In the ongoing human rights crisis impacting many regions of Colombia, social activists and former guerrilla combatants face extreme threats to their lives.
Many are targeted simply for community organising, defending natural resources or working to implement peace-building projects. According to the INDEPAZ human rights NGO, since the signing of the historic peace agreement in November 2016, more than 1,200 social activists and human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia. Additionally, at least 67 massacres – classed as single attacks in which at least three people are killed – have been committed in 2021 alone. The violence has tripled the number of people forced to leave their homes: the National Ombudsman registered over 44,000 victims of forced displacement in the first six months of 2021, compared with just under 14,000 in the equivalent period last year.
Former combatants in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the guerrilla organisation which signed the peace agreement with the government, have also faced intense violence. In total, 284 former combatants have been murdered since voluntarily lowering their weapons and entering the reintegration process. Attacks have been particularly concentrated in the southwest departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Nariño, which together account for the killings of 114 former combatants, a rate 104 per cent higher than elsewhere in the country.
Latest cases include that of a FARC former combatant, 50-year-old José Harleyo Popayán, killed in Nariño on 10 August. The same month also saw two former combatants killed in the department of Caquetá and another in Huila. On 19 August, gunmen attacked the vehicle of a former FARC commander, Mauricio Jaramillo, as it travelled to the city of Popayan. Five days earlier, paramilitaries killed two young peasant farmers in Argelia, Cauca, while on 18 August the bodies of two brothers, Cristian and Yeison Pechené Arteaga, were found after they had been abducted from the nearby town of Piendamó. Horrific scenarios such as these are replayed across the country on a daily basis.
By any measure, security conditions in Colombia are dire. The state’s failure to secure regions vacated by the FARC’s reformation as a political party has produced a power struggle in which paramilitaries and other armed groups compete for territory and resources, bringing them into direct confrontation with local communities. Historically, illegal paramilitary operations have often been conducted with the complicity of multinational corporations and domestic elites.
In response to the alarming situation, the peace agreement’s transitional justice court, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), has ordered a new series of emergency measures to increase security for the majority of former combatants who now reside outside official transition zones created in the agreement. Over 20-24 August, JEP officials visited Popayan, the regional capital of Cauca, to participate in the Humanitarian Refuge, a community-led initiative to strengthen human rights and peace. Cauca has seen more killings than anywhere else in the country.
The Humanitarian Refuge was attended by social organisations, including indigenous, African-Colombian and peasant communities which have been disproportionately impacted by violence. Other participants included former combatants in the peace process and pro-peace congress members. Aims of the assembly were to provide security and life guarantees for former combatants and to increase public visibility about the dangers they face.
After listening to testimonies of former combatants and communities affected by violence, the JEP ordered the creation of a comprehensive security strategy with particular focus on New Areas of Reincorporation (NARs), unofficial settlements founded by communities of former combatants. According to the United Nations Mission in Colombia, the majority of guerrillas who entered the peace process now reside in NARs, but have received little adequate state support. Many NARs face serious challenges around security, as well as infrastructure and services.
The JEP also issued instructions for the relocation of former combatants to more secure sites with guarantees that their lives are protected and that they receive suitable housing, healthcare and access to the productive projects that are vital to their establishing economic livelihoods as civilians. Violence has previously forced the mass abandonment of transitional zones as resident former combatants seek safer surroundings.
According to the JEP, the technical committee responsible for developing and implementing the security strategy will be formed of state and other institutions. State bodies on the committee include the Presidential Counsellor for Stabilisation and Consolidation (the government office which oversees the peace process) and the Interior and Defence Ministries, which the JEP charged with ensuring the physical security of former combatants.
The committee will also include the National Police and National Protection Unit (which provides security to at-risk individuals), as well as regional authorities in the three southwest departments who are tasked with tackling stigmatisation of former combatants: despite the killings, they face attacks in the press and in political discourse which contribute to generating a climate of aggression. Representatives of the Comunes political party – the renamed FARC party created under the peace agreement’s terms on political participation – and the UN Mission will also sit on the committee.
The JEP court has encountered strong opposition from right-wing political sectors, concentrated predominantly in the Democratic Centre (CD), the political party of President Iván Duque. In 2019, Duque unsuccessfully attempted to modify the court’s functions – a move which human rights groups warned could allow major human rights violations off the hook – while CD senators have called for its abolition. Despite these obstacles, the JEP has advanced several investigations into abuses committed in the conflict. Earlier this year, several former FARC commanders accepted responsibility and expressed remorse for hostage-taking. A separate case found that the army murdered at least 6,402 civilians in so-called ‘False Positive’ killings in 2002-2008, during the government of Álvaro Uribe, in order to present them as guerrillas killed in combat. Uribe, who has faced multiple accusations of links to paramilitary groups behind atrocities, has driven opposition to the JEP and to the peace process in general.
Tragically, the Humanitarian Refuge assembly was given a strong reminder of the human rights crisis that has claimed the lives of so many Colombians. On Monday 23 August, student activist Esteban Mosquera was shot dead close to the assembly premises in central Popayan. A talented musician and grassroots communicator, 26-year-old Esteban had helped coordinate recent protests against inequality and state brutality in Popayan. In 2018, he lost an eye to a police projectile, yet he had continued campaigning for social rights, including universal free education. Like the more than 1,200 social activists murdered in Colombia, Esteban paid the ultimate price for striving to build a fairer and non-violent society.