BOGOTA — It happens again and again in Colombia. Community leaders and activists are murdered, often having received death threats beforehand. And in each case, we ask ourselves afterwards if there was some way the person could have been protected. Why, if they'd already been threatened, didn't they have bodyguards?

Since the government signed its Peace Accord in 2016 with the now disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), there has been a marked increase in such killings. In that span, the Defensoría del Pueblo, Colombia's national ombudsman's office, has so far counted 562 murders of community advocates.

In addition, more than 3,600 activists currently receive some kind of protection from the state: in some cases a bullet-proof jacket, armored car and two bodyguards; in others a phone with a panic button. But according to some of the most affected groups, the best form of protection comes from within the communities themselves. Collective protection, they say, works better than whatever kind of security measures the state can provide.

In the northern part of the Cauca department, increasing violence and the arrival, early this century, of paramilitaries, prompted residents to organize a Guardia Indígena, a unit of unarmed indigenous guards that recruits locals to defend the community and serve as "carers of life and the territory," as they're known in the area's native language.

With an increase in paramilitary violence, the guard increasingly took on humanitarian tasks, serving as peacemakers and helping dispense indigenous justice. After 2007, the communities also faced pressure from the FARC. These days, the guardians are facing a new wave of violence as armed men seek to block its work and progress.

Edwin Mauricio Capaz, human rights coordinator for the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, or ACIN, in Spanish, points out that last year, nine native guard members were killed. "The guard's strategy, once the FARC left its territories, was to fill those spaces," he explains. "The communities ordered the removal of armed actors from ancestral zones. That immediately led to an explosion of different armed parties accusing guardsmen of working for military intelligence or rival armed gangs."

As the Indigenous Guard is civil in nature and armed with nothing but canes or poles, many of its leaders have lately required armed protection, though inside native territory the aim is to employ only the unarmed guardians to keep the peace, so that communities can live in a space that's gun free.

Currently, some 2,000 guards check movements in and out of communities and patrol the main highways. The overall idea is to continue developing a self-protection strategy in keeping with the local and national context.

"The guard also seeks out armed actors, both legal and illegal ones, to demand that they respect the autonomy and harmony of our territories," explains ACIN's Capaz.

Another group based in the northern part of the Cauca department, in its western mountain range, is the Guardía Cimarrona (Maroon Guard), a traditional Afro-Colombian body. The Maroons have some 2,000 guard members and are a renewal of a traditional body originally from the northern district of San Basilio de Palenque. Its revival began in August 2013 at the Congress of Black Peoples held in Quibdó, in Chocó department.

One Black community leader, Javier Antonio Peña, said Maroon guardians escort local leaders and advocates to meetings with Black communities or to government premises, check the identities of those attending community assemblies and patrol rural roads.

We maintain neutrality to avoid any misunderstanding.

In some central and southern parts of the Cauca department, peasants have replicated this model of communal security as well. The Organization for Urban and Peasant Development — ORDEURCA, for short — has 200 guard members in six districts. The guards are tasked with patrolling and checking on security by sectors, and ensuring local communities are not destabilized.

"The Peasant Guard is neither police nor allied to any armed group," says Wálter Quiñónez, an ORDEURCA spokesperson. "We maintain neutrality to avoid any misunderstanding. We are a body of guards to protect community leaders, keep peace in the territory and safeguard human rights."

While the peasant and Afro-Colombian initiatives follow the model of the Indigenous Guard, each community has adapted things to its particular, organizational structures. Today the three communities are working together to ensure the government will address their age-old request for help in protecting the communities, but without the use of weapons.

The Ombudsman's office has identified the first half of 2020 as a particularly violent period with regards to attacks on activists and community leaders. In 2016, there were 33 such murders. This year, just between the months of January and June, there were nearly three times as many (91), with another 51 cases undergoing verification, the office reports.


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