The invisible victims: criminalized social leaders in Colombia and the case of El Guayabo

Despite the current peace process and the lowest murder rate observed in the past four decades, human rights defenders face an ever-increasing climate of fear in Colombia. With more than 60 human rights defenders killed in 2016, Colombia ranks among the most dangerous places in the world for social activists.

Another, more discrete way of killing off social activism has also been on a rising trend in Latin America: the criminalization of human rights defenders, i.e. the misuse of the legal system by States or other actors to sabotage and delegitimize their work. In a country like Colombia that has a highly corrupt judiciary, this is a very effective way for political and economic powers to silence human rights defenders while still bypassing conflict indicators.

The community of El Guayabo that my colleague (and now friend) Britta and I visited last week is, unfortunately, an excellent case in point. Here’s a brief account:

After a three-hour boat trip up the Magdalena River that takes us out of Barranca’s oil refinery landscape into the wilderness of the Magdalena Medio region, we finally arrive to the rural community of El Guayabo, in the municipality of Puerto Wilches (department of Santander).

Our hosts, Francia and Dimas, at the entrance of their home (credits to the fantastic artist Ze Carrion for the photo and the mural painting)

We are warmly greeted by one of the leaders of the community, who brings us to his humble home a few steps from the shores of the river. There, we are shown to our accommodation for the week: a small brick house constructed by the ‘benevolent’ but ignorant Colombian development agency that, in hoping to improve the sturdiness of the community’s wooden housings, failed to realize the human-sized ovens they created (yet another reminder that good intentions do not always translate into development progress). Britta, my field colleague, and I wonder how we will be able to sleep in this scorching heat but are nevertheless grateful for our hosts’ hospitality (and for the two fans in the room!). We are, after all, in one of the poorest parts of rural Colombia.

The friendly pigs and me (wearing the flashy green vest of Peace Watch, el chaleco verde)

After greeting our next-door neighbors (the pigs, chickens and dogs running around freely around the house), we are invited for an afternoon tinto by our new hosts, the Colombian version of an americano but stocked with an unimaginable quantity of sugar. Unsurprisingly, half of the village suffers from diabetes.

I quickly understand why Dimas, our host, is one of the leaders of the community. Despite his frail, boyish physical appearance, he commands a certain respect and conveys lucid appreciation of the situation his community is facing as he starts explaining to us what has happened there…

The struggle for their land goes back to the 1980s, when farmers settled in and around the area of El Guayabo that had been abandoned for many years by its owner, probably due to consecutive years of bad harvests.

The few peaceful decades of occupancy of the land came to a halt in 2002 when paramilitaries of the ruthless umbrella organization AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) arrived in el Guayabo to force the peasants off their land, under the alleged order of the son of the former landowner: Señor Rodrigo López Henao. The community, nevertheless, managed to resist.

Despite their rightful claim of ownership of the abandoned land (given Colombian legislation), the community suffered various attempts at criminalization, with four of the leaders facing criminal prosecutions and one of them having been imprisoned under false charges for more than a year. Señor López Henao even managed to register in the National Victims Unit, claiming to have been a victim of displacement by the guerrilla, but this was later revoked in 2016 due to “insufficient evidence”.

The case of El Guayabo once again highlights how unequal and corrupt the Colombian justice is, what with the multiple procedural irregularities, contradictory rulings and clear bias in favour of Señor López Henao. Indeed, none of the 17 criminal complaints lodged against him (including displacement, threats, destruction of private property and physical aggressions against women) have progressed up until now, and no investigation has been opened. Today, the fate of approximately 60 families and their economic livelihoods are on the line, as they face an impending eviction next month at the end of October.

It is not certain why this man has such political leverage but there are a few indications that he might be backed by paramilitary structures. Indeed, following the confessions of an ex-paramilitary leader, the Police Inspector who initiated the eviction process was arrested on charges of aggravated conspiracy due to his links with paramilitaries.

The connivance and collusion of the economically powerful with paramilitaries is no new phenomenon in Colombia and is taking on an all too familiar shape in this post-conflict setting (recall the parapolitics scandals of the early 2000s that I mentioned in my previous post). This is because the peace accord is opening a window of opportunity for social grievances to be heard and channelled through the newly established institutions and development programs, inevitably threatening the interests of the economic elite.

It is therefore no wonder that the human rights activists at risk are predominantly those who defend environmental, land and indigenous rights in the contexts of natural resource extraction, agro-industrial or large infrastructure projects and that dirty alliances between wealthy individuals and paramilitaries are forming. Some private companies, both national and multinational, are also complicit in this dirty business, but I shall delve into this in a future blog post on the neoliberal development agenda of the Colombian government and its impact on forced displacement and paramilitary violence.

The case of El Guayabo may paint a depressing picture of the prospects for peace, especially given that the poor peasant majority has historically been excluded from the economic projects of the wealthy few in this country. However, the strength, unity and resilience that I witnessed in the community are a poignant reminder of the crucial role that pacific social resistance still has to play today.

Thanks for reading! To get a better glimpse of El Guayabo, watch this campaign video made by our colleagues at CPT, a great testament to this exceptional community.

El Guayabo, at sunset