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In Colombia, killings persist after the fighting is over

Ask Arleth Mendoza whether she feels safer now that the Colombian government has demobilized right-wing militias and all but declared victory in its decades-long war with leftist rebels.

Her husband, Antonio, a city councilman here who stood up for landless peasants, was gunned down in July, leaving their three children, all younger than 9, fatherless.

“There was no warning, no threats. They killed him in cold blood,” said the widow, who appeared still to be in shock six weeks later. “He gave his friends and family everything, but since he died I haven’t received the slightest bit of aid from the city or state, not even the $1,500 it cost to bury him.”

Colombia has made gains in security over the last decade but remains a dangerous place for human rights campaigners, labor leaders and politicians. Dozens have been killed this year in a wave of intimidation that makes it clear the civil conflict and lawlessness that destabilized Colombia for more than 40 years are far from over.

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Antonio Mendoza had entered politics to help displaced peasants seek restitution from land grabbers and was optimistic that a new law compensating victims of the long conflict would advance the process. He thought he could use peaceful channels to regain land that his constituents had lost to murderous militias a decade ago.

But many of the paramilitary gangs that demobilized in 2006 and earlier have morphed into what the government calls bacrims, shorthand in Spanish for criminal gangs. They have resumed the activities of their predecessors: stealing land by forcing peasants to flee, extortion and drug trafficking. Often, they forge alliances with leftist rebels, who, though weakened, are still wreaking havoc in rural areas, with kidnappings and attacks on energy infrastructure and personnel.

Two assassins shot Mendoza on July 1 as he had a beer at a local billiards parlor. There have been no arrests, but his activities made powerful enemies for Mendoza among gangs amassing land here in Sucre state for mining and teak plantations, as well as traffickers for whom San Onofre is an important drug route. The township provides a perfect corridor to the Caribbean, from which cocaine is shipped illegally to the U.S.

“He was a very noble, humanitarian person,” Arleth Mendoza said of her husband. “Whoever came asking for his help, he gave it. The well-being of others was more important than his own.”

Two days before the widow was interviewed, Luis Diaz Villa, a labor leader in neighboring Cordoba state, was shot to death. Villa was the 52nd labor leader killed in Colombia this year, according to CUT, the nation’s largest union. (The Colombian government disputes the union’s figures, saying 15 have been killed.)

And in the small town of Chinacota in northeastern Colombia last month, killers came for aspiring City Council candidate and single mother Maria Elizabeth Mendoza, one of at least 12 sitting or aspiring public officials slain this year. Police have not named a motive or any suspects in her death, saying only that she was killed by two armed men on a motorcycle.

Although advocates for the poor and disenfranchised generally are at risk, perhaps those most in the line of fire are leaders of landless groups, who, like Antonio Mendoza, have been encouraged by the recent compensation legislation.

The government has raised victims’ expectations but lacks the money and police and judicial personnel to follow through in a timely way, said Marco Romero, director of CODHES, a Bogota-based human rights organization.

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“Armed groups are trying to make peasants choose between their lives or their land,” Romero said. “As the killings continue, they become more afraid and less likely to press their claims. Protecting them is an enormous challenge to the government.”

After eight years of gains under President Alvaro Uribe, who left office in August 2010, many crime indexes reflect a recent deterioration in security in the country. Although the number of homicides in Colombia has fallen by 2% so far this year, there has been a 25% increase in the number of kidnappings and massacre victims, according to the human rights monitor’s office overseen by Colombia’s vice president.

Analysts see the rising violence as the main factor in the recent resignation of Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera. Responsible for police and armed forces, he oversaw during his 13-month tenure operations that led to the deaths of Victor Julio Suarez Rojas, a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia commander known by the alias Mono Jojoy, and gang leader Pedro Guerrero.

President Juan Manuel Santos announced early this month that the government would spend an additional $800 million on security over the next four years, including adding 20,000 police officers. The next day, Sept. 6, he announced a shakeup of the leadership of the armed forces.

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The increase in violence has created an increasing political problem for Santos, who wants the U.S. Congress to approve a free trade agreement with Colombia. The deal has been in limbo for five years, partly because a bloc of Democrats in Congress believes passage should be deferred until Colombia improves its human rights record.

Although he acknowledges that the free trade bill is likely to pass this year, Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), sees a worrisome trend in the violence. In a meeting with Santos last month, he says, he expressed concern about the “consolidation of paramilitary and criminal networks in many parts of the country.”

“I am greatly alarmed by the increase in murders and threats against land rights and victims’ rights leaders in Sucre and Cordoba, where I visited, as well as against human rights defenders and labor activists across Colombia,” McGovern said.

Colombia’s booming economy has given criminal gangs or their proxies an added incentive to amass land, which they can then sell to mining, farming and lumber companies, said Juan David Diaz, a Sucre-based leader of MOVICE, an advocacy group for victims and the landless.

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“We are demanding the state expropriate the land that these groups still control, and that’s why we are all being threatened,” said Diaz, who spoke by telephone from Miami, where he had fled in June after receiving numerous threats.

Romero of CODHES noted that the violence may be related to upcoming local elections, when armed groups try to gain influence and install their favored candidates.

“Colombia is unique in the world in that it is trying to compensate victims at a time when the country is still at war,” Romero said. “There are criminals who never demobilized.”

Kraul is a special correspondent.


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