More than 200 social leaders and human rights activists were killed in Colombia last year, the country’s human rights ombudsman has announced, as armed groups vying for control of drug trafficking routes increased their attacks.
Carlos Camargo said in a statement on Monday that 215 human rights activists and social leaders – a term used to describe community, land and environmental leaders, among others – were killed in 2022.
It was the highest death toll ever recorded, up from 145 in 2021 and 182 in 2020.
“It’s a serious impact on the basis of democracy, because these are leaders who take up the concerns of the people, who are spokespersons and who work for a country where human rights are respected,” the ombudsman said.
The tally comes as Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who took office last August, has pursued a “total peace” plan to try to bring an end to the armed conflict that killed more than 450,000 people in the South American country between 1985 and 2018.
Bogota signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group in 2016, leading members of the organisation to disarm. But some FARC dissidents rejected the deal and picked up weapons again.
Violence has surged in Colombia in recent years, especially in parts of the country that lie outside government control and where armed groups are involved in drug trafficking and other illicit activities. The INDEPAZ research institute recorded nearly 100 massacres last year.
In some areas of Colombia, the killings are linked to “fighting among the different groups and accusations that the social leaders are working for the opposing party”, Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera in July of last year.
“In other areas of Colombia, they are being killed because they support plans to replace cocaine crops with food – which obviously would potentially damage the illegal economy of these same groups – or because they support plans to recover land stolen during the armed conflict,” he said.
Amnesty International also has raised alarm over the killings of social leaders in Colombia.
“The protection of Indigenous, campesino and Afro-descendant communities in Colombia is ineffective because it does not address the structural causes of violence and often occurs without the proper participation of those at risk,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, the group’s Americas director, said in a statement in February 2022.
“Defenders of communities at risk are constantly unprotected, and threats, attacks and killings are constant in the country considered the most dangerous in the world for defending human rights,” Guevara-Rosas wrote.
There is hope that Petro’s push for “total peace” and willingness to negotiate with illegal armed groups will help reduce violence.
Late last year, the government resumed peace talks with Colombia’s largest remaining armed group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), in neighbouring Venezuela. A second round of talks is expected to be held soon in Mexico.
Bogota also recently declared bilateral ceasefires with two FARC dissident groups, as well as criminal group Clan del Golfo and paramilitaries in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada region.
“We hope the start of talks with the ELN and the ceasefire with other illegal armed groups will lead to decreased attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders,” Camargo, the ombudsman, said on Monday.