Death squads in Colombia are taking advantage of coronavirus lockdowns to murder rural activists, local non-governmental organizations have warned.
When cities across the country introduced local quarantine measures last week, three social leaders were killed, and as the country prepares to impose a national lockdown today, activists have warned that more murders would follow.
High-profile activist Marco Rivadeneira was murdered in southern Putumayo Department, Alexis Vergara was shot dead in western Cauca Department and Ivo Humberto Bracamonte was killed on the eastern border with Venezuela.
Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for activists and community leaders, who often fall foul of armed groups fighting for territory.
Since a historic peace deal was implemented in early 2017 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leftist rebel group, 271 activists have been killed.
Now, with the government focused on the pandemic, activists have said that they are even more at risk.
“I’ve been getting more death threats since everyone started talking about the coronavirus,” said Carlos Paez, a land rights activist in a cattle-ranching region near the northern border with Panama. “One message said that they know who I am — and that now is the time to take me out.”
Some of the armed groups are dissident FARC fighters who refused to hand in their guns; others belong to smaller rebel armies and rightwing paramilitary militias.
Whatever their purported ideology, all make their money in drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion rackets, and all view social leaders as an obstacle to those lucrative economies.
As the government focuses its resources on stemming the coronavirus outbreak — which has claimed three lives in Colombia amid 277 confirmed cases — normal security protocols have been thrown into disarray.
“They are playing with our lives because they know that our bodyguards, the police and the justice system are going to be even less effective than they usually are,” Paez said. “It’s horrible. I’m scared for my life.”
Colombia’s war with FRC and other armed groups has claimed at least 260,000 lives and forced 7 million people from their homes. Now, with much of the country confined indoors ahead of a 19-day nationwide quarantine that begins today, non-state actors are operating more brazenly.
Activists fear that the nationwide quarantine has put them in a bind. Staying in one place makes them sitting targets, but moving around puts them at risk of infection.
“We are being killed, like always,” said Hector Marino Carabali, a rights activist in Cauca, who usually travels in an armored car with a security detail provided by the government. “The government has taken drastic measures to fight the virus, but done nothing to protect us now or to tell us about how we can do our work. Curfews and lockdowns always affect the most vulnerable.”
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last week reported that armed groups were continuing to commit brutal human rights abuses in Choco Department, where Paez leads a community.
Three people were beheaded, with one executed in front of their village, and a pregnant woman was murdered.
A coalition of local groups and more than 100 rural communities called for a ceasefire among armed groups during the outbreak, saying that “the emergency situation deserves our focus as a country and as a society to take on this challenge.”
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