Over Half of the Human Rights Activists Killed in 2020 Were in Colombia

Last year was the deadliest on record for human rights defenders in Colombia, and the government is not doing enough to protect them, say observers.
February 17, 2021, 3:00pm
Colombian Marine Infantry soldiers patrol the streets of Buenaventura, Colombia
Colombian Marine Infantry soldiers patrol the streets of Buenaventura, Colombia, on February 10, 2021. Photo by LUIS ROBAYO, AFP via Getty Images.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia - More than half of all human rights defenders killed last year were in Colombia, according to a recent report.

Of the 331 human rights activists killed globally, 177 were Colombian, according to Frontline Defenders, the non-profit behind the report. 

Earlier this month, a separate report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the Colombian government for failing to provide protection to activists. One defender told the organization: “They refused to offer me protective services. They gave me a cell-phone and told me to call if I was in danger, but there’s no cell phone service where I work.”

Activists like Darwin Molina, who helps residents of impoverished communities run for office in the Colombian port-city of Buenaventura, say daily life is a deadly business for him and his colleagues. He describes a culture of impunity as he works against the interests of armed criminals in a region with little state presence. 

“We have only ourselves. Our community has always been ignored by the government,” said Molina. “We are not governed by political parties, but rather by criminal interests.”

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Buenaventura boasts the biggest port in Colombia, and is also one of the main trafficking routes for cocaine being smuggled north through Central America. 

When Colombia signed its historic peace agreement in 2016 with guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), officially ending a 50-year civil war, conflicted areas like Buenaventura were promised investment, peace and a return to normalcy. But five years later, none of those pledges have come to fruition. 

Buenaventura, like many hotspots in the Colombian conflict, has seen a dramatic increase in violence over the last few years.

When the FARC disarmed, Colombian officials were supposed to build infrastructure and provide security for zones that had been at war for generations. But when those promises went unfulfilled, armed criminal and paramilitary groups moved in to fill the vacuum that the FARC left behind.

As these warring factions compete for territory for cocaine and heroin production, illegal mining, extortion and lucrative smuggling routes, it is often activists like Molina who are caught in the crossfire for defending the economic and social interests of local populations.

In Buenaventura, some 51 people have been killed and 1,200 families displaced this year alone as armed gangs wage war in the streets. The spike in violence sparked widespread protests against the federal government, whom citizens view as unwilling or unable to protect them.

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“The government needs to change their strategy. What they are doing obviously isn't working,” said Camilo González, the president of INDEPAZ, a non-profit that tracks the implementation of the 2016 peace process. “They need to implement the principles of the peace accord, especially in the zones that have been hardest hit by this rising violence.” 

INDEPAZ says 2020 was the bloodiest year in Colombia since the war ended. In addition to the high number of social leaders killed, the country has experienced 91 mass murders, which were concentrated in rural conflict areas. In addition, 257 ex-FARC guerrillas have been killed since the accord was signed.

“The difference between now and the violence of the 90's and early 2000’s is that the killings now are mafia-like,” said González. “[During the war] the violence was political. Now it is criminal enterprises that have tendrils in every part of society and no respect for human life. It is a culture of corruption and violence.”

For activists like Molina, raising their voices against human rights violations and organizing against these criminal groups is dangerous. He says the problem is also a federal government that seems to only invest in infrastructure and education in the major cities. 

“When a youth with no education is given the opportunity to work for the narcos, he can earn more in a few weeks than he would otherwise earn in two years working a minimum wage job.”

“If the government doesn’t cultivate the peace, they will reap war.”