Attacks are on the rise against Colombia’s left-wing activists, indigenous leaders and members of the Patriotic March party amid a landmark peace agreement to bring an end to more than 50 years of civil war.
At least 58 activists were killed in 2016, according to official government data. However, the United Nations placed the figure at 61, and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia estimated that there were as many as 94 assassinations.
Activist groups said the number has surged in recent months as the government finalized a controversial peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. One of the main targets is the Patriotic March, a political movement that unites much of the left in Colombia. TeleSUR reported that more than 120 members have been killed since the group was founded in 2012.
The rising death toll has sparked doubts over the implementation of the peace deal. So much so that on Monday a top official called for the government to improve protections for activists.
“Leaders and human rights defenders find themselves exposed today to an unprecedented risk of violence that threatens the country’s most vulnerable,” said Colombia’s Ombudsman Carlos Alfonso Negret, TeleSUR reported. “But at the same time they are the most committed to peace and national reconciliation.”
Community leaders suspect that soldiers and police are killing leftists on behalf of powerful Colombian landowners and others who oppose the peace deal, the Washington Post reported. They have complained of armed men in camouflage occupying roads in various areas of the country, as well as paramilitary graffiti tags and threatening paramilitary pamphlets.
Activists are calling on Colombian authorities to protect them and to pursue criminal suspects, as was agreed upon in the peace accord signed in Havana. Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez designated 21 investigators to “take on the enemies of peace in Colombia,” but so far, only four cases have been prosecuted.
The administration of President Juan Manuel Santos condemned the killings. But last week, Colombia’s Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas denied the presence of paramilitary groups in Colombia, and said that “to say there is, is to grant political recognition to bandits dedicated to common and organized delinquency.”
The government has offered no solutions to end the violence. Santos’s top security official, Juan Carlos Restrepo, said protecting leftist activists is a “top priority” for the government, but that the government lacks the resources to assign bodyguards and armored cars to everyone who feels threatened.
Others have argued that tackling Colombia’s ongoing paramilitary problem will be critical if the two sides are to effectively implement the peace accord. FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timochenko, has said the government “has turned a blind eye” to paramilitarism, and that eradicating it will be necessary if Colombia is to achieve stable and lasting peace.