The Colombian Context

The Colombian Context in Brief

Colombia showcases an alarming trend in the rise of aggressions – including threats, murders, assaults, abductions, disappearances, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detentions, injuries, arbitrary use of the criminal system and theft of sensitive information – against community leaders defending human and environmental rights, especially in areas where the dispute over territory and resources are the subject of multiple interests.

Nearly 80% of murdered community leaders between 2009-2018 were individuals whose activism and demands centered around rural issues, often related to resource use and land ownership. These individuals include, but are not limited to, representatives of the Juntas de Acción Comuna, peasant leaders, indigenous leaders, afro-descendent leaders, land reclaimers, and environmental activists. Threatening these people is not only unjust on the individual level, but creates a ripple into the community, dissuading others from voicing their opinions and dreams, putting at risk local empowerment and emancipation.

2016 Peace Accords

While the FARC Peace Accords were lauded as an advancement towards establishing peace in Colombia, the rate at which social leaders are being killed has increased, a reality which was overshadowed by the perceived ‘success’ on the diplomatic level.

The reality is that the conflict stems less from ideological differences, but rather from competition over resources which continues at an accelerated rate. This leads us to believe that the assassination and disappearance of community leaders will continue, and perhaps worsen, as long as the communities they represent are viewed as an obstacle to the economic and political interest of both legal and illegal actors and institutions – cartels, government agencies, investors, corporations – that see these territories as a source of wealth for which they are willing to kill. Refer to this article to gain a deeper understanding of the situation.

Covid-19 Pandemic

“Nos siguen matando con mucha facilidad durante la pandemia porque todos estamos en casa cumpliendo con la cuarentena obligatoria.”

The effects of the Covis-19 Pandemic and the associated lockdowns have been extremely detrimental to community leaders. Somos Defensores notes that in 2020 there were 969 aggressions against individuals who embody various forms of leadership on a regional level. Of these, 199 murders were registered, an increase of 60% compared to the previous year.

While strict quarantine measures initially reduced killings, once normalized, these restrictions in mobility have enabled increased violence against community leaders. Community Leader Danelly Estapiñan explains that while the reality of being restricted in how your live your life has long been the norm for social leader in Colombia, but the inability to move is extremely frightening: “To defend the lives of all people, we cannot enjoy our own. We are often locked-in, moving from one house to the other to hide, and we only leave when necessary. In the current context, being locked 24 hours every day is a death sentence. The hitmen know where we are.”

Future Outlook

In order to get closer to achieving stability and peace in Colombia, people’s rights need to be safeguarded. The social leaders in question are not only seeking to defend human rights, environmental integrity, and the interests of the community, they also present a political alternative to the status quo in Colombia, characterized by an embrace of neoliberal and free-market policies ensuring quick financial returns at the expense of long-term prosperity.

“Local leaders continue to be victims of violence at the hands of armed groups and other actors who hold different economic, political, social and environmental interests,” MOE director Alejandra Barrios said in the report. “If urgent measures for individual and collective protection are not taken, we will be left without democratic leadership.”

Ensuring that these multiple voices are emboldened, strengthened, and allowed to live is the way forward to changing the system from within, allowing the emergence of a plurality of worldviews to be reflected in politics, from the grassroots, to achieve peaceful co-existence and harmony in Colombia.