*The articles in this blog space were written by students of International Relations English 7 as part of their work towards the "La Libertad Sublime" campaign; this social media campaign aims to provide information and raise awareness regarding the killing of social leaders and human rights defenders in the Caribbean region.
Can you imagine living in a context where the barriers of legality and illegality are intertwined to the point that it becomes impossible to differentiate between them? Where fighting for your rights makes you a disturbance for both legal and illegal forces? Where, even though a Peace Treaty has been adopted, in which your rights are guaranteed, your conditions of existence still continue to be the same or worse.
That is the reality for social leaders in Cordoba who have to coexist with these particular dynamics that are present in the territory and that are endemic to the region. Dynamics such as the State’s abandonment of territories, the link between defense of land rights and the murder of social leaders and, finally, the relationship among illegal groups in the region. In this article we propose that the endemic dynamics present in the territory have not changed since the adoption of the Peace Treaty of 2016 and, in some cases, they have worsened.
Before continuing on, it is important to provide some brief contextual information about Cordoba. The latter is a Colombian department located in the North-West region of the country. Thanks to its fertile lands and extensive plains, cattle raising and crop plantation play a huge role in the economic life of the territory. Additionally, the department is home to Monteria, also known as the “Capital Ganadera de Colombia”, or the Livestock Capital of Colombia. The department is divided into 7 subregions: The Alto Sinú, The Bajo Sinú, The Medio Sinú, Costanera, Centro (Center), Sabanas (Savannah) and San Jorge. Furthermore, as a war-torn territory, Cordoba’s populace have grown accustomed to high levels of violence at the hands of illegal groups. According to the Defensoria del Pueblo, or Ombudsman’s office, in Colombia (A national government agency in charge of overseeing the human and civil rights of the Colombian people), out of all the municipalities of Cordoba, the most affected by violence are Tierralta, Montelíbano and Puerto Libertador due to presence of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) and the Nuevo Frente 18 (FARC dissidents). Moreover, the department is home to strategic places, such as the Nudo Del Paramillo, that serve as a corridor for drug trafficking and a hiding place for the drug factories. The latter causes illegal groups to fight among themselves for control over it. Having a clear understanding of the context surrounding social leaders, it is possible to continue on with explaining the difficult dynamics they face.
Firstly, Cordoba continues to be one of the most abandoned territories of Colombia, a point which is evident by the high presence of inequality, the lack of infrastructure and the high levels of corruption. For instance, the Technical Bulletin of Multidimensional Poverty on the Caribbean Region Department of emphasis: The Guajira [Boletín técnico sobre Pobreza Multidimensional Región Caribe Departamento de énfasis: La Guajira] (DANE, 2018) found out that Cordoba is one of the poorest territories of the Caribbean region with a score of 36,7%. The Index used in this study was The Multidimensional Poverty Index [Índice de Pobreza Multidimensional] which measures the proportion of the population that does not have access to decent education, living conditions, health services, work opportunities and public services. Therefore, the higher the score the bigger the proportion of the population that lives in precarious conditions.
Furthermore, the GINI coefficient for Cordoba in 2015 was 0.465 and in 2017 was 0.468. The significance of the GINI coefficient is that it measures the wealth distribution/inequality inside a nation. Hence, the absence of a decrease in the score between 2015 and 2017 indicates that inequality has not changed even after the Peace Treaty entered into force in 2016 with Cordoba being a zone of interest. Thus, demonstrating that the authorities have had a lack of interest in the region. Moreover, corruption is rampant in Cordoba as it has been the breeding ground for multiple corruption scandals. For example, through the years the department has seen the Cartel de la Hemofilia (A political scandal that involved government officials creating false cases of patients with hemophilia, in order to receive royalties from the State that then were used to finance political campaigns), Cartel del Baston (An embezzlement of 3.400 million pesos in which money was diverted to give “assistance” to senior citizens that did not exist) and the Escandalo de las Tucson (A fraud that involved a judge ruling in favor of the ex-workers from Telecom -a state-owned telecommunications enterprise- and ordering the company to pay for the economic benefits of those ex-workers, to which they were not entitled) have occurred in this territory and, in each case, it demonstrated that corruption is endemic to the region. What is more, when all of these conditions of poverty, lack of investment and engrained corruption arise; violence has tended to increase as well. In addition, where violence is rampant, there are bound to be people who speak up and in this case it is the social leaders who have raised their voices and for that they have paid a heavy price.
As previously mentioned, Cordoba is a department with complex dynamics of violence that were expected to settle down after the adoption of the The Peace Treaty. Nevertheless, as stated by “¿Quiénes son los patrones? (a report that provides data about the dynamics of Social Leaders and their persecutors and an analysis about the violations to the right to life), from the approval of the Peace Treaty until July 2018, there were a total of 16 murders against social leaders inside the territory.
In addition to what was stated above, the report mentioned that the reasons behind these killings can be attributed to social leaders announcing the violation of land rights and crop substitution programs. Hence, by doing so they become a target for paramilitary groups that benefit from illegal crop plantation. It is essential to remember that these places were formerly areas influenced by the FARC, where they developed coca leaf farming as a means of financing. When they left, after the adoption of The Peace Treaty, a power vacuum was formed in Cordoba that is nowadays being filled by paramilitary groups. For example, the power vacuum present in the south of Cordoba has been filled by groups such as the “Clan del Golfo” and other unidentified paramilitary groups (Fundación Paz & Reconciliación, 2017). In 2017, under the regime of the paramilitary groups, in Cordoba there were 2668 hectares of illicit crops that end up being denounced by social leaders.
The most concerning point that was brought up in the report was the lack of interest from Cordoba’s political class, which can be explained by the overlapping interests shared with paramilitary groups or their alignment with illegal para-political activities; for example, Miguel A. De La Espriella, Cordoba’s representative in National Congress, was accused of para-political related policy and illegal crop businesses due to the ex-Senator being linked with “Mancuso” and Carlos Castaño, both notorious former paramilitary leaders. Additionally, there has been the case of Eleonora Pineda, an ex-Congresswoman prosecuted for her relationship with para-militarism, and the case of Carlos Nader Simmonds, an ex-congressman prosecuted in the United States for drug trafficking (El Tiempo, 2017). These cases are just some examples of the long list of politicians linked with illicit activities and paramilitary groups in the region.
All of the above showcases that there is an incentive for the political class to cooperate or, at least, to ignore the actions carried out by the paramilitary groups, as in some cases those actions align with their interest or help them perpetuate their position in local government. Hence, when a social leader calls out the actions carried out by the paramilitary groups and is then murdered for it, there is no real motivation from the political class to look for the perpetrator. For example, when the social organisations of the south of Cordoba defended illegal crop substitution, one of its social leaders was killed. As of the time of writing, the perpetrator has not been found. The rise in quantity of illicit crops has not only made social leaders speak out against them, but has also made the clashes between illegal groups increase.
The fight for land is not exclusive to social leaders. Since the departure of FARC fighters from the region, the power vacuum left behind has been a source of conflict between the illegal groups that fight for control over the abandoned territories, causing an increase in violence. Undoubtedly, other causes exist in addition to the control of illicit crops and more recently for the issuance of mining titles. According to the report “Quienes son los patrones?” the Neo Paramilitaries (former members of the armed groups) represent the group that dominates the best part of the region. Since 1994, The Castaño brothers (the founders and leaders of the AUC Paramilitaries) always disputed the territory with the FARC but, after the Peace Treaty dissolved the latter group, the groups which have evolved from the AUC paramilitaries have gained even more power in the region.
Furthermore, certain areas of the department tend to be more violent than others, such as the case of southern Cordoba, in which the most notable dispute is between former paramilitaries the “Clan del Golfo” (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia/AGC) and a splinter group, “The Caparros” (to further complicate matters, this group operates with the support of the FARC Front 18 dissidents and reportedly has links with Mexican drug cartels) for control over the land suitable for illicit crops. Proof of this, are the statements made by José David Ortega, leader of the Association of farmers of the South of Cordoba, who claimed that illegal groups take away the land from farmers in order to use them for the plantation of coca leaves. The numbers of illicit crops have increased, as evidenced by a study made by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which revealed that in Cordoba, the cultivation of coca grew from 2,688 hectares in 2016 to 4,780 in 2017. This means that the increase of illicit crops in that department was 2,112 hectares. In fact, according to figures from the Office of the Attorney General, between June 2011 and April 2018, 7 land claimants were murdered in Cordoba. As a result, there is a strong correlation between increased crops and increased rates of violence and death. At that time, the situation was tense, and the main victims belonged to the National Program for the Substitution of Illicit crops (PNIS), as indicated by the General of the Police of Cordoba, Jairo Baquero Puentes, when he stated: “We finished a year with an increase in deaths and during the first months we had on average 3 to 4 weekly homicides”.
In contrast with the situation in the southern region, where only one actor dominates, in Tierralta all the armed actors converged, para-political ties are heavily present, and thousands of people have been displaced. After the demobilization of the AUC, this territory was filled with different armed groups: Los Rastrojos, Los Paisas, Águilas Negras, Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) and others. Therefore, creating a problem of who controls the land, and there is a constant fight for power. It is important to understand that this is a strategic zone for war and drug trafficking.
One social leader murder that managed to move the country was that of María del Pilar Hurtado on June 21, 2019. Hurtado was part of a group of families that established a settlement in Tierralta and her role was that of a negotiator who dealt with the restitution of land and with the landowners. This role made her become its community leader. In her last months of life, she was threatened by the paramilitary group the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Clan del Golfo/AGC), as reported by human rights defenders. In addition, the threat pointed out that anyone who had been in the settlement since June was automatically considered as “military objectives”. The above is a clear example of a leader who never looked for problems with the self-defense groups or drug traffickers, but who was killed for simply defending her land rights and the rights of her community. Around this case, there was a lot of national controversy, not because of the death and its causes, but because of the video that circulated on social networks, where the leader’s son is seen crying by the corpse of his mother.
According to The Territorial Table of Guarantees for Social Leaders and Rights Defenders, Hurtado is one of the 32 leaders that have been assassinated in Cordoba since the adoption of the Peace Agreement (between 2016 and 2019). From these figures, many analysts show a correlation between the implementation of the Comprehensive Rural Reform, the plantation of Illicit Drugs and the implementation of the Peace Agreement with the murders of social leaders. In summary, a large number of the assassinations of social leaders in Cordoba are related to the interest of illegal groups in owning land for illegal crops and despite the efforts of crop substitution programs and the signing of the Peace Treaty, this situation continues to persist.
In conclusion, the State´s abandonment of territories, the link between defense of land rights and the murders of social leaders and the relationship between illegal groups reflect the complex dynamics social leaders have to deal with when trying to fight for a better future. In the end, it seems like Cordoba is on the path to becoming a para-state, where law and order is imposed by illegal groups. If the latter is achieved, the amount of violence and displacements will increase even further. Social leaders will be at the mercy of paramilitary groups that, taking into consideration what has been previously stated in this article, do not care for their rights and well being. Therefore, it is important to bring light to the situation so more people take part in defending social leaders. It is important to remember that these people are Colombians with dreams and prospects for a better future. From a moral standpoint, it is our duty to protect them.
Although the situation is deplorable in Cordoba, it is certainly not the only department in trouble. Such a situation, unfortunately, occurs in several regions where there is an abandonment of the state. Therefore, more visibility and media attention is required to identify the negative impact it has. By solving this problem, the economy and social welfare can be better developed, not only in these regions, but also in the entire Colombian territory. For example, a decrease in violence can translate to more income destined to fight against illegal groups, and more being used for the betterment of the living conditions for the inhabitants of Cordoba. Hence, economically speaking, that is why the death of a social leader must be a concern for all citizens.
The killings of social leaders should not be a debate of whether they did something to deserve it or if they were involved in suspicious business. Instead, it should be a source of worry for a life that has been lost and a future we will never know. Just like your family members, they are people fighting for what is rightfully theirs. If we have a hint of human empathy, it is within our responsibilities to help them.
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