Waiting for Peace: Violence Against Social Leaders in Colombia

Moderator: Michael Camilleri, Opening Remarks: Renata Segura, Speakers (Right to Left): Elizabeth Dickenson, Juan Fernando Cristo, Paul Angelo, and Adriana Mejía Hernández. Image of Colombian protestors walking on a street. Main Photo: Ken Walton / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

On October 21, 2020, the Dialogue along with the International Crisis Group (ICG) hosted the webinar “Waiting for Peace: Violence Against Social Leaders in Colombia.” The panel discussed the roots and motives behind violence against activists in Colombia and debated the findings of the new report by ICG, “Leaders under Fire: Defending Colombia’s Front Line of Peace”. The webinar featured opening remarks by Renata Segura, deputy program director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the ICG, and analysis by Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at the ICG, Adriana Mejía Hernández, Colombian vice foreign minister of Multilateral Affairs, Juan Fernando Cristo, former minister of the Interior for Colombia, Paul Angelo, fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), as well as moderation from Michael Camilleri, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Dialogue.

Dickinson began the conversation by broadly defining social leaders as figures that form social cohesion within communities that they represent; this includes members of the Indigenous Guard, environmentalists, and mothers preventing the recruitment of children by armed groups, among others. These figures play a key role in Colombian society as they speak out in a context of fear and, as Dickinson explained, are “the thorns on the side of vested interests” in the areas they live and operate. Attacks on social leaders have become a metric by which to assess the effectiveness of the implementation of the 2016 Peace Accords. Dickinson questioned the idea that these attacks have a criminal rather than political motivation and posed the question, “why is it that social leaders have been disproportionately targeted?” For Dickinson, there is a clear pattern of victimization that is directly related to the work of these activists. Furthermore, Dickinson clarified that political motives relates to armed groups’ use of coercion and force to secure both social and territorial control.

Mejía clarified that, for the Duque administration, there is no ideological excuse for the murder of these individuals, and the government is dedicated to mitigating these incidents. Yet, there are factors that pose obstacles to peace: 1) the continued competition between armed groups for geographical influence, 2) the low stabilization of the areas where the FARC has influence, and 3) the fact that between 2013-2017 under the Santos administration there was the highest increase of illicit crops in Colombian history. Moreover, Mejía emphasized two points; that the peace agreement was designed to take 15 years for full implementation, and that the 23 indicators that the Attorney General’s office uses to define who qualifies as a social leader translates to 8 million people, “almost the same population as Bogotá” poses a major challenge. Mejía also disagreed with the rest of the panelists that the motivations behind these murders were political in nature. The fact that these attacks were conducted by illicit armed groups, on trend with what has occurred since the 1980s, points to criminal motivations. Furthermore, this violence against social leaders is not based on the lack of implementation of the agreement signed in 2016. She stated that this perspective, “ignores the causes of structural violence in Colombia that date to the 1970s. It is very naive to pretend that the agreement signed in 2016 with one armed group…would from one day to the other magically cure the phenomenon.”

Cristo countered Mejía Hernandez’s views on the role of the peace agreement stating that the lack of implementation of its principles has led to the exacerbation of violence we see today. Although Cristo agreed that there is a long history of violence in the country, recent incidents indicate that there is a newer evolution of political violence. Violence against environmental defenders, those involved in crop substitution, and defenders against illegal mining is on the rise. In 2018 there were 55 municipalities with FARC dissident influence compared to 1,200 today. For Cristo, this presents a paradox where the Duque government has scaled back on the implementation of the agreement while also not providing strong security measures. To prevent “killing the life and voice of these communities,” Cristo pointed to key areas that need to be considered by the current administration: implementing rural reform and crop substitution, granting seats for the victims of the armed conflict in government, stronger condemnation by the government against these attacks, and changing attitude and rhetoric from the governing party toward civil society. Cristo concluded by expressing the need for a united response by the government and opposition to address current challenges and concerns raised by protesters last year.

The most perplexing issue in Colombia is the failure by both the Santos and Duque administrations to fill the power vacuum left by armed groups after the agreement and reclaim the most affected territories. Angelo pointed out that the Colombian government continues to fail on citizen security and that 2020 is shaping up to be the most dangerous year for social activists in the past decade. The Colombian human rights organization INDEPAZ indicates an estimated 970 murders of social leaders since 2016, while the government points to 366 such murders overall since the agreement. Angelo noted that this situation, paired with the fact that “the Colombian government has attempted to minimize these numbers,” indicates a lack of trust between the government and civil society. This element of distrust is currently present in President Duque’s refusal to meet with the Minga that traveled to Bogotá to address some of these concerns. Regarding the nature of the motivations behind the attacks on social leaders, Angelo responded that “there is a political motive behind this violence and behind the assassination of social leaders. In Colombia, land is politics. That’s always been the case and to downplay the political motives behind the wave of violence…does a disservice to both the victims but also to negotiating successfully a way out of this wave of violence." 

The webinar concluded with a number of thought-provoking questions, one of which involved the solutions and responses that can be taken to mitigate violence. Dickinson pointed out the need to move away from offensive responses from the armed forces and shift toward self-protection mechanisms within communities to prevent the displacement of those in the community. Mejía emphasized that the Colombian police and military have a duty to protect all Colombian citizens and that any wrongdoing by these security forces would be investigated and punished. 


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