On August 7, 1986, Virgilio Barco was sworn in as Colombia´s 54th president. His mandate was clear: he was to continue his predecessor´s peace process with guerrilla groups and incorporate them into civilian life. In the previous administration, under Belisario Betancourt, a new socialist party emerged from a coalition between the communist party and factions of guerrilla groups that were willing to surrender their arms in exchange for political participation. That political party, Unión Patriotica (Patriotic Union or UP), was originally proposed and led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In the 1986 elections, the UP won 7 congressional seats, 16 mayoral races and its presidential candidate came in third. Alarmed by the UP’s success, conservative political elites—who couldn’t stomach a left-leaning party´s participation in government—and the military—which continued to see UP members as the FARC’s political arm—allied themselves with the country’s paramilitary groups to wipe out what they thought was an injustice and a threat to the republic.
These illegal armed groups were funded by drug traffickers and large landowners, who had been engaged in land battles with the FARC and sponsored by state military intelligence and supported by influential politicians. At first, the paramilitaries began by killing small groups of farmers demanding improved labor laws. Then, they turned to targeted political homicides aimed at UP members and sympathizers in rural and urban centers. In its nearly two decades of existence, paramilitaries assassinated two UP presidential candidates and thirteen of its representatives. By the mid 1990’s estimates placed the death toll of UP members at the hands of paramilitary groups from 3,500 to 6,500.
Will history repeat itself?
Seven months ago, the world watched as the oldest remaining guerrilla group on the planet came out of mountains and jungles to converge in the 26 camps that had been set out in the Peace Accord signed last November by the government and the FARC. On June 27, those former illegal combatants surrendered the last of their weapons to the UN mission. On August 15, those weapons left the country forever, shipped outside Colombia.
But a new round of bloodletting has already begun. Official government records report 182 attacks against rural community leaders since the signing of the Peace Accord on November 24th of last year; 56 of those attacks were murders. NGOs on the ground claim the numbers are much higher. They also argue that the government’s reported 50% conviction rate against these perpetrators is closer to 30%, though it is impossible to know for sure because several of the investigations and trials remain classified. Either way, impunity for the attacks remains high.
This sudden rise in murders of rural community leaders has caught the attention of the Colombian public, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, and, especially, the FARC. The FARC has been quick to denounce the similarities between these murders and the first stages of the systematic eradication of UP members and sympathizers during their last attempt to transition to civilian politics. They also warn of a resurgence of paramilitary groups.
Last month, the FARC´s lawyer, Enrique Santiago, claimed that an unnamed group had placed a 1-million-dollar bounty on FARC leaders. However, when challenged by the Attorney General, Mr. Santiago failed to offer any proof for his accusation.
The government has sought to rebuild the FARC´s trust through security guarantees. For example, the government has already trained 22 elite security teams that will be tasked with protecting demobilized FARC members and is currently training 315 additional security experts to reinforce those teams.
The government denies that these murders bear any resemblance to the UP tragedy, and government officials are adamant that there is no evidence of a resurgence of state-sponsored paramilitary groups. President Santos insists: “Today Colombia is different. Back then the state was weak. The paramilitaries and the drug cartels were all powerful, and I must admit that some ‘narcos’ and some ‘paras’ infiltrated the state… today the possibility that what happened to the UP will happen again is null; it’s impossible.”
Even though these murders are taking place in territories that were formerly controlled by the FARC, there is no proof that the victims were linked to the FARC or that the murders are systematic. Investigations thus far reveal that the perpetrators have links to an array of (often opposing) illegal armed groups and that the acts had different motives. For example, in the southern part of Cauca, community leaders have been targeted for protesting illegal mining, while in the northern part of Cauca, indigenous leaders are being targeted for trying to reclaim lands from which they were displaced during the conflict.
The eruption of violence over non civil-war-related grievances was always bound to challenge the peace in Colombia. The FARC´s demobilization has left power vacuums in the territories they controlled. This includes drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion operations. Groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s last guerrilla group, were expected to make a move for those territories and the profit opportunities within them.
To that end the ELN has already started to compete for influence in former FARC strongholds with what law enforcement has dubbed Organized Delinquent Groups (ODGs). Unlike the guerrilla groups that were formed on an ideological basis and later turned to crime, ODGs were formed purely for criminal purposes. Notorious for being heavily armed, they turn profits from extortion, contraband, illegal mining, murder for hire, and drug trafficking.
Fundación Paz & Reconciliación, a private organization founded by a former guerrilla leader, recently released a report that challenges the FARC´s assertion that these killings are systematic, and thus similar to what happened to the UP. The report offers three key findings.
First, it argues that since the new vice president, General Oscar Naranjo, took office, attacks and murders against community leaders have dropped precipitously. Naranjo activated and deployed the National Commission for Security Guarantees envisioned by the peace accord and deployed an elite police force to the most affected areas.
Second, Fundación Paz & Reconciliación argues that no single group or organization is responsible for all, or even most, of these attacks and murders. Instead, there are a variety of groups of unknown origin and connections involved, as these charts show.
Finally, the report concludes that the murders don’t appear to be systematic because many of the victims were from different backgrounds. They were either part of: 1) a human rights protection organization; 2) a victim´s rights organization; 3) a land restitution advocacy organization; 4) a community action council; 5) a small local political organization aspiring for one of the additional congressional seats created by the Accord for citizens from regions that were most affected by the conflict; or 6) a part of small political organization aspiring to local government positions in the 2019 elections. All of these victims worked in territories that were historically controlled by the FARC, but they by no means share the same agendas or backgrounds.
The similarities to the systematic extermination of the UP during the late 80’s and early 90’s are chilling, but the circumstances, motivations and identities of the perpetrators point to a different conclusion. It seems more likely that these community leaders are being targeted by competing illegal armed groups, all of which stand to profit from taking over the territories and lucrative criminal enterprises formerly controlled by the FARC.
While these targeted killings should raise alarm bells, and the similarities between the profiles of the victims are worthy of concern given Colombia´s recent history, overall violence has declined significantly in those territories since the final cease fire between the government and the FARC took effect. As vice president Naranjo likes to point out: “Today Colombia is experiencing the lowest murder rate of the last 423 years. But that´s not enough. Neither social leaders, nor human rights defenders nor any other Colombian should fear being murdered.” Though targeted harassment and even killings deserve attention and action, they should also be understood separately from the tragic killings of more than two decades ago that systematically tried to wipe out the left’s voice and its integration into politics.