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  • A protest in 2016 demanding the prompt implemtation of the peace agreement with FARC.

    A protest in 2016 demanding the prompt implemtation of the peace agreement with FARC. | Photo: EFE

Published 6 July 2018

The report shows that social leaders killed in Colombia "confronted the structures of economic, social and political power." 

Several social organizations presented Thursday a report titled 'To Defend Life,' which reveals the systematic nature of the murders of social and community leaders in Colombia. The report was presented to the country’s truth commission on the same day the United Nations "vehemently rejected and condemned the murders of human rights defenders, leaders and social leaders" in the South American country.

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The report documents the patterns of attacks against human rights advocates and defenders between 2002 and 2015, showing the deaths aren't related to Colombia's over half-century internal armed conflict and that state security forces play a central role in these deaths.

The law collective Jose Alvear Restrepo wrote the report in collaboration with the European Center for Human and Constitutional Rights, the Judicial Corporation Yira Castro, the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace, the Interdisciplinary Group of Human Rights, and the Program We Are Defenders.

According to these groups, the government doesn't acknowledge the systematic character of the murders and attacks against communal leaders and rights defenders. They also said it had turned a blind eye to the dimension of the problem, which has worsened since the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.    

Colombian authorities have documented the murder of 178 communal leaders and rights defenders since the agreements were signed in 2016. However, the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace places that number at 385. If the 18 murders since May 2018 are added, the total number of deaths stands at 403.

The report highlights the following patterns: illegal surveillance by the state’s intelligence agencies; the unfounded criminalization through the penal justice system; extrajudicial killings by state forces; executions by paramilitary groups that acted with the acquiescence of the state; and the use of excessive force by Colombia’s Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (commonly known as the ESMAD).  

“The struggle for access to land and natural resources, as well as for social justice and accountability, are behind the violence against those who challenge the power of economic and political elites. However, the armed conflict is used as a pretext to justify and conceal this type of violence. Many murdered human rights defenders were presented as guerrilla fighters murdered in combat in the phenomenon called false positives,” the report states.   

The forms of aggression, typified by the organizations as sociopolitical violence, include murders, threats, sexual abuse, and judicialization.   

The document argues these “have no relation to the armed conflict between the Colombian state and armed insurgent groups. On the contrary, the causes and motives are linked to their defense of the rights of victims that confronted the structures of economic, social and political power.”

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Paramilitary forces have regularly worked with local landowners, cattle ranchers, traders, and national and transnational businesses.

“Many of the new structures the national government calls organized armed groups… are responsible for most cases of aggression to people who defend human rights… the victims’ profiles include people who defend the implementation of the final peace agreement, especially the policy of land restitution and rural reform, which affects economic and political regional elites, as well as national and transnational companies.”

The organizations have demanded more state action and have criticized the general attorney’s office for failing to investigate those responsible for the murders. In several cases these only the sicario or hitman maybe identified in the killings, they often go unpunished. 

Diana Sanchez, coordinator of the We Are Defenders program lamented “if they kill leaders nothing happens. There is an idea that stigmatizes them because it is believed that the communities have aided the guerrillas, they are seen as always opposing development, the dams, extractivism, and obviously geostrategic interests and agro-industrial projects.”

On Friday there will be a national “velaton” (a marathon vigil) to protest the continued murder of social leaders in Colombia.

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