BOGOTA — There has been an alarming spike in targeted killings of activists since the decades-long war between the state and FARC guerilla force finally came to an end. Cases are particularly prevalent in territories formerly controlled by the FARC.

Since the peace accords were signed in 2016, nearly 180 social, community and indigenous leaders have been murdered, according to Colonel José Restrepo, head of the police protection unit for community leaders. Of those, 98 were killed between January and May of this year. And in the span of just a few weeks, starting in June, another 24 people were assassinated, including a campaign organizer for the defeated socialist presidential candidate, Gustavo Petro, in the northern district of Cáceres.

The National Director of Regional Attorneys (Fiscalías Seccionales), Luis González León, told this newspaper that social leaders were being killed by the Gulf Clan (a criminal network), dissident members of the FARC, and the ELN, the country's remaining leftist guerrilla army. He put particular blame on the ELN for killings in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó.

ELN spokespeople, in turn, say the state is to blame — for its inability to defend people, and for criminalizing the victims. The group, which is in peace talks with the government, declared that González León's statements "are at the very least irresponsible and constitute a smokescreen to hide those really responsible for these murders."

The targeted victims tend to represent relatively powerless groups.

A recent study by the Bogota-based University of Rosario and Columbia University, in New York, establishes rigorously that killings of social leaders have increased in places where the FARC began demobilizing and in special zones where they were gathered. The average number of targeted killings per six-month period rose from 30 to 40 in recent months, and shows no signs of slowing down, researchers found.

The study explains that civilians play an important role in civil wars: They share information, provide resources and services and new recruits. Armed groups fighting over territory are exercising selective violence to gain allies and collaboration, avoid desertions, mobilize communities on their side and increase their military might. Winning the cooperation of local populations is thus a tactical objective of armed groups, the study states.

Peace processes like Colombia's can have unintended effects if they create a power vacuum that the state fails to fill. Partial pacification exacerbates violence by other armed groups seeking to control the pacified territories. The study argues, furthermore, that these killings undermine the legitimacy of the Peace Accord — and are thus in line with the political interests of certain sectors.

The targeted victims, on the other hand, tend to represent relatively powerless groups such as natives, the gay/lesbian community, campesinos (agrarian workers) and environmentalists opposed to mining and big public works. Control over drug crops is crucial here.

Apparently, those doing the killings are paramilitary outfits that have transformed into purely criminal gangs like the Gulf Clan, FARC dissidents, and members of the ELN who want to move into territories abandoned by the state. All of them are trying to replace community leaders and organizers with new ones loyal to their interests. Making matters worse are the politicians who fish in murky waters and stoke violence with their incendiary discourse.

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