[Marxism] Peacetime Spells Death for Colombia’s Activists
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Sun Oct 14 11:10:41 MDT 2018
NY Times, Oct. 13, 2018
Peacetime Spells Death for Colombia’s Activists
After signing a peace deal with its largest rebel group, the FARC, the
country saw its homicide rate fall to the lowest point in decades. Now
killings are on the rise.
By Nicholas Casey
JAMUNDÍ, Colombia — First, he survived a machete attack. Months later,
he begged a shadowy armed group to spare his life after hearing that his
name appeared on its hit list.
Then, in late July, armed men followed Libardo Moreno, a 76-year-old
farming activist, back to his ranch here in western Colombia. They came
to the gate, asking for help with a flat tire. When Mr. Moreno brought
over an air pump, they shot him in the neck and chest.
“He said, ‘They killed me, they killed me,’” recounted his wife,
Margarita Fernández, who found him splayed on the concrete, blood
pooling around him. “The motorcycles took off and they just left him there.”
Colombia’s government officially declared an end to more than five
decades of civil war in 2016, when it signed a peace deal with the
country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, FARC. Within a year, the homicide rate fell to its lowest
level since 1975, a remarkable turnaround for a country where a
half-century of conflict had taken at least 200,000 lives.
But a chilling aspect of the bloodshed isn’t falling: Killings of the
nation’s activists, including union organizers, local councilmen,
indigenous leaders and environmentalists who are under vigorous attack
across the country.
If anything, the killings appear to be on the rise in peacetime.
Mr. Moreno is one of at least 190 community leaders to be killed so far
this year, which means the country will probably far exceed the number
of activist murders recorded in all of 2017, according to Colombia’s
Institute of Studies for Peace and Development, a research group.
Few of the cases have been solved by Colombia’s government, yet a
pattern has emerged: Almost all of the murders have taken place in
regions that FARC guerrillas abandoned last year when they demobilized
as part of the peace deal.
The departure of the FARC was at first a boon for activists and
community organizers — a chance to push for infrastructure projects
needed for decades, like roads, aqueducts and services in the countryside.
But the government has yet to take control of many of the areas the
rebels left. In their place, a mix of drug traffickers, paramilitary
groups and breakaway rebel factions that rejected the peace agreement
have taken over.
These groups now see the activists’ development projects as a threat,
bringing unwanted attention and potentially interfering with their
illegal activities, residents say.
And that has put activists at the mercy of criminal groups.
“In these areas the FARC left, the state never arrived,” said Carlos
Guevara, of the Somos Defensores, a research group that monitors attacks
In just one bloody two-day period this summer, 10 activists were killed
in eight different provinces, including a left-wing political organizer,
a village leader and two representatives of an indigenous group shot
dead on a country road the night of July 6.
That same week, Martha Milena Becerra received a call that her mother, a
community organizer outside of the western city of Quibdó, had also been
shot dead, only moments after the two had talked by phone.
“She would say, ‘Why would anyone come after me if I haven’t hurt
anyone?’” recalled Ms. Becerra, who soon packed her belongings and fled
the city with her sister.
On Aug. 19, Marisel Tascus Pai was headed to a meeting with her husband,
an indigenous leader named Holmes Niscué, when bullets rained down on him.
Mr. Niscué was shot nine times. He had been recently blamed by guerrilla
groups for a government raid against suspected drug traffickers, which
left seven people dead in July.
“We have no help, we are sleeping on the floor now,” said the widow, who
has been in hiding since her husband’s funeral.
Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a
human rights group, said the killings of the social leaders could
represent the beginning of a larger social breakdown in Colombia,
despite the peace agreement with the FARC.
“There was a period of tranquillity where people were holding their
breath as town councils and social leaders were practicing politics
freely for the first time,” he said. “But that is over now. There was a
window which opened up, and the state did not jump through — but other
armed groups did.”
The killings present a daunting challenge for Colombia’s new president,
Iván Duque, who took charge Aug. 7 and has pledged to make changes to
the peace deal, which he calls flawed and in need of vast corrections.
In a response to written questions from The New York Times, the
government called the killings “a grave phenomenon which deeply worries
the president.” It blamed the deaths on Colombia’s past years of
violence and said the government was trying to find new ways of
protecting community organizers and activists.
“Colombia is a democratic country that offers guarantees to practice
politics,” the government statement said.
Other parts of the government have a different view. In July, the
country’s inspector general, an independent office that oversees public
officials, said in some cases criminal groups had worked with the police
and military to organize the killings.
The western city of Quibdó, where Martha Milena Becerra was
killed.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times
The killings also have the attention of the United States, which
provided the country with roughly $900 million in assistance between
2017 and 2018, split between anti-narcotics aid and measures for
development and enacting the peace deal.
“It’s something we’ve talked to the Colombian government about quite a
bit,” Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, told
reporters in Bogotá. “To have lives threatened is unacceptable. And the
United States always feels like we need to have our say to remind
governments that we’re watching.”
Yet the killings continue, including at least another 13 in August. Here
in Valle de Cauca, the province where Mr. Moreno was shot dead, members
of his town council have considered a mass resignation to avoid being
In Pindinché, a small mountain town in the province where an activist
who pushed for water rights was shot dead in July, one of the man’s
colleagues fretted over a new armed group that recently appeared nearby.
The colleague now drives in a bulletproof car and carries a pistol.
“I am not a violent man,” said the colleague, who asked not to be named
for fear of being killed too. “I’m here to help this community.”
Even in this province, where more than a dozen other social leaders had
been killed this year, Mr. Moreno’s death came as a surprise. A former
agricultural economist, he seemed to pose a threat to no one, especially
given the projects he backed, like an aqueduct and a nursery school.
The area had once been ground zero in the conflict with rebels. In the
1990s, the FARC repeatedly robbed the only shopping mall in the area in
deadly raids. But the war was winding down, and Mr. Moreno wanted to
organize the area’s farmers.
“He immediately identified all the problems that had been years in the
making,” recalled Andrés Moreno, his son.
Mr. Moreno joined the village council and started a program for farmers
to pool resources to grow and sell plantains. He pushed local officials
to begin building an aqueduct to reach farmers in the countryside,
something they had long said was impossible because of the rebels.
Then, last June, the rebels disarmed — a moment many residents had
waited a lifetime to see. For a while, people in the village, Las Pilas,
thought the conflict was over.
But the government sent no one to safeguard Mr. Moreno’s village: no
police, no soldiers.
Drug traffickers had already taken notice of Las Pilas, villagers say.
It sits at the foothills of steep mountains that cross to the country’s
largest Pacific ports and have long hidden coca leaf farms and
clandestine labs used to process cocaine. Mr. Moreno was concerned that
his development proposals might be running afoul of the new drug
traffickers entering the area, his family said.
“Paving a road or bringing an aqueduct is good,” said Alex Moreno, an
in-law of Mr. Moreno. “But for a few, it is bad. It means there’s more
access, more people — and more authorities can come.”
Peacetime had also brought an influx of farmers who had previously fled
their fields during the fighting. Some indigenous groups had settled the
empty farms, claiming the ancestral lands belonged to them. Mr. Moreno
increasingly found himself on the side of the displaced farmers in these
Last year, Mr. Moreno was walking with a farmer on his land when a group
of indigenous men descended on them with machetes. Mr. Moreno was beaten
Andrés Moreno, Mr. Moreno’s son, became concerned that his father was
stepping into too many new cross-fires. His vehicle was damaged twice by
“We said, ‘Dad, calm down,’” recalled the son. “He would go into these
meetings and speak up, but everyone else would be quiet. They were
Then in late June, two weeks before he was killed, word began to spread
that he was on a hit list of a guerrilla group still in the mountains.
The FARC had demobilized, but this band appeared to be a smaller rebel
group that kept fighting, or a breakaway faction that never signed the
Mr. Moreno decided to meet them face to face.
“He wasn’t scared,” recalled his son. “He said, ‘I’m here to help the
The meeting took place in the mountains. A commander showed Mr. Moreno
the hit list and said his name wasn’t on it. Still, the meeting made Mr.
Moreno uneasy. He had never seen the commander before, and the group
wore no badges with insignia showing who they were, Mr. Moreno’s son said.
In the days before his death, three explosions hit the aqueduct Mr.
Moreno had been championing.
Some in Las Pilas suspected the drug trafficking groups; others assumed
sabotage by the guerrillas. A few cast suspicion on the indigenous
community arguing over access to water.
On July 23, Mr. Moreno returned to his ranch after meeting politicians
to discuss the attack. According to his wife, two motorcycles waited
alongside the road, letting Mr. Moreno pass.
A knock came at the gate of their farm. A man asked for a pump, claiming
his tire had run out of air.
“Boom, boom,” recalled Ms. Fernandez, Mr. Moreno’s wife, pointing to her
neck to describe how her husband was killed.
Alex Moreno, one of his in-laws, said the authorities failed Mr. Moreno
in life by abandoning his village. But they also failed him in death:
The police, he says, refused to come up to Las Pilas to collect the
body, fearing the violence there.
Mr. Moreno collected the bullet casings himself with gloves borrowed
from a funeral home.
“It’s impossible to ever find out who did this if the authorities
wouldn’t even come to the crime scene,” he said.
Susan Abad contributed reporting from Bogotá
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