Killings of social leaders in Colombia have reached a six-year high, suggesting violence in the country's most troubled regions has been unaffected by wider plans for peace.
Colombia’s Ombudsman's Office (Defensoría del Pueblo de Colombia) reported that 199 social leaders had been killed so far this year from January to early December. This tally was the highest total since the government signed a peace agreement in 2016 with the country's most significant guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
The murders were concentrated in the departments of Antioquia, Nariño, Putumayo, Cauca, and Arauca, all of which are traditional drug production and trafficking hubs.
Other indicators of violence in the country’s main conflict zones have also increased, including rates of mass displacement and confinement, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Colombia reported in late November. The most affected departments include Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo, and Antioquia.
Confrontations between armed groups and attacks against the civilian population and social leaders rose despite the election of President Gustavo Petro and the beginning of his "Total Peace” plan, the government's flagship project that seeks to negotiate peace or plea bargains with a score of criminal groups, including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN).
Dozens of social leaders and human rights activists have been killed since Petro took office on August 7, according to the non-governmental organization Institute of Peace and Development Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz - Indepaz).
InSight Crime Analysis
The ongoing violence against leaders and community members in Colombia poses questions about the preparedness of the Colombian government in regard to its security policy during the period of negotiations with armed groups.
The departments most affected by Colombia’s armed conflict have faced high levels of violence since the beginning of 2022 and have seen the highest number of assassinations of social leaders. As a result of confrontations between groups, ceasefires have been difficult to broker.
These departments, like Nariño and Cauca, are well-known areas of activity for various armed groups, where illicit economies including coca cultivation and cocaine trafficking -- and clashes between armed gangs over their control -- are routinely reported.
With 33 killings, Nariño, a department in western Colombia on the border with Ecuador, recorded the highest number of murders of social leaders. It faces a humanitarian crisis due to massive displacements caused by clashes between armed groups fighting over territory to control drug trafficking routes.
Cauca registered 25 murders of social leaders as of November 2022. In the municipality of Cajibío, a community leader was killed during a triple murder in mid-November. Days later, six people were murdered in less than 48 hours in the municipality of Santander de Quilichao.
At least twenty social leaders were killed in Antioquia in 2022. Residents also reported fighting between former FARC dissidents, known as the ex-FARC Mafia, and the Urabeños, better known as the Gulf Clan or Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia - AGC). These reports were confirmed by the Colombian Army.
Putumayo, where threats and violence against the civilian population and indigenous communities are ongoing and deaths in combat between armed groups have been reported, 20 social leaders have been killed.
And Arauca is not far behind. This year, 12 social leaders have been murdered in the department. On November 20, four young people were massacred on a rural road.
The violence in each department is multifaceted and distinct, Ángela Olaya, a former InSight Crime investigator and co-founder of the Conflict Responses Foundation (Fundación Conflict Responses - CORE), told InSight Crime.
"What is happening in Cauca is not the same as what is happening in Antioquia because the violence that is occurring involves different conflicts and criminal actors in each region,” she said.
The election of a new government under President Petro arrived with hopes of a new public security situation in the country, alongside his Total Peace plan. Yet these killings appear to illustrate the lack of a clear policy to protect civilians and social leaders in many of the country's historically most violent departments as the government negotiates with armed gangs. As in Colombia's recent elections, moments of national sensitivity are often used by armed actors hoping to force their influence. Alternatively, some groups may be attempting to take advantage of negotiations in order to gain a foothold in certain criminal economies.
"Despite the fact that the new government is working to achieve 'Total Peace,' this is not an effective security policy, it is a negotiation. We need a defined strategy throughout the country to protect social leaders," she said.
Progress may be coming. Recently, Colombian media outlet Semana reported on the government’s attempt to establish a non-aggression pact with the ELN, and an agreement for the military not to operate in the regions of Bajo Calima, Valle del Cauca, and Medio San Juan, Chocó.