Dozens of activists are being murdered in Colombia—and it's threatening the country's fragile peace

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Medellin, COLOMBIA — On the morning of January 10, a group of heavily armed men in an SUV abducted Jose Yilmer Cartagena from a market in El Cerro, a village in northwest Colombia.

The next day his lifeless body was found on a country road with grisly signs of torture. He had more than 32 stab wounds, his throat was sliced in four places, and his tongue had been cut into pieces.

Cartagena was the vice president of an organization seeking land restitution for peasants who lost their property during Colombia´s civil war. He was also a member of the leftist political party Marcha Patriotica (or Patriotic March).


Now his voice has been silenced. So have the voices of at least 40 other activists who have been murdered since Colombia signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) last November.

Guerilla leaders and human rights organizations are attributing these killings to right-wing paramilitary groups. They say that the murders of these activists could destabilize, and even destroy, the peace deal, which took four long years to finalize.


“They are killing leaders who are supposed to implement the peace deal in their regions,” Leon Fredy Muñoz, director of Fenalpaz, an NGO that partners with rural organizations, told me. “They’re also sending a clear message they will try to kill anyone who gets in their way.”

According to Muñoz's organization, many of the activists who have been murdered in Colombia have been working on issues like land reform or environmental protection. Their work often pits them against local and multinational companies that are trying to develop infrastructure projects or large agro-business projects in the countryside.


Activists like Cartagena have also been working to ensure that the government implements provisions in the peace deal that promises to return land to people who had to flee the countryside during the war.

Human rights defenders say the paramilitaries are killing activists in order to keep people off the land and develop their own, illegal enterprises, including gold mining and coca fields.


“In Colombia, we have the curse of being rich in natural resources and the efforts to control them have led to violence, displacement and blood,” Daisy Herrera, an organizer with community land and water rights group Agua Viva, told me.

Herrera and her colleague Angela Moreno said they'd received death threats after they tried to stop a hydroelectric project near the town of San Carlos, just a few hours away from Medellin.


“I was walking home with my two daughters and as I opened the front door two men in a motorcycle sped towards us," Moreno said. "The men told me to stop snitching or I would end up like my brothers."

Her three brothers were murdered by militias several years ago.

Muñoz, from Fenalpaz, said that the death threats and the murders could have a two-pronged effect on the peace process with the FARC.


First of all, he argued, the murders could be interpreted by the guerrillas as a sign that leftist politics will still be met with an armed response. That might encourage some guerrillas to desert the government-run transition camps where they are currently living, and preparing to give up their guns.

Secondly, he said, the murders could prompt a new wave of armed struggle from the people being targeted.


“What else can people do?” Muñoz said.

The Colombian government argues that the armed groups now roaming the countryside are drug traffickers with no political agenda. And it says it is investing resources and manpower to dismantle them.


But the FARC and left-wing groups insist that these bands are the successors of right-wing groups from the 1990s and early 2000s that defended the the interests of large landowners and mining corporations. The FARC leadership has described them as “the main obstacle” to peace in Colombia.

Leon Muñoz has no doubt that political violence still exists in Colombia. He's survived six assassination attempts over the past four years.


The last came just five months ago, when a group of armed men chased and shot at his SUV. “Had the car not been bulletproof, I would’ve been killed,” he said.

Muñoz is worried that as the FARC withdraw to the camps to transition to civilian life, paramilitary groups will occupy areas of the countryside previously controlled by the guerrillas, pushing out activists and small farmers.


Still, he said that he'll continue to go about his work, denouncing killings like that of Jose Cartagena.

“They’ve taken so much from us that they took away fear as well,” he said. “I think it’s better to live and die for something than for nothing.”


Luis Gallo is a journalist and radio producer based in New York and Bogotá, Colombia.