The Grim Reality of Being a Community Leader in Colombia
On June 21, 2019, the news shocked the Colombian population. One of the multiple criminal organizations present in the country murdered María del Pilar Hurtado in front of her two children, in Tierralta, Córdoba. María was a community leader who tried to claim access to land so that the inhabitants of Tierralta could own homes. Her story is only one of the 250 stories of community leaders in Colombia murdered in 2019.
Criminal groups, such as the Black Eagles, have murdered more than 45 leaders so far this year. That figure is equivalent to one community leader assassinated each day. Even though the people are demanding a solution, the Colombian government has not addressed the problem. These leaders need protection. They need support. And they need guarantees that they can continue to do their work.
The government should listen more closely when leaders state that criminal organizations are threatening them. It should relocate those leaders that are in grave danger. But more important, it should protect leaders by addressing the root causes of the issues they are fighting for.
Community leaders are not in big cities. They are not in places where the government and public forces have a strong presence. Instead, they are in tiny, remote, and marginalized territories that are still recovering from the scars of the armed conflict. They are human rights defenders, indigenous leaders, campesinos, Afro-Colombians, LGBTQ members, and women fighting for their rights and for peace.
When a community leader is murdered, democracy and the rule of law suffer. Assassinations violate every norm — the freedom of political participation, peaceful assembly, and expression. They undermine democracy and stability.
When a community leader is murdered, criminal groups feel empowered. These groups are trying to fill the power vacuum that the FARC and the government left after the 2016 peace accords. The lack of government action or presence sends these groups a clear message that they can get away with murder. They now have power over these territories. And so it will remain until the government makes it a priority to protect community leaders.
When a community leader is murdered, hope is lost. Many do not trust the state because of impunity. They do not believe in the peace accords. And they do not have an alternative but to live in an environment of terror and violence. If Colombians trust neither the state nor the peace accords, it is almost impossible to implement them. The transitional justice system in Colombia depends on the support of these communities. If they lose hope, there will be nothing left.
Many will say that the Colombian government is doing everything in its power to address the problem. It has equipped leaders with secret phones, bulletproof vests, bodyguards, and armored cars to guarantee their security. But, the rising numbers of murders prove that this has not been enough. There needs to be a different approach to protection.
Efforts should focus both on protecting the lives of the leaders and eradicating the criminal organizations that are perpetrating violence. The government should also make efficient use of the existing organizations such as the Comisión de Garantías and the Plan de Acción Oportuna that work for the defense of rights. Overall, there needs to be further physical involvement of the state and the public forces in these territories. And it needs to happen soon.
Since the signing of the peace accords in 2016, criminal groups have murdered almost 1,000 community leaders in Colombia. To this day, leaders throughout the country are still threatened, persecuted, and assassinated. And the government has not yet addressed this issue. The state needs to protect and support these leaders. We cannot risk destabilizing our democracy. We cannot let the criminal groups feel empowered. And we cannot lose hope.
We need to show these groups that those who want peace are more powerful; that we will continue fighting for our rights. And that we are not going to let them win. We will work to protect community leaders, to make the peace we so long for the reality of Colombia’s future.