Abbey Steele of the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences is a scholar of violence and politics who has done most of her work in Colombia. She is the author of Democracy and Displacement in Colombia’s Civil War (2017, Cornell University Press).
In this episode, she discusses her work in Apartadó, in Colombia’s Urabá region, which saw forced displacement by paramilitary groups intensify after Colombia began direct local elections and leftist parties performed well. She calls what happened “political cleansing” or “collective targeting”: the paramilitaries targeted entire communities for displacement based on election results.
Steele explains this and other findings, particularly how communities have organized to resist the onslaught. She has a sharp analysis of the challenges that continue for the displaced—and for communities and social leaders at risk of political cleansing—today, in post-peace-accord Colombia.
With the FARC guerrillas likely to begin disarming very soon, this should be a time of hope, even joy, in rural Colombia. Instead, though, it is a time of fear. The last several weeks have seen the worst wave in years of murders of social leaders, indigenous leaders, land-rights activists, and human rights defenders. The renewed violence casts doubt on whether space for non-violent political activity will truly exist in Colombia’s “post-conflict” period.
The Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Bogotá-based think-tank supported by the business sector, counts 71 homicides and 17 homicide attempts against social leaders so far in 2016. (The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, using the definition of “human rights defenders,” counts 52 homicides and 35 attempts [PDF].) Ideas for Peace found the most attacks happening in the Pacific coast departments (provinces) of Valle del Cauca (whose capital is Cali) and Cauca; the south-central department of Caquetá; the northwestern department of Antioquia (whose capital is Medellín); and the northeastern department of Norte de Santander. The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, a network of human rights groups, counts 30 murders of social leaders since August 29, the day the Colombian government and FARC declared a bilateral ceasefire. The UN High Commissioner’s office counts 13 since the September 26 signing of the first peace accord with the FARC.
The wave of terror elicited statements of concern since the second half of November from the UN and its High Commissioner, the OAS, and the Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory, which compared it to the late 1980s-early 1990s massacre of more than 3,000 members of the Patriotic Union, a FARC-linked leftist political party.
Among the social leaders most recently murdered, or who barely escaped murder, are the following individuals.
Jhon Jairo Rodríguez Torres, from Caloto, Cauca, murdered November 1
A longtime local leader in the township of Palo, Rodríguez co-founded the Association of Campesino Workers of Caloto in 2003, and was active in several local organizations, including the Marcha Patriótica, a recently created, largely rural political movement that is widely viewed as a building block for the FARC’s transition to a non-violent political party. His body was found by a roadside, next to his motorcycle, with three bullet wounds.
José Antonio Velasco Taquinás, from Caloto, Cauca, murdered November 11
Velasco was a member of several campesino organizations in Caloto, and of the Marcha Patriótica. The Center for Historical Memory describes Velasco as “recognized by the community as a great friend and community member who stood out for having good relations with the whole community. On November 11 he was found in the area known as La Trampa, in Caloto, with a bullet wound in the head.”
Argemiro Lara, from Ovejas, Sucre, attempted murder on November 17
Lara is part of a community of campesino leaders organized to re-claim the La Europa hacienda, from which they were displaced by paramilitaries during the early 2000s. This case is very well known, and Lara has received so many threats that he is protected by the Colombian Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit. On November 17 in Sincelejo, Sucre, Lara’s bodyguard shot and killed a hitman who had drawn a gun.
Erley Monroy Fierro, from La Macarena, Meta, murdered November 18
Monroy was a leader of the Losada-Guayabero Environmental Campesino Association (ASCAL-G), very active in local human rights and campesino networks including the Marcha Patriótica, and a vocal opponent of oil exploration and fracking. He was shot in the neighboring municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, about three miles from the base where Colombian Army’s Cazadores Battalion is headquartered. He was 54 and a lifelong resident of this region, a traditional FARC stronghold.
In May, Monroy and other local activists denounced
that “soldiers from the Battalion were patrolling together with three people in civilian clothing, taking photographs of leaders,” and that “graffiti with the name ‘AUC’ had appeared on the road” near San Vicente del Caguán, according to Colombia’s Verdad Abierta investigative journalism website. (The AUC, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, was a national network of right-wing paramilitary groups that formally disbanded in 2006.)
San Vicente del Caguán and La Macarena—two of five municipalities that hosted failed peace talks with the FARC between 1998 and 2002—are a flashpoint for violence against social leaders. San Vicente’s mayor, elected in October 2015, comes from the Democratic Center, the rightist political party of former president Álvaro Uribe. Mayor Humberto Sánchez told reporters he does not believe Monroy’s killing was politically motivated, speculating that he “was likely killed by disgruntled neighbors.” Sánchez had also accused Monroy’s campesino organization of being guerrilla collaborators, and said that the spate of AUC graffiti owed to “the guerrillas preparing the ground for assassinations of campesinos and cattlemen and using that to justify their actions.”
