When a peace agreement was signed in 2016 in Colombia between the government and armed forces (FARC), citizens and activists seized the opportunity to make longstanding grievances heard and press for change. But between September 2016 and March 2020, 442 social leaders were assassinated. As death becomes part of the daily discourse, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we should look beyond these shocking numbers and understand that the massive killing of social leaders is not only a humanitarian crisis, but also a threat to the process of social transformation and local empowerment.
Hope for change
The peace agreement signed in 2016 in Colombia signaled change. Since the political exclusion of government dissidents and others critical of the political regime is considered to have been one of the root causes of the conflict, the agreement sought to create spaces to promote the organization and participation of diverse actors with diverse voices and included a series of provisions to strengthen the presence of the state in marginalized areas to address issues such as poverty, inequality, and unequal distribution of land. In this context, the signature of the peace agreement opened a window of opportunity for activists and citizens to present to the state their long overdue demands for changes related to such issues, which had taken the back seat during the conflict.
The persistence of violent repression
In the period shortly before the peace agreement was signed in 2016, a reduction in homicidal violence and conflict-related deaths following the de-escalation of violence seemed to signify the end of an era characterized by violence. This reduction in violent acts provided space for activists and citizens to present their demands to the state in a way that was not possible in the preceding years, when violence made mobilization riskier. However, sectors within the country not interested in peace talks started to exert violence on citizens, continuing a growing trend since 2016. Consequently, during the post-agreement period, Colombia has experienced a dramatic increase in the cases of murders and threats against social leaders. According to figures from the NGO Somos Defensores, between September 2016 and March 2020, 442 social leaders had been killed. According to a recent report of the U.N., which we analyzed in a previous article, these worrying figures situate Colombia as the country with most killings of human right defenders in Latin America.
Assassinated activists and human rights defenders were individuals linked to organizations attempting to mobilize society for the implementation of the peace accords and strengthening of statehood. Those maimed were peasant leaders, environmentalists, land defenders, women, indigenous leaders, and afro-descendants representing marginalised communities.
COVID-19: obscuring intensified killings
This trend has worsened in Colombia during the COVID-19 pandemic, as illustrated by a sharp increase in assassinations of social leaders by 53% between January and April this year. However, as the attention of political leaders and citizens is focused on the response of the government to address the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society groups fear that the assassination of community leaders will go unnoticed and unpunished. As the attention of political leaders and citizens is focused on the response of the government to protect and ensure the health of their citizens from COVID-19, groups often resorting to violence in Colombia (right-wing paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, dissident guerrilla members, and other armed organizations) are taking advantage of the pandemic to divert attention from violence that would otherwise be observed.
As people are getting used to seeing figures of death daily, it is critical to remember that we need to see beyond the numbers and understand that the massive killing of social leaders is a humanitarian crisis with different impacts. At the individual level, the right to life of the leader is violated, and at the social level, the assassinations affect the representation of collective interests, becoming a threat to the process of social change and local empowerment.
Social leaders are the voice of the communities that have been historically forgotten. Hence, when they are threatened, there is a further weakening in the social fabric of these groups. According to the testimonies of several social leaders who were interviewed in a recent study by CNC, CODHES and USAID, after an attack, the members of the community became afraid to participate, to organize, and the formation of new leaders was also obstructed. That is how the killing of social leaders has a long-term effect that impacts the deepening of democracy in Colombia, benefiting the interests of those who want to maintain the status quo and continue to use violence to do so.
The effect of the COVID-19 response on social organization
Whereas civil society has improved its capacity to hold the government accountable with regards to the assassination of social leaders, their capacity to pressure the government has been diminished due to the restrictions on gatherings due to the pandemic, and due to the focus of public opinion on the risk of COVID-19. This makes it more difficult for organizations to centre the defence of the lives of social activists in public discourse and increases the likelihood of the assassination of community leaders being obscured.
In this context, we want to contribute to an ongoing campaign started by civil society groups in Colombia to use opinion articles and other spaces of communication to raise awareness about the severity of this situation and to tell the stories of those who are at risk. As part of this initiative, the newspaper El Espectador on its front page of June 14th 2020 published a list with the names of the 442 people who have been killed with the title “Let’s not forget them” (“No los olvidemos” in Spanish). Let this become the start of a movement to continue highlighting mass killings of social leaders and to problematize them. It is not okay, and we will not accept it. #NoLosOlviDemos.
 In comparison with the number of assassinations taking place between January and April 2019.
This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.
About the authors:
Fabio Andres Diaz Pabon is a Colombian political scientist. He is a research associate at the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa and a researcher at the ISS. Fabio works at the intersection between theory and practice, and his research interests are related to state strength, civil war, conflict and protests in the midst of globalisation.
Ana María Arbeláez Trujillo is a lawyer, specialist in Environmental Law and holds an Erasmus Mundus Master in Public Policy. She works as a legal consultant in Climate Focus, where she focuses on climate change policies and forest governance. Her research interests are the political economy of extractivist industries, environmental conflicts, and rural development.