Social leaders in Colombia are being killed at an alarming rate following the government’s signing of a peace agreement with the FARC rebel group, highlighting how changing criminal dynamics in the Pacific region have left these individuals caught in the crossfire.

The Colombian government’s historic 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) survived its first year, but not without its fair share of obstacles. Between a crop substitution program that continues to face substantial obstacles and growing concerns about the former guerrillas’ hidden assets, increased violence against social leaders is just the latest threat to the successful implementation of the peace accords.

Social Leaders Under Fire

A total of 282 social leaders have been killed in Colombia between 2016 and the end of February 2018, an average of 11 per month, according to a recent report from the country’s Ombudsman’s Office. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, nearly a third of these killings occurred in 2017 alone. The 75 social leaders killed in Colombia’s southwestern department of Cauca represented the highest number killed in any of the country’s departments during that time, followed by the departments of Antioquia with 38 killings, Norte de Santander with 17, Nariño with 15, Valle de Cauca with 15 and Chocó with 14.

(Graphic courtesy of Semana)

The shakeup of Colombia’s criminal world is largely to blame for these murders. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, the homicides are directly related to the expansion of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and resulting conflicts with other armed groups and government security forces, the formation of dissident factions of the now demobilized FARC and the fact that criminal groups more broadly are now trying to consolidate their control over strategic regions that the FARC has vacated.

Camilo González Posso, the director of Colombia’s Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Instituto de Estudios Para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ), told El Tiempo recently that the increase in homicides is due to two conflicts over territory and resources, namely illegal mining and illicit crops like coca.

The Colombian government has voiced concerns about the growing attacks against social leaders and deployed increased resources to regions that have been impacted by the country’s criminal groups, but the latest figures suggest that these efforts have fallen short.

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The recent killings have also prompted a response from the United Nations. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein recently said that he is “increasingly alarmed by the murders of human rights defenders and activists [in Colombia],” adding that her office has received “more than 20 reports of killings” in just the first six weeks of 2018.

Battle for the Pacific

As the new era of Colombia’s criminal world takes shape, criminal groups are looking to expand and fortify their presence in areas once dominated by the now-demobilized FARC, including the Pacific coast.

The region is prized territory for criminal groups that are now fighting to control drug trafficking operations after the demobilization of the FARC. This region is one of the country’s most saturated with coca crops. It features more than 57,000 hectares of coca crops and is home to the department of Nariño, ground zero of the global cocaine trade. Its rivers, estuaries and other geographical features make it ideal for drug production and trafficking.

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But social leaders in this region are trying to break free from criminal control and start a new era of their own, which has made them more vulnerable to violence.

According to InSight Crime field research, 64 social leaders were killed in Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó and Nariño — strategic departments for criminal activities, namely drug trafficking, along Colombia’s Pacific coast — between October 2016 and November 2017. In 43 of these instances, the killings were linked to FARC dissidents, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) or the Urabeños, all of which are battling for control over drug trafficking in the Pacific.

Social leaders are often the ones organizing communities to reclaim land controlled by criminal groups and move forward with a new crop substitution program, a provision of the government’s 2016 peace deal with the FARC that offers coca growers legal alternatives. The evidence suggests that this is putting them at increased risk. Retaining coca crops is essential for criminal groups to continue their operations, especially in one of Colombia’s most important drug trafficking corridors.

Indeed, a recent report on the status of Colombia’s crop substitution program found that homicides in municipalities where the program had been implemented increased drastically between 2016 and 2017. Some of the same departments that the report found suffered severe increases in violence, such as Chocó, are also located in the Pacific region and have seen large numbers of social leaders killed. This suggests that there is a deadly price to pay for advocating alternatives to coca crops.

The government’s inability to successfully verify the eradication of coca crops in a timely manner, among other factors, has also left social leaders and their communities under increased pressure from criminal groups to continue planting and harvesting coca. According to the report, the substitution program has progressed the least in areas with the greatest hectares of coca crops, such as Nariño, which has also seen a high number of social leaders killed recently. This is likely due to the growing influence of criminal groups coupled with a lack of government support in these communities.

The growing number of social leaders murdered in Colombia’s pacific region, and across the country, is a stark example of what happens when these individuals fight back against the demands of armed groups in areas strategic to the continuation of criminal activities.

* This article was written with assistance from Angela Olaya.