Since his demobilization in 2017, former rebel fighter Manuel Antonio Gonzalez has faced numerous death threats and lost his son in a bloody murder.
A member of the now defunct rebel group of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which signed a peace deal with the government of Juan Manuel Santos in 2016, Gonzalez, 54, lives in concern, not just for his own life, but for the thousands of other veterans who signed the agreement alongside him.
The FARC, which has been accused of serious war crimes, handed over more than 7,000 weapons to a UN peacekeeping mission in 2017, ending a five-decade conflict that left 260,000 dead.
Since the agreement, 253 ex-combatants have been killed, according to figures compiled by the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ). We don’t know who the perpetrators are.
The current right-wing government of President Ivan Duque Marquez – which came to power in 2018 – has fought unsuccessfully to change the peace deal’s lenient sanctions for former FARC combatants.
He blames dissident groups and drug gangs for the killings, while ex-combatants blame state actors and paramilitary groups.
“They’ve already killed four of them this year, that’s very worrying,” said Gonzalez, who joined the rebel group in 1991, he said, out of necessity when paramilitary groups took control of the area where he lived.
Gonzalez is now based in Medellin and works as a coordinator for the FARC political party. He frequently visits the various former rebel communities in the Antioquia region, where he says 27 have been killed.
“We always knew that peace was not going to be easy, that it would be a struggle,” he told Al Jazeera. “When we signed up, we never imagined something like this would happen… that they would start killing us.”
Gonzalez’s 31-year-old son, who was in the FARC next to him, was killed in December 2019. His body was found at the side of a road, riddled with bullets.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reiterated its call for greater attention to security concerns affecting former rebels and human rights activists killed in rural areas in a report (PDF) released this month.
Who is responsible?
One of the biggest challenges is identifying those responsible for the killings.
Tatiana Pradas, a researcher at the Bogota-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), says when the FARC left rural areas four years ago, the government failed to take control and implement place security measures.
“There are many areas facing very complex security issues, with conflicts between various armed groups, some of them well known, like the ELN (National Liberation Army), others are dissident groups, and others which are much more informal with drug trafficking structures. , and other groups that operate even without a name, which may not have any political ties, but more linked to illegal activities, ”she told Al Jazeera.
“It’s really difficult to attribute the murder of an ex-combatant to one specific group.”
A government official has dismissed claims that there was little impunity for the killings of former FARC members, saying that 50.2% of the 291 cases investigated were ‘suspected’ perpetrators .
Emilio Archilla, the presidential advisor for stabilization and consolidation, said the delays in the prosecution are due to the fact that the cases “are very complicated”.
He said the military was constantly fighting criminal elements who the government says are responsible for the deaths of ex-combatants, but have not been able to name specific groups.
Archila told Al Jazeera that the government has continuously provided security in the reintegration camps where ex-combatants live, “which ensures that there are no killings inside them”, and that there are plans to strengthen protection in the camps.
However, there have been at least three isolated cases of ex-combatants killed on the grounds of reintegration camps, according to the FIP.
Camps differ nationally in their security protocols. Some have police and military forces based on or near the site, while others are less protected.
Vladimir Rodríguez Valencia, senior advisor for victims’ rights, peace and reconciliation in the district of Bogota, said if there was more political will, the government could identify the perpetrators.
“There are territories in Colombia ruled by economic interests, with mafias who mainly use violence as a mechanism to gain territorial control. If the lack of resolve continues on behalf of the government to strengthen peace in rural Colombia, threats and killings will continue, ”he said.
Rodríguez says the justice system, prosecution and government must speed up their investigations.
“We cannot afford to go back on a deal that meant the demobilization of the continent’s oldest guerrilla group by allowing the continued killings and threats against those men and women who left their guns behind to engage in a democracy.
At the Pondores reintegration camp in Colombia’s arid northern La Guajira region near the Venezuelan border, Ricardo Bolaños, 66, says ex-combatants in the region are under constant threat.
“The worry got so much worse over the Christmas season that many left and went to other areas and for those of us who are here we are protecting ourselves by not leaving here and staying isolated.
Bolaños says security concerns mean that ex-combatants are hardly leaving reintegration camps yet.
“What we heard aroused a lot of fear and concern. Here on the coast, four comrades were murdered. One woman and three men, ”he told Al Jazeera.
One of the most recent murders was that of two women aged 17 and 22 on January 1, as they left a New Years Eve party in the Antioquia region.
They were sisters and one had been part of the armed group. Three other former FARC members have since been killed in different parts of Colombia.
And some ex-combatants who have decided to live independently from the communal reintegration camps are also threatened. Álvaro Guazá, also known as Kunta Kinte, is one of them.
“The reintegration was very difficult. You could even say it was a failure… our people have been killed, displaced and threatened, ”said Guazá, from an unknown location somewhere in the Valle del Cauca region in western Colombia. He refused to identify where he lives for his safety.
“The current government will continue to treat us like guerrillas and not like people in a reintegration process. They will continue to see us as their enemies.
In August 2019, some demobilized FARC leaders heralded a new era of FARC and a return to arms.
“We have to ask ourselves why these ex-combatants returned to arms? They saw no commitment from the government! Said Guazá.
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a human rights defender in the Washington office on Latin America, says the safety of demobilized fighters is not a priority for the Duque administration.
“He [the government] is more concerned with how it appears to the international community than with what it has actually done, or with the way things are really going inside the country in terms of peace, ”she said. declared.
But veterans like Bolaños and Gonzalez hold firm to their hopes for a fairer and more peaceful Colombia.
“I’m still very optimistic despite everything at the moment. I will continue to move forward with peace, because this is what Colombia needs, ”said Gonzalez.
“I think if there is a change of government … I am not saying that we need to put in place a revolutionary president, but just a president who at least promises to advance peace and who is ready to resume talks. with other groups, so that there is real peace, one with social justice.