Petro’s 100 days marked by deaths of 58 social leaders

Death of a social leader in Nasa territory/Malcolm Linton.

Colombia reached a grim milestone with its human rights record in 2022, and the worst year on record for the killing of social leaders. According to the NGO Indepaz, 171 leaders were assassinated between January and November, compared to 164 last year. The most recent killings took place over the last weekend in the department of La Guajira, Barrancabermeja, and Montería. The report by Indepaz confirms that since Gustavo Petro took office 100 days ago, 58 murders of social leaders have been documented, and these, despite the government’s security policy of enacting “total peace” throughout the territory.

Equally alarming to the record-high numbers, are 28 massacres that have taken place since August 7, 2022, or almost one-third of the 90 massacres so far this year.

The Indepaz numbers contrast with those of the national Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo), although alarmingly high, have not set a historic record. The Defensoría claims that between January and September there were 157 murders of social leaders, 12 more than during the same period last year.

The deaths of 58 social leaders during Petro’s first 100 days also come as the country’s first leftist government opened peace talks last week with the country’s last remaining Marxist guerrilla, the National Liberation Army – ELN. The first round of talks taking place in Caracas, Venezuela, will last 20 days and could result in an announcement that the 3,000-strong guerrilla will declare a unilateral ceasefire that coincides with the start of the holiday season.

When Gustavo Petro led the opposition to President Iván Duque, and the government he repeatedly claimed was a “dictatorship,” he used social media to discredit the democratically-elected politician as someone “anti-peace” given, according to Petro, a “failure to fully implement the peace accord with FARC.” The social media narrative spilled into the streets in mass anti-government protests targeting Duque as a “paramilitary.” The roiling social protests during the National Strike – Paro Nacional – led to food shortages throughout the country at a critical moment in which the government was grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. It also resulted in the deaths of several persons, including an unborn child inside an ambulance, when protestors barricaded roads and impeded the movement of medical missions.

Having also been democratically elected, President Petro can no longer place the blame for massacres and killings of social leaders on his predecessor, given that October marked the most violent month this year in the country. And while the leftist President has offered to bring criminal gangs, among them Gulf Clan, to the peace negotiation table in exchange for reduced prison terms, Petro’s “total peace” now requires additional military support, especially along the country’s international borders. On Monday, the country’s Interior Minister, Alfonso Prada, confirmed that the government has contacted Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, and Panama, “given an increase in criminal activity” which requires “collaboration with other countries.”

Prada also confirmed that Colombia’s Armed Forces will deploy some 400 troops to the country’s southern border with Ecuador and Peru to combat illegal armed groups. The deployment is also in response to a massacre on November 19 in which 23 combatants belonging to Comandos de la Frontera (Border Command) and FARC dissident were killed during four hours of fighting. The bodies of the combatants were hauled in a dumpster to the local cemetery in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo, where the horrific scene was captured on video by the residents of this remote community. Three days later, in the same department, Indepaz confirmed the deaths of four persons near a road in Puerto Asís, accounting for massacre number 90 this year.