Last month, three Colombian activists visited the UK to talk about the human rights situation in Colombia with British and Irish politicians. Their visit came at a crucial time. The activists had just learned that paramilitaries had placed bounties on their heads.
"It becomes normal," said one of the activists, 27-year-old David Florez, spokesperson for the Patriotic March, Colombia's biggest grassroots movement. In February, a death threat was sent to members of the Patriotic March and opposition senators by the paramilitary cell, Urban Commandos-Black Eagles. These paramilitaries are known for following through on the threats they issue. A UN report in 2012 estimated that Colombian paramilitaries have "disappeared" nearly 20,000 people.
Florez, along with 44-year-old Angel Torres, an organiser in one of Colombia's most militarised regions and Olga Quintero, treasurer of the peasant farmer group, Ascamcat, is trying to mobilise against the selling of peasant land to multinational companies, privatisation of public service and regular human rights abuses. According to Human Rights Watch, Colombia has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere.
[President Juan Manuel] Santos has been more intelligent than Alvaro Uribe in terms of projecting an international image, but he has only changed the style in which things are done.
Threats to activists
Paramilitaries are one of the greatest threat to activists, but state forces are not far behind. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, public functionaries are implicated in 97 percent of forced disappearances.
Colombian peasants (or "campesinos") frequently talk about the relationship between the army and paramilitaries. The extent of that relationship is disputed by experts, but a 2010 Human Rights Watch study found links between the army and paramilitaries in every region that the authors visited.
The Colombian activists' visit to the UK comes at a time when Colombia is at a crossroads ahead of elections. The government is engaged in peace talks with the FARC, a left-wing peasant insurgency which has been fighting the government for almost 50 years. The country's president, Juan Manuel Santos, has been presented by western media as a pacifist, who is betting his political legacy on bringing peace to the Andean nation.
Santos is viewed positively in the USA and Europe largely because his attitude is in stark contrast to that of his hardline predecessor Alvaro Uribe, who stepped down in 2010. Grace Livingstone, author of Inside Colombia:Drugs, Democracy and War, says: "Manuel Santos is a sophisticated politician who recognised that if Colombia was to attract foreign investment and end its isolation in Latin America, it needed to improve its image. As defence minister for Uribe, he showed great interest in a US military strategy called 'consolidation', which drew on the lessons from Afghanistan, and argued that military gains should be followed by social programmes to win the support of the local population."
Towards the end of Uribe's tenure as president, Colombia had racked up so many human rights scandals that the country's allies came under pressure from international human rights groups and progressive politicians, including US President Barack Obama. In 2008, he opposed a free trade agreement between Colombia and the US because "labour leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions".
In 2010 the BBC noted, "A free trade agreement between Colombia and the US has long been delayed in the US Congress, where Democrats have been calling for Mr Uribe's government to do more to tackle violence against trade union leaders." In May 2012, the agreement came into force under Santos. The current peace talks, taking place in Cuba, criticised by Uribe as a form of impunity for terrorists, have been presented as a welcome sign by Colombia's allies that Santos is guiding the country away from its violent past.
Rights abuses continue
Although peace talks are positive for ordinary Colombians (and have been welcomed by the Patriotic March and other activists), they are having little effect upon human rights abuses on the ground - particularly against activists.
"Santos has been more intelligent than Alvaro Uribe in terms of projecting an international image, but he has only changed the style in which things are done," said Florez. Amnesty International released a lengthy statement on Colombia in March, in which it concluded that despite peace talks, "human rights violations and abuses continue unabated."
Mariela Kohon, Director of the NGO Justice for Colombia, said, "I was in Colombia just weeks ago speaking to opposition leaders and human rights activists. The Patriotic March has had 48 activists murdered in less than two years and many imprisoned on trumped up charges. Last year 78 human rights activists were killed. If the government is sincere about wanting the peace process to be successful, it needs to demonstrate that organised civil society and democratic opposition will no longer be persecuted."
In response, the government says it has "presented" a human rights strategy for the next 20 years, and has set up a protection programme for over 11,000 union members, community leaders and human rights defenders. The Colombian Embassy in London said, "Through the concerted effort of various government agencies like the UNP [Unidad Nacional de Protección], Colombia has seen a reduction in the number of attacks to human rights defenders, compared to figures registered in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Still we will not be satisfied until there are zero cases."
Nevertheless, it is the possibility of arrest for trumped up charges which is the single biggest concern for Florez, Torres and Quintero. Already two Patriotic March leaders, Francisco Toloza and Huber Ballesteros, have been imprisoned for "rebellion" and "financing terrorism" (Toloza has since been released, but still faces charges).
"In 2008 I was charged with rebellion, terrorism, and administering resources for criminal purposes," said Torres. "Several members of my organisation were put in prison for up to a year. The arrest warrant collapsed in 2009 and the case was closed in 2013. But last month I was made aware that the prosecution is developing a new case against me."
Activists as 'subversives'
According to Livingstone, "The Colombian right regard all those who want a fairer distribution of wealth as 'subversives,' regardless of whether they are members of a guerrilla organisation or not. When the government accuses civilian activists of being member of the FARC, they are knowingly making them targets of right-wing death squads." Earlier this year, the Foreign Commonwealth Office released a report, stating: "The British Embassy has continued to urge the government not to link the work of human rights defenders, including peaceful protesters, with [FARC] or other illegal armed groups, as stigmatisation can lead to violence against them."
During protests in Catatumbo last year, where Quintero is based, President Santos declared that FARC had infiltrated the demonstrations. Buoyed by this declaration, police opened fire during a standoff, resulting in the death of four farmers and the injury of several others. During a farmers strike in April of this year (which has received support from the Patriotic March), defence minister Juan Carlos Pinzón claimed organisers were members of the FARC who were hoping strikes would put pressure on Santos before the forthcoming election.
Quintero says she and her brothers, who are also leaders of Ascamcat, were accused of having key roles in the FARC by a blogger supportive of ex-president Uribe. "In December my house was raided," she says. "I now look back at that and remember they took information about the structure of our organisation, and I suspect this is connected to the accusations that have been made about me and my brothers."
Torres agreed. "We are accused of being FARC for organising as peasants. It's not true. Our community action groups are constitutionally enshrined and the peasant organisations are legally recognised organisations, and we are simply enacting our rights to organise as communities."
The activists are clear that they will continue to organise, despite the dangers that entails. The stakes may be high, but so are their ambitions. Florez's hopes for the future of the Patriotic March give some indication of his grit: "We want the Patriotic March to continue grow and to see a successful conclusion to the peace process. We know if that those two things happen we could achieve our aim, which is one day to be in government and to transform our country."