Colombia’s Duque is Presiding Over a ‘Massive Backpedaling’ on Indigenous Rights

The Editors

Since President Ivan Duque took office last summer, Colombia has seen an uptick in violence against human rights advocates and community leaders, particularly from indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Observers point to the Duque administration’s hostility toward the landmark peace accord with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, that was struck in 2016. The agreement contained a number of provisions designed to protect the country’s vulnerable groups, but the Duque administration is refusing to implement them. 

In an interview with WPR, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America, discusses the rising violence against Afro-descendant and indigenous people in Colombia, as well as those who advocate on their behalf. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

World Politics Review: WOLA keeps an ongoing tally of the violence as it relates to activists and community leaders who have been killed. Do you have an updated figure for this year?

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli: According to our most conservative estimate, 354 social leaders have been assassinated since the signing of the peace deal with the FARC, in November 2016. Approximately 21 percent of those killed were Afro-Colombian and 19 percent were indigenous. Those are really disproportionate numbers if you look at how much of the total population of the country are Afro-Colombian and indigenous. 

And those are just the people killed. For indigenous groups especially, there’s a whole host of other impacts that stem from their locations in remote areas where they’re surrounded by illegal armed groups. That means they often have trouble harvesting their crops and going out to trade. Rates of malnutrition are very high among the Embera people in the Choco region, for example. Displacement is also a big problem, as it creates unique challenges for indigenous people because of cultural and language differences.

WPR: Has the rate and tenor of the violence been relatively consistent over that period?

Sánchez-Garzoli: Since Duque took office last August, the situation for indigenous people, in particular, seems to be deteriorating. In the southwestern department of Cauca, where 106 social leaders have been killed over the past two years, there’s been a mobilization called the Minga, which is an indigenous protest to try and get the Colombian government to sit down and discuss the unfulfilled agreements it made with indigenous groups. The government’s response has been very repressive; about 11 indigenous people have been killed in clashes with anti-riot police.

We’re also seeing the attacks become more brazen. For instance, on May 4, in Cauca, armed men opened fire and tossed a grenade at a group of Afro-Colombian leaders who had been supporting the Minga. Two of the bodyguards who returned fire were wounded, but miraculously, no one was killed. It’s important to note, though, that this kind of attack differs from the more selectively targeted assassinations that we’re accustomed to. Now, we’re seeing attacks on groups.

WPR: Aside from the anti-riot police, what other groups are responsible for the violence?

Sánchez-Garzoli: The majority of the killings are perpetrated by paramilitary groups that are successors to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, which supposedly demobilized in 2007. On a much lower scale, there have been a couple of indigenous leaders killed by the ELN [the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s largest remaining guerrilla group], but the majority have been these illegal armed groups.

In some cases, there are significant political and economic interests involved in the violence, not necessarily involving indigenous people or Afro-Colombians. As part of the peace process, many rural coca farmers made an agreement with the Colombian government to stop growing coca. So, there has been a lot of pressure from drug traffickers against community leaders, because they see the agreement with the Colombian government as an affront to their business. It doesn’t help that the government hasn’t given the farmers what they’ve been promised: economic assistance, infrastructure and better access to services like health and education.

WPR: And without those things, the farmers have no choice but to go back to growing coca.

Sánchez-Garzoli: Yeah. It’s basically the Colombian government shooting itself in the foot.

WPR: We’ll come back to that, but first, has there been any progress in bringing those responsible for these killings to justice, either with the riot police or the paramilitary groups?

Sánchez-Garzoli: This is probably the area where Colombia is weakest. Investigations have been opened, but the attorney general’s listing of those cases says that 50 percent of them have been resolved. Now, by “resolved,” they don’t necessarily mean that those responsible have been sanctioned and put in jail. It just means that the case was looked into and something happened. Monitoring groups place the share of cases that have actually been resolved in a more meaningful way at 14 percent or so. And more often than not, it’s the cases involving indigenous and Afro-Colombians that are not advancing. The lack of meaningful action on those cases sends the signal that groups can do whatever they want when it comes to those segments of society.

WPR: So, what does it mean when the government says a case has been resolved?

Sánchez-Garzoli: To give you an example, a famous Afro-Colombian leader named Bernardo Cuero was killed in 2017. His case advanced and a suspect went before a judge, but the defense team kept pushing the trial back until the time they had to legally put him in jail expired. So, he’s walking around free, and no one else who was believed to be involved in the crime has been subjected to anything. Meanwhile, two of Cuero’s children were killed because they were working on the case; Cuero’s wife is also living under threat; and other family members had to flee the country. So, that’s what they would call “resolved.”

WPR: Why is the Duque administration failing to protect these vulnerable communities? 

Sánchez-Garzoli: The ethnic chapter of the peace accord includes a set of specific protection mechanisms, including the autonomous self-protection forces known as the Indigenous Guard and the Cimarrona Guard. The Colombian government has never been willing to support those guards, because they see it as a competition with the police, or they see it as supporting some kind of non-governmental form of security. The reality is that the government has no presence in these remote areas, yet it continues to resist implementing commitments that it agreed to in the peace accord.

Ivan Duque is really the heir to the legacy of former President Alvaro Uribe in terms of indigenous issues. During Uribe’s presidency, we saw the highest known rate of acceleration in killings of indigenous people. Part of that was because his security policy made it impossible for any of the indigenous guards to maintain their independence from the military. 

Also, for a while now, there’s been a movement by indigenous groups reclaiming land that was forcibly taken from them by economic interests—usually large landowners. Indigenous people involved in this movement are seen by Uribistas as illegal land usurpers, and Duque has followed that line, refusing to negotiate or meet with indigenous leaders. The person in the Colombian government who’s in charge of overseeing implementation of the peace accord was recently asked about the ethnic chapter, and his response was: “I have no idea what that has to do with me.”

All of this represents a massive backpedaling from the progress made during the peace process. Then-President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration was very hesitant to deal with Afro-Colombians and indigenous people at first. But with the negotiations, they came to work well together over time, and they actually campaigned together during the lead-up to the 2016 referendum on the peace accord. Now, we’re going back to the very centralized approach that casts suspicion on indigenous people and sees them as criminals.

Source: World Politics Review

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