Colombia's social leaders 'very scared' amid surge in murders

At least 311 rights defenders and activists have been killed in Colombia since the beginning of 2016.

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    Medellin, Colombia - Carlos Paez doesn't look like someone who would be easily scared.

    Bold and imposing, with a graying beard and close-cropped hair, he is a man who projects authority.

    But when the 42-year-old Colombian land restitution activist was asked about the recent threats he has faced, his authority slipped. 

    "I'm very scared," he told Al Jazeera, looking at the floor.

    Paez has been working to restore land to the those who had it violently taken from them - often leaving them displaced - in Colombia for more than 15 years.

    His foundation, Tierra y Paz, meaning land and peace, has faced threats before, and even had one of its leaders, Benigno Antonio Gil, killed in 2008.

    But as violence against social leaders in the South American country soars, the organisation said it feels more threatened than before.

    "It isn't just my foundation who are scared but people are afraid all over," Paez said.

    "You have to ask, who is doing the killing?" he added.

    Earlier this month, Paez fled to the city of Medellin from the rural, banana-growing region of Uraba after being threatened.

    Before fleeing, a young man drove up to Paez on a motorbike and told him that he didn't have long left.

    "He (the one delivering the message) told us there were plans to get us 'out of the way'," Paez said.

    One killed every two days

    The land rights activist is not the only one whose life is in danger. 

    Colombia is facing a crisis, according to international human rights groups, with a surge of violence against social leaders, and many worry that with the election of president Ivan Duque, who belongs to a right-wing party, the violence will only get worse.

    The country's ombudsman has described the recent killings of social leaders as an "extermination".

    According to the ombudsman's office 311 rights defenders and activists have been killed since the beginning of 2016, the same year the government signed a landmark peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). At least 123 those killings took place from January 1 to July this year.

    From January through to March, a leader was killed every two days, according to figures analysed by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

    Those targeted include anti-corruption activists and indigenous rights leaders, as well as activists like Paez, who are fighting to restore land to rural peasants.

    A woman holds a placard that reads 'No one more death' as she takes part in a protest against the killing of social activists [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters] 

    Last week, 51-year-old Oswaldo Taquez was shot five times in the southwestern department of Putumayo after he left a meeting to discuss the progress of the cocoa substitution plan in the area, according to local media. 

    According to analysts, the surge in violence is in part due to changes in the country's criminal world.

    Since the FARC - once the country's biggest rebel group - put down their weapons to form a political party, dissident groups have filled a vacuum to fight for strategic regions they previously controlled.

    "Violence has increased because territories that are now up for grabs between criminal groups or landowners are very dangerous places to be an independent, unaligned leader," said Adam Isacson, a senior analyst at WOLA.

    "Space for political participation opened up briefly after the accord but is slamming shut now," he told Al Jazeera.

    'Land at the heart of conflict'

    The unfair distribution of land played a central part of the half-century civil war, with poor peasant farmers often losing their land by force to armed groups. 

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    The Victims and Land Restitution Law was enacted in 2011 to reclaim around eight million illegally stolen hectares that have been taken from millions of Colombians since 1985.

    The law has faced challenges, however, and has been criticised by NGOs for failing to be fully implemented.

    Criminal groups used by wealthy elites continue to want to hold onto or snatch more land, according to a number of NGOs. 

    "The land issue has always been at the heart of the conflict in Colombia, where the land distribution always has been one of the most unequal on the world, with small peasants losing more than six million hectares of land since 1991 as a consequence of violence and land-grabbing," said Ilhan Can, a researcher at Fundacion Forjando Futuros, a Medellin-based NGO.

    "A big part of this [stolen] land is turned into hands of big companies or mafias," he told Al Jazeera.

    Many worry that with the recent election of right-wing Ivan Duque, the violence may only get worse.

    Duque, a divisive figure, is the protege of former President Alvaro Uribe, who is currently being investigated for witness-tampering in a case that alleges he has links to a paramilitary group.

    Last year, Uribe was accused of illegally taking land by the country's comptroller general. Uribe has maintained that he is an "honourable businessman in the countryside". 

    Earlier this month, thousands gathered in cities across Colombia, demanding an end to the wave of killings in the country.

    At least 311 rights defenders and activists have been killed in Colombia since the beginning of 2016 [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

    Many said they were worried that the new government, which has vowed to roll back portions of the 2016 accord with the FARC, will put the country's fragile peace at risk.

    "The main reason the violence against social leaders increases is the fact that the paramilitary groups and those who pay them to do the killings - that is the local elites, the big land-holders, businessmen - feel empowered by the election of the far-right government," Can said.

    And Colombia's inspector general, Fernando Carrillo this month came out and said that some of the country's military and police have been collaborating with criminal gangs to carry out the executions. He called the murders "systematic", saying "state agents" were cooperating with criminal gangs.

    Paez is fearful, too.

    "We are fearful the violence will increase," he said.

    "One of the biggest landowners in Colombia is Alvaro Uribe. He is against peasants going back to the regions to retrieve their land. And he is the one who is in charge of this new government."

    Earlier this month, Duque condemned the killings, but hasn't revealed a plan to stop them.

    His party, the Democratic Centre, did not respond to Al Jazeera's multiple requests for a comment.

    The only thing we can do is denounce what is happening ... That is all we can do to end this river of blood that has already been spilled. We just have to keep going.

    Carlos Paez, Tierra y Paz

    One member of the Democratic Centre, Alfredo Rangel, a former senator whose term officially ended on Friday did speak, saying "the protection of social leaders would be a priority" for the new government.

    He added the problem was related to drug trafficking: "The new administration has indicated that the reason for the death of most of these leaders is drug trafficking and different criminal groups linked to drug trafficking.

    "Therefore, we must fight drug trafficking and diminish the cocaine production to take away the strength that these criminal groups have that are killing leaders to take control of the population."

    But social leaders like Paez remain sceptical.

    "The only thing we can do is denounce what is happening," said Paez. "Face the situation, seek support from the international community, and invite the government to respect the pact and lives of social leaders," he added. 

    "That is all we can do to end this river of blood that has already been spilled. We just have to keep going."

    Is peace in Colombia at risk?

    Inside Story

    Is peace in Colombia at risk?

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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