Colombia’s rural communities stand to gain — and potentially lose – the most as the country’s 50-year-old armed conflict turns a new leaf. Coca-growing communities fear that they will lose the financial security of their drug crops, while a lack of security guarantees for social leaders has led to a surge in assassinations. As tensions rise in the countryside, civilian resistance may also gather strength.
On February 19, around 200 farmers stood in the way of a military brigade that had just arrested two men at a coca paste laboratory in northeast Colombia, blocking the soldiers from taking the suspects to judicial authorities. The inhabitants demanded the liberation of the two men, who were eventually freed from custody.
A press release by the local community gives a slightly different version of events than the army’s, stating that the men were working in a coca field when the military arrived and destroyed their tools.
The commotion occurred in the municipality of Tibú, in the department of Norte de Santander, where a displacement had taken place only days earlier, supposedly due to the presence of criminal groups with paramilitary origins.
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This displacement was only the most recent example of communities being victimized as Colombia’s conflict evolves.
As the decades-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) withdraws to the zones where the guerrillas will demobilize as part of a 2016 peace deal with the Colombian government, other armed groups have been moving into the rebels’ former territories.
In many cases, they eliminate local figures standing in their way. The number of social leaders murdered in 2016 rose 27 percent in comparison to the previous year, according to a report by human rights organization Somos Defensores.
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The uprising in Norte de Santander exposes the fears of rural communities as Colombia enters its new “post-conflict” era. Of great importance for coca-dependent municipalities such as Tibú is a new drug policy agreement that offers more leniency to coca farmers, prioritizing voluntary crop substitution rather than forced eradication.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace
But around the country, forced eradication is continuing despite the absence of substitution programs, precipitating a huge spike in farmers’ blockades that have affected departments like Caquetá and Nariño. As InSight Crime found during a recent field investigation, the danger of civilians clashing with security forces will only grow the more the government delays the effective implementation of substitution projects.
The risk of the government not fulfilling another pact laid out in the peace deal — ensuring the security of community leaders — has also generated serious concerns.
The killing of local activists is often an indicator of armed groups moving in to new areas, establishing control by eliminating those who stand in the way of the lucrative criminal economies on the ground. Indeed, Somos Defensores found that the majority of assassinations of farmer (“campesino”) leaders occurred in areas with a strong FARC presence, suggesting that illegal organizations such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and Urabeños are consolidating power in the guerrillas’ former strongholds.
A map of attacks on social leaders in 2016, by Somos Defensores
One such example is the murder in August 2016 of an indigenous leader who spoke out against illegal mining in Cauca, one of the most dangerous departments for social leaders and one with both FARC and ELN presence. The ELN was accused of causing his death, amid allegations that the group was strengthening control over illegal gold mining in the area.
A local leader was also attacked recently in the town of Briceño, the location of a pioneering coca substitution program that is home to both FARC guerrillas and members of the Urabeños criminal organization. These incidents suggest that as armed groups replace the FARC as the new coca bosses, pressure on local coca-grower associations to reject government substitution efforts may grow.
But the FARC are not likely to passively tolerate the victimization of community organizations, which are likely to serve as conduits for the demobilizing rebel group’s future political work. InSight Crime can confirm that members of the FARC’s General Staff have been telling guerrillas that, should the government come up short on its security promises, a good option would be to encourage civilians to form self-defense groups comparable to the existing indigenous guard.
Regarding the possibility that forced eradication would continue to prevail, one commander explained “if this happens, there will be many ‘guerrilla fronts,’ because farmers are going to arm themselves to defend what’s theirs.”
Given that numerous demobilized FARC members will likely stick to what they know — in many cases coca and local politics — such a development could pose a substantial threat to finally ending the armed conflict.