BOGOTA, Colombia (CNS) -- Catholic
Church leaders are urging the Colombian government to protect community leaders
who are being targeted by hired assassins.
As many as 300 local leaders have
been killed since late 2016, when the government signed peace accords to end a
half-century conflict with the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, the country's largest guerrilla
Church leaders have called for President Ivan Duque, who was
inaugurated Aug. 7, to take steps to stop the murders.
"These violations of the right
to life signify an abominable and reprehensible breakdown in the sacred laws of
the creator, the only lord of life," Msgr. Hector Fabio Henao, who heads the Colombian
bishops' social ministry office, told Duque at a public meeting Aug. 24 in Apartado, in northern Colombia.
"We call on those who
erroneously believe that they can achieve noble goals through violent actions,"
he said, according to the bishops' communications office. "These acts do
not contribute to true reconciliation among Colombians."
The threats and murders have
increased "just when it's assumed that we're at peace," Frank Varelas of the bishops'
social ministry office told Catholic News Service.
There are several possible reasons
for that, he said. In some places, the end of the armed conflict may have
revealed local conflicts that had been attributed to the war, but which
actually had other roots.
In other places, which were under
FARC control for decades, disarmament left a power vacuum that criminal bands
have been quick to fill, fighting for control of land and the illegal drug
trade, Varelas said.
Until the government regains control
of those areas, local organizations are crucial for rebuilding communities
battered by war, said Msgr. Henao, who
also heads the steering committee of Colombia's National Council on Peace, Reconciliation and Peaceful
By forcing grass-roots leaders to
resign or flee, criminal groups weaken the organizations that hold communities
together, he said.
Threats come by anonymous note, cellphone
call, text message or helmeted motorcycle messenger. Too often, Msgr. Henao
told CNS, there is no warning -- only a bullet.
Maria Alis Ramirez, a member of the
social ministry team in the southern Diocese of Florencia, tried to hold out after receiving a death
from gold miners who were working illegally upstream from her farm. She had
protested after they fouled the stream that provided water for her cows.
To protect herself, she changed her
routine and avoided traveling alone to workshops and liturgies in the
communities where she worked. But when her daughter received an anonymous
threat against her mother, Ramirez, 50, decided the risk was too great. She left
the countryside and moved into the city of Florencia for a time.
When community leaders are forced to
flee, relocating brings a new set of problems. For Ramirez, it meant paying
rent, an added expense. And she worried about her farm. After a few months, she
returned home, despite the continuing danger.
Florencia, a city of some 165,000
people in the tropical Caqueta
region, was hard hit by the violence. It is also a source of coca, the raw
material in cocaine. Ramirez and local community leaders said conflicts there revolve
mainly around land and drugs.
In urban neighborhoods, threats
against leaders generally come from gangs involved in the sale of illicit drugs
in neighborhoods. In rural areas, they often come from criminal groups vying
for control of areas where drug crops, especially coca, are grown, said
Rosemary Betancourt Claros, 48, who heads a federation of community
Criminal groups consider leaders of
those organizations to be obstacles to illegal activities, said Diana Cabras, a
specialist in protection with the social ministry's program to strengthen civil
society groups in a region of southern Colombia that includes the Diocese of
When threatened leaders turn to their
local parish or diocesan offices for help, church workers offer guidance and
accompaniment, but providing protection is the government's responsibility,
The Interior Ministry has created a
special unit that assigns bodyguards, but the number of requests has
outstripped its ability to respond.
Government agencies "must take
appropriate steps to guarantee not only investigations after something happens,
but also prevention," Msgr. Henao said. "Agencies must coordinate to
ensure that there is no connection between local officials and illegal armed
groups and that there is efficient follow-up of early warnings that come from
the affected regions."
Betancourt and other community
leaders around Florencia hope for quicker action from Duque. The new president
has pledged to crack down on armed groups, criminal bands and drug traffickers,
but has also said he will make "adjustments" to the peace accords."
After more than half a century of
violence, Betancourt said, "we want to truly be at peace."