Colombia Persecuted Leaders

Escorted by a government-assigned bodyguard, community leader Luz Nelly Santana, arrives for a meeting with other leaders who like her have had their lives threatened by illegal armed groups in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Santana survived a 1994 massacre where 35 people died when guerrillas attacked a street party organized by another leftist faction that was trying to abandon arms and embrace above-ground politics. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Just taking a walk in the streets of Colombia’s capital can feel dangerous for Luz Nelly Santana.

The Afro-Colombian community leader sometimes she uses a hat or a turban for disguise. She always wears a bulletproof vest. And she’s followed by a bodyguard assigned by the government.

“I get death threats on the phone every month,” Santana said, “and once a man entered my office and said he was going to kill me.”

Santana, who runs an organization that helps community leaders fleeing violence to settle in Bogota, is one of more than 3,700 activists given some sort of protection from Colombia’s government.

The country is widely seen as one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a community leader or advocate for human rights or environmental issues. Last year 120 community leaders were murdered in Colombia according to the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, up from 107 a year earlier.

Decades of bloody civil conflict involving government forces, leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries linked to landowners and powerful drug trafficking groups have created an atmosphere in which many factions feel little hesitation at trying to kill or intimate those who oppose them.

Activists are often targeted for denouncing or being seen to interfere with drug trafficking or illegal logging or mining, or for trying to protect communities confronting armed gangs.

Santana survived a 1994 massacre in which active guerrillas attacked a street party organized by another leftist faction that was trying to abandon arms and embrace above-ground politics. She and her daughter huddled at home as 35 people were being killed outside, and decided to flee to the capital where she has lived ever since.

Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office says most of the attacks in recent years on community leaders have come from drug trafficking groups like the Gulf Clan and elements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that broke off from the guerrilla group after it demobilized following a 2016 peace deal with Colombia’s government.

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