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News > Latin America

Colombia: Rights Groups Decry Killings of Two Social Leaders, Demand Justice

  • Environmental activists and human rights defenders in Colombia face violence while criminals remain unpunished.

    Environmental activists and human rights defenders in Colombia face violence while criminals remain unpunished. | Photo: EFE

Published 2 April 2018

The murders of Maria Magdalena Cruz Rojas and Belisario Benavidez on Good Friday sparked calls for justice and security for Colombia’s activists.

Human rights groups decried the recent killings of Colombian social activists Maria Magdalena Cruz Rojas and Belisario Benavidez Ordoñez in two separate attacks on Good Friday as Colombia's environmental activists, social leaders and human rights defenders continue to face persecution as the government fails to provide the necessary security measures to protect them from increasing threats from armed group and paramilitaries.


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Amid increasing violence in Colombia against social leaders and activists, the murders of Belisario and Maria runs the risk of becoming just more numbers among the ongoing murders of activists, but their families, friends and supporters have vowed to not let that happen.

“We're sorry to announce that our comrade Maria Magdalena Cruz of Mapiripan Meta was murdered last Friday March 30, 2018. Elena, as we used to call her in an affectionate way, was the head of the La Vereda Unibrisas del Iteviare substitution program,” says a message posted by the Coca, Poppy and Marihuana Farmers National Coordinator (Coccam) Sunday. 

In a letter sent to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the Coccam and the International Humanitarian Right in Eastern and Central Colombia (DHOC) demanded respect and security for the farmers leaders' human rights in Mapiripan and the whole country.

“We reaffirm our demand for life and the right of the communities to take part in the implementation of the peace accords,” says the communique, in which the organizations also demand a proportionate punishment to those who acted against Maria's life.

Cruz Rojas was assassinated at home in front of her husband and her son Friday night by unidentified hooded hitmen. She worked in defense of the campesinos cultivating coca crops and helped with the implementation of government programs meant to substitute the coca crops with alternative ones.

In a separate attack, human rights defender Belisario Benavidez Ordoñez was murdered by unknown men as he was leaving his home in the Cauca department at 7:00 p.m. local time Friday. He was accompanied by his three-year-old son and a 12-year-old nephew on his motorcycle when he was shot for times, dying instantly.

Benavidez arrived to the Rosas municipality in Cauca after being displaced from Patia, his place of birth, five years ago. He later became a member of the local Victims' Board, which took care of the region's victims of violence, and was in charge of organizing the International Victims Day along with the mayor of Rosas, Jesus Eduardo Diaz.

“I'm mostly worried about his wife and three offsprings: one 14, other seven and the last one three years old, the one who witnessed it all,” said Diaz.


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Benavidez was 35 years old and used to work in a restaurant at Parraga, by the Pan-American highway. President Santos has yet to comment on the recent attacks.

The latest surge in violence has also been triggered by bad management of the peace process between the government and the former insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), leaving the provinces were the former guerrilla group was demobilized vulnerable to brutal paramilitary gangs and other armed criminal organizations who are taking advantage of the power vacuum.

“The increasing killings [of social leaders] are a response to two conflicts: the territorial and the resources ones, most of them using armed hitmen in regions where the FARC used to regulate social relations by imposing their authority,” said Camilo Gonzalez, director of the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz).

The We Are Defenders human rights organization reported that 106 social leaders and human rights activists murdered in Colombia just in 2017, and called the high rate of violent deaths “a pain in the neck” for the country's peace efforts.

The report states that in 2017 “a human rights defender was murdered in Colombia every three days.” Other reports give much higher figures.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) demanded Colombia to take “immediate measures” to protect human rights defenders and social leaders, due to the high rates of murders registered since 2016. Colombian President Juan Manual Santos said at least 160 activists have been murdered since 2016.

A report published by the People's Ombudsman of Colombia stated that the murders of social leaders is related to “their stigmatization, the defense of ethnic lands, the opposition to mining or agro-industries and demands on land ownership.”

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