As Colombia continues to inch toward peace with the FARC, the Congress held a public hearing on Friday to hear testimonies of how groups from all over the country are impacted by paramilitary activity, one of the gravest threats to the impending peace deal that will bring an end to over 50 years of internal armed conflict.
Representatives of Indigenous and campesino organizations, peace activists, and human rights lawyers gathered at the National Congress in Bogota to raise awareness nationally and internationally about the harsh reality lived by communities affected by paramilitaries.
David Flores of the Marcha Patriotica movement argued that the continuation of paramilitaries exposes the fact that the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos is not fully committed to definitively ending the conflict.
“The presence and dominance of paramilitaries in these regions, about a third of Colombia, show that the government is not serious about the accord,” Flores said. He added that the paramilitary problem represents a rejection not only of the peace process as a whole, but also the various partial deals that have been reached as part of the talks, including agreements on land reform.
Speakers reported persecution and intimidation in different parts of the country combined with a lack of attention from the government, military, and local police to provide protection in the face of violence.
According to testimonies, military and police agents mysteriously disappear every time paramilitary forces are present in communities, usually to target social movement leaders. If leaders are not assassinated, they are harassed and threatened in attempts to intimidate them into stopping their resistance movement to defend land and other rights, witnesses reported.
“We as campesinos are being massacred because we demand our rights over the land,” one activist from the Catatumbo region told the hearing, adding that although many paramilitary forces now operate under different names. They are largely a splinter groups of the the far-right paramilitary body the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia or AUC.
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Many speakers also highlighted the role of far-right former President Alvaro Uribe in the movement rejecting progress toward peace with the Revolution Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. Among affected communities, paramilitaries are widely seen as the army of the elite political and economic interests that continue to control the country.
The hearing comes as Colombia has continued to suffer an increase in paramilitary violence in recent months, while the government insists that criminal organizations, not paramilitary forces are behind the spike in deadly violence and killings of movement leaders.
Prominent peace activists have repeatedly argued that continued paramilitary activity is the greatest threat to the ending the conflict and that the resurgence of paramilitary forces is a rejection of the peace process directly linked to the fact that the FARC and government are nearing a deal after over three years at the negotiating table.
At the beginning of April, the narco-paramilitary group Usuga Clan forced a shutdown of three northern departments of Colombia by threatening violence for anyone who dared leave their homes. Santos has insists Usuga Clan is a criminal organization, not a paramilitary group.
Meanwhile, Uribe has been whipping up opposition to the peace process and convened huge marches on April 2 against a peace deal with the FARC, who Uribe’s supporters consider “terrorists.”
Over the past five years, 534 social and political activists have been murdered in Colombia, with a minimum of 90 killed every year. The year 2016 has been following down the same path, with a series of targeted assassinations and attempts on lives of prominent movement leaders, including former senator and leading peace activist Piedad Cordoba.