MEXICO CITY – Colombia has failed to protect human rights activists in its remote communities, resulting in hundreds of slayings since the government reached a peace deal with the country's biggest rebel movement in 2016, an international monitoring group said Wednesday.
Armed groups, including some that emerged from the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, are responsible for some of the killings, researchers with Human Rights Watch said in a report.
“Authorities’ failure to exercise effective control over many areas previously controlled by the FARC has in large part enabled the violence against human rights defenders,” the report said. “The government has deployed the military to many parts of the country but has failed simultaneously to strengthen the justice system and ensure adequate access to economic and educational opportunities and public services.”
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented more than 400 slayings of activists since 2016, of which 108 happened in 2019 and 53 in 2020. The figure for last year could increase because 80 additional reported killings are still being verified.
Human rights defenders include community, Indigenous, peasant and Afro-Colombian leaders as well as victims’ and women’s rights activists.
The 2016 peace deal with the FARC ended five decades of war. But the group has suffered deep divisions, with some of its members heading to mainstream leftist movements while others have given up on the peace process and returned to arms.
While the accord included strategies for remedying problems that have kindled conflict for decades, the government has been slow to implement initiatives to strengthen authorities’ presence in rural areas, combat illegal economies and address the dearth of legitimate economic opportunities, according to the report.
Left to act as quasi government officials, the leaders of Indigenous groups and other social organizations are put at increased risk as armed groups can target them. The New York-based human rights organization said some rights activists have been killed for their support of government proposals started under the accord, including substituting food crops for the cultivation of coca, the plant from which cocaine is produced.
Among the slayings mentioned in the report is that of Deiver Quintero Pérez, who organized activities for children to keep them away from armed groups in his northern Colombia community. He was shot multiple times in the head in February 2018, and his body was found by a river. Prosecutors have said another rebel group, the Popular Liberation Army, killed him because he appeared to be assisting the government.
“Colombia has had the highest number of human rights defenders killed of any Latin American country in recent years, but the government’s response has been mostly talk, with little meaningful action,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The administration of President Iván Duque frequently condemns the killings, but most of the government systems to address the problem are barely functional or have serious shortcomings.”
Vivanco during a virtual news conference said the slayings happen in areas of pervasive poverty where there is heavy pressure from armed groups but little to no government presence. He said the criminal organizations try to impose new rules in the local communities and defend their illicit interests, including illegal mining, drug trafficking and smuggling.
Duque’s office declined to comment on the report Wednesday, when Human Rights Watch representatives were scheduled to meet with Colombian officials.
Recommendations for the Colombian government in the report include improving the operation of a unit charged with protecting activists by increasing its budget and easing requirements that defenders must meet to receive protection. Researchers also suggest government officials should work with affected communities to develop protection plans specific to their communities.
The report also recommended that the U.S. and European Union condition security aid “on verifiable and concrete improvements in human rights in the country, particularly on killings of human rights defenders.”
Human Rights Watch representatives plan to address the investigation in meetings with government officials in the U.S.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, said the number of killings is shocking, but just as distressing is the government's failed attempts to stop them.
“Killing or capturing the perpetrators is not a sufficient strategy, as long as the intellectual authors and financiers of these crimes remain untouched," Leahy said in a statement to The Associated Press. "If the Duque government, with only 18 months left in office, doesn’t do what is necessary there is little chance the peace accords can succeed and no amount of U.S. aid can change that.”
Vivanco said Colombia, Iraq and the Philippines for several years have seen high rates of murdered activists, leaving the three nations in contention for the highest rate globally.
“This is very sad; it is very serious,” he said. “This represents a failure of the Colombian state that has not been able, with all its institutional development, to reach these territories, prevent these events, investigate them thoroughly, dismantle the mafias and the irregular armed groups that are behind these murders and reduce them.”