Colombian Government Launches Initiative for Protection of Social Leaders

On August 20, the government of Colombian President Gustavo Petro arrived in Caldono, Cauca, to hear community demands and concerns / credit: <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Alfonso Prada / Twitter</a>
On August 20, the government of Colombian President Gustavo Petro arrived in Caldono, Cauca, to hear community demands and concerns / credit: Alfonso Prada / Twitter

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by People’s Dispatch.

On August 20, the newly inaugurated left-wing government of President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez in Colombia launched the first Unified Command Post for Life (PMU) in the municipality of Caldono, in the Cauca department. The PMU is an initiative that aims to achieve total peace and protect the population affected by violence across the country, especially social leaders, human rights activists, environmentalists and former combatants of the demobilized FARC guerilla group.

The launch was led by Interior Minister Alfonso Prada, Environment Minister Susana Muhamad, Labor Minister Gloria Inés Ramírez, and around 30 legislators from across the political spectrum, including the president of the Senate, Roy Barreras, and the president of the Peace Commission of the Senate, Iván Cepeda.

“We have installed the PMU, which is a command post to achieve rapid security in a preventative approach, not in the approach of sadness when we receive the news of the death of social leaders,” Prada said.

Prada explained that the protection plan will cover the 65 municipalities hardest hit by violence in the country, adding that initial emphasis will be placed on “5 to 10 of them, which are in a very delicate situation and are systematically assassinating their leaders.” He said that the state would provide accompaniment and maintain a permanent presence in those 10 municipalities.

The Interior Minister said that the government is particularly committed to the Cauca department. “For us, Cauca is a huge priority… If we achieve integral and total peace in Cauca, I have no doubt that we can dream of having total peace in Colombia,” said Prada.

Prada explained that instructions had been given to the institutions that have powers related to the protection of the lives of social leaders, land defenders, environmentalists, community leaders, peace signatories, land restitution managers, and those who work in crop substitution.

Prada added that the government had already ordered the local authorities to comply with the early warnings issued by the Ombudsman’s Office, especially for the municipalities of Caldono, Buenos Aires and Santander de Quilichao, in Cauca. He also said that the government would strengthen the National Protection Unit (UNP).

For her part, Environment Minister Muhamad stressed that this plan recognizes land defenders as people who make a positive, important and legitimate contribution to the protection of nature and promotion of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Muhamad assured that with the beginning of the plan, the implementation of the Escazú Agreement also begins, pending its ratification by the House of Representatives.

With regard to illegal paramilitary groups, Senator Barreras said that dialogues are the only way that allows peace. “The government and the congress have every desire to allow them to reintegrate into society and these command posts for life are spaces for dialogue and listening, the message that we are sending them is that they take advantage of the opportunity to lay down their arms so that they can join the life of Colombia,” said Barreras.

On August 19, the Ombudsman’s Office released a report in which it reported that between January 1 and July 31, 122 social leaders and human rights defenders had been assassinated in different departments of the country. It also reported that Cauca with 19 assassinations, Nariño with 17, Antioquia with 12, and Putumayo with 11, are the departments with the highest number of cases.

According to the Colombian human rights organization Institute of Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ), between January 1 and August 20, 119 environmentalists, land defenders, human rights defenders, Afro-descendent, Indigenous, peasant and social leaders had been killed by illegal armed and drug-trafficking groups operating in the country. Additionally, during this period, 32 ex-combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who were in the reincorporation process, had also been murdered.

Petro and Márquez, during their election campaign, vowed to fight drug trafficking and paramilitarism, and consolidate peace in the country. The day following their inauguration, on August 8, in the first press conference to local media, Petro confirmed the resumption of negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest leftist guerrilla group active in Colombia. On August 11, a delegation of the Colombian government, headed by Foreign Minister Álvaro Leyva Durán, visited Cuba to establish contact with the leadership of the ELN in order to advance towards peace negotiations. On August 20, President Petro announced that in order to further advance in the dialogue with the ELN, the arrest and extradition orders against the members of the insurgency group were suspended. At the same time, he confirmed the restitution of the negotiation protocols with the ELN that had been signed with the government of former president Juan Manuel Santos.