Leaders of Colombian refugees face threats and assassination with impunity
Some days in Colombia violence comes like a storm.
You watch the darkness gather in the distance and brace for the imminent arrival of clouds that forever disrupt life on the earth.
Right now those dark clouds are threatening a group of displaced campesinos in the north Pacific department of Choco.
Some 45 community leaders are under serious threat. So serious that the seven U.S. Democratic congressmen have appealed to President Juan Manuel Santos for their protection.
As has become common in Colombia, paramilitaries are threatening – and often assassinating – community leaders of this nation’s some four million internally displaced refugees.
Colombia’s internationally acclaimed Victim and Land Restitution Law is under attack by paramilitaries, guerrillas and mafia who find assassinating community leaders is preferable to giving up land gained by violence in Colombia’s half century of internal violence.
It’s much preferable because charges and convictions of assassinating community leaders are exceedingly scarce.
El Defensor del Pueblo (a form of national ombudsman) reported the murder of 71 leaders between 2006 and 2011, before the new law was introduced as a primary plank in the new president’s stated commitment to building a peaceful society.
That landmark legislation hasn’t stopped the killings. Seven more leaders were assassinated in the first five months of 2012 when the law took effect, (according to Colombian senator Juan Fernando Cristo, who fought for the law after guerrillas assassinated his father.)
A punitive disincentive for assassination scarcely exists in Colombia.
Only one assassin – of what some are calling the Anti-Restitution Army – has been convicted.
That is why the seven U.S. senators wrote President Santos on behalf of community leaders in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, Choco where violence forced 3,000 residents to run for their lives in 1996 and 1997. The campesinos have been pressuring to have their land returned,and for this have paid a heavy price. Five of their leaders – and the 15-year-old son of one were killed since 2005.
Now the U.S. senators are requesting Colombia: investigate and prosecute violence against the community; protect residents and leaders; remove illegal occupants, and; investigate threats against the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission which is working to protect returnees.
U.S. military funding means the senators letter carries weight.
Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo replied quickly on behalf of the national government. He said the state is providing protection.
But he noted it’s a delicate time in the process. Returning land to displaced means evicting current occupants who aren’t eager to leave.
Meanwhile, the threats against the leaders and inter-faith human rights workers increase.
The 45 community leaders wait, knowing that as certain as the storm clouds will gather again on the horizon, murderers emboldened by the improbability of conviction will kill again to protect lands obtained through threats and murder.