Colombia has not been any safer in 35 years — unless you work with human rights, because threats and murders targeting rights workers increased in the South American country.
Not long ago, and with some fanfare, the Colombian government announced that 2015 was the least intense year in the armed conflict of 50 years and had registered the lowest number homicide rate in decades.
However, another form of violence has quietly risen instead: political violence against the unarmed, including political and social leaders and human rights activists.
In 2015, the total of murdered rights activists was 63 — almost a 15% increase on the total for 2014. This rise is particularly shocking given that the Ministry of Defense was celebrating a 5% decrease in homicides nationwide for the same period, according to conflict monitoring NGO CINEP.
For your average person, Colombia last year was the safest it has been for 35 years.
But the same year, CINEP registered 873 death threats against a greater number of people, of whom 191 were human rights activists.
Lawyer Nydia Erika Bautista is among those who has received threats. She attributes them to her investigation regarding five farmers who were forcibly disappeared in 2003 by paramilitaries, with the complicity of police sergeant William Castillo.
Castillo was jailed for 12 years in 2012, but the threats continued relentlessly.
“We will kill you, but first we will rape you so you learn to respect men.”
Death threat to Nydia Erika Bautista
Similarly, MOVICE secretary Ingrid Vergara, who works with victims of state crimes, was threatened in three pamphlets during 2015.
Signed by several paramilitary successor groups, these pamphlets listed more than 40 human rights activists, unionists, lawyers and political prisoners. One pamphlet declared that they would not permit “the left’s political indoctrination of innocent people.”
Many of the threats are alarming, but nothing more. However, not all are hollow. Todd Howland, the delegate of the United Nations for human rights in Colombia, recently announced that “since the start of the year we have had 17 human rights activists who have been murdered.”
CINEP reported that paramilitary groups were behind the majority of human rights violations in 2015. They consider them to be paramilitaries because they see a distinctly political shade in their targets and motivations.
CINEP argue that the language used in the threatening pamphlets, calls and letters has the counter-insurgent and anti-leftist character of paramilitaries. Moreover, the threats and murders occur principally in Bogota, Cauca, Santander and Valle del Cauca — all places with strong social movements.
As far as CINEP is concerned, the threats are far from random.
“What is happening right now is a psychological and judicial war against human rights activists.”
Contrary to CINEP’s report, the government takes a different view on what is happening and who is responsible. According to Luis Carlos Villegas, the Defense Minister, it is not clear that any groups are specifically being targeted, and there are no paramilitaries involved.
Instead, the random threats and violence are the work of organized crime and ELN guerrillas, the minister said.
“I flatly deny the existence of paramilitaries these days… it may be the ELN or organised crime who have a presence in those territories and have the capacity to threaten but lack a political motivation.”
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas
While the government, currently negotiating peace the leftist FARC and ELN rebels, these groups have demanded the effective dismantling of paramilitary groups.
The guerrillas are concerned that they, exactly like in the 1980s when they tried to enter politics and thousands were assassinated, will be targeted by the groups formed from the formally defunct paramilitary organization AUC.
This new generation of paramilitary groups, in some cases in conjunction with corrupt elements in the military, is according to the government itself, Colombia’s primary human rights violator.
The government is currently investigating 350 cases of threats and crimes against human rights activists.
Many fear that this surge in threats and killings, whoever is responsible, may jeopardize the ongoing peace talks with FARC in Havana, and the upcoming talks with ELN.