As Colombia begins official peace talks with the second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), on 7 February, Colombia’s rural leaders continue to face threats and violence in their efforts to implement peace. Last week alone, 8 community leaders and land restitution claimants were killed in just one region in Colombia - Urabá.
“The conclusion of peace talks with the FARC, and demobilisation of guerrilla members, has created a power vacuum in many rural parts of the country. Territory previously under influence of the FARC guerrillas is now being taken over by paramilitary groups and drug traffickers,” said Monsignor Hugo Torres, Bishop of Apartadó.
“We are deeply shocked and saddened by these killings. The Colombian State has abandoned people living in rural areas.
“The Church in Colombia calls on government leaders and security agencies to take action to stop this conflict, which is scarring the image of our region,” said Bishop Torres.
One of the leaders killed on 29 January was Porfirio Jaramillo Bogallo, a land restitution leader from Antioquia who was displaced in 1997 from the Urabá region and since then worked to defend land rights.
Mr. Bogallo was abducted by four men who tricked him into believing that they were part of the government’s National Protection Unit and part of his new security team. Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reports that these men then killed and decapitated him.
CAFOD’s Head of Region for Latin America, Clare Dixon, said:
“Colombia remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to defend human rights. Sadly, the signing of a peace deal with the FARC has not ended the complex conflict in Colombia, as a number of armed actors, including the ELN and right-wing paramilitaries, did not form part of the peace process.
“Paramilitary groups are responsible for the majority of killings of human rights defenders, but these terrible crimes are taking place with almost full impunity.
“There can be no peace in Colombia without local leaders to implement it. But these leaders are being silenced by threats or killings.”
Despite the peace process, there has been an alarming increase in attacks against human rights defenders, especially against community leaders, and land, peace and environmental activists. Indigenous, afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities continue to face human rights abuses and violations.
In 2016, 80 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia, an increase from 63 in 2015.
In the past half-century, the armed conflict has killed almost 268,000 people in Colombia. More than 46,500 are missing, over 7 million have been displaced, and thousands have suffered sexual violence.
Peace talks with the ELN are scheduled to begin on 7 February in the Ecuadorean capital Quito.
CAFOD is the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. It works with communities across Africa, Asia and Latin America to fight poverty and injustice. The agency works with people in need regardless of race, gender, religion or nationality (cafod.org.uk).
Monisgnor Hugo Torres is Bishop of Apartadó, a municipality in northwest Colombia where CAFOD has been implementing a project for the protection of human rights defenders.
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