Social leaders across Colombia were murdered at an almost unprecedented rate in 2019, and for a wide range of causes. Criminal gangs seeking to protect their illegal economies, such as drug traffickers and illegal mining, have been the main culprits.
But demobilized guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), politicians, land defenders, and Indigenous leaders have all been targeted, making specific reasons difficult to pin down.
Below, InSight Crime looks at these murders in Putumayo, Nariño, Antioquia, Cauca and Norte de Santander, the five Colombian departments most impacted by this spike in violence, as well as the difficulty in knowing exactly how many leaders have been targeted.
Uncertainty About the Numbers
A number of organizations monitor this issue closely, including Colombia's Attorney General's Office, the United Nations and a range of civil society groups. But due to the difficulty in gathering reliable information about how and when these murders occur, statistics can vary widely.
A total of 872 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed in Colombia between January 1, 2016 and September 8, 2019, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz -- INDEPAZ). This breaks down to 132 murders in 2016, 208 in 2017, 282 in 2018 and a slight drop to 250 reported killings in 2019.
But according to Diana Sánchez, director of the human rights organization Programa Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders Program), the phenomenon is actually under-reported. "We have detected a trend of underestimating the number of murders. A few years ago, they were explained away as matters of passion or territory disputes. Then they were related to coca crops and drug trafficking. Now they say that they [those killed] were not social leaders or human rights defenders,” Sánchez commented to Deutsche Welle.
This disparity in the numbers has meant that a lot of attention has been placed on the statistics, detracting focus from why these killings were happening in the first place.
The motivations are related to the work done by Colombian social leaders to promote the implementation of the 2016 peace accords between the government and the FARC, as well as their efforts to stem the flow of illegal economies within their territories.
They are also attacked for defending their territories’ natural resources, particularly in standing against illegal mining or logging, or defending their use of water sources.
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As a result of the compromise reached as part of the peace agreement, many former FARC combatants have also become the targets of threats, murders and other forms of violence on the part of different armed groups and state forces.
Among the reasons behind these attacks are refusing to return to illegal activities, promoting crop substitution and the mistrust of armed actors operating within the same territory.
During an interview with the newspaper El País, Martha Mancera, director of the Unit to Dismantle Criminal Gangs within the Attorney General’s Office, stated that 2019 closed with 132 murders of former FARC combatants, nine of whom were victims of forced displacement, 107 were homicide victims and 16 were classified as attempted murders.
Additionally, at least 41 family members of demobilized FARC fighters were also murdered within the same time frame. In 2017, 15 instances were reported, while 11 were reported in 2018 and 15 in 2019.
While this violence has reached different corners of Colombia, the criminal dynamics in the following five regions have intensified the most over the past year.
Bajo Cauca: A War Zone
In this region of Antioquia department, made up of the municipalities of Zaragoza, Nechí, Cáceres, Tarazá, El Bagre and Caucasia, Colombia's war hasn't let up since 2016. Even before the signing of the FARC's peace agreement in 2016, Bajo Cauca was one of the most troubled areas in Colombia.
Two groups are responsible for the incessant homicides and forced displacements: El Bloque Virgilio Peralta, or the Caparrapos, and the Urabeños. There are also reports of the presence of dissidents of the FARC’s 18th and 36th Fronts, as well as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN).
The dispute is currently being waged between the Urabeños and the Caparrapos -- which broke off from the Urabeños at the end of 2017 -- to ensure control of illicit economies like illegal mining, drug trafficking and extortion in areas like Tarazá.
About 30 homicides occurred in Bajo Cauca within just the first 20 days of January 2020, with Tarazá and Cáceres being the municipalities most affected. Two of these victims, killed in the rural Guáimaro de Tarazá settlement, were community leaders. Pedro Alexander San Pedro and Carlos Andrés Chavarria belonged to the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos Ilícitos -- PNIS).
Norte de Santander: The Coca Stronghold
According to a recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with 33,568 hectares of coca crops, Norte de Santander has the second greatest coca crop coverage in Colombia after Nariño. This has made it a highly demanded corridor for smuggling drugs and contraband in and out of Venezuela, with which it shares a border.
In its northern region of Catatumbo, the ELN's Northeastern War Front (Frente de Guerra Nororiental), the 33rd Front of the ex-FARC Mafia, the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación -- EPL) and the Rastrojos all have a strong presence. The ELN and the EPL have been fighting a particularly bloody war there.
Following the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC in 2016, 42 social leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered here, according to statistics from INDEPAZ. The motivation behind these murders is largely related to the realignment that has taken place within all these groups, which are vying to benefit from coca, contraband, extortion and arms trafficking.
Despite the national government having regularly increased its military presence in the region, there are no signs of the violence decreasing. Two social leaders have already been assassinated in 2020 alone: César Tulio Sandoval Chía in Tibú and Fernando Quintero Mena in Convención.
