Why Are Social Leaders Dying in Colombia’s Cauca?

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In early 2018, Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office sounded the alarm regarding an unprecedented increase in the murders of social leaders nationwide. Over 18 months later, the situation has only gotten worse, with the southwestern department of Cauca bearing the brunt of these killings.

In February 2018, the Ombudsman’s Office published an initial alert, reporting 697 cases of violence against human rights activists and leaders of social organizations between 2016 and 2018. 

In a 2019 follow-up report, the entity documented 1,335 cases of leaders affected by threats, attacks and homicides, representing a more than 90 percent increase in just one year. 

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These acts of aggression have been focused on local community leaders, rural farmers and indigenous representatives who work to defend their territories.

Antioquia, Norte de Santander and Cauca have historically accounted for most such attacks, but the number of individuals affected in Cauca has dramatically increased in the last two years. The United Nations (UN) has reported 36 killings of indigenous leaders alone in Cauca in 2019, alongside eight more attempted murders and 53 death threats, reported TeleSUR.

According to an Ombudsman’s Office report, the municipalities most blighted by this violence are Miranda, Corinto and Caloto, all key transit points for drug shipments destined to leave the country via the Pacific Ocean. 

The latest killing happened on October 13 when Toribio Canas, an indigenous leader in the municipality of Toribío, was shot dead. Starting in 2000, Canas had reportedly been in charge of organizing an “indigenous guard” in the area to reclaim land. 

According to El Espectador, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has counted at least nine indigenous leaders killed in Cauca since September.

InSight Crime Analysis

While Cauca has seen the worst of the violence against local community leaders in 2019, the motives for these killings reflect the wider reasons for such targeted violence across Colombia.  

According to the organization Somos Defensores, one of the main reasons social leaders are targeted is due to their participation in the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).

Social leaders can also run afoul of criminal groups when trying to stem the tide of illegal economies within their communities. Many victims were involved in activities related to coca crop substitution, the creation of legal jobs, or land redistribution, all efforts which can curtail drug production and help rural residents find sustainable alternatives.

SEE ALSO: Why Are Political Candidates Being Assassinated in Colombia?

According to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ), other risk factors contributing to violence against social leaders include denunciations of armed actors, accusations of mismanagement of public funds by State entities, and claims to the right to use natural resources.

As reported by Colombia’s Electoral Observation Mission (Misión de Observación Electoral – MOE), many of these risk factors escalate during election season. By mid-September, seven politicians had been killed ahead of upcoming local elections in late October. 

The problems facing social leaders in Cauca are exacerbated by the department’s crucial location as a drug trafficking corridor. 

According to the latest report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), around 17,000 hectares of coca were produced in this department alone in 2018.

Cauca’s location along the Naya River corridor, which connects the country’s central mountain range to the coasts of the Pacific Ocean through kilometers of thick jungle, makes it a necessary transit point for drug shipments.

Cauca has therefore become hotly contested by a range of criminal groups, seeking an advantage there, including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) and at least five dissident fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) are reported as having a presence in this department.

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