By Samantha Wherry
International news about Colombia depicts a similar narrative: a picture of a Colombia that, after more than 50 years of civil war, has become the model of peace, making it a safe place for tourists to visit and for international businesses to invest. They cite the Peace Accords that were signed by the Colombian government and the FARC in 2016. What international discourse fails to address, however, is the reality faced by many human rights activists in the country today. The organization Somos Defensores cited that aggressions against social activists increased by 6% since last year.
We fear every day for the safety of our partners and the community leaders we accompany, as they experience a number of threats while doing their work. Right now, we are especially concerned for the safety of the leaders of the civic strike in Buenaventura. “Human rights work has become a very delicate matter,” said a member of the Civic Strike Committee (Comité del Paro Cívico), “women leaders have disproportionally faced harassment,” she added. The Buenaventura Civic Strike, which took place this past May was a three-week long strike in which the residents of Buenaventura peacefully protested the State’s historic neglect of the city.
Rather than addressing the people’s concerns, the government responded by sending the National Police and Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) to suppress the protest. The ESMAD attacked the peaceful protesters using U.S. made munition. The civic strike ended when the Colombian government agreed to negotiate with the people of Buenaventura. Since this negotiation, the leaders responsible for organizing the strike have become targets to those who find their leadership threatening to the status quo. The threats come in different forms: intimidating phone calls, suspicious men in motorcycle following them home. There have even been cases in which the brakes of the vehicles of the civic strike leaders have been tampered with. Many of the leaders have had to change their phone numbers in an attempt to suppress the harassment and threats. Many are afraid to report the threats to the ombudsman’s office because of fear that denouncing will only make them a more visible target.
The National Protection Unit has been distributing bulletproof vest and phones as one strategy for protection. However, the leaders don’t feel that this is enough, and many, in fact, feel that it only makes them more visible to those who wish to harm them.
These social leaders along with many other leaders in Colombia face danger for taking the position of defending civilians, their lands, and the right to a dignified life. Ensuring the safety of social leaders is crucial for a sustainable peace. These leaders see beyond themselves and their own comfort. They continue to work despite the threats.
It is important that the international community understand that, despite the Peace Accords, social leaders continue to be persecuted, yet their presence is crucial for building a durable peace in Colombia. We urge the officials within the US State Department and congressional leadership to pressure the Colombian government into taking the necessary measures to better protect social leaders in Buenaventura and in the rest of the country. Finally, U.S. aid to ESMAD used to violently repress civilians must stop!