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Colombian civil society activists are facing mounting violence despite the 2016 peace deal and the coronavirus pandemic, with at least 415 of them killed in less than five years, the International Crisis Group said on Tuesday.

Hundreds more have been harassed or forcibly displaced since 2016, according to the report.

The Colombian watchdog Indepaz has given higher figures, putting the number of slain community leaders and human rights activists at about 1,000 since the peace agreement was signed in November 2016.

Local activists, commonly referred to as social leaders, are the “most ardent backers” of the peace deal with the guerrilla movement FARC, which ended a 52-year conflict, the Crisis Group said.

The agreement led to the demobilization of 7,000 fighters, but FARC dissidents, the guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN), paramilitary and criminal gangs remain active.

Figures kept by prosecutors suggest that 59 per cent of murders can be attributed to identifiable armed groups, 39 per cent to unknown individuals or bands, and 2 per cent to military officers, according to the report.

The pandemic has exacerbated insecurity for social leaders as armed groups have exploited movement restrictions to consolidate control, the Crisis Group said.

Competing armed groups often “regard social leaders as obstacles to illicit business – notably, coca production and cocaine trafficking – or their plans to coerce communities’ allegiance,” according to the report.

“Other murders point to the role of shadowy interests in the state, local business or the armed forces,” it added.
President Ivan Duque’s government has given protection schemes to nearly 5,000 social leaders at risk, while using military force against armed groups, the Crisis Group said.

But the forced eradication of coca – the plant cocaine is made from – and military operations may actually worsen the conditions for such leaders, according to the report.

“No armed group in Colombia is now powerful enough to battle the state militarily; when their interests are threatened, these outfits retaliate against local civilians – and particularly leaders who vocally oppose their sway,” the Crisis Group said.

Attacks against civil society leaders “weaken the 2016 accord and its base of popular support, exposing the state’s grave difficulties in protecting communities from vested interests with violent designs,” according to the report.

“The government has yet to properly diagnose the socio-economic ills that underpin these attacks,” the Crisis Group said, encouraging Duque to fully implement rural reforms foreseen in the peace agreement. The NGO International Crisis Group describes itself as working to prevent war and promote peace.

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