed by paramilitary groups.


The U.N. human rights office has criticized “persistent violence” against activists in Colombia in the past year.

Many fear the killings will only continue despite the peace deal as FARC pulls out of areas it controlled, paving the way for other armed groups, along with another rebel group - the National Liberation Army (ELN) – which is moving in to replace the FARC and fighting over the spoils and territorial control.

As they push into former FARC strongholds, community leaders speaking out against rights abuses and activists campaigning for land rights are in the line of fire, targeted by armed groups who they consider to be a threat to their economic interests.

“Criminal groups just want to make sure that they are not going to be held up on their drug operations, on their extortion rackets and illegal mining,” Sanchez-Garzoli said.

The government acknowledges criminal groups control certain areas of Colombia and says it is moving in quickly to stop them expanding their operations.

“There are areas where illegal mining is a very real issue, as is the issue of illicit crops, and so one finds illegal actors there who are exerting a lot of pressure and who end up dominating certain areas and who affect people living there,” Paula Gaviria, the presidential advisor on human rights, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

Under the peace accord, around 7,000 FARC fighters are leaving their traditional strongholds across Colombia. They are expected to hand in their weapons over the next six months.

The accord painstakingly negotiated over four years also allows demobilized rebels to form a political party and eventually run for office.

“Armed groups are making a statement... The message is that ‘We are still in control here. Don’t get emboldened’,” Sanchez-Garzoli said.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has pledged to better protect activists and bring perpetrators to justice.

State prosecutors are investigating the murders of at least 63 activists, which have led to three convictions so far, Gaviria said.

“We have received instructions from the president to ensure that an answer from the state regarding these crimes is a top priority,” she said.


Some rights activists say the spike in campaigners’ murders could have an impact on the country’s transition to peace after half a century of war.

“The violence against and killings of defenders is a very bad message to send to those people who are handing in their weapons,” said Carlos Guevara, coordinator of Bogota-based campaign group We Are Defenders.

“What guarantees will they have to enter civilian life and politics?” he said.

The rebels have said they will return to the battlefield if they are not protected and their members start getting killed.

To implement the peace deal on the ground, the government still needs to pass an array of laws and secure tens of millions of dollars in funding, a process expected to take months.

“The more people who get killed during that period, the more this just completely undermines the whole peace process and confidence in it,” Sanchez-Garzoli said.

Mindful of the possibility for more violence and rights abuses ahead, activists like Valenzuela, who dreams of finishing school and going to university one day, say they will not stop campaigning.

“I’ll never give up. I’ll continue until the last consequences,” Valenzuela said.