A major Colombian social movement reported Sunday a new wave of death threats against its leaders, including iconic human rights defender and former Senator Piedad Cordoba, by a paramilitary group that has put a price on the activists’ heads amid a surge in political violence in the country struggling to turn over a page in its history toward peace.
The Marcha Patriotica, a broad-based left-wing political movement founded in 2012 in the name of building Colombia’s “second and definitive independence,” circulated a chilling piece of paramilitary propaganda on its social media accounts Sunday to warn of the imminent danger facing its members.
The one-page open letter circulated in the northern department of Santander — one of the areas hardest-hit by the armed conflict — is signed by the Urban Command of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitary group in the city of Barrancabermeja. Addressed to the population at large, the letter reads as a warning for impending social cleansing, complete with a hit list of prominent leftist activists.
The paramilitary group, which is also known as Usaga Clan and Los Urabeños, singles out as targets Piedad Cordoba and six other social leaders: Miguel Cifuentes Ardila, Melkin Hernán Castrillón, Iván Madero Vergel, Lilia Peña, Himat Abdalá and Eladio Antonio Morales, members of various campesino and human rights organizations who have also suffered threats of violence in the past.
The paramilitary pamphlet identified the activists as “military targets,” accusing them of ties to the FARC, the guerrilla army that just signed a revised peace agreement with the government last Thursday, and offers 2 million Colombian pesos — about US$630 — to “whoever manages to bring down these characters.”
The threatening letter warns that paramilitary forces “will be patrolling the neighborhoods” and calls for “collaboration” from residents to ensure that other family members and children are not “surprised” by the “cleansing” carried out by the paramilitary troops.
The Marcha Patriotica circulated the letter, claiming that the activists were being targeted for “having participated in Havana” as part of the peace negotiations process between the Colombian government and the FARC. The social movement called for protection of its members.
The death threats come after the Marcha Patriotica has warned of a resurgence of paramilitary groups in areas most affected by the armed conflict that is fueling a “new political genocide” against its members. A slew of murders of rural and social activists in recent weeks has sparked alarm over systematic violence against human rights defenders, left-wing political activists, and supporters of the peace process.
Rights defenders have drawn parallels between the barrage of attacks on the Marcha Patriotica and the systematic extermination of the left-wing political party Union Patriotica beginning in the 1980s. Paramilitary forces in complicity or concert with state forces, assassinated at least 5,000 members of the Union Patriotica, including two presidential candidates and dozens of other lawmakers.
The Marcha Patriotica reports that at least 124 of its members have been murdered since the movement was founded in 2012, the same year that the peace process between the FARC and the government launched in Havana, Cuba.
The Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia is one of the offspring of the infamous right-wing paramilitary group the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, also known by its Spanish acronym AUC. The AUC demobilized as part of a peace process with the government of far-right former President Alvaro Uribe in the mid-2000s, but the group’s violent legacy lives on in a number of narco-paramilitary successor groups.
The 52-year civil war has claimed the lives of more than 260,000 people. Paramilitaries are estimated to be responsible for at least 80 percent of civilian deaths.