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17.07.2018 19:43 News >> Social Activists Face İncreasing Violence İn Colombia

Social Activists Face İncreasing Violence İn Colombia

293 activists, human rights advocates killed since December 2016, according to non governmental organization.

Andres Chica knows that advocating for the war victims in Colombia and talking about justice, repair and guarantees of non-repetition in the department of Cordoba, in the north of the country, could cost him his life.

"But we already got on this horse and we won't get down", he said with conviction. Then he looks to the floor and adds: "unless they put us down".

Chica is one of the hundreds of social activists in Colombia that are being threatened by illegal armed groups. He has participated in various initiatives and protests to demand better opportunities for rural communities in his region. He has also backed voluntary illegal crop substitution.

"I've had three assassination attempts, the law enforcement authorities tried to put me in jail because of my protests and I've had to live in exile", he narrates.

Chica has had to live through the roughest times of violence in Cordoba department. From 1994 to 2005 the paramilitary "Sinu" and "San Jorge" groups wiped out the EPL and Farc guerrillas that had presence in the region.

They, who were part of a large national illegal group known as the auto defense forces of Colombia (AUC, for its acronym in Spanish), seized the lucrative drug business, its export from the Caribbean coast and the weapon trafficking from Panama.

They extorted the farmers and killed anybody they suspected collaborated with leftist guerrillas.

The paramilitary forces made pacts with local politicians and authorities and were able to use state institutions to their advantage.

'Military targets'

Many members of syndicates, farmer associations, human rights groups, environmentalists and independent politicians became "military targets" of the illegal armed groups.

This violence forced Chica to live in exile in Cuba for a year. He came back to the country when the National Protection Unit assigned him a security scheme.

But the fear installed by the AUC hasn't faded. Thirteen years after the paramilitary forces signed a peace agreement with the government, new groups have taken over the drug trafficking routes in the region and are using the same methods of violence developed by the AUC.

Now, two years after the government signed a peace agreement with the Farc guerrillas on November 26th 2016, violence against social activists has escalated, triggering alarms internationally.

"For us it's very sad to have to say that Cordoba is in the top ten departments of Colombia in its number of assassinated social leaders," said Chica.

The Institute of Studies for the Development of Peace (Indepaz, for its acronym in Spanish) has registered 19 homicides of social activists and human rights advocates since December 2016. This figure puts the department in the sixth place nationally in the list of murdered activists.

Social activists are scared. Many of them don't dare to report the threats they receive to the police for fear of the alliances that the authorities may have with the armed groups. "It has happened that we go to the local prosecutors' office to report a death threat and when we're leaving we get another threat for having contacted the authorities," said Chica.

"There are alliances between officials and armed groups, we don't know if they are voluntary or coerced, but they exist. As long as this keeps happening we will be at risk," he added.

Killings

The situation in the department of Cordoba is similar to that of other regions of Colombia. Indepaz has registered killing of 293 social activists in the last two years. According to Attorney General's Office, between 2016 and this year, there have been homicides of 180 activists. Even if the official figure is smaller than the registration of Indepaz, it's still troubling.

On December of 2017, the President Juan Manuel Santos issued the "Plan Horus" to intensify the measures of protection in the regions that were occupied by the Farc before the peace agreement. As part of the strategy, 63,000 soldiers were deployed in 67 municipalities and 595 rural areas of the country.

In recent days, Juan Manuel Santos's government ordered to carry out new measures in order to protect the social activists. Among these measures is the creation of a reporting center in the Interior Ministry, a system of rewards for information that could help identify those responsible for the attacks, and more resources so the National Protection Unit -- which provides protection to citizens victims of threats -- can carry out collective risk assessments, along with a higher budget to provide individual protection schemes.

However, the activists are tired of their municipalities being militarized, having to use bodyguards and bulletproof cars, and that the attacks keep happening.

"We do not want any more bodyguards, because we keep on getting killed. I think that is one of the government' s errors: believing that bodyguards and bulletproof cars are protecting us, they're not," said Chica.

An example of this is the municipality of San Jose de Ure, located in the south of the Cordoba department and which has a population of 11,000 inhabitants. During the years, the municipality has fought for the establishment of a Maroon Guard -- a strategy of the ancestral black communities to resolve problems by means of dialogue. When the assassinations of social activists rose, they asked once again for the guard. The government responded by sending 3,000 soldiers, regardless, the community said that four more people have been killed ever since.

Stopping the killings of social activists is crucial for the implementation of the peace accords signed on Nov. 24 2016, and to fulfill the promise of a "stable and lasting peace" made by Santos government.

"I don't dare to dream in the future because I feel too much insecurity. Not only against my physical integrity, but also about if the peace accord that was reached in Havana will be honored or not," said Chica, who has three children between the ages of 11 and 17.

"If the accord collapses, it will be very hard to dream. The country is in a state of uncertainty due to the increase in violence".

Chica fears that if the upcoming government of recently elected President Ivan Duque makes any changes to the model of transitional justice, as he promised during his campaign, many former FARC members could feel betrayed and take up arms again. "To us that would be lethal," he concluded. -



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