The number of leaders murdered in Cauca, Colombia shows that their work is an obstacle for armed groups seeking to consolidate control in one of the most strategic territories for organized crime in the country. 

So far this year, 127 leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered in Colombia, according to statistics from the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de estudios para el desarrollo y la paz – Indepaz). The Cauca department, in Colombia’s Pacific region, heads the list with 25 murders. Antioquia, in the country’s northwest, comes in second place with 18 killings, while Valle del Cauca, which sits between both departments, is third with 12. 

One recent victim was Duvalier Cifuentes. On September 28, hired assassins killed Cifuentes on his farm in the Cauca municipality of Caloto. Cifuentes was a well-known political leader and father of Sebastián Cifuentes, currently a mayoral candidate for the municipality. A week earlier, gunmen had shot dead José Arley Cruz, an Indigenous leader of the Nasa community in the municipality of Miranda. 

SEE ALSO: Murders of Colombia’s Social Leaders at Six-Year High Despite Peace Talks

In 2022, the Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo de Colombia) recorded 215 murders of social leaders nationwide — the highest number of murders in one year since 2016, according to a statement from the institution. The department of Cauca, with 26 killings, was the second most at-risk territory for leaders.

Cauca is strategic for criminal groups including factions of the ex-FARC mafia, the dissident groups of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) that walked away from the peace process in 2016. It is also vital to the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrillas. Cauca is a concentrated zone for coca crops and illegal mining, and provides a natural outlet to the Pacific Ocean, making it an ideal route for drug shipments headed to the United States and Europe.

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Cauca’s social leaders, who have spent decades defending their territory, challenge criminal groups’ social and territorial control. As a result, they have long been targets of violence.

Large landowners have displaced Indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, and rural peoples from their territories in Cauca for decades. In addition to land dispossession, armed and criminal groups have also sought to take advantage of the drug trafficking and illegal mining in the department. 

To confront dispossession and violence, communities in Cauca have consolidated strong organizational structures. Their ability to mobilize has put them in the sights of armed groups, who seek to co-opt or eliminate any rival organizations. 

SEE ALSO: Peace Leaders in Putumayo, Colombia Bet Their Lives on Coca Crop Substitution

“In many places, there is a community-wide effort to resist all these forms of violence by armed groups trying to impose social control, which is expressed by their leaders or spokespersons,” an Indigenous leader from Caloto, whose name is omitted for security reasons, told InSight Crime. 

Faced with the panorama of violence and criminality in Cauca, social leaders have become one of the first lines of defense for their communities.

Indigenous peoples, organized in the Regional Council of Indigenous People of Cauca (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia – CRIC), have prevented the entry of the ex-FARC mafia into their territories. They have also opposed the planting of illicit crops, even at the cost of their lives

“That the vast majority of [Indigenous] authorities are saying no to the presence of illicit crops makes them enemies to those who live and profit from the drug trade,” a local social leader told InSight Crime. 

In Cauca, coca crops are concentrated in the municipalities of El Tambo and Argelia. The ex-FARC mafia under the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC) is in dispute with the ELN and the dissidents of the Second Marquetalia for the more than 11,000 hectares of crops in these territories. 

Locals have also raised their voices to denounce the modus operandi of criminal groups, expressing their concern about the forced recruitment of minors, one of the main methods used by the groups to strengthen their ranks.

The groups met resistance harshly, said the Indigenous leader from Caloto.

“The social organizations more or less said no more armed actors in the territory, no more illegal economies. But the response [from armed groups] was violent. At some point they said, ‘Kill an Indigenous leader and charge 3 pounds of rice.’ Then they moved on to offering 3 million pesos [around $700] for a murdered Indigenous guard,” they said.

In addition to assassinating social leaders, criminal groups also intimidate them with threats and smear campaigns.

But despite these threats, leaders and human rights defenders said they will stand strong. 

“They stay, they resist to protect their territory, to not lose their homes, their crops,” a member of an international organization told InSight Crime. “It is a risky dynamic for them because they put their lives on the line.” 

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