by James Patrick Jordan
Death squads don’t take breaks for holidays or holy days. Anyone who has followed the ups and downs of Colombia’s war and peace, repression and struggle, will know that right around the week before and after Christmas and the New Year, and, again, Easter and Holy week, there often occurs a surge in assaults on social leaders, human rights defenders, and ex-combatants. Frequently during these times, death squads threaten their targets and defend their brutality by appealing to perverse notions of patriotism and morality, dressing up their terrorism in cloaks of duty, faith, righteousness—and utter hypocrisy.
There is another factor that motivates these assassinations: elections. With a strong possibility of Center-Left victory at the polls, the electoral season in Colombia has also precipitated a spike in threats and violence toward opposition campaigns and their supporters.
Sadly, this year’s Easter season has been no exception. Between April 8 and today, April 25, 2022, (Easter having fallen on the 17th), at least 12 persons have been killed* in Colombia in politically motivated murders, including seven social movement leaders and five ex-combatants. (*: This link only lists eleven victims, but as I was writing this article, I received notice of another killing on April 25 of Juan José Chilito, ex-combatant and peace accord signatory.)
One of those ex-combatants was Nelson David Montaños Marquez, also known by his nom de guerre Luis Mosquera. Luis was one of the few Afro-Colombians living at the Dagoberto Ortiz Territorial Space for Training and Reintegration (ETCR) in Miranda, Cauca. The ETCRs are reincorporation camps set up for peace accord signers from the former FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army).
Luis’ death has particular significance and relevance for those of us at the Alliance for Global Justice and our supporters. We have been visiting his community since our first Colombia delegation in 2009, and we have developed a close relationship with the people at the Dagoberto Ortiz camp, and the nearby collective farm at the Elvira Campesino Zone. Just a little over a year ago, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, on December 28th, Manuel Alonso, the ETCR’s comandante was brutally murdered, his body deposited just 200 yards from where the Elvira farm was celebrating its fourth anniversary.
This area in the north of the department of Cauca is one of the areas with the highest number of politically motivated killings in Colombia. It is also an area where youth are targeted for violating curfews, and where those labeled as “delinquents” are targeted by death squads for arbitrary and extrajudicial execution. The irony of this situation is that this is one of the most key areas for the drug trade in Colombia, and paramilitaries and narco-traffickers battle each other for control of the market and transportation routes. This particular area is well known for the illicit crops produced there, and for the backroads used to take products to the port city of Buenaventura. This goes on with full awareness on the part of the Colombian military. Our delegations have several times traveled through check points closely located by huge coca fields. Many of the same death squads that kill youth in the streets after dark are themselves intimately linked to narco-trafficking.
Luis’ death was also especially poignant for us because he was part of the Memoria Viva (Living Memory) union, a union of security guards whose members are mostly signatories to the 2016 Peace Accord. Memoria Viva formed as an official union affiliated with the CUT (Central Federation of Workers) four years ago. We began a solidarity relationship with them last year. Over their four years of existence, they have had to confront a variety of labor abuses, including false charges and threats against their leadership that have put some in jail as political prisoners, and forced others to flee as refugees. Luis is the seventh union member killed since their formation.
Luis was only 23 years old. As such, at the time the peace accord was signed in 2016, he would have been a minor of 17 years, having only recently joined the FARC-EP as a teenager—as a boy. AFGJ visited the communities of Miranda and Corinto in our very first Colombia delegation in 2009, in the midst of the Colombian civil war between the US-funded and advised Colombian Armed Forces and the FARC-EP. We spent several days there and heard testimony after testimony of young people being forcibly recruited into paramilitaries and narco-gangs, and if they refused to join, the result was often displacement or death. We were told that the FARC-EP was essentially the de facto government for many rural areas, and the main source of protection the communities had from the death squads. We also heard that many young people felt compelled to join the guerrillas after seeing their classmates killed, or after they or their families had been threatened, as they felt safer with a gun in hand, as part of an armed unit, then they did as individuals with no protection.
The arming of children and adolescents is terrible. The FARC-EP had admitted to taking in recruits 15 years and older, and in 2015, raised the age to 17. We have heard allegations that children younger than these ages have been enlisted into guerrilla forces. Whether this is true or not, it is essential that we understand well the context and, more, that we understand that it is the viability of a peace process that alone can protect youth from the fate of becoming child soldiers, gang members, or paramilitaries. We do not know for certain if Luis was killed because he had joined the guerrillas as a boy, or because he was a young man who had just left a nightclub shortly after midnight following social time with friends, or both. What we do know is this: he was killed for his youth. And he was killed as someone who had committed himself to a peace process that paramilitaries have sworn to destroy.
Some of you who are reading this have been to Elvira and/or the ETCR Dagoberto Ortiz. AFGJ has taken several delegations there, as have our friends at the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective. Witness for Peace also brought one of the Elvira farm’s leaders, Leider Valencia, on a US tour in 2019. Some of you will also know about the community by having seen screenings of the documentary Under Fire (Bajo Fuego).
Of course, Miranda is far from the only part of Colombia enduring this kind of violence. The victims are real people. We must, as the Black Live Matter movement taught us to do, “say their names.” Those killed in the period immediately before and following Easter include:
- Yorelys Anotnio Beltrán Ramos, ex-combatant, was killed on April 8, 2022, in Mutata, Antióquia.
- Pablo Baquero Cárdenas, social movement leader, was killed on April 11, 2022, in Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo.
- Camilo Borou Bosachira, social movement and Indigenous leader, was killed on April 16, 2022, in Tibú, Norte de Santander.
- Fabinson Ducuara Barreto, social movement leader, was killed on April 18, 2022, in La Montañita, Caquetá.
- Franceneth Yolima Pérez Olaya, ex-combatant, was killed on April 18, 2022, in Mesetas, Meta.
- John Jairo Esquivel, social movement leader, was killed on April 18, 2022, in Saravena, Arauca.
- José Danilo Agudelo Torres, social movement leader, was killed on April 18, 2022, in Briceño, Antióquia.
- Wilmer Hernández, social movement leader, was killed on April 18, 2022, in Tame, Antióquia.
- Andrés Eduardo Cruz Gómez, social movement leader, was killed on April 19, 2022, in Rio Negro, Antióquia.
- Brayan Stiven Ulcué Caso, ex-combatant, was killed on April 20, 2022, in Mesetas, Meta.
- Nelson David Montaños Marquez, “Luis,”, ex-combatant, was killed on April 24, 2022, in Miranda, Cauca.
- Juan José Chilito, ex-combatant, was killed on April 25, 2022, in the José María village of Puerto Guzman, Putumayo.
According to Indepaz, since the signing of the peace accord on September 26, 2016 through April 24, 2022, 1,287 social movement leaders and human rights defenders, 302 victims of massacres by the police, miliary, or paramilitaries, and 316 peace accord signatories have been killed in political violence. That equals 2,005 victims in 2,036 days, almost one per day. (These numbers include at least eleven persons killed in one day, March 28, 2022, in a massacre perpetrated by the military. The Colombian Armed Forces continue to maintain that this was a military operation against a narco-trafficking gang. However, witnesses maintain that the soldiers opened fire on a public bazaar held to raise money for construction of a new road. Local community and media identified known civilians from local indigenous and campesino communities.}
I also want to call attention to the death of Wilmer Hernández. He was a leader of his union of farmers and farm workers, an activist with CPDH (Permanent Committee on Human Rights), and a member of the Colombian Communist Party. CPDH is coordinating our Electoral Mission of Accompaniment and Observation May 25 through June 1, 2022 and will be sending our teams around the country to accompany social movement leaders and threatened persons in the final days of the campaigns before the May 29 presidential vote. We will also be providing live updates on this important election throughout the day. Many of those who want to participate in this mission are unable to do so because of a lack of funds. One way you can help this effort is to make a contribution to fund scholarships, discounts, and resources for the live reports on election day.
Another action you can take is to send an email to Colombian authorities demanding an end to this violence, especially in view of the upcoming elections. For those of us who are US citizens (or citizens of NATO countries, or Israel, the second major international source of Colombia’s military aid), the policies of our country and our own taxes have funded military, police, and even paramilitary brutality against popular movements. It was the Pentagon’s 1962 Yarborough Commission that first proposed that the Colombian government employ “terror”, form paramilitary groups, and unleash a full scale military assault against independent campesino regions in the south of Tolima. That lead to the formation of the FARC-EP, and a civil war that has lasted for more than 50 years. The US, under both Trump and Biden, has maintained and raised military and security aid to Colombia despite the government’s incompliance with the 2016 peace accord. Especially, the Colombian government has not protected the right for the political opposition to operate openly and safely; it has not protected social movement leaders and ex-combatants; it has not fulfilled its promises for rural development and crop substitution programs, a reality that has helped encourage and spread the activities of paramilitary and narco-trafficker death squads. The Colombian people want peace, but it’s not just up to them, alone, to get it. We must also hold our own governments accountable for the country’s humanitarian crisis. Now is the time for solidarity.
The road to peace in Colombia is soaked with the blood of the fallen. May those of us with a still beating heart remember with each pulse the blood that has been spilt, and the blood of hope that continues to course through the veins of so many Colombians.