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Colombia: 145 civil society leaders killed in 2021

January 18, 2022

A new report has said at least one rights advocate, community leader or environmental activist was killed in the country every 60 hours last year. They mostly fell victim to gangs and paramilitary groups.

A young Colombian woman with the national colors (yellow, blue and red) painted on her cheeck, as well as smears of red paint mimicking blood.
Colombian rights advocates continue to fall victim to armed criminal and paramilitary groups at an alarming rateImage: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Colombia's human rights ombudsman, Carlos Camargo, late Monday announced that 145 civil society leaders were killed by criminals in the country in 2021.

This includes human rights activists, community leaders and environmental activists.

"We are deeply saddened by each case, because of the impact they have on the communities," Camargo said.

Colombia's government says leaders were killed by groups seeking to control drug trafficking networks and illegal mining operations mainly in the east of the country, where most of the country's marginalized Afro-Colombian population lives.

According to government statistics, the most dramatic spike in killings took place in Valle del Cauca, on Colombia's Pacific Coast. Last year, killings there almost doubled — from 10 in 2020, to 19 in 2021.

On Tuesday,  indigenous groups and officials said a 14-year-old environmental activist was shot dead in southwestern Colombia during a rural security patrol, in one of the latest incidents. 

Who were the victims?

The government says the people killed — 120 men and 25 women — represented Indigenous peoples, led farming collectives or were union organizers.

Police carry a body out of the woods on a stretcher in Bogota
Rights and environmental advocates are targeted by groups looking to expand their influenceImage: Fernando Vergara/AP Photo/picture alliance

The government has blamed members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), a left-wing group; remnants of the left-wing group FARC; and criminal gangs, some made up of far-right paramilitaries, of having committed the crimes.

Though the number is down slightly compared with the 182 killings in 2020, Colombian President Ivan Duque still faces stiff international pressure to put an end to such killings.

The numbers also vary widely depending on source, with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) listing 78 confirmed killings, whereas Indepaz, an advocacy group, says 171 leaders were murdered.

Although Colombia's recent history has been exceedingly violent, the government's 2016 peace deal with FARC offered some reprieve. Nevertheless, numerous armed groups — both criminal and paramilitary — have fought desperately for influence. According to Indepaz, last year more than 90 massacres were carried out on civilians in the country, killing more than 300 people.

js/wmr (epd, Reuters)