Assassination of 41 Activists in Colombia Threatens Peace Process
The Colombian government’s peace agreement with the FARC rebels requires the government to protect activists and former FARC fighters, but their government is not living up to this requirement, says Prof. Mario Murillo
GREGORY WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.
Members of the United Nations Security Council visited Colombia on Thursday, just as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, are set to reach a milestone in laying down 1,000 weapons amid a peace process with the Colombian government.
Some 7,000 former FARC rebels are demobilizing throughout the country, after signing a peace deal with President Juan Manuel Santos, late last year to end a conflict that has left over 220,000 dead, and millions of the country’s population displaced. Here is what the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, had to say.
MATTHEW RYCROFT: we have come to listen, and what we have heard so far is that we are here at a crucial time. Over 50 years ago, the FARC picked up weapons. Today they are laying down those weapons. And tomorrow, the important milestone of the first 1,000 weapons to have been laid down will be achieved. So, it is a very historic and positive day for the Security Council to be here.
GREGORY WILPERT: The meeting also took place shortly after the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid [bin] Ra’ad al-Hussein, said last Monday that at least 41 Colombians were killed in apparent politically motivated assassinations in the first four months of this year. If confirmed, this would represent a higher rate of political assassinations than last year, and could threaten the peace process if it continues.
The government of President Santos, though, disputed the number, saying that there were only 14 politically motivated killings.
Joining us to analyze the state of Colombia’s peace process is Mario Murillo. Mario joins us from up-state New York. He is Professor of Communications and Latin American-Caribbean Studies at Hofstra University, and he is also the author of the book Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization.
Thanks for joining us today, Mario.
MARIO MURILLO: It’s good to be with you, Greg. Thanks for having me.
GREGORY WILPERT: Let’s begin with what the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights had to say, about the 41 murders of activists in Colombia since the beginning of the year. Latest reports indicate that the past two weeks, also two former FARC fighters were murdered. Who is behind these killings, and how is this affecting the peace process?
MARIO MURILLO: Right. This is perhaps the most profound threat to the peace process that we’ve seen and it’s reminiscent of a long history of the ultra-right in Colombia, with their close links with the military and political establishment in the country, in terms of their intransigence in dealing with any kind of negotiation with the FARC rebels and in previous agreements with other armed groups in the countryside.
So, it is very alarming. The number of 41, 42 — I was reading 42 — most recently doesn’t include family members of FARC combatants, who are now currently in those 26 demilitarization zones of concentration around the country. There are reports almost every day in which family members are getting killed, shot at, massacred in houses. Most recently in Chocó, there was a family of three that were killed, including a 14-year-old girl that was the sister of one of the FARC combatants, who was in a close by municipality in the demilitarized area.
So, this is a major danger, and I think part of the problem is is that the Santos government, and his minister of defence, for example, continue to right this off as not systematic, as this is something that’s just happening. But that it’s not related to any systematic, organized campaign to derail the peace process, and they also downplay the numbers of people who are getting killed.
Now, there’s always speculation as to how many actual people are directly victims of this kind of violence. It’s always difficult to get accurate numbers, but if you are concerned about it, you would do some serious investigation into it. Now, part of the peace agreement calls for the government to not only protect the FARC combatants and their family members in these areas, and to guarantee their security in this process as they demobilize, but there’s also the necessity and the state’s responsibility to carry out and enforce the mechanisms of investigation and of protection, right?
To make sure that any kinds of violence of this nature is going to be dealt with through the letter of the law. And all indications from people that’ve spoken to in Colombia, and many of whom actually have come here to the U.S. to call attention to the crisis, and to the problem, have pointed out that this is not being implemented at all, so far in the process of peace.
So, this is a major danger, and as I said before, it is very similar to what we’ve seen in the past. Especially now what we’re seeing are openly aggressive actions, public missives that are coming out from groups that are clearly identifying themselves as paramilitaries.
