Colombia struggles to keep social leaders safe

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Followed by her government-assigned bodyguard, community leader Luz Nelly Santana, right, attends a meeting with other leaders who like her have received death threats in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Santana, who runs an organization that helps community leaders fleeing violence to settle in Bogota, is one of the thousands of activists assigned some sort of government protection. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA – Just taking a walk in the streets of Colombia’s capital can feel dangerous for Luz Nelly Santana.

The Afro-Colombian community leader sometimes she uses a hat or a turban for disguise. She always wears a bulletproof vest. And she's followed by a bodyguard assigned by the government.

“I get death threats on the phone every month," Santana said, "and once a man entered my office and said he was going to kill me.”

Santana, who runs an organization that helps community leaders fleeing violence to settle in Bogota, is one of more than 3,700 activists given some sort of protection from Colombia's government.

The country is widely seen as one of the world's most dangerous places to be a community leader or advocate for human rights or environmental issues. Last year 120 community leaders were murdered in Colombia according to the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, up from 107 a year earlier.

Decades of bloody civil conflict involving government forces, leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries linked to landowners and powerful drug trafficking groups have created an atmosphere in which many factions feel little hesitation at trying to kill or intimate those who oppose them.

Activists are often targeted for denouncing or being seen to interfere with drug trafficking or illegal logging or mining, or for trying to protect communities confronting armed gangs.

Santana survived a 1994 massacre in which active guerrillas attacked a street party organized by another leftist faction that was trying to abandon arms and embrace above-ground politics. She and her daughter huddled at home as 35 people were being killed outside, and decided to flee to the capital where she has lived ever since.

Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office says most of the attacks in recent years on community leaders have come from drug trafficking groups like the Gulf Clan and elements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that broke off from the guerrilla group after it demobilized following a 2016 peace deal with Colombia's government.

Officials also say that a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, has been involved in attacking social leaders.

Camilo Gonzalez Posso, president of the Institute for Peace and Development think tank, said much of the violence stems from groups fighting to control drug routes and businesses, such as illegal mines, abandoned by the former rebels after the peace agreement.

“We thought that our situation would improve with the peace deal, but it hasn’t’ turned out that way” said Clemencia Carabalí, an activist in the southwestern province of Cauca who helps mobilize victims of Colombia’s conflicts to seek reparations. “Many times I can’t even leave my house, and I have to avoid moving around at certain times and going to some places” she said.

Others have taken more extreme measures. Luis Ernesto Olave, from the western province of Choco, said he had to leave Colombia several times after receiving death threats from the National Liberation Army. Now 46, he's spent half of his life promoting human rights and fighting against illegal mining and corruption in his province.

“We have noticed that when community leaders are threatened they go silent, as well as their organizations, and that interrupts the creation of new groups” said Sirley Muñoz a spokeswoman for Somos Defensores — “We are Defenders” — an organization that tracks threats against activists.

On Dec. 5, indigenous leader Miguel Tapi was killed in the district of Bahia Solano on Colombia’s Pacific coast. Following the murder, more than 800 members of his community fled their village.

Colombian officials have said that protecting social leaders is a “national priority” and the government has strengthened a unit to prosecute crimes against them, devoting more resources for bodyguards and bulletproof vehicles.

But critics say these plans have failed to reduce the violence. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, recently urged the government to increase protection for activists in rural areas.

Many keep working despite the threats, though sometimes from afar.

Darwin Cuero, from the town of Tumaco on Colombia’s Pacific coast, fled to Bogota after two of his brothers were murdered and he received threats. The Cuero family were well-known activists in Tumaco who had backed the 2016 peace deal.

Darwin said he will continue to work with victims' organizations to seek justice.

“While I am alive and breathing, I will continue to do what I can to bring attention to the rights of victims” Cuero said. “The Colombian state has not been able to guarantee their right to life.”