Five Black teenagers left their homes in a neighborhood in Cali, Colombia, to fly their kites and play on a recent August morning. The young friends, aged between 14 and 18, didn’t show up at home for lunch. By midday, their mothers were looking for them.
"The boys were found tortured, burned, with machete and bullet wounds,” said Erlendy Cuero, a social leader from Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city. "Right now, the people who live here are sad but also very scared.”
The murders in the impoverished Llano Verde neighborhood have shocked a nation accustomed to violence and shone a light on those disproportionately affected by it: ethnic minorities. It also illuminates the cracks in a fragile peace deal designed to reduce violence. The slaughter of the five teenagers marks a new and disturbing low for a country struggling to free itself from five decades of brutal armed conflict.
On August 13, two days after the boys were killed, a grenade was thrown at the police station in Llano Verde. The attack injured 15 people and left one man dead.
“We can’t assure they’re related, but neither can we rule out that hypothesis,” said Jorge Iván Ospina, Cali’s mayor.
It is humble communities like these, home to Afro-Colombian and indigenous residents, say observers, that are the main victims of violence.
“Peace is not possible without listening to the communities most affected by violence. For years, the Colombian government has faltered in its efforts to implement the 2016 peace accords. It continues to fail in establishing state presence in areas dominated by armed actors,” said Mario Moreno, spokesperson for the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.
“Nowhere is that failure more evident than in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, who have suffered far too many tragedies like the one in Llano Verde.”
Armed groups frequently displace people from Colombia’s Pacific coast, where many of the Afro-Colombian population lives. Those pushed off their lands often make new homes in neighborhoods like Llano Verde in Cali. Colombia’s murder rate was around 25 per 100,000 inhabitants - a significant drop from the height of the armed conflict. But Cali is an outlier. In 2019, the city of 2.2 million registered a much higher killing count of 45 per 100,000, double the national average.
Violence persists between rebel groups, paramilitaries, and the military despite the peace agreement signed by the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 2016. The deal promised to end 50 years of armed conflict that killed more than 262,000 and displaced over 7 million. There was some success: Around 8,000 Marxist fighters laid down their weapons in 2017.
But despite the sentiment behind the accords, for which Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, peace has yet to come. At least 196 former FARC members have been killed since the agreement was signed. Before they demobilized, the FARC financed their activities through their own criminal acts involving extortion, kidnapping and the drug trade. Organized crime, operating in the form of atomized factions, continues to overwhelm parts of the country.
Critics say the government is also to blame, and that the implementation of the peace accords has been lacking under the conservative government of Iván Duque, who assumed office in 2018 on a pledge to reform the agreement with harsher punishments for FARC leaders.
Duque on Wednesday condemned the killings and ordered his defence minister to prioritize the investigation.
But although Colombians are longing for an end to the violence, the latest macabre episode is a sobering reminder for the country that peace is a long way off.
Cover: A relative mourns next to the coffins of two of five youngsters found murdered in a sugar cane field during their funeral in Aguablanca district, in the east of Cali, Colombia, on August 13, 2020. (AFP via Getty Images/ Luis Robayo)