The Colombian government is in denial about continued bloodshed in the South American country as it has dismissed a recent claim made by the United Nations on the subject.
On Monday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein confirmed that 41 Colombian political activists were assassinated in the first four months of 2017. On Tuesday, however, Colombian Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said that only 14 social movement leaders were killed so far, adding that 10 additional killings are still being investigated to determine whether they were related to the victims' political activities.
Colombia has seen an uptick in violence by armed right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers who operate with impunity in territories once controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. According to the UNHCR, over 60 percent of the killings have taken place in these territories.
In a recent report, titled “Violence and Threats against Social Leaders and Human Rights Defenders,” Colombian Ombudsman Carlos Alfonso Negrete detailed how between January 1, 2016, and March 1, 2017, a staggering 156 human and social rights advocates were killed. Negrete further noted that “one of the main causes of this phenomenon is the pretension of illegal armed groups to occupy the territory from which the FARC have withdrawn” in a bid to control the local economies in those regions.
Paramilitary groups in Colombia are typically linked to powerful oligarchs within Colombia as well as multinational companies seeking to secure economic interests in resource-rich Colombian land. Many of these armed right-wing civilian groups also stocked their arsenals thanks to Plan Colombia, a 1999 counterinsurgency initiative that saw the U.S. pour billions of dollars into the country for the purpose of further militarizing the region. The year 2016 witnessed the blossoming of such far-right paramilitary and narco-paramilitary groups, who extended their regional presence and visibility.
The Colombian government, however, has largely denied the existence of such armed groups, even when the groups post videos of themselves training in the rural countryside.
Diego Fernando Rodriguez, a legal representative for the Ganaplata community in the southwestern Cauca department, was the most recent victim of paramilitary violence. His body was found on Saturday covered in multiple fatal stab wounds.
Last Wednesday Alvaro Ortiz, also from Cauca province, was shot in broad daylight in an attack allegedly carried out by a paramilitary known as Jhon Ramirez. Ortiz was a demobilized FARC member whose killing came hours after the prosecutor-general announced the murder of another FARC member on April 16.
Ortiz had been taking part in a reintegration program in Toribio as a part of the comprehensive disarmament required by last year's peace deal between FARC and the government. A far-right paramilitary outfit called the Aguilas Negras had recently announced a “social cleansing” in the region, which is rich in gold, coca and marijuana.
Continued paramilitary violence has led the U.N. to consider extending its 180-day mandate to monitor conditions in the country. FARC leaders and the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have both asked the U.N. Security Council to continue its monitoring mission for another two years.
The ongoing killings have raised the specter of mass killings in Colombia, where precedents exist for large-scale violence against leftist political forces and social movements. In 1985, thousands of members of the left-wing Patriotic Union party were liquidated by both state and non-state actors intent on eliminating any socialist presence within Colombian civil society.