Social leader murdered in Catatumbo, northeast Colombia

Another social leader has been murdered in Catatumbo, department of Norte de Santander, one of Colombia’s most unstable regions since the peace agreement was signed just over two years ago.

On Thursday 17 January, Luis Alfredo Contreras Ortega was abducted, tortured and murdered by armed men who stopped him as he was driving with his partner. The men threatened to kill her before she fled. They then took Luis away in his vehicle. His body was found with multiple gunshot wounds.

Luis was president of the Community Action Board (community council) in Las Mercedes and coordinated illicit crop substitution programmes in the Sardinata zone. Voluntary replacement of coca plantations with legal crops is a core component of the peace process. People working on the programmes face high levels of violence, with around 30 members of the COCCAM coca farmers association murdered since 2016.

The murder occurred as the United Nations issued a warning over the case of at least 400 people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes by fighting between the Colombian military and armed groups which have a strong presence in the region. The displacement victims have been sheltering in a school hall in the village of La Primavera.

Despite the peace agreement, Catatumbo remains heavily affected by political violence. Several social leaders have been murdered, while thousands of people have been forcibly displaced. Coca production has soared in Catatumbo in recent years, generating lucrative profits for groups which now compete to fill the power vacuum caused by the FARC’s demobilisation.

In August 2018, a delegation of the JFC Peace Monitor visited El Tibu in Catatumbo to meet local communities and human rights organisations and learn about the many challenges facing people there. The delegation’s findings were published in a report which can be downloaded from the Peace Monitor website.