As an important regional power and strategic U.S. ally, Colombia’s stability plays a major role in the geopolitics of the Western Hemisphere. Violent paramilitary groups threaten that stability, particularly through the targeted killings of social and economic leaders in Colombia. The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) takes a closer look with this Threat Assessment.
Colombian social leaders, especially indigenous activists, are in imminent danger of assassination. Numerous, credible reports from local and national Colombian sources establish a trend of assassinations of community leaders, particularly those campaigning for land rights and government support. In regions where criminal and/or paramilitary groups are known to operate, these leaders are targeted in territorial violence perpetrated by Colombian paramilitary groups such as ELN, FARC dissidents, Gaitanista Self-Defense group (AGC), and the “Aguilas Negras” network of criminal organizations. In addition, the targeted killings of non-indigenous economic or social leaders indicate a broader goal of destabilization in order to maintain and expand criminal activity.
Amnesty International photograph of Indigenous women protesting
Social leaders and indigenous activists in Colombia are in imminent danger of being assassinated. As of May, 44 social leaders or ethnic community members have been murdered in 2019, 6 of whom were indigenous people. The killing of a land reclamation activist, a rural indigenous leader in Miranda and a crop substitution activist in Tumaco support this assessment: land activists and rural leaders are targeted as FARC dissidents and other paramilitary groups seek to expand their territory and drug trafficking routes. Other, non-rural social leaders, specifically labor group leaders, have also been targeted. Local leaders of the National Union of Food Workers and the Trade Union of Construction Material Workers, as well as the leader of the Social Integration Commission, have been assassinated in 2019. The professional positions of these targets suggest a larger goal of social and economic destabilization that motivates these assassinations, beyond the acquisition of territory or influence through intimidation.
The car of an indigenous leader’s son after an incendiary bomb attack
At a local level, the assassinations of Colombian community leaders will likely expand the power and influence of criminal and paramilitary groups. Land seizure, economic instability, and social unrest could boost profits and recruitment for these groups as they eliminate opportunities for legitimate economic alternatives. As rival groups gain territory and resources, inter-group conflict will likely escalate and further victimize Colombian communities. On a national scale, the Colombian government is likely to continue responding to the violent and aggressive expansion of paramilitary groups with military deployments and counterinsurgency campaigns. Assassinations, insecurity, and instability heighten the criticism and pressure on the Duque administration to defend social leaders. After a 2018 visit to Colombia, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders acknowledged the rise in killings, threats, and intimidation of human rights activists in Colombia. The Special Rapporteur urged the Colombian government to develop policies to recognize and protect human rights defenders. The Colombian government’s National Protection Unit provides security and resources to approximately 4,300 social leaders and activists, but is hindered by the logistical requirements necessary to protect numerous leaders, many of whom live in remote areas. The precedent of military intervention in response to violent outbreaks is unlikely to change.
The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) SOUTHCOM team is actively monitoring reports of violence against community leaders and indigenous people. SOUTHCOM documents reports of paramilitary terrorist activity in Colombia, including violence against community leaders. SOUTHCOM will continue to track the activity of known terrorist groups in Colombia, monitor threats against social leaders, and detect trends in the targeting of social leaders and indigenous people.
1. Sánchez-Garzoli, Gimena. “Human Rights Attacks Continue in Colombia.” WOLA, 3 Apr. 2019, www.wola.org/2019/04/human-rights-attacks-colombia/.
2. Amnesty International. “Human Rights in Colombia.” https://www.amnesty.ca/our-work/priority-countries/colombia
3. Sánchez-Garzoli, Gimena. “Human Rights Attacks Continue in Colombia.” WOLA, 3 Apr. 2019, www.wola.org/2019/04/human-rights-attacks-colombia/.
4. Alsema, Adriaan. “Days after Attack in Southwest Colombia, Local Leaders Threatened with ‘Extermination.’ Colombia News | Colombia Reports, 7 May 2019, colombiareports.com/days-after-attack-in-southwest-colombia-local-leaders-threatened-with-extermination/
6. “Colombia Must Act to Stop Killings and Attacks against Human Rights Defenders - UN Expert.” OHCHR, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 3 Dec. 2018, www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23968&LangID=E.
7. Wyss, Jim. “Colombia Signed a Peace Deal. So Why Have 164 Community Leaders Been Killed This Year?” Miamiherald, Miami Herald, 21 Dec. 2018, www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/colombia/article223323855.html.