The killers found Hugo Albeiro George Pérez sitting and chatting at a fruit juice stand. It was May 2, and he had been protesting against construction of a massive hydroelectric project in northern Colombia.
George, 48, was fatally shot in the back, according to his widow, Carmen. His nephew, Dilmar Zapata, was also killed.
“Hugo talked a lot to the news media and became a target,” Carmen George said in an interview in Medellin, about 100 miles south of where the killing happened, in the hilly river town of Puerto Valdivia.
The deaths of George and Zapata reflect a dismal trend. In the past two years — ever since the 2016 peace deal that ended Colombia’s civil war — killings of social leaders and civic activists have risen sharply across the country. In response, the government says it will unveil a plan next week to better protect them.
So far this year, at least 110 activists have been killed, according to the United Nations’ human rights office in Colombia, putting 2018 on track to surpass 2017, when 121 such people were killed. That was more than double the toll of the year before.
Those killed include environmentalists, labor and political organizers, land rights activists and rural community figures opposed to the farming of coca crops. More such leaders are killed here than in any other Latin American country, said Adam Isacson, a senior researcher at WOLA, a Washington-based policy think tank specializing in the Americas.
“The people planning and carrying out these killings seem to have no fear that the police or military will stop them, or that the justice system will ever punish them,” Isacson said, adding that the “vast majority of masterminds remain unidentified and unprosecuted.”
With 1,200 members, Rios Vivos is just one civil society group targeted by the shadowy assassins. Community action councils in small villages that lobby for restitution of land abandoned by peasants during the civil conflict have been among the most common targets. The community action council in Miramontes village in northern Colombia has lost four members in unsolved killings so far this year.
“The purpose is to intimidate us, and to some extent it’s working,” said Isabel Zuleta, a former sociology professor at the University of Antioquia who co-founded Rios Vivos, or Living Rivers, the organization that Hugo George was working for. She has been protected by armed guards since a failed kidnap attempt in 2016.
“Many have left our movement out of fear,” she said. “But it hasn’t stopped us because the ones who have stayed are the strongest.”
Political analysts have struggled to explain the connection between the increase in homicides and the peace deal that ended the civil war between the government and FARC rebels. Peter Cousins, an academic who studies Colombian political violence at the University of York in Britain, theorizes that the peace deal emboldened victims of the half-century-long civil conflict to be more vocal in seeking restitution for lost land and other assets, as promised by terms of the peace deal.
That has made them more visible and therefore vulnerable to death squads hired by “people who have profited from the war who are afraid of losing what they have gained, such as land,” Cousins said.
The new government protection plan is expected to be unveiled as early as Monday. Details are being closely guarded by the Interior Ministry, which will administer the program in cooperation with law enforcement and social agencies.
But Francisco Barbosa, a human rights advisor to President Ivan Duque, said in an interview in Bogota on Tuesday that the new plan will focus mainly on delivering greater protection and a governmental presence in 50 to 60 townships where increased cultivation of coca leaf, the raw material of cocaine, has attracted drug trafficking mafias and new waves of violence.
“Illicit cultivation of coca is generating a considerable increase in criminal organizations who are killing our leaders. It is a terrible situation for Colombia,” Barbosa said, adding that rural leaders who try to stop the recruitment of local youths by the mafias become prime targets.
“When social leaders say they are not in agreement, they are eliminated,” Barbosa said.
Zuleta of Rios Vivos, who has been told some of the new plan’s details, said she is concerned that it will focus too much on drug trafficking “because coca is the theme that gets talked about on an international level.”
She said she worries that it will shift the focus away from groups like hers, “and make it easier for the government to deny our problems exist.”
Based in Medellin, Rios Vivos was formed a decade ago to oppose the construction of Colombia’s largest hydroelectric project, which involves the damming of the Cauca River.
Now nearing completion, the project has displaced hundreds of poor farming and fishing families.
Four Rios Vivos leaders have been slain by unknown assailants since 2013, including George and Zapata. George was protesting the project’s inundation of 70,000 acres, including his cattle ranch.
The $5-billion Hidroituango dam project has proceeded despite warnings by Zuleta and other leaders that seismic activity in the mountains surrounding the Cauca River valley made it too risky. In May, a landslide and subsequent blockages of underground tunnels nearly caused the 730-foot high dam to collapse. Some 10,000 downstream residents were evacuated.
Although the hydroelectric project will soon become a reality despite Rios Vivos’ protests, the group will continue to protest for restitution of land and livelihoods lost, Zuleta said. Carmen George said she is more determined than ever to continue to demand compensation.
“We won’t let them scare us away. If God permits, we will continue. We are running a lot of risks, but we will continue,” she said.