Thirty-seven human rights defenders were killed in Colombia between January and June of 2013, making it the most violent six-month period on record for humanitarian workers in the country, according to national watchdog group Somos Defensores — We Are Defenders.
Somos Defensores’ System of Information on Aggression Against Defenders of Human Rights (SIADDHH) published a report Sunday detailing the works and deaths of the 37 activists and community leaders who were killed in the first six months of 2013.
While overall acts of aggression dropped 5.6%, from 163 to 153, when compared to the same period in 2012, there was a shocking 27% increase in the number of homicides — in the first semester of 2012 there were 29. If you include the rise in attempted murders, 14%, there was a 41% increase in lethal violence overall.
Within the 153 total acts cataloged by the SIADDHH report, there were 86 threats, 21 attempted murders, six arbitrary detentions, two “arbitrary uses of the justice system,” two instances of information theft and, most troublingly, the 37 murders. Because these statistics are derived only from reported cases, moreover, there is no possible way to know what the actual figures might be, and Somos Defensores fears that the true numbers could be far worse.
What’s clear regardless is that, even as Colombia moves toward a resolution to 50 years of armed conflict, the situation for social justice advocates is rapidly deteriorating. If violence against human rights workers continues at its current rate through the rest of the year, 2013 will be the bloodiest since 2002, when SIADDHH assumed the somber task of chronicling all such activity. As things stand, 2012 holds that grim title, with 69 murders reported.
What stands out in the report, more than the figures themselves even, is what it calls “the high level of planning” and utter brutality involved in some of the murders.
Reinaldo Domico, an indigenous leader in Antioquia, was gunned down in front of his family and friends when an unknown gunman broke into his house during a New Year’s party. Another indigenous leader, Javier Gonzales Vernaza, was tortured extensively and shot before his corpse was strewn naked in the streets.
Stories of home invasions, kidnappings, drive-bys and deliberate assassinations in public riddle the pages of the SIADDHH report, with a list of victims including everything from union organizers, to activists for gay and transgender rights, to public officials, to land rights advocates and incidents across the country.
Acts of aggression against human rights workers per department
While the violence was widespread and as varying in nature as the causes its victims belonged to, certain patterns do emerge. 67 of the 153 acts of aggression were perpetrated by unknown persons, but of the remaining 87, 70 (45% of the total, 80% of those with known causes) were attributed to paramilitary organizations, 12 (8%, 14%) to public forces — military and police personnel — and five (3%, 6%) to guerrilla groups.
The report cites the 12 cases in which an eventually murdered human rights worker reported threats to the government through the channels provided for by the Victims Law to criticize the government’s policy on the issue of protection and reinforce what it calls the “apparent institutional weakness in the following and control of the implementation of public policy regarding human rights.”
By “weakness,” however, the SIADDHH is not calling for increased shows of force. Rather, while acknowledging the need for armed protection in many cases, the report criticizes what it considers a wasteful and ineffective use of private security forces to negate the threat of violent suppression of human rights activism. 2,000 private bodyguards, it argues, cannot possibly protect the 7,500 humanitarian workers in constant danger in Colombia, and cost the Colombian taxpayers more than $500,000 dollars a month.
Spokesman for Somos Defensores often reference documents provided on their website citing “the gross incompetence and corruption of the criminal justice system” as one of the primary factors behind a 96.3% impunity rating in violence throughout the country (96% of crimes go unpunished) and 97.6% impunity rating for violence against human rights activists.
Not surprisingly, in the eyes of Colombia’s social justice leaders, “the best protection is for there to be justice.”