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In 2016, the historic agreement between rebel forces and the government was supposed to end five decades of war. But it also created a power vacuum where militias, assassins and drug cartels are threatening locals’ lives. Stephanie Nolen reports

Norberto Ul holds a photograph of his father, Marcos Ul, in the family home in the rural area of Caloto, Colombia. The elder Mr. Ul, a member of the Nasa Indigenous Guard, was assassinated in late January. A peace deal between the government and the FARC led guerrillas to abandon their weapons, but new armed groups are competing to dominate the former FARC-held territory.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

Fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, began to gather near here and hand over their weapons to the United Nations back in January, 2017. For decades the guerrillas were the ruling power in this green valley in southwest Colombia, and people here, the civilians who were caught in the middle of the FARC’s brutal war with the Colombian state, will tell you they watched them disarm with hope. Hope, and flickering optimism – and no small amount of dread. The FARC were going, but who would replace them?

Of all of those feelings, the dread turns out to have been the most prescient.

“We thought there would be peace – but it’s worse here now,” said Manuel Ul.

Mr. Ul’s cousin, Marcos, was assassinated in late January – shot point-blank in a crowded tavern on a Sunday afternoon in the nearby town of El Palo. The criminal-for-hire who shot him has been identified, but not arrested – and the family has no idea who ordered the killing, or why, Mr. Ul said.

It’s like that, here, these days: The war has ended and the guerrillas have abandoned their weapons. But instead of a new era of peace, there are armed groups all around, battling for control of the territory and the business once held by the FARC. Those groups include other leftist guerrillas; bands of dissident FARC; right-wing paramilitaries; and, perhaps most ominously, a range of non-ideological groups, including Mexican and Brazilian drug cartels. There are death threats for community leaders every few days, and killings, like Marcos Ul’s, every week. On Sunday, right-wing candidate Ivan Duque won the election to become Colombia’s new president; he is a critic of the peace deal, who has offered no plans to reduce the violence in these areas.

Mr. Ul was a campesino – a subsistence farmer – and a member of the Nasa Indigenous Guard, the de facto security force for the largest group of First Nations people in this area. Even before the war ended, the Guard had violent confrontations with paramilitaries hired by sugar-cane plantation owners, whose farms line the bottom of the valley on land the Nasa people claim as their own. Members of the Guard frequently receive death threats these days. And, since the peace deal, Mr. Ul was also a critic of neighbours who grew coca and marijuana on their small farms and sold it to narco-traffickers, his cousin said. So the narcos might have ordered his death.

But he was a mild-mannered father of six, not a particularly prominent figure in the community. So maybe this was just a killing of convenience – one more broad-daylight murder intended to terrorize the Nasa and others who live in the valley. His execution may have been intended to remind his community that the state cannot or will not protect them (there was a military battalion and a police post less than half a kilometre from where he was killed) and that powerful interests are battling to become the new authority here.

“Before, we knew the conflict and who they were – who’s pursuing us,” said Manuel Ul, 52. “Before, it was paramilitaries or the rebels. Now, there are 12 groups and you don’t know where the bullets are coming from. This killing – we don’t know why they did it.”

Manuel Ul, left, sits at the family home with Marcos Ul’s widow, Elvia Tenoric, second from left, as well as her son and other family members.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

On a recent afternoon, sitting sheltered from a light rain on the porch of Marcos’s small cement-block house, Mr. Ul spoke quietly and at length about his family’s fear. His cousin’s widow, Elvia Tenoric, sat listening nearby, while tears ran down her cheeks. Beside her was her son Norberto, 28, who was with his father when he was killed.

They explained that, of course, the situation is complicated; no one here is nostalgic for the war. They lived through aerial bombardments by the army, and night raids by the FARC, who swept through in search of supplies – and sometimes children to fight with them. But that was war, and this is, supposedly, peace. Yet still their leaders are dying, and the new landscape is chaotic. It’s not just the murders; they also mourn their expectations.

While his community neither liked nor trusted the FARC, they were a known quantity, Mr. Ul said, with a clear ideology and a leadership structure the Nasa could appeal to – if, for example, there was fighting too near a school. “It was clear that we weren’t aligned with a group and we were the territorial authority here, and they respected that. These ones have no respect and will come and kill you.”

