Throughout Colombia’s countryside, especially in areas of longtime influence of the former FARC guerrillas, leaders of social organizations are living in fear. Every few days, somewhere in the country, a land-rights claimant, a participant in a crop substitution program, a campesino organizer, or a leader of an ethnic community is murdered. It’s a huge threat to the viability of Colombia’s fragile peace.
On Saturday, Colombia’s Noticias Uno television program ran an interview with the country’s defense minister, Luis Carlos Villegas, who oversees both the military and the national police. An English transcript of his comments is below the video.
Villegas voiced doubt about whether social leaders’ killings are really a problem. He said that most of the murders have been about disputes between neighbors over property lines, or lovers’ quarrels (or as he put it, “skirts”).
Minister Villegas’ comments call into question his ability to do his job as a top protector of the Colombian people. His insistence on the lack of a single “organization” or entity that might be behind the killings reveals a basic misunderstanding of how organized crime works. Rather than a single body, it is a loose network, one that often includes individuals, like landowners or government officials, who operate from “legality.”
Villegas also reveals a lack of interest in protecting vulnerable people who, with the peace accord, now hope to practice politics free of fear. Instead, the implicit message here is, “you’re on your own.”
Noticias Uno: In dialogue with Noticias Uno, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas referred to the recent killings of social leaders in the country. The high official rejected that their deaths might be related to their claims.Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas: I run the risk of generating many comments for what you’re about to hear from me.… There have been cases from [committed by] the ELN, and there have been cases from the FARC, I leave those apart. The rest have been, in their immense majority, the result of an issue with land boundaries, of an issue about skirts [women], of an issue with unmet demands, of an issue with a fight over illicit incomes.NU: While he clarified that this issue is of concern to the national government, the Defense Minister affirmed that there is no armed group going after leaders.LCV: One of every two killings today has a judicial explanation.… There is no organization behind this killing leaders.NU: In addition, for Villegas, the government is convinced that there is no increase in murdered leaders out in the provinces.LCV: It isn’t that the killings of social leaders suddenly appeared. It’s that perhaps what’s appeared is the measurement of this phenomenon.NU: While social leaders count 104 leaders assassinated this year, Villegas affirms that the real total is about 50.LCV: I would be the first to denounce a systematic pattern. If I had any information that there is an organization, a person, a body dedicated to killing leaders in Colombia, I would be the first to come out and say it.NU: It’s calculated that this year, another 300 leaders have received death threats.