For a while after the paramilitary groups demobilized — supposedly demobilized in 2006-7 — during a very controversial peace negotiation and demobilization negotiation that took place between the government, of then-President Álvaro Uribe, and the AUC, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia. The umbrella organization that represented the paramilitary groups who wreaked havoc in the countryside for 20 years, after that happened, after that demobilization took place, there were all sorts of reports that they weren’t truly fully demobilized and that there were other kinds of bands that were operating in the country, kind of filling in the vacuum of those combatants that left.
What we’re seeing today, though, is an actual open recognition of these new paramilitary groups, there’s a group called the [Guyanistas] Self-Defense Forces of Colombia that have put out — and this is in Nariño and Cauca and other parts of… in Chocó, in Antioquia. Directly targeting peace activists, human rights workers, social movement activists, members of the left political parties, like the Marcha Patriótica, and the Patriotic Union, the Unión Patriótica.
And they’re putting out these missives that are so similar to what we saw in the 1980s and ’90s, and 2000s, when the paramilitaries were running roughshod over the countryside. Hateful language, likening these peasant activists with terrorists, with guerrillas, talking about… I mean, language I won’t even re-state, given the nature of it, a hateful language that is really fanning the flames. And that’s really meant to cause fear and terror.
So, if the government wants to continue to look at this, as not a systematic process of extermination to derail any effort at peace, we have a serious problem.
GREGORY WILPERT: Well, you’re talking specifically about the failure of the government to demobilize and disarm the paramilitaries, which is certainly a major obstacle and part of the peace process. But I’m wondering also more generally, I mean, the peace process besides that, includes many other things such as restituting land, turning the FARC into a political party, creating safe zones — while that’s part of, of course, the failure to protect them, and many other measures.
As a whole, how do you see the progress in implementing the peace accord so far? Where as there been progress and where has there been little or no progress so far?
MARIO MURILLO: You’re absolutely right, Greg. The peace accord is in many ways problematic, but in many ways very progressive and very, very hopeful when they were signed in August. And then there was kind of a re-writing of it after the plebiscite in October, ultimately led to a no-vote, a small margin no-vote that kind of wrote off the peace agreement for the time being. They re-wrote it, they renegotiated, they came to the conclusion and there are a lot of positive measures in there that deal with rural land reform, guarantees of political participation, of left and independent parties.
The reincorporation of FARC combatants into civilian life, a very strong process of provisional and transitional justice, to not only have FARC rebels recognized, and accept responsibility for certain acts of crimes against civilian populations, but also recognize the victims, and remunerate the victims, after years of the suffering that they went through. So, there are a lot of those aspects in that peace accord that one would hope would be implemented.
However, as long as people are getting killed that are working along those issues, right? So, all the activists that we’re seeing getting killed, they’re land rights activists, who are addressing precisely the issue of bringing people back who were displaced. We’re talking about seven million internally displaced, mostly peasant, indigenous Afro-Colombian peasant families, who’ve been displaced throughout the countryside in Colombia who are, as part of the peace agreement, one would think are going to get access and the possibilities of getting their land back.
And those activists who are working around land restitution in the countryside. are getting killed. Those other organizers who are mobilizing around environmental protections, issues around land, illegal mining, in territories that are destroying rivers, those organizers. Like in Cauca, a number of organizers who were recently targeted, including some high profile leaders who were killed, because they were drawing attention to the pollutants being put in by large agribusiness in some of these territories.
Indigenous activists who are working around the major dams that are being created, hydroelectric dams that are being created in Antioquia, being targeted for their work. As long as we have peace activists who are trying to promote those different implementation steps in the accord, getting killed, as long as we have political parties, members of the Patriotic Union, the former political party that was liquidated in the 1990s after the earlier peace accord between the government and the FARC rebels back in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, they’re getting targeted once again.
As long as those people are not being protected, and these paramilitaries are running roughshod, and very often in areas where the FARC have demobilized, the UN High Commission, that report that you just mentioned, pointed out that of all those killings that we’ve seen in 2017, 60% of them have happened in areas that were formerly controlled by the FARC, and are now suddenly being filled in, the vacuum, the military vacuum that’s being left there behind, these are the people who are being targeted.
