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Stories from the field

Nowadays 83 human rights defenders have been assassinated in Colombia

MARTA TREJO in Colombia
Fundación Alianza por los Derechos, la Igualdad y la Solidaridad Internacional
About the Project
Alianza Por la Solidaridad - ActionAid works with social leaders through the Communicating and Protecting Peace project with the ACPO Foundation.

Marta Trejo Luzón – EUAIDVolunteers - Cauca, Colombia.

Fermiliano, Yordan, Gilberto, Ramiro, Fernando, Andrés, Sandra, Beatriz, Juan and Argenis are some of the names of the people who have been murdered this year, specifically in the department of Cauca. The reason? To defend their community, to inform, to point out injustices and to carry out peaceful activities that foster a collective social conscience to change the panorama of structural violence that exists in the country.

Some of these people were directly targeted by armed groups, paramilitaries or guerrillas. Others, like Beatriz and Juan, were "collateral damage" of shootings and confrontations in the middle of the street at rush hour. It is not really “the how it happened” that matters, but the emptiness of their absence and the loss of rights it entails.

Although it sounds sad and paradoxical, it is important to say that the situation "has improved". At this point last year, twice as many people had been killed, 156 to be precise. People who promote and protect human rights in a non-violent manner are continually targeted. And one of the challenges for the Colombian government, together with international organisations, is to protect these people and give them a voice in order to continue building peace.

Alianza Por la Solidaridad - ActionAid, organised a forum last April with leaders and institutions of the Cauca administration to measure the temperature of the current protection situation in the north of the department.

"Despite the dangers that loom over these people, they have not ceased in their efforts to transform the living conditions of the most vulnerable populations, to protect the environment and the territory. They put their time, their lives and their emotional and family stability at the disposal of collective interests" says Diego Guevara, an Alianza-ActionAid’s technician working on the project 'Communicating and Protecting Peace', which is carried out together with the ACPO Foundation in Cauca, Nariño and Valle del Cauca.

Violence remains, but the dynamics have changed

During the forum, participants discussed the real scope of the 2016 Peace Accords. The current situation has shown that protection guarantees are scarce and that threats, persecution and assassinations continue to be the order of the day. The political landscape remains complicated and protection resources insufficient.

In Cauca in particular, armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces (AGC) and the groups of the Jaime Martínez mobile column, Dagoberto Ramos and the Second Marquetalia of the FARC dissidents are still present in the territory, constantly carrying out activities, coercion and attacks.

"Actions such as 'armed strikes', threats, roadblocks, combat, the presence of anti-personnel mines and disputes over territorial control have generated dynamics of confinement for the populations in the zones of influence, affecting multiple rights, limiting mobility and access to goods, services or cultural practices", explains Guevara.

In this sense, non-governmental organisations such as Alianza por la Solidaridad - ActionAid have promoted initiatives in the territories with the aim of strengthening the self-protection capacities of grassroots organisations, traditional self-cultivation and local production in the area. In addition to establishing dialogues to establish routes, measures and timely actions in terms of protection.

Rossana Mejía, representative of the Association of Community Councils of Northern Cauca (ACONC) highlighted two truths that are very present in the territory during the Alliance forum: "illicit crops and mining move the country's economy, not everyone works in these sectors, but it is a reality. The social and environmental fabric is becoming fragmented, labour has become more expensive to work traditional farms and people prefer to dedicate themselves to other businesses. In addition, the recruitment of our young people has also changed: before, these people would leave and join their ranks. Today they don't. Today they stay in the community and this puts us at risk".

In the north of the Cauca, the situation has become very tense, which is why leaders fear for their lives and are beginning to take steps back, "fewer and fewer people go out on stage to speak", explains Mejía. "Being a social leader has two challenges: defending your people and preserving your life. And it is not easy," concludes the ACONC representative.

The vital and urgent question of how to protect social leaders

The Afro-descendant communities of northern Cauca have their own protection mechanisms: the Cimarrona Guard. Just as the indigenous communities have the Guardia Indígena. But Nilson Alin Marín, representative of the National Association of Peasant Users of Colombia (ANUC), explains that it is not enough. "We can't move freely; disputes over illegal mining, crops and drug trafficking corridors mean that we have to ask permission in advance to move from one place to another. But this is not the only thing. Added to this are the armed actors who do what they want with us while there is no state presence”.

Nasly Lucumi Díaz, Provincial Procurator of Santander de Quilichao, is aware of this situation. "In Colombia there are different types of complaint mechanisms, such as the Early Warning 026. In 2018 we experienced the worst situation with more than 800 violations against defenders. This mechanism permanently monitors threats and human rights violations", explains the attorney general.

But this tool serves to measure the impact, not to protect per se. The administration is moving forward little by little; in 2017, the Ombudsman's Office began to work on the protection of human rights defenders. "Thanks to the joint work of organisations such as Alianza with public entities, we have created a toolkit and developed a care route so that social leaders can denounce", explains the attorney general.

Reporting is necessary but it is not enough when threats endanger the lives of defenders and their families. The last protection resource offered by the government after fulfilling thousands of specific requirements at the Ministry of the Interior is the National Protection Unit (UNP). This offers defenders an armoured car, a bulletproof vest and two security escorts.

But most social leaders feel that they attract more attention with this scheme than without it. "Showing up in 'x' village of 150 inhabitants where there is a presence of armed groups with such paraphernalia is almost more dangerous," says a worker for an international organisation who wishes to remain anonymous.

Social leaders in Colombia continue to feel vulnerable, to be threatened and killed. The situation does not seem to be changing on its own and international organisations are working every day to find a solution to the protection gap suffered by people who defend territory, human rights and peace.

Violence continues in Cauca. And the population adapts with a resilience worthy of admiration. But the objective is not to study how many crises human beings can withstand, but to put an end to this dynamic and work towards a realistic construction of peace.


Marta Trejo Luzón

"Being a social leader has two challenges: defending your people and preserving your life".