Killing of community leaders in Colombia has reached 'unprecedented' levels

A member of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia monitors the road.Photo: Reuters/Jaime Saldarriaga

Peace and human rights campaigners are being targeted and killed at an "unprecedented" rate in Colombia, Catholic aid agency CAFOD has warned. 

Belisario Arciniegas García is the latest community leader to have been targeted in rural areas after being shot dead on May 7 by members of the National Liberation Army, a local guerrilla group commonly known as the ELN.

CAFOD said it was "shocked and saddened" by the death of García, who was a farmer in Micoahumado, where the charity is supporting peace-building projects. 

At the time of his death, he had been a candidate for local council elections taking place later this year.

Just three days after he was killed, Wilmar Carvajalino, a driver who was part of an organisation of miners and farmers demanding more rights, was assassinated.

CAFOD said Colombia's community leaders were "crucial" to the peace process and that that more protection was needed for them.

Uli Beck, CAFOD's Colombia programme officer, said: "Colombia is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a human rights or land defender – and, despite the ongoing peace process, the threats and killings of human rights defenders are increasing.

"Colombia's community leaders are fighting for the rights of local people and trying to make peace a reality and if these killings and threats continue to be overlooked, it sends a strong message that the peace process is at serious risk."

Rural areas in Colombia, including Micoahumado in the Magdalena Medio region, have been blighted by tensions over natural resources and land ownership as well as violence and human rights violations by guerrilla, paramilitary and security forces.

A peace agreement was reached with the largest guerrilla group, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in 2016 but peace negotations with the ELN broke down in January this year, prompting calls from community leaders for outside help.

"Armed actors in these communities, including security and guerrilla forces, must respect International Human Rights law, and not draw civilian populations into their combat," said Beck.

"As well as an impartial investigation into those responsible for the killings, local authorities must work to establish effective measures to protect those who are at risk.

"The protection of Colombia's rural and remote communities, which would include an increased presence of State institutions in remote areas, is urgently needed if the peace process – which was sorely fought for – is to be successful."