And so, it’s clearly connected, the violence that’s being carried out is totally connected, because the other issues, what’s going to happen if there is no protection, if this violence continues to escalate? We talk about 42 people killed so far this year — 42 people killed so far this year, that’s already more than half of what was killed even by conservative estimates last year, and the projections are that it’s just going to continue to happen.
GREGORY WILPERT: I just wanted to also address briefly, the other factor which seems to me an obstacle, which is the former president, Álvaro Uribe, continues to be a major opponent to the peace process. As a matter of fact, last April 1st, he organized a major demonstration against — supposedly against — corruption, but it was also kind of against the peace accords, and his party, the so-called Party of the Democratic Centre, hopes to win the presidency in 2018, and he promises to tear up the peace accords if they win.
So, how influential do you think is former President Uribe at the moment, and how successful is he in torpedoing the process?
MARIO MURILLO: Extremely influential and extremely dangerous. I mean, he’s putting out the same kind of… in many ways, the horrific language that we’re seeing, put out by the missives that I described from the new paramilitary groups that are targeting some of these civilian organizers, is kind of a more extreme discourse that Álvaro Uribe is using on a regular basis.
And in fact, late last month, Álvaro Uribe put out a letter to the Congress — in English — he put out a big missive to the U.S. Congress, to the American public, in English, making the same false claims that a lot of these armed groups in the countryside, are making. And linking peasant organizers, human rights workers, et cetera, with terrorist organizations, denouncing FARC for continuing to carry out belligerent actions when there’s no evidence at all.
In fact, the FARC have been pretty… surprisingly, it’s been pretty amazing — those of us who’ve been watching this for a long time — to see that the FARC have not retaliated, notwithstanding the ongoing assaults not only against the civilian folks who are getting killed, but including the family members, and FARC combatants themselves, who are being killed in this process.
And so, Uribe has been fanning the flames from the start, and he was against the negotiations from the beginning. He has this kind of rabid hatred towards the FARC. He has an irrational position, saying that there’s no negotiation with them. And even after a number of the concerns that were raised by his party to the first initial accord that was signed, and that was voted upon by this popular plebiscite that was held in October. Even after those issues were addressed, he was still unhappy about it, and he still continues to denounce it. And he’s got the ear of the political establishment in the United States.
I mean, a couple of weeks ago, he met in a kind of informal meeting, he, with Donald Trump, at Mar-a-Lago, apparently it was a meeting that he had set up with Marco Rubio, and another former president, Andrés Pastrana from Colombia, and they have the ear of Donald Trump. And we already know the language, and the approach that Trump takes. It’s very dangerous. Because if the U.S. doesn’t back, as the Obama administration did, with all its difficulties and all its problems, vis-à-vis the U.S.-Colombia policy, but they were at least supportive of the peace agreement.
If Uribe is able to win the ear of Trump, and make these false claims about the illegality, and the corruption, and the violence being carried about by FARC, et cetera, that doesn’t bode well for the future of any accord.
My hope is, and even though he does still maintain considerable political support in the countryside, there’s enough opposition to his discourse, there’s enough opposition to… and enough support across the country for the peace agreement, for an end to the conflict, at least. And I’m hoping that cooler heads will prevail.
But it’s still too early to tell. We’re almost at the point where the campaign season in Colombia for the 2018 elections is going to be in full swing, and at that point, therein lies another danger: who’s going to be focusing on the peace agreement, and the demobilization process, when everybody’s going to be focusing on the circus of who’s going to be the next president of Colombia?
GREGORY WILPERT: Okay. Well, Mario, unfortunately we’ve run out of time. But certainly I hope we can come back to you soon, to follow up on so many more questions that remain unanswered. So, thanks so much, Mario, for having joined us today.
MARIO MURILLO: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
GREGORY WILPERT: And thank you for watching The Real News.