Didier Losada Barreto, from La Macarena, Meta, murdered November 18
Losada was president of the Community Action Board (Junta de Acción Comunal, a sort of local elected advisory commission) of Platanillo township in La Macarena, and a member of DHOC, the Foundation for the Defense of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law of East-Central Colombia, a local human rights network, as well as the Marcha Patriótica. He was at home with his family when two masked men burst into his home and shot him nine times.
Hugo Cuéllar, from La Macarena, Meta, attempted murder November 19
Cuéllar was president of the Community Action Board of La Victoria township in La Macarena, and a member of ASCAL-G, the same organization as Erley Monroy.
He was walking home from Monroy’s wake with his daughters, when two men on a motorcycle shot him. “They followed him all the way home on the motorcycle and then shot him,” Cuéllar’s sister told the Miami Herald. “And then they pointed at the girls, but the gun didn’t go off.”
Danilo Bolaños, from Leiva, Narino, attempted murder November 19
Bolaños, a member of the Association of Campesino Workers of Nariño (Astracan), was on his motorcycle, returning from a meeting of local pro-peace groups, when a hitman riding on the back of another motorcycle fired six shots at him from a handgun. All missed. Verdad Abiertareports that he had not received any threats beforehand, “and the only thing he know of was a pamphlet with the ‘self-defense groups’’ initials that had circulated in Leiva, without mentioning either him or Astracan.”
Rodrigo Cabrera Cabrera, from Policarpa, Nariño, murdered November 20
Like many of the victims listed here, Cabrera was a member of the Marcha Patriótica. “As a member of the Marcha Patriótica, he actively supported diverse peace initiatives,” reports the Center for Historical Memory, including the designation of a village in Policarpa as a zone for FARC disarmament.
Cabrera had not been threatened before the 20th, when two masked men intercepted his motorcycle and shot him 12 times.
Rather than push for an investigation, the mayor of Policarpa, Claudia Inés Cabrera (no relation), denied that the murder had any political motivation. The victim “isn’t recognized as a community leader,” she said. After a security meeting between the mayor and local law enforcement, a statement contended that Cabrera’s father said “he was apathetic about politics and had never belonged to a political group.” The victim’s father, Sergio Cabrera, told reporters that no, “he liked politics, but not too much. He was a man of peace.” Lizeth Moreno, a local Marcha Patriótica leader, noted that “in her communiqué, the mayor doesn’t even reject the homicide, she justifies it saying that Rodrigo presumably had a [criminal] past.”
Froidan Cortés Preciado, from Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, murdered November 23
Cortés, a boat mechanic and member of the Marcha Patriótica and at least two local human rights networks, had been organizing protests against forced coca eradication in the rural zone of Buenaventura. A red boat with three black-clad men who were unfamiliar to eyewitnesses brought Cortés from his workshop to his home, where they shot him to death.
Marcelina Canacué, from Palermo, Huila, murdered November 25
Canacué, a 60-year-old member of her township’s Community Action Board and of the Marcha Patriótica, was shot three times on a road near her home. Though active, she was not considered a prominent social leader. “She was part of the Marcha Patriótica, one of those people who goes to all of the events and meetings,” an acquaintance told the Center for Historical Memory.
At a meeting with Huila’s governor the next day, local leaders denounced an increase in acts of vandalism and the presence of paramilitaries “hidden and poised to pounce” (agazapados). Police never arrived at the crime scene to investigate the killing. Canacué’s body remained on the roadside from 8:30 AM until 1:00 PM, when the funeral home came to recover it.
Jorge Humberto Chiran, from Cumbal, Narino, attempted murder November 28
Unidentified people threw an explosive device at the home of Chirán, governor of the Gran Cumbal indigenous reserve. On November 3, Chirán, who works with the local Marcha Patriótica, had received a threatening pamphlet from a group calling itself the “Military Bloc of the Southwest Pacific of Nariño.”
Carlos Ramírez Uriana, from Fonseca, La Guajira, attempted murder December 3
Ramírez, a leader of the Mayabangloma reserve of the Wayúu indigenous community, was shot three times by an individual waiting for him outside his residence. He is recovering from his wounds. Southern Guajira indigenous authorities say they have “detected in several communities unknown subjects on high-powered motorcycles.”
Creating a Climate of Fear
The sharpness of the increase in murders during the post-first-accord period is striking. It looks almost as though a switch got thrown somewhere within Colombia’s darkest, most reactionary quarters. Still, experts warn against attributing all this killing to a coherent nationwide conspiracy against the peace talks.
Carlos Guevara, who runs the Human Rights Observatory at the Colombian group Somos Defensores, toldVerdad Abierta that the first accord’s rejection in an October 2 plebiscite did worsen the situation significantly. Because there was no accord in place, the protection measures it foresaw for opposition social movements could not be implemented, even as the FARC began clearing out of zones that it controlled or influenced. With the FARC presence reduced, other groups have moved into these zones and begun to threaten existing organizations.
Guevara cautioned, though, against blaming everything on the right wing: