Peace threatened by murders of social activists in Colombia

JFC’s trade unions and programmes officer Nick MacWilliam wrote this article for The Morning Star newspaper, published on 28 February. You can read the original here.

The sun had barely risen on 2019 when the year’s first killing of a social activist took place in Colombia. Gilberto Valencia, an African-Colombian musician and peace campaigner, was shot dead after leaving a New Year’s party in Cauca, southern Colombia.

Several more killings occurred in the following days. Community organiser Jesus Parafan died, like Gilberto, on New Year’s Day, rural leader Jose Solano Gonzalez and trade unionist Wilmer Miranda on January 4. A day later, 60-year-old Maritza Quiroz’s murder sparked indignation across social media and shocked even those accustomed to bloodshed.

Like so many poor Colombians, Maritza suffered terribly during the country’s long conflict: years earlier right-wing paramilitaries displaced her family and murdered her husband. Now a campaigner for African-Colombian women conflict victims, she was killed by intruders at the rural home she shared with nine other women in Santa Marta, northern Colombia. Photographs showed a gently smiling woman at ease tending the group’s crops or livestock.

The brutal start to 2019 is just the tip of an iceberg of violence that has engulfed Colombia in the 27 months since the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) co-signed an agreement to end over half a century of armed conflict in which 220,000 people died and millions more fled their homes. But while the agreement ostensibly addresses the conditions which fuelled guerilla insurgency — such as land concentration, political exclusion and chronic underdevelopment — few communities have felt its benefits.

With the world focused on the looming possibility of military intervention in neighbouring Venezuela, Colombia — the US’s closest ally in Latin America — has been central to attempts to overthrow the Nicolas Maduro government. As Washington and its allies claim to be motivated by “humanitarian concerns” in Venezuela, there is barely a murmur about the escalating human rights catastrophe across the border in Colombia.

In December, the United Nations said there were 454 reported murders of Colombian social activists since the agreement was signed. In addition, almost 90 Farc former combatants were murdered. In most cases, nobody has been arrested, let alone charged.

Most killings are concentrated in regions where the Farc’s withdrawal produced a power vacuum that the state has failed to occupy. Armed groups now compete for territorial control of drugs production and illegal mining, bringing them into direct confrontation with local communities opposed to their presence. Many victims have been killed for working to implement the peace agreement, particularly around programmes to replace cocaine producing plantations with traditional crops.

The Colombian government has been slow to react. The recent UN report said that although President Ivan Duque’s administration acknowledges the crisis, more effective measures are needed to protect social activists.

In January, the government launched a new commission to investigate the attacks, headed by the Interior Ministry and Colombia’s High Peace Commission. However, the government has not implemented measures stipulated in the peace agreement which address security concerns in high-risk regions.

In January, following the murder of an indigenous leader, congresswoman Angela Robledo — who was vice-presidential candidate for last year’s election runner-up, Gustavo Petro — tweeted that Colombia was facing a genocide. In Colombia, the term “genocide” is often associated with the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) political party, which formed from an earlier peace process and saw thousands of members and supporters killed by paramilitaries and security forces during the 1980s and 1990s. The collapse of that peace process — in no small part due to the repression of the UP — has stoked fears that something similar could recur.

Other politicians have criticised the government position that most crimes have been of a personal nature, rather than evidence of specific targeting of social activists.

“We do not know the reason why the national government does not recognise that the murders of social leaders are systematic,” said Senator Ivan Cepeda in January. “Men and women who are leaders of victims’ processes and illicit crop substitution are being murdered and therefore it is an attack on the peace process.”

With few arrests made, pinpointing the culprits is difficult. On February 4, Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutierrez said that responsibility lay with armed groups still operating in Colombia — from right-wing paramilitaries, to so-called “dissident” groups which have not subscribed to the peace process, to the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s last remaining guerilla insurgency. The minister did not add that state security forces have also killed people.

The violence recalls longstanding patterns in Colombia whereby political groups, landowners and multinational corporations, in collusion with paramilitaries, were complicit in murders of social activists. Indeed, the list of victims since the peace agreement was signed includes people who were opposing infrastructural megaprojects, challenging international companies or involved in land disputes.

International solidarity plays an important role in highlighting human rights violations in Colombia. The British and Irish trade union movement has been vocal in its support for activists and workers who face threats and violence. In partnership with the organisation where I work, Justice for Colombia, trade unionists fund and help coordinate campaigns for human rights and peace with social justice in Colombia.

By challenging the Colombian government and companies working there, we can support people fighting for better conditions. Alongside its trade union partners, Justice for Colombia campaigns to ensure their voices are heard loudly on the international stage. For example, the 2018 TUC Congress invited Colombian trade union leader Luis Pedraza to speak about Colombia’s terrible record on human rights and labour conditions.

Urgent action is needed for genuine peace to become a reality for all communities, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalised which feel the brunt of political violence. An outbreak of conflict in Venezuela could threaten further the future of millions of Colombians. Yet despite the frightening risks, many activists continue to work courageously to build a society rooted in equality and social justice. The least we can do is stand with them.

Nick MacWilliam is trade unions and programmes officer at Justice for Colombia. To affiliate your trade union branch or as an individual, visit