Ceasefire call to armed groups during coronavirus

By Steve Hide March 23, 2020

Community leaders and journalists are at an increased risk during Colombia’s curfews and quarantines, say humanitarians.

Civil organisations are calling on Colombia’s illegal armed groups such as the ELN and Autodefensas Gaitanistas to “stop military action” during the coronavirus pandemic which has now spread to 16 departments of the country.

“The emergency situation deserves our focus as a country and as a society to take on this challenge,” said the communication penned by a wide range of humanitarian groups working on the conflict front line, such as the Campaña Colombia Contra Minas and Fundación Paz y Reconciliación.

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The cease-fire plea comes as four social leaders have been assassinated during the first half of March, all by armed men with military-style weapons but in four distinct parts of the country.

Meanwhile Colombia’s press freedom body FLIP – Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa – has called for urgent state protection for investigative journalists in “immediate risk of assassination” after uncovering high-level corruption.

Colombia’s foundation for the press has called for urgent protection for these investigative journalists under threat for uncovering high-level corruption. Photo: FLIP

According to FLIP, mafia-style armed groups with political connections are plotting to murder reporters behind the startling ‘ñeñepolítica’ scandal that implicated elements of ruling Centro Democratico party to known mafia figures and vote-rigging schemes.

“Criminal groups have been meeting to plan the killings of journalists uncovering the ñeñe political scandal,” FLIP announced on its website.

The revelations cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the current government even while the country’s news media has been massively distracted by the coronavirus crisis.

Some commentators are worried that threats and killings by assassins working to a political agenda could go under the radar while the world’s media is looking the other way.

A country-wide lock-down could also facilitate murders as illegal armed groups move among civil populations confined by quarantines.

“The media agenda is bit by bit being submerged by the outbreak which creates collective panic and leaves us isolated,” commented El Espectador newspaper in response to the recent deaths of  prominent social leaders.

So far in 2020 the plague of violence against community leaders in Colombia has shown no sign of abating. According to think tank INDEPAZ, in the first 10 weeks of 2020, some 57 community leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered by armed groups, and another 10 former FARC guerrillas involved in the peace process.

Social leader killings in Colombia

Last week’s threats against four journalists came after their investigations cast a shadow on former president Álvaro Uribe, now the subject of a Supreme Court probe into an alleged conspiracy to commit election fraud with drug money launderer Jose Guillermo Hernandez, a.k.a. “El Ñeñe”.

Hernandez was killed last month in suspicious circumstances while in Brazil.

Four of the journalists under threat include veteran investigative reporter Gonzalo Guillén, who founded Colombia’s press association Colprensa, as well as with Julián Martínez, Diana López and Daniel Mendoza, and twitter user Beto Coral.  

According to social media messages by Guillén, the threats originate from the Águilas Negras, a shadowy armed group often implicated in threats against social leaders.    

This week the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) added its voice to calls to protect the journalists currently under threat.

“We call on the state to evaluate the death threats…and establish adequate protection measures,” said Edison Lanza, special rapporteur for freedom of expression for IAHCR in Colombia. According to FLIP, the state has not yet responded with protection measures.   Meanwhile the country’s media is on the alert for what El Espectador calls “killings hidden by the coronavirus plague”.