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Colombia: systematic murders of social leaders multiply during the pandemic

International call to stop violence against peoples. Leaders denounce attacks during forced crop eradication.

Not another genocide in Colombia. Photo: La Via Campesina, Bogotá, 2019.

Since the beginning of 2020, at least 103 social leaders and defenders of territories, and 24 former FARC members undergoing a reinsertion process in line with the Peace Accords, have been murdered in Colombia, according to local NGO Indepaz. The Continental Day for Democracy and against Neoliberalism (La Jornada Continental), which represents different social movements and organisations, denounced the government and multilateral organisations for not following up these crimes and massacres responsibly.

Military operations for the forced eradication of coca crops have continued during the lockdown, disregarding voluntary replacement agreements and pandemic containment measures. The Peasant Association of Catatumbo (ASCAMCAT) denounced the murder of Emérito Digno Buendía by the National Army on May 18, in Tutumito, a rural area in Cucuta, North Santander.

Emérito Buendía campesino asesinado 18 mayo 2020 Norte de Santander Colombia

Emérito Buendía

Age 44, Emérito Digno Buendía was a peasant and father of six, member of ASCAMCAT and the Municipal Coordination of Coca, Poppy and Marijuana Farmers (COCCAM). He was killed during a forced eradication operation. “The Army does not talk to farmers, the first thing they did was shoot at us, several times, at our comrade [Emérito]… I watched him fall to the ground, losing his life. We peasants tried to help him, but it was impossible, he died in our arms. We are not criminals, we are peasants simply demanding that the government comply with the agreements established in Article 4 of the Havana Accords,” stated Leidy Diaz Santamaría, spokesperson from ASCAMCAT and COCCAM.

At the time, Emérito, Leidy and dozens of peasants were at the settlement established in April, demanding the enforcement of Article 4 of the Peace Accords, which allows for voluntary crop replacement and suspension of crop eradication operations during the pandemic, in compliance with the health emergency decree to prevent Army troops from transmitting the coronavirus to the peasants.

In addition to the North-Eastern region, the South-West is also affected by militarisation and paramilitary attacks against peasants. Dozens of crimes were reported in Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo and Caquetá.

In order to analyse this complex landscape and the systematic murders that have not stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic, Real World Radio interviewed social activists, union members, peasants and human rights defenders to get their perspectives from the ground.

“The lockdown worsened what was already happening. It has been much easier for hitmen to come to our comrades’ houses and even kill entire families. The government is doing absolutely nothing to solve this issue, and there are no guarantees to continue the replacement of illicit crops” said the leader of the National Agricultural Union Federation (FENSUAGRO), Nury Martínez.

The government continues with its forced eradication plans, under the paradigm of the “war on drugs”: an anti-drug policy implemented since the beginning of the millennium that has already proven to be a complete failure by several research centres. But today it is part of Iván Duque’s deal with US President Donald Trump. This anti-drug policy has served as an excuse for the US government to maintain a military presence in the region.

Forced eradications are led by the Army and carried out “at the expense of expelling the peasants who live on those lands, at the expense of destroying subsistence crops, and at the expense of not respecting the peace agreements with comrades that are enrolled in voluntary eradication and replacement programs, and the plans already agreed with the government,” said Martínez.

The Colombian leader of the Latin American Coordination of Rural Organizations (CLOC-Via Campesina) and Javier Marín from Asociación Minga both pointed out that these attacks against communities are also part of a landgrabbing strategy, allowing transnational corporations to occupy territories for their mining and energy, hydroelectric and export manufacturing projects.

La Via Campesina’s 3rd mission in solidarity with Colombia. April 2019.

The government has been an accomplice for over 30 years and has let thousands of murders occur with impunity,” said Diógenes Orjuela García, chair of the Workers Central Union of Colombia (CUT), part of the Continental Day. While many of the actors involved in these murders are linked to crime, drug trafficking and insurgencies, “the government is doing nothing to stop this from happening here,” added the union leader.

The Continental Day for Democracy and against Neoliberalism rejected the systematic and selective murders of members of rural and urban organizations in Colombia.

An International call was delivered to Colombian authorities on 7 May, signed by 250 organisations from Latin America and around the world. In the call, social movements from the Continental Day denounced these crimes and the “constant threats and displacements of social leaders, and members of peasant and indigenous organizations, unions, urban movements, human rights groups, black communities and women.”

Marco Rivadeneira campesino Colombia ANA

Marco Rivadeneira, chair of the Peasant Association of Puerto Asís, was a  member of the National Board of the National Agrarian Coordination (CNA) and articulated the Pan-Amazonia Social Forum. He led crop replacement processes in Nueva Granada, Puerto Asís, Putumayo. He was murdered on 19 March, when three gunmen burst into a peasant meeting. Photo: CNA

Most of the victims of these murders are those leading programs to replace illegal crops and transform the coca economy into an agrifood peasant economy. The armed groups coordinating the cartels are acting against these programs. Territorial leaders and communities who promote voluntary crop eradication and replacement are seen by drug-trafficking groups as “enemies”.

According to Asociación Minga’s “We are Defenders” program, 16 social leaders were murdered between 19 March and 23 April, whilst already under the pandemic lockdown.

“The communities know who these criminal groups are, how they act, how they operate, but they also know about the Army’s leniency towards these groups. During this government there has not been one single confrontation between the government and armed groups from drug-trafficking cartels in these territories (Cauca, Putumayo, Nariño). This supports what the communities are saying: the Army’s behavior in alliance with these groups, known as narcoparamilitarism, is well known,” declared Marín.


“Sometimes they are called ‘FARC dissidents’,” continued Marín, from the Asociación Minga, “but some think that it would be more correct to refer to them as a paramilitary phenomenon, related to this government’s alliances with many cartels. In fact, most people who were members of FARC are respecting the Peace Accords, with all their implications and commitments. There are many cooperative projects, solidarity economy projects and other leaderships, linked to political activities in Congress. But those who have kept their weapons or returned to them, who are called ‘dissidents’, have by now been coopted by drug cartels and are working for them. The Sinaloa cartel is very influential in the South of the country. So, to continue referring to them as ‘FARC dissidents’ is giving them a political character that they no longer have, because they are working for drug trafficking in alliance with the police.”

The Continental Day movements stated that “it is time for the demilitarisation of the territories, the protection and reestablishment of human rights guarantees, in the framework of this crisis and the vulnerability of the Colombian people, the State must act with urgency looking for solutions for the people and establishing protection mechanisms.”

Meanwhile, community guards (peasants, indigenous and cimarronas) are organised in the territories, ensuring the safety of the population and also food sovereignty, with healthy food harvested through agroecological projects based on solidarity economy. This is despite the Duque government’s focus on the current model which is in crisis, through big international trade agreements and importing tons of food through transnational platforms.

“We are strengthening ‘self-protection’ through peasant and cimarrona guards, so that there is more trust between the communities and to avoid unknown people from entering the territories,” said Nury. While FENSUAGRO has planned at some point to have a ‘peasant exodus’, this is not currently their choice: “What happens if we take the people from the territory to the city?” wondered Martínez. “Once we leave the territory it is impossible to go back. We will defend the territory, from the territory, with the necessary alliances.”


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