Santander, Colombia – Environmental activists Fabian Urquijo and Jhordan Peinado, who hail from Colombia’s Santander region, received an eerie warning in February.
They were named in a pamphlet shared by the Gulf Clan paramilitary group, warning that they would be killed if they did not give up their activism. More than 20 other local activists were also named in the pamphlet, which was distributed throughout their neighbourhood.
“It was a difficult moment,” Peinado told Al Jazeera. “Given what we do, we’re aware that these threats happen – especially in a country where leading social and environmental struggles create many problems.”
The pair have since fled their hometown of Barrancabermeja, fearing for their lives.
And this is by no means an isolated case: Many Colombian activists are increasingly worried that they could be targeted for their work, as recent data from Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) and Corporacion Compromiso, a local NGO, reveal a sharp increase in threats and violence towards environmental defenders.
The stakes for activists in Santander are especially high. Over the past 18 months, the JEP recorded more than four dozen threats against activists across the region.
Corporacion Compromiso reported even higher numbers, citing 68 threats towards environmental defenders in Santander in the opening three months of 2022 alone – a significant increase from 2021, when it documented a total of 70 incidents in the whole year.
Colombia is known as the world’s deadliest country for environmental defenders, and Santander’s Magdalena Medio region, located in the country’s north, has become a hub for many threats. The area comprises the heart of Colombia’s petroleum industry, and the local town of Puerto Wilches has been selected for the country’s first fracking project, meeting strong resistance from locals and environmental groups. This opposition, in turn, has drawn threats from local armed groups.
Yuvelis Natalia Morales, a 21-year-old environmental activist, was reportedly forced to flee Puerto Wilches and seek protection in France after intruders came to her home last year and put a gun to her head.
Carlos Andres Santiago, an anti-fracking activist, told Al Jazeera: “Their message is basically that whoever opposes fracking will get a bullet, because they are the law here.”
Armed groups vying for control
Earlier this month, hundreds of locals gathered in Puerto Wilches to protest against the proposed fracking project. Activists who took part in the demonstration told Al Jazeera that after their march, assailants threw one protester off his motorcycle and warned he would be killed if he continued opposing the project.
“Environmental leaders stand out in communities, as they prevent them from being necessarily taken hold of by illegal groups,” Sergio Guzman, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy, told Al Jazeera.
“If there is a criminal group that wants to establish itself as the leader of the area, it submits the local social leaders to their will. If they do not comply, they become an obstacle for many of these organisations.”
Local environmental defenders and a representative of the JEP told Al Jazeera that they suspected a connection between the paramilitary groups intimidating them and the state-owned Ecopetrol, which is behind the fracking project. The company has been accused of having ties with the Gulf Clan specifically. For its part, Ecopetrol has denied all such allegations and publicly denounced any violence towards environmental defenders.
“Many contractors and those connected to these [fracking] projects have links to illegal groups,” a JEP representative told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. “We have received numerous reports from organisations that have documented how activists and human rights defenders have been killed in the past for their opposition to extractive oil projects. The situation is very serious.”
Armed groups, such as the National Liberation Army and the Gulf Clan, have gained an increasing foothold in Magdalena Medio in recent years, following the 2016 deal to end Colombia’s long-running conflict.
“After the peace agreement … armed groups have taken hold of many of the vacuums of power throughout the entire country,” Guzman said. “This has put many communities at risk, because the state is unable to meet its role as a primary security provider.”
At least five different pamphlets issuing threats to environmental defenders have been distributed across Magdalena Medio this year, all attributed to the Gulf Clan. But despite the heightened intimidation, activists such as Urquijo remain committed to their cause.
“We’ll continue, because we prefer to live championing this struggle than to die and see the lands we love destroyed.”