Social leaders from different regions of Colombia and Campesinos from the Magdaleno Medio valley launched the ‘Somos como tu’ (We’re Like You) campaign as an strategy to combat the strong stigmatization and persecution from the government, and to claim their rights.
The strategy aims to counter the narrative promoted by the government and sectors of the right wing, billing them as outlaws, at the same time that social leaders across the country are being killed and harassed by different armed groups.
“We’re being threatened today and on top of that they’re calling us guerrilla fighters. They exile us from our territory. There’s persecution for leaders without any serious investigation,” said social leader Betty Pedraza, member of an NGO that works to defend territory, human rights and peace building.
Two social leaders from the Magdalena Medio valley have been murdered this year. The organizations have denounced the general disinformation disseminated about their labor which made them fall prey to prejudice and threats against their lives, ultimately ending in their deaths.
That’s why ten organizations decided to team up and present the ‘We’re Like You’ document to authorities in Barrancabermeja, a city by the Magdalena River in northern Colombia, with Campesinos bringing their products with them.
“It’s the way we show who we are. Our products are our reflection, what we do,” said Campesinos present at the event.
The group delivered a basket with products to the local attorney at the Barrancabermeja Palace of Justice, Manuel Ricardo Fernandez, who listened to what they had to say.
“The people that wanted to take us out of our lands said I was a criminal, they set up fake evidence against me and that’s why my family and I suffer,” said Alvaro Garcia, a Campesino who claims he was unjustly imprisoned for a year. “I’m the one who provides for my family.”
But Fernandez thinks otherwise.
“We’re providing the necessary guarantees, but there’s some trying to distract attention by saying that Human Rights defenders are being stigmatized. That’s not true,” he said.
In 2016 the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace treaty to end decades of conflict. However, in rural Colombia, social and community leaders continue being targeted and murdered with impunity.
Local rights group Research Institute for Development and Peace, or Indepaz, places the number of victims between November 2016 and May 2018 at 385, while teleSUR’s own monitoring of these cases places the up-to-date number at over 400.
A shadow report on human rights for the United Nations Universal Periodic Review showed that the General Attorney’s Office “lacks an investigation strategy that recognizes the existence of paramilitaries, the systematic character of the attacks, and that the condition of being human rights defenders constitutes a motive.”
Just in 2018 there have been at least 175 social leaders murdered in Colombia.