By Danelly Estupiñán, a human rights defender with the Process of Black Communities (PCN) in Buenaventura, Colombia
For many people, the quarantine is the first time their in lives that they have had their movement restricted. But for four years now I haven’t been able to walk to the store in my neighbourhood alone because if I do I fear they will kill me. I can’t go to the countryside or go out to have fun, because that would mean risking my life.
For the social leaders living under threat in Colombia, this has been our reality for years. Because of our dedication to defending the lives of all people, we cannot enjoy our own. We are locked inside, moving from house to house to hide and only going out for basic necessities. However, in the current context, being at home 24 hours a day is a death sentence because the gunmen know where to find us. We are now an even easier target for those who want to silence us.
There has been no reduction in the systematic violence we face, despite the pandemic. More than 100 social leaders and human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia so far in 2020, at least 28 of them since the 25 March decree imposing a mandatory quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In the past few years, I have been the target of death threats, constant surveillance and raids. I have been photographed in the street and last year I had to leave the country for a while when a plot to kill me came to light. I believe the violence I experience is linked to my work defending the territory and collective rights of the Afro-descendent communities of Buenaventura and the complaints I have made at local, national and international levels about the negative impact of the expansion of the port in the city.
A few months before the pandemic, I had to leave the place where I was living because we realized I was being watched and my safety was at risk. As a result, I’ve had to stay in a city that is not my own during quarantine. Being in a place where I don’t know anyone creates uncertainty and a great deal of anxiety. I don’t feel at ease; I’m still very concerned about my situation and that of other social leaders who are also very vulnerable in their territories.
Our enemies are still killing us and it’s not difficult for them during the pandemic because we are all at home, complying with the mandatory quarantine which means nobody can move. But it seems that the people who want to silence us are moving around without any problem. We are seeing a pattern whereby illegal armed groups come to social leaders’ homes and kill them in front of their families. In some cases, they kill their relatives as well.
In addition, communities have begun to see armed groups handing out leaflets to threaten people, saying that they’re killing those who do not comply with the quarantine or who allegedly have COVID-19. They’re accusing social leaders of not complying with the quarantine in order to divert attention from the real political motive for the killings. It’s as if they now have a public health reason for killing us. In March, for example, the leader Yina Paola Sánchez Rodríguez reported that armed groups had declared her a military target for allegedly infecting members of her community in the municipality of Montelíbano, Córdoba. The leader, who insisted she was in perfect health, had to flee the territory because of the threats.
Unfortunately, being a social leader has become one of the most dangerous jobs in Colombia today. This situation not only endangers our lives, but also the democratic and participatory system in the country because we play an important role in the exercise of governance and promoting and defending the right to participate, as well as in promoting constitutional rights and defending human rights.
But instead of recognizing the importance of our work and seeing an opportunity for collaboration, the government has turned its back on us and keeps us under surveillance, as if we were a threat to the system, and treats us like criminals. We have no connection with armed groups, but they try to link us to them, creating judicial “false positives”. The only weapon we use is our voice and our desire to contribute to the realization of the collective aspirations of our communities. We’re only defending our rights and we’re deeply concerned that in Colombia our work is treated as if it were a crime.
The government must take urgent and decisive measures to guarantee our security and carry out a campaign of non-stigmatization of the work of social leaders. People must realize that every time they buy food in a supermarket, they are directly benefiting from our struggle. It is members of ethnic minority communities who are being killed to protect the collective rights to land and territory, but all the people of Colombia enjoy the fruits of our territories, thanks to our blood.
We cannot carry on drowning in an ocean of impunity. Every day brings new threats and attacks and the risks we face intensify. The protection measures implemented by the state don’t mitigate the dangers and the authorities don’t solve cases or follow up our complaints properly. It seems that the people who commit these crimes that violate our rights to life and to freedom of expression, participation and organization are untouchable, both in Buenaventura and in other strategic territories in the country.
The Colombian authorities also have an obligation to guarantee our access to justice. They must establish who is behind the violence we face and their connection to the political role that social leaders play. Who is disturbed or who might be harmed by the work we do to defend our territories and human rights? Who benefits from our deaths?