Colombia sees surge in mass killings despite historic peace deal

By Julie Turkewitz

They were 20-somethings at a party after months of pandemic-related quarantine.

Then the shots rang out, and soon eight of them were dead.

“Peace was our dream,” said Jesús Quintero, whose son John Sebastian died after gunmen opened fire in their small town, Samaniego, a mountain-fringed community trapped between warring criminal groups. “But nothing has changed.”

Four years after ending the longest-running war in the Americas with a historic peace deal that was celebrated around the world, Colombia is experiencing a distressing surge in mass violence.

The United Nations has documented at least 33 massacres this year, up from 11 in all of 2017, the year after the accord was signed, with at least a dozen more since the United Nations announced its last official count, in mid-August.

The peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ended five decades of war that had left thousands dead and displaced an estimated 6 million people. It earned then-president, Juan Manuel Santos, a Nobel Peace Prize and was viewed as the country’s biggest shot at a radically different future.

But the surge has left many disenchanted with the peace process and concerned that this escalation could further destabilize the countryside, tipping Colombia into more widespread violence and dashing many of the dreams that emerged in the days after the accord.

“This moment is really, really dangerous,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a Colombia-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. “The history in Colombia is, when you start a wave of violence, it accelerates, and it’s very hard to stop.”

In recent days, Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, erupted in violent protest after a man who was subdued by police and repeatedly shocked with a stun gun died in custody. The images, caught on video, drew thousands to the streets in demonstrations that left at least 10 dead and hundreds of people injured. The cause of those deaths is under investigation.

But many say that at the heart of the outpouring is a deeper frustration with the pace of change.

“The last government tried to end the war, and it didn’t work,” said Eliana Garzón, 31, whose brother-in-law, Javier Ordóñez, was the man killed by police.

“This is a country that is fed up,” she went on. “His death was the perfect excuse to head to the streets.”

The attacks in the countryside are widely considered to be an ugly byproduct of the peace deal. After the accord, thousands of fighters laid down their arms and agreed to testify before a tribunal in exchange for government aid.

But as the FARC pulled out of vast swaths of the country, other groups — some old, some new — moved in.

Now these groups are fighting over territory in an effort to control not only the country’s longtime scourge — the coca crop used to make cocaine often sent to customers in the United States — but also drug routes, illegal mining and human trafficking. They are also fighting over who can extort from everyday people.

Many of the same communities that suffered during the war between the FARC and the government are caught in the conflict, with criminal groups using killings as a preferred method of terror.

And in the last month the pace of the killings has accelerated, with a massacre taking place on average every two days, according to the human rights group Indepaz, which tracks the killings.

Both Indepaz and the United Nations define a massacre as a killing with three or more victims.

In Colombia, massacres have long served either as a retaliatory measure to punish people for working or appearing to work with a rival, or as an intimidation tool to keep entire towns in line.

Samaniego, where Quintero’s son was killed, sits in the country’s lush southwest, in a coca-growing region controlled by a long-standing guerrilla group called the ELN, according to the government. Quintero, 55, is the teaching coordinator at a local school.

His son, known as Sebas, 24, grew up in Samaniego and was a university student and aspiring engineer who had a particularly close relationship with his niece, a toddler.

“He was an excellent human being,” Quintero said.

In recent months, a wing of FARC defectors had tried to gain power in the region. But the government suspects that a small-time gang, the Cuyes, working with permission of the ELN, was responsible for his son’s death.

The Cuyes appeared to have instituted a curfew to make their criminal dealings easier and may have been angered that they had been disobeyed, said the country’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos.

“Why did they do it?” he said. “To show strength. And to try to say that they control that region.”

The government of President Iván Duque, a conservative whose party vociferously opposed the peace deal, calling it too easy on the FARC, has condemned the spate of mass killings while also playing down the recent surge.

Ceballos, who was appointed by Duque, highlighted that there are now far fewer mass killings each year when compared with the years before the accord.

“The number of massacres has decreased,” he said. “This is good news.”

And overall, he noted, homicides have gone down amid the pandemic.

Duque’s critics, however, have accused him of failing to fully fund many of the programs written into the deal that were meant to address the economic and security problems that keep the criminal groups in business.

Many coca farmers, for example, had hoped to join a substitution program that would help them shift from coca to legal crops. But only a limited number of families have been included in the program, while violent groups only seem to multiply around them.

Ceballos called the criticism unfair, saying the president, who came into office in 2018, has worked aggressively to fund the peace-building programs. And he cited the country’s mountainous terrain, the world’s voracious appetite for cocaine and the slippery nature of criminal groups as major challenges.

“It is not easy to protect the whole population,” he said.

“Give the man a chance,” he went on, speaking of Duque. “We cannot undo 56 years of war in just two years.”

But Wilder Acosta, the leader of a coca growers’ association near the border with Venezuela, is impatient. “Every day the conflict sharpens,” he said.

Eight growers were killed recently in his area, he said, in the town of Totumito, pushing about 300 families to flee the region, many carrying children and suitcases.

In those murders, police have accused yet another group, the Rastrojos, which is battling the ELN for territory. Acosta faulted the government for failing to protect his community.

“When the FARC was in power,” he said, “there was a law, and there was order in our communities. Now that the FARC has disarmed, there is a chaos that we don’t understand.”