Cauca: The Murder Epicenter
The department hardest hit by the assassinations of social leaders in 2019 was Cauca, with 36 cases as of October. In the first three weeks of 2020, at least three victims were reported, with the most recent murder taking place in the municipality of Guapi.
While the situation is critical across the department, the dynamic of violence is different in each area. Northern Cauca is under the control of FARC dissidents, specifically the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, led by “El Indio,” and the Jaime Martínez Mobile Column, led by alias "Mayimbú." The latter is allegedly responsible for at least two massacres in November 2019, including the high-profile murder of mayoral candidate Karina García in Suárez municipality.
Both groups maintain a non-aggression and cooperation pact in the department, where they run illegal mining and drug trafficking operations. They also control important routes, such as one heading down from Jamundí in the Valle del Cauca towards northern Cauca and the Naya River corridor leading to the Pacific Ocean.
Unlike the municipalities close to the Pacific, where violence has not been as severe, the situation in northern Cauca has intensified due to Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities opposing their lands being used for coca crop cultivation and illegal mining.
Groups of “Indigenous guards” in municipalities like Toribio, Corinto and Caloto have arrested several dissidents and seized and destroyed large quantities of weapons and drugs. In areas like Suárez, Buenos Aires and Santander de Quilichao, the Afro-Colombian communities have also spoken out about the use of mercury and heavy machinery for mining, which has severely polluted local rivers.
However, the FARC dissidents are not the only ones responsible for the violence in Cauca. The presence of the ELN’s José María Becerra Front has also been reported towards the center and south of the department, in municipalities like El Tambo, Popayán, Sucre and Mercaderes. Attacks on civilians in areas like Argelia have been attributed to the group.
Nariño: Land Mired in Conflict
As the country's top drug-producing region, Nariño is a criminal paradise. It offers plentiful opportunities for illegal gold mining and numerous departure points for drugs along its southern border with Ecuador.
Nariño’s strategic location has seen the armed groups operating there constantly fighting for territorial control. This has had a profound impact on local communities. Between 2016 and October 2019, at least 75 social, community, agricultural and human rights leaders were killed in Nariño.
In the municipalities connecting the Pacific Ocean to the interior of the department, the violence is largely due to clashes between ex-FARC Mafia groups, namely the United Guerrillas of the Pacific (Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico -- GUP) and the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra -- FOS), while drug trafficking mafias like Los Contadores also operate in the area.
While the municipality of Tumaco has reportedly seen a non-aggression pact brokered between the FOS and the GUP, there have been intense clashes between the groups throughout the rest of the region. The FOS also continues to face off with Los Contadores and, more recently, a splinter group known as the Alfonso Cano Eastern Bloc. Fights with the latter have resulted in numerous forced displacements.
Meanwhile, towards the mountain ranges in the northeastern part of the department, the ELN’s Manuel Vásquez Front, the FARC dissident group known as the Estiven Gonzales Front, and the Urabeños’s Héroes de la Cordillera, all maintain a presence.
Putumayo: Silent Violence
According to the UNODC, Putumayo has the third-largest coverage of coca crops in Colombia, but this is but the tip of its criminal iceberg. Putumayo lies on the border of both Ecuador and Peru, it has access to the Caquetá and Putumayo rivers that connect the region to the eastern part of the country, and it is a hotbed for arms and drug trafficking, extortion, homicides and forced displacements.
Drug trafficking continues to be the engine of war in Putumayo. Dissidents from the FARC's former 1st Front continue to operate in the municipality of Puerto Asís. In this area, as in Puerto Leguizamo, there is a war between a FARC dissident group called the Carolina Ramírez Front, and the criminal alliance known as the Sinaloa Mafia.
The Sinaloa Mafia maintains a criminal alliance with La Constru, a structure that controls microtrafficking activities in the municipalities of Puerto Asís, Orito, La Hormiga, San Miguel and Valle del Guamuez.
But what is most concerning to authorities and local communities is the rampant rate of murders in the municipality of Puerto Guzmán, particularly in the first few weeks of 2020.
On the night of January 6, hitmen on a motorcycle killed Gloria Ocampo, a recognized leader that supported crop substitution programs in the region.
Her murder represented the first act of violence registered against social leaders and human rights defenders in 2020. According to civil society records, at least 27 social leaders have been murdered since the start of the new year, or almost one murder per day.
Just two days after Ocampo’s death, two more leaders, Gentil Hernández and Óscar Quintero, met similar fates in the rural areas of El Mango and Caño Zabala. A week later Yordan Tovar, the head of a union for rural workers in Putumayo (Sindicato de Trabajadores Campesinos Fronterizos del Putumayo) was also killed.
The deaths of leaders like Gloria Ocampo, Gentil Hernández, Óscar Quintero and Yordan Tovar are all included within what is being referred to as a "death caravan" of killers who roam around the municipality at night on motorcycles, knock on the doors of their victims and call them by name before killing them without hesitation.
This is a common modus operandi seen throughout Colombia.