Murders of social activists in Colombia: a violation of human rights and a threat to sustainable development

By Silia Tsigka, GLOBUS Correspondent

At the beginning of October, there were 263 confirmed murder cases this year of humanitarian, environmental and social activists, by Colombian death squads. Such a violation of human rights reached its peak during the outbreak of the coronavirus in March; however, the situation did not improve, and the mainstream media found themselves covering the issue once more in October. Nevertheless, the murdering of innocent activists and protesters is not something new and in order to acquire a better understanding of the extent of this crime, we need to briefly assess the history of death squads: the unremorseful Colombian killers.

It all started during the Cold War when Colombia proved itself to be a key supporter of the United States. However, political, and civil unrest in Colombia, in favour of socialism, would prevent the country from becoming a full US supporter. It was high time Colombia implemented political and military reforms against the guerillas that threatened its integrity through the assistance of US officials in political warfare and special training (Rance, 2020). As a result, the main paramilitary instrument that was created in Colombia were the death squads which opposed revolutionary Marxist-Leninist guerillas. The biggest and the most organized guerilla was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was closely associated with the Colombian Communist Party (ibid). This is when the relationship between the death squads and the Colombian military grew stronger with the purpose of eliminating the communist elements (Bagley, 1988), under the conservative Belisario Betancur administration in the 1980s. However, I will later discuss how FARC, as well as other guerillas, have crystallized into more radical ways today, given their participation in illegal activities such as drug cartels.

The death squads overall targeted potential guerilla supporters, whom they would dismember, rape or murder. However, multiple times the targets proved to be innocent peasants and members of farming communities. This marked the beginning of an undeserved genocide of poor civilians (Arcinegias, 1996). One would assume that the government intervened in this series of abuse and violence, but it did not. The Colombian military and the paramilitary had grown so close that cases of human rights violations, investigated by the Colombian police during the 1990s, got swept under the carpet (Rance, 2020). Specifically, in 2001, 24 men were found dead with their skulls crushed with a sledgehammer, in the village of Chengue. However, the military and police did not intervene, not even to question paramilitaries. They rather provided a safe way out of the crime site for the perpetrators. This proves that the military and police were eager to unconditionally cover the atrocities committed by the paramilitaries (Ibid), which shows the extent of the corruption within the Colombian authorities.

However, there are always two sides to a story and even though we cannot justify the death squads for their inhumane crimes, we can acknowledge that some of the members joined them due to socioeconomic constraints. Particularly, a Colombian soldier revealed that he joined the paramilitary to prevent getting starved (Tanner and Rueda, 2015). Additionally, between 2002 and 2008 the paramilitaries would participate in official executions of civilians in order to receive promotions and cash transfers (Human Rights Watch, 2015). This reveals a general dysfunction within the Colombian social and political system, where marginalized individuals are likely to either mobilize to protest against the prevailing inequalities or join the very paramilitary organizations that accentuate those inequalities. The head of Amnesty International, Erica Guevara Rosas stated that “defenders will continue to die until the government effectively addresses structural issues, such as the deep inequality and marginalization suffered by communities, ownership and control of the land, the substitution of illicit crops, and justice”. This suggests that the massacres cannot be eradicated by preventive social protection policies but rather transformative and institutional ones. 

But what is the current reality of paramilitary action? At the beginning of the coronavirus breakout, the Colombian government announced a national lockdown. Many people found themselves protesting against the new measures due to the slowdown in the economy and the imminent financial hardships they would face. Three high-profile activists who participated in such protests, were killed, due to suspicions of being socialist elements; Marco Rivandeira, Angel Ovidio Quintero and Ivo Humberto Bracamonte. 

In 2015, the Colombian government introduced a peace treaty to prevent further atrocities between paramilitaries and the FARC and the latter’s illegal preoccupations. However, the need to focus on coronavirus diverted the government’s attention from protecting citizens against paramilitary groups; that is, by combatting the main sources of income and power of the guerillas such as drug trafficking, participation in the cocaine market and illegal mining of materials.  

Carlos Paez, a social activist, stated: “they [government] are playing with our lives because they know that our bodyguards, the police and the justice system are going to be even less effective than they usually are”. And Carlos was unfortunately right. Half a year later, in October 2020, Amnesty International’s research showed that authorities indeed reduced protection measures, such as bodyguards and state-provided armoured cars. This implies the systematic social reproduction of human rights violations in Colombian society, which poses a great obstacle to the sustainable development agenda.  

Another incident that triggered much public unrest was the death of Javier Ordoñez, in Bogota, on the 10th of September. A video shows Ordoñez being tased by the police because he violated coronavirus curfew, by drinking outdoors with friends. Ordoñez begged the police to stop, but he was dead by the time he arrived to the hospital. As a response to this tragic event, the authorities charged two officers and suspended five others. But this seems trivial in retrospect, considering that Ordoñez’s death triggered a massive, anti-police protest in the streets of Bogota, where at least 10 protesters lost their lives. Carlos Naranjo, a spokesman for the Colombian Progressives in Miami stated: “…what happened in the United States with the uprisings and George Floyd. That echo came to Colombia. All of that is just bubbling up”. Although Ordoñez’s death is not directly associated with the war of the death squads against guerillas and social activists, it shows how the authorities in Colombia have been continuously inflicting harm and infringing the liberties of innocent protesters.  

The current right-wing government, under the administration of Iván Duque, further enhances the severity of the situation, given his scepticism towards the 2015 peace treaty, that suggests his support towards continuation of the war against guerillas and therefore – the human rights abuses.

Nevertheless, the President pledged to invest more than 2$ billion in violence-stricken areas, as an effort to become less unpopular. However, as Erica Guevara Rosas stated, more structural interventions are pivotal for the eradication of violence in Colombia. Although 2$ billion worth of social investment might improve the current situation of military violence and police brutality; they will still constitute a short-term solution. Colombia needs to fight the very superstructure of the current human rights violations that is promoting a corrupt right-wing agenda through the legislative system. This is what Argentina did during the 1985 Trials of the Juntas (1976-1983) for crimes against humanity, which was the product of the collaboration between the Argentinian legislative system and international justice institutions. Colombia’s current situation is threatening the achievement of SDGs and particularly the Goal 16: “Peace, justice and strong institutions”. This has to stop. 

Book references 

Bagley, M.B. (1988).”The New Hundred Years War?” US National Security and the War on Drugs in Latin America. Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 30 (1), pp. 161-82 

Arcinegias, G. (1996). Colombia’s Killer Networks. Colombia: Human Rights Watch. 

Rance, C. (2020). Death Squads: The Hidden Killers of Colombia. Western Oregon University. 

Samuel, T. and Rueda G. (2015). To Prevent the Existence of People Dedicated to ‘Causing Trouble: Dirty Work, Social Control and Paramilitaries in Colombia. British Journal of Criminology, 56(1)  

Human Rights Watch (2015). On Their Watch: Evidence of Senior Army Officers’ Responsibility for False Positive Killings in Colombia 

Header image from Megapixl

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