By Zenaida Espinosa

“If we made a minute of silence for each social leader in Colombia who has been murdered, we would be silent for 15 years”.

This painfully truthful phrase was said by the President of the Truth Commission, Father Francisco de Roux, last August 14, at a webinar made by RECON, with the support of the Swedish Embassy and UNDP. It was an occasion for many leaders from institutional, international, social, political and analyst spaces to ask: How far ahead are we in the construction of Peace, Human Rights, and Protection of Social Leaders in Colombia?

Father de Roux referred to the Biblical Passage where God asks Cain: “Where is your brother?” This question should compel us all who take a part in this conversation and reply: “Where is your brother?”. Paradoxically, Cain’s answer is almost ours: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”. Whether by action or omission, there are many ways in which we, as a society, are responsible for the weekly, and sometimes daily murder of social leaders. Also for the men and women who had left the war and were in the FARC party. It seems as if nothing mattered.“Let’s stop with the names of our murdered brothers because they are not numbers. They are people, Colombians, brethren, our brethren. Social leaders put their heritage and territory above all, and don’t allow themselves to be threatened,” De Roux commented.

Ariel Ávila, Colombian political scientist and assistant manager of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, goes further. He says that the Government is responsible to a great extent for the assassinations of social leaders, because it ignores their systematic nature, despite there being more than just one responsible for these crimes. The government also argues that these murders have different social causes and that the perpetrators are different from each other, either dissidents, outlaws connected to the drug trade, or others. But, while the murders are not the same, Avila argues that the profile of the victims is similar. The same kind of people are getting killed: JAC (Communal Action Juntas) presidents, leaders opposed to illegal economies and aspiring candidates. The similarity of the victims gives the case for systematization.

Avila identifies three problems that haven’t allowed these murders to be solved:

  1. Former District Attorney, Néstor Humberto Martínez created the concept of esclarecimiento (elucidation), everything and nothing. What’s perverse is that just a phone call can amount to esclarecimiento.
  2. The government hasn’t yet understood that it’s possible to avoid this wave of killings of former combatants and social leaders. The talk can be about profiles and leaders. What zones are they mostly in? In which periods are they mostly murdered? Anyone can do it. That’s why you have to make profiles. For example: Who kills the claimants? The looters. Who kills the candidates? The opposers. The information is out there. The problem is that mayors and governors take the victims for tramps. The topic is delicate, both on a regional and local level.
  3. Father de Roux also talks about regional authoritarianism within the democratic system, as these murders consolidate authoritarian power in their zones. When a social leader is murdered, democracy is murdered. Nobody says anything, out of panic and fear. Therefore, it’s deceitful to analyze the numbers, because it’s democracy that’s affected.

Victims and social organizations
Marina Gallegio, social leader and National Coordinator for the Women’s Pacific Route, talked about the need for a focus on gender, and the prospect of women becoming actors in the construction of peace for a 55 years old conflict. “My role has been to be a leader in the search for a negotiated exit”, she commented. The Route has mobilized over 30.000 women to press for the negotiation agenda. This may look easy today, but in 1996 it was difficult to talk about those topics. Today, spaces have been secured and women have gained international recognition. For example, in the Havana Talks, 130 measures that previously weren’t on the table were achieved due to applying pressure for women to enter the talks as negotiators.

Afro-Colombian activist, Yolanda Perea Mosquera, who represents the 9 million Colombians who have been victims of the armed conflict in the National Committee for Peace, and coordinates the nationwide campaign “Cover me with your Hope”, began her intervention emphasizing: “I prefer an imperfect peace rather than a permanent war”. This has brought many difficulties and threats to her and her colleagues. They have remained firm, nevertheless, trusting that their voices as social leaders, and the support of those who were victims and suffered countless violence, give them the autonomy to call for a country at peace, so that our children don’t go through what they went through. Perea talked about her campaign and its contribution to building memory, peace and reconciliation in Colombia. “Our black communities, indigenous communities, and we as social leaders feel profound pain as we watch ourselves get murdered. We are full of pain and sadness, but keep on contributing in order to advance. With the “Cover me with your Hope” campaign, we start to sew the sheets that will unite us back together, we uncover the sexual violence waged in the conflict, we intertwine truth, pain and hope.

Dunen Kaneyba Muelas, female representative of indigenous communities in the UN, member of the indigenous community Arahuaco, and professor of the class on indigenous women, Re-Tejiendo Resistencia (Re Sewing Resistance), said: “We, Arahuaca women, have delivered reports to the Truth Commission on how we have been able to live and survive through the difficulties of the territory thanks to our ancestral knowledge. Sewing and gastronomy have been vital to staying alive”. She added: “Indigenous women in the territory are not a number in statistics of analphabetism. It’s important to recognize and differentiate our women’s traditional types of knowledge, which are a contribution to our communities’ culture”

She finished with a denunciation. Indigenous women pressured the Constitutional Court to enact the 2008 02 Auto (ruling), which ordered the national government to build a program to protect the rights of indigenous women who are displaced or at risk of being displaced. But 12 years later, this program hasn’t taken any kind of form beneficial for female indigenous social leaders or for women in the communities.

Diana Sanchez Lara, director of the Minga Organization and spokeswoman for the Colombia-Europe-US Coordination, talked about the current landscape, the guarantees that government has to offer and the many hearts involved in the agreement, like the agrarian or that of the victims. She stressed the importance of guaranteeing security because it involves the lives of those who transited to the civilian world, lives that have been politically and physically silenced. She denounces the government’s lack of political will to advance on Point 3.4 of the Agreement, which establishes a public policy framework for new institutions, as well as compliments to existing ones so that not only the FARC can make the change, but all the communities influenced by it.

Sandra Ramírez, current senator for the FARC Party and second vice president of the Senate, referred to questions on the FARC’s current panorama of political participation. Ramírez said that her role today is to recognize peace and that peace is possible, due to the unprecedented democratic aperture caused by the peace process. Nevertheless, she also said that the situation has changed because the aperture promised by the Agreement hasn’t been totally fulfilled. An example is the positions in Congress for the victims, which are still empty. These positions are important because it’s the victims who can shine a light on the reality of the territories, unlike many congresspeople, from whom it is noticeable from their interventions that they don’t know that reality. That’s why it’s necessary to give a voice to those who haven’t been given one. Unfortunately, there are still forces interrupting the Agreement. Other essential elements are the reform for the democratic participation of minority parties under equal conditions, where the State finances 100% of the campaigns, and the need for higher participation of women, which has lowered in the legislative cell.

Roy Barreras, senator of the U Party and president of the Peace Commission, emphasized that the Accord being implemented is not the one in Havana, but the one signed in the Colon Theatre after the renegotiation which sticks to 99% of the changes proposed by the leaders of the “NO” party, who won the plebiscite but who, in spite of that, continue to oppose the Accords. They surrendered to the current government and ever since there has been a hostile environment; objections, attempts to destroy the Special Peace Jurisdiction, etc instead of moving forward.

Besides, Barreras also said that “when he left the government, former president Santos left everything ready for a ceasefire with the ELN (National Liberation Army), but the current government froze it. Along with the reproachable attacks to the Cadet School, which escalated the violence, everything went to shambles, and the diplomatic solution to the conflict was left aside. The heavy hand policy, nevertheless, has also been a failure as seen in the rise in FARC dissidence, and a growth of the ELN, which had previously surrendered to the government with 1500 men, according to numbers by the Army. Today, we hear of 4500 men. The contention of dissidence and the GAOS (Organized Armed Groups), responsible for assassinating social leaders, has failed.

In the end, the senator added that “the implementation of the Agreement must include a clear defense of transitional justice and the development of the first point of the Agreement. Aside from this, we call for political reform, total elimination of the clientelist system, and demand the 16 congressional peace posts”.

The government
Peace Commissioner, Miguel Ceballos’, claims that there is a working commission and that meetings have been made, everything is aa simulation, because there are just two years left to this government and until now it is clear that they’re not interested in dismantling paramilitarism. The National Commission for Guarantees doesn’t work and paramilitaries are rising in many regions, like Catatumbo (North Santander) among others. The State hasn’t done anything. The government can make excuses that it’s not combatting it because it’s a drug trade problem, but it hasn’t fulfilled its promise to the 300 thousand families who signed their commitment to transit to legal economies. The exits we propose involve implementing those core principles in the Agreement.

Emilio José Archila, Presidential Counselor for the Stabilization and Consolidation of the Peace Agreement, considered that the PEDT (Development Programs with Territorial Focus ) is one of the greatest advances implemented by the Agreements and remembers that these have to be developed by this government and the two next ones. Nevertheless, he emphasized the need for licit means of livelihood for those communities, considering the complexities in their territories, such as needing five hours to mobilize to an urban area. On the other hand, the coca plant can be eliminated in two weeks, but an alternative crop takes five years. Hence, the construction of those regions is going to take from 10 to 15 years. These are the conditions under which we’re going to have to work. We have a promising opportunity to make those transformations. The big challenge is to maintain the push and visibility, for as long as it’s needed. If we don’t keep working like the way we’re working today, we won’t have accomplished anything in 15 years.

International organisms
The Special Representative for the UN General Secretary, and UN mission leader in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, was also present. He asserted that the international community has been an important pillar in this process, but more important than the UN’s role is political and financial support to be able to implement the Agreements for a stable peace in Colombia. He also commented on the need to support any reincorporation process if it’s to achieve sustainable, productive projects as ways of livelihood, guaranteed access to the markets, and a union with the private sector throughout the country. We can’t talk about successful and sustainable reincorporation if we fail to guarantee the people’s security, their projects, and territories. We need an integral and total implementation of all the points in the Agreement. Reincorporation is an area with tangible advances and results.

José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch director of the Americas Division, also intervened, stating that “the support of the international community to the peace process has to be recognized”. It’s with this help that a middle ground was found to ensure the signing of an agreement that guarantees the disarmament, reinsertion, and dismantling of one of the most powerful guerrillas in the region. Every time there has been tensions, the international community was there to legitimize and support the Agreement. It has served as a counterweight and defense for those who try to weaken it. Without solidarity and international visibility, the situation would be worse”. He also commented that the Constitutional Court has also played an important role when it has been consulted. But if the international community is worried about the implementation of the Agreements, it must be even more alert to Colombia’s judicial independence now, as it goes through difficult times protecting its democratic institutions. There’s a need for an official statement in support of the independence of the powers.

As for the situation of social leaders, Vivanco expressed that it is a truly alarming situation and that, strangely, the Prosecutor’s Office accounts for an improvement in the impunity rate, that the rates of impunity that border on 90%, have improved and are at 50%, in terms of determining guilt, many times including arrest warrants. Where it fails is in the capacity to identify the instigators, because if it manages to dismantle them, greater progress would be made.

Social entrepreneurship
Juan Esteban Garzón, social entrepreneur and leader of Alimentos Casai (Antioquia), which produces chemical-free food, offers work possibilities to the victims of violence. He explained that “the post-conflict is a reality, people are looking for opportunities and they must be given legality. Either we give them work, or they’ll come back with another attitude in two years”.

Luisa Romero, social entrepreneur from Up and Go Colombia, Cauca, and winner of the 2017 RECON meeting, explained how sustainable tourism generates a new narrative of peace and reconciliation in the Cauca department through four projects: Technology, Coffee, the art of telling stories that heal and tourism in the countryside. These projects are developed with the help of a USAID prize. These initiatives are necessary because they generate less risk.

Nevis Cadena, another social entrepreneur with his project Frutichar (Nariño), and winner of the 2017 RECON meeting explained how his venture contributes to the consolidation of peace and to economic transformation, as illicit harvests in the El Charco community are substituted. “Frutichar builds reconciliation. It’s a new narrative to build leadership from the territory. We have been working with afro and indigenous people. The necessary force to transcend comes from the relationship of man with nature, and his surroundings. We generate conscience out of simple practices. How do we relate with artisanal practices that are getting lost? What’s most important for us is the territory, and to contribute with the mission of substituting illicit harvests,” Cadena concluded.

Paula Gaviria, general director of the Compaz Foundation, promoted by former President Santos, reflected on why Social Entrepreneurship is key to construct peace in the territories. “In Colombia, there are millions who believe in peace and do their best to make it happen. We believe that peace contributes to the recovery of life projects, the transformation of vulnerability, the generation of revenue, the promotion of participation, and new leadership. As a society, we must protect social entrepreneurship and emerging strategies”.

Another one of the voices in this webinar was Edison Gómez’s, former combatant and now social entrepreneur of the Agricultural Association “La Esperanza del Valle del Cauca”. Gómez urged the National Government to strengthen the construction and consolidation of peace in the territories: “In this pandemic, we have seen the country’s need for its agriculture and the rural world. I make a plea to strengthen this sector, which has a lot to contribute to the construction of peace and the implementation of the Agreement”. Aside from this, he emphasized the need for the elderly to be taken into account, because they’re still vital and have their experience to contribute to the construction of the country”.

Translation by Octavio García Soto  from the voluntary Pressenza translation team. We are looking for volunteers!