By Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Mario Moreno
This past July, in a powerful show of force, 94 members of the United States House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo outlining grave concerns about the status of Colombia’s peace process.
The letter’s message, and the sheer number of signatories on it, sent shockwaves through Colombia. Shortly thereafter, in an interview in The Hill, Colombian President Iván Duque responded to congressional alarm by dismissing it as a product of U.S. electoral politics. His cavalier response underscored the point of the letter: Colombia’s peace is disintegrating because the Duque administration is failing to protect those working to sustain it.
The social leaders, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous activists, and human rights defenders doing the grassroots work of building peace in Colombia’s marginalized communities are being systematically targeted and assassinated. More than 400 social leaders have been killed since the signing of the peace accords, including 170 so far this year according to Colombian NGO Indepaz. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose data the Colombian government prefers, has identified a lower number of social leaders killed this year—but pending deaths that need verification, it notes a potential 70 percent increase in murders in the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019.
Among those killed this year is Marco Rivadeneira. He was assassinated while promoting voluntary coca substitutions programs—a key facet of the peace accords and a shared goal of the United States and Colombia—in a community meeting. His relentless efforts to implement these programs in Putumayo, a region where cocaine trafficking groups dominate, earned him credible death threats. He requested help from Colombia’s National Protection Unit, an agency that protects threatened social leaders. He never received it.
Four months after Marco Rivadeneira’s murder, no one has been brought to justice. What’s more, the Duque administration has engaged in policies that undermine Mr. Rivadeneira’s work. Rather than protect and support the 99,097 Colombian families who have signed up for voluntary coca substitution programs, the Duque administration is trying to restart an ineffective aerial eradication program that could decimate the health and sustenance of entire communities. Many of these communities are earnestly interested in voluntary eradication, but live without basic services.
Marco Rivadeneira’s story is a microcosm of peace in Colombia today.
Social leaders are pushing for voluntary coca substitution programs in regions controlled by cocaine traffickers. They’re seeking land, labor, and environmental rights in communities where extractive industries like mining operate. They’re finding justice for the millions of human rights abuses committed during Colombia’s 52-year conflict. Every day, their work directly challenges the power of violent interests in Colombia.
The Duque administration can support the work of social leaders by prioritizing the full implementation of the 2016 peace deal. It can better protect them by bringing those responsible for ordering attacks against social leaders to justice. Instead, the Duque administration is undermining them.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, threatened social leaders have reported that their government-provided protective details have withdrawn, leaving them exposed to credible danger. Last year, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office launched 753 active investigations into threats against social leaders; only three resulted in convictions.
The Duque administration has also made social leaders’ work more difficult. Institutions tasked with uncovering human rights abuses during the Colombian conflict and guiding the truth and reconciliation process face drastic budget cuts. A critical development vehicle designed in conjunction with impacted communities—called Development Plans with a Territorial Focus—is operating at a fraction of its cost.
The reality on the ground is clear: since signing its historic peace accords, Colombia’s grasp on peace has never felt so tenuous.
The 94 members of Congress who signed the letter to Secretary Pompeo expressed legitimate alarm about peace in Colombia. The U.S. House of Representatives was right to act on that concern by generously funding peace implementation in the 2021 Foreign Operations appropriation, and by including amendments in the National Defense Authorization Act to defund aerial fumigation operations in Colombia and investigate reports of illegal surveillance by Colombian military forces.
It is critical that the United States Congress take a further step. It must proactively work with the Colombian government to aggressively protect social leaders, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous activists, and human rights defenders. Without their grassroots work securing land reform, labor rights, environmental rights, and justice, peace in Colombia is not possible.