Marcos Ul was the 15th “social leader,” as they are called here – a group that includes human-rights defenders, environmental activists, proponents of the peace deal – to be murdered in Colombia this year. Ninety-one more have been killed in the weeks since his death, according to the records kept by the human rights organization Somos Defensores, or We are Defenders. Such leaders were always targets for violence during the war – but they are no safer in peace. In 2017, the first full year after the peace agreement was signed, Colombia’s homicide rate fell to its lowest level in 30 years – but the rate of killings of these community leaders spiked, to 173. That was more than double the number of such killings the year before, and the number is set to be considerably higher this year, according to the United Nations.

Exactly as people in the valley feared, the departure of the FARC created a vacuum that a great many interests are fighting to fill. And the state, despite all the warnings, has largely left them to it.

  • Colombian police officers keep watch in Corinto, a town in the Cauca region of Colombia. The nation's homicide rate fell after the peace deal with FARC rebels, but the number of targeted killings of community leaders has risen sharply.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

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Implementation of the peace deal with the FARC has been slow, caught up in congressional delays and red tape – but has had some key successes. Nearly all 12,800 fighters demobilized and handed over their weapons, and are in the process of reintegrating into civilian life. Most have been granted an amnesty, and FARC leaders will be tried by a special tribunal that will soon begin hearings. The FARC competed in national elections as a political party in March and appears largely to have gotten out of the narco-trafficking business that fuelled its guerrilla operation. Large swaths of country have been rid of landmines.

But the grisly string of murders of leaders from Colombia’s most marginalized communities is emblematic of the ways the peace process is failing. The agreement was built on a commitment to rural development and land redistribution, and the provision of state services in the most neglected areas – to addressing inequities that, for decades, helped to fuel support for the FARC and other leftist groups. Both sides agreed that a rapid movement of the state into FARC-controlled regions would be key for success.

It didn’t happen. “The FARC had a large physical presence here, places where the state couldn’t go – but the FARC left and the state still didn’t come here,” said Edwin Capaz, 32, the human-rights co-ordinator for the regional association of Indigenous councils.

Edwin Capaz, human-rights co-ordinator for the regional association of Indigenous councils.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

Rodrigo Rivera, the government’s Commissioner for Peace, who oversees the implementation of the deal, said the very success of the process – how swiftly and thoroughly the FARC was disarmed – is now working against it due to the resulting vacuum. And he said the government is responding, with the largest military deployment on the continent, some 80,000 soldiers and national police-force members deployed to former FARC-controlled regions.

“But they cannot go there with the same practices of FARC: They have to go there with the rule of law,” he said in an interview in Bogota. “They cannot go there killing people or abusing people. The way to apply democratic institutions in those places is very different to the way that FARC used to exercise their authority there. So we have an institutional challenge and it’s going to take time.”

Carlos Guevara, a co-ordinator at Somos Defensores, said the murders of activists and leaders are a direct result of state failure to act on an entirely predictable problem – and he does not expect the situation to improve, despite Mr. Rivera’s pledges. Many of the murders, he said, are hits carried out by a local thug (as Mr. Ul’s was) but authorized by someone politically powerful: the owners of plantations or the heads of illegal gold-mining businesses, or corrupt police in league with drug traffickers. That means the crimes don’t get investigated, and instead are chalked up to personal disputes and “blamed on financial or romantic problems.”

The goal of the killings is clear, he said: “They’re attacking local leaders from the base – it shatters the community, creates fear, and sends the message to others to withdraw – the point is to shatter solidarity.” More men than women have been killed, but women are frequently subjected to brutal torture and sexual violence before they are killed, he said. “They want to kill hope.”

The graffiti on this wall in Toribio, above the valley, names the guerrilla forces of the ELN, EPL and dissident FARC, as well as the Nasa Indigenous Guard - all of which seek to control this territory.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

Dissident FARC members who don’t support the peace deal are also killing people, as are the ELN and the EPL, two smaller leftist rebel groups; there is also the Clan de Golf, a huge right-wing paramilitary force, and other smaller paramilitaries; some criminal gangs; and narco-traffickers. The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation in Bogota says there are roughly 5,000 armed people in criminal or extrajudicial political organizations today.

All of them seek to establish their authority by killing prominent figures. They are recruiting new members, with the promise of steady salaries in places where there are few other economic opportunities, or, sometimes, taking new members, including children, by force. They are funding themselves, much as FARC once did – with illegal mining, drug trafficking, and extortion of residents.

Cultivation of coca and marijuana has surged in the post-FARC vacuum; the government stopