Colombia: Activist deaths and postponed peacetalks highlight struggle over land

Three advocates and leftist political organizers were killed across Colombia last month, as FARC and government negotiators announced an unscheduled recess in peace talks until late April.

At least two peasant leaders in Colombia have been murdered in the past several weeks, heightening concerns about the security of opposition figures and human rights defenders as the government and leftist rebels try to negotiate an end to the country’s nearly 50-year-old internal conflict.

The head of the Colombia office of the United Nations’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Todd Howland, said in a statement that he was “very concerned” about the murders and called on authorities to fully investigate the crimes.

Ermes Vidal, a victims’ rights leader who was fighting to recover the farm he was forced to flee in the northwestern province of Cordoba, disappeared on March 21 after receiving numerous death threats. His body was found four days later on the banks of the Sinu River. Mr. Vidal was a member of several organizations promoting the rights of victims of Colombia’s internal conflict. He is the third person in his family to be killed while seeking to recover their land. 

A few days after Vidal's disappearance, Gustavo Adolfo Pizo, a young leader of the Marcha Patriótica leftist movement and peasant organizer, was stabbed to death in Cauca province on the other end of the country. His brother was also wounded in the attack.

Marcha Patriótica, which brings together peasants and indigenous groups as well as leftist politicians, made its debut shortly before peace talks were announced last year. The group's leaders have stated publicly that the movement could be a point of entry for demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) members seeking to participate in civilian politics.

Although movement leaders deny they represent the FARC, right-wing politicians have labelled Marcha Patriótica members as rebel sympathizers. Paramilitary forces have a long history of targeting anyone perceived to support leftist causes, though there is no indication of who might be behind these deaths.

A day after Mr. Pizo was killed, on March 26, the lifeless body of José Alonso Lozano, another peasant organizer and a member of the Marcha Patriótica, was found on the banks of the Guaviare River in Colombia’s southeast. It is unclear whether he was killed or died from natural causes, but César Jerez, leader of a national association of peasant groups, says Mr. Lozano had disappeared on March 24 after undergoing “police harassment” at a meeting in Villavicencio, where farmers were finalizing plans to participate in the upcoming nationwide demonstration on April 9 in support of the ongoing peace talks.

Peace talks and a history of violence

The government and the FARC, Colombia’s largest and most powerful rebel group, began peace talks last November in Havana, Cuba. The FARC, which started off in 1964 as a band of peasant rebels, grew – thanks to proceeds from the drug trade – to 20,000 fighters. Today, the FARC is believed to be about 9,000 strong.

The first point of discussion in the peace talks is precisely the issue many of these organizers and rights advocates focus on: rural development and land distribution. It's a touchy subject in a country with a high concentration of land owners and a history of multiple displacements due to the decades of violence. Sources close to the talks say there are draft accords on several land issues but sticking points have prevented the negotiating teams from moving on to the next topic: political participation. On Saturday the two sides announced an unscheduled recess until the third week of April.

No one has been charged with the deaths of the three men. “It’s curious that these deaths happen just as peasants are organizing,” says Mr. Jerez, pointing to a possible connection between the organizing activity and the deaths.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, during a previous peace process, the FARC openly participated in electoral politics – without giving up their armed struggle – through a party known as the Unión Patriótica. Two presidential candidates, eight members of congress, 13 regional legislators, and 11 mayors, as well as thousands of party rank-and-file, were killed in what Colombian courts have labeled a period of “political genocide.”

In his statement on the recent deaths of peasant leaders, Mr. Howland from the UN expressed his “concern because in the rural areas of the country activists and human rights defenders are unprotected,” calling on the government to put security measures in place to protect their lives. Last year, 69 human rights defenders were assassinated, nearly all of them in rural areas.

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