Colombia killings of social leaders, rights defenders hit new high

BOGOTA, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Colombia will end the year with at least 199 killings of social leaders and human rights defenders, the highest level recorded, due to attacks by illegal armed groups in areas tied to the drug trade, the country's human rights ombudsman said on Wednesday.

In the first eleven months of the year, 199 people were murdered, higher than the total number of social leaders and rights defenders killed in 2021 and 2020, when 145 people and 182 people were killed respectively, the ombudsman said.

"It's an alarming and unprecedented figure, the highest since 2016, when we started keeping records," said ombudsman Carlos Camargo.

"There's a correlation between the increase in the killings of social leaders and human rights defenders with the increase in illicit crops in different territories and operations by illegal armed groups that dispute territorial control of drug trafficking routes," Camargo added.

Such murders have not slowed since President Gustavo Petro - the country's first leftist leader - took control in August. Some 66 leaders and rights defenders have been killed during Petro's administration so far.

The president's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the Ombudsman's office, the provinces of Narino, Cauca, Putumayo, Antioquia and Arauca have been the most affected by violence against social leaders and human rights defenders this year.

Colombia's government recently restarted peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) leftist guerrilla group in Venezuela.

It also hopes to implement the 2016 peace agreement signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) with dissident factions of the now demobilized guerrilla group that reject the accord.

The government also wants to subdue criminal gangs linked to drug trafficking in exchange for benefits such as reduced prison sentences.

The numbers on community and human rights leader killings in Colombia vary widely depending on the source.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta Writing by Oliver Griffin, editing by Deepa Babington

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