A former FARC guerrilla has been murdered in Colombia's embattled southwest department of Nariño, a reminder of the political and criminal risks faced by the former combatants as they demobilize and the country struggles to transition towards peace.
Luis Alberto Ortíz Cabezas, a former soldier in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) was killed on April 16, in La Guayacana, a hamlet in the municipality of Tumaco, Nariño, reported the FARC in a communiqué. Government authorities confirmed the homicide, and Colombia's Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez sent a special unit to Tumaco to investigate the murder, reported El Espectador.
Ortíz, also known as "Pepe," had been incarcerated in the Villahermosa penitentiary in the city of Cali but left prison at the end of March as part of an amnesty law approved by Colombia's congress on December 28, 2016. The law was outlined in the peace agreement signed by what was then the hemisphere's oldest and largest insurgency and President Juan Manuel Santos's government on November 24, 2016.
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The law aims to provide judicial guarantees for former guerrillas who hand in their weapons as part of the demobilization process, which also started in December 2016. It grants pardons for thousands of rebels not responsible for crimes against humanity, including freedom for many imprisoned rebels like Ortíz.
The FARC attributed the assassination to a paramilitary fighter known as "Renol," allegedly responsible for other threats and murders in the region, according to the former rebel group. The FARC also called on the government to exert more pressure on paramilitary groups.
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The FARC have reason to be worried. They are currently creating a political vehicle, which could be independent or in alignment with existing political movements such as the Marcha Patriótica. The Marcha Patriótica is a descendant of the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriotica – UP), a political party created by the FARC in the mid-1980s during a peace process with a previous administration. The UP won 5 seats in the Senate and 9 in the House of Representatives in 1986. But as many as 4,000 UP members were systematically exterminated by right-wing paramilitaries and their allies in the armed forces in the years that followed, including two consecutive presidential candidates.
At the same time, illegal armed groups have allegedly targeted social leaders as they move into the rebels' former territories and assert control over the criminal economies that the FARC leave in their wake. According to a report by the human rights organization Somos Defensores, the number of social leaders murdered in 2016 rose 27 percent from 63 in 2015 to 80 in 2016. Seventeen were killed in the first three months of 2017 alone, according to government estimates.
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The systematic assassination of community and national leaders, some of which may be working with the former insurgents to carry out political work, puts the FARC in an additional bind: stand by and watch them get assassinated, or react violently and break the peace agreement. Some in the FARC's leadership have allegedly told civilians that they should be ready to form self-defense groups, should the violence against them escalate.
But Ortíz's assassination might also be the result of the ongoing power struggle in a strategic area for Colombian organized crime groups. Tumaco -- which the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) case study identifies as the municipality with the largest amount of coca, the raw material for cocaine, in the country -- has long been a crucial stronghold of the FARC.
As the rebels began to demobilize, authorities indicated that other armed groups began fighting for the insurgents' former turf, most notably the neo-paramilitary organization known as the Urabeños and the last remaining rebel group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN). The mix of criminal and political motives for violent reprisals promises to complicate matters further.