Assassination of Social Leaders in Colombia, an Invisible Problem?

The month of April 2023 saw the highest number of assassinations of social leaders in Colombian territory. Different global and national organizations continue to call on the national government to prevent violence against social leaders.

Protest for the murder of social leaders in 2018

Photo: REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

LatinAmerican Post | Alejandra Caballero

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Leer en español: Asesinato de líderes sociales en Colombia ¿una problemática invisibilizada?

From January to March 2023, there were 23 murders associated with social leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). The outlook for the start of the year marks a security challenge for the Government. The alarms of different social and political actors ignite the need to generate tangible and forceful preventive measures in the face of the problem.

The trajectory

The insecurity and murders associated with social leaders do not go back to a difficulty this year. According to figures from the newspaper El País and the Ombudsman's Office, the total number of social leaders murdered between 2016 and 2022 is 1,113 cases. The majority of victims were leaders in Community Action Boards, indigenous peoples, community groups that signed the Agreement of Peace and Human Rights Defenders, among other registered activities.

By 2022, 216 murders of social leaders were registered, figures that rise to the numbers that have been registered by different organizations such as the Early Warning System (SAT) and Indepaz in previous years. In this way, last year is one of the most violent in the history of the social movement in the country. Regarding the impact and deaths associated with the country's geographical distribution, these can be related mainly to the departments of Cauca, Nariño, Tolima, Antioquia, and Putumayo; areas that have been characterized by a large presence of armed and illegal groups.

The great social victims in recent years have also been the families and populations that have been violated by the presence of these armed groups. According to El País, despite the fact that the deaths have been mostly activists, “everyone suffers the violence equally: youth leaders, Afro-descendants, women, peasants, indigenous people. No one who dedicates himself to defending human rights in Colombia seems to be safe." 

Current situation

The president, Gustavo Petro, was one of the great critics of the past government of Iván Duque regarding the implementation of guarantees of protection and actions to stop the murders of social and Human Rights leaders. Now, in his own government, peace talks have been carried out with groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and other illegal groups, with the aim of continuing the intention to reduce violence in Colombian territory.

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However, for the first four months of 2023, the acts of violence against social leaders do not seem to stop, but, on the contrary, they continue to worsen. Human Rights Watch documented a total of 55 related murders, from January to April. Given this, Juan Pappier, Deputy Director of the organization for the Americas, mentions that "to stop this massacre, Colombia urgently needs to restructure and strengthen its system for the protection of social leaders and effectively implement a security policy aimed at protecting the population." In the same way, the organization sent a letter to the Government of Petro, in August 2022, with different recommendations to stop this critical situation in order to achieve a situation of “Total Peace”. In said letter, the need to "safeguard the rights of the victims, avoid fraudulent demobilization and choose which armed groups to dialogue with".

The call for the implementation of security guarantees has also been stressed by other organizations. For example, the UN Verification Mission insists on the need to immediately structure and implement a road map to stop the problem that has left social leaders and the signatories of the Peace Agreement exposed to excessive violence.

"Beyond the so-called Unified Command Posts for Life (PMUV), which have been installed in various parts of the country, there is not much more to show than the emergency plan to protect the leaders that the Government accepted last year past" mentioned UN officials. In the same way, organizations such as Somos Defensores, emphasize the need to carry out the proper investigations to stop impunity and violence, factors that are crucial when ensuring the non-repetition of violence and the assassinations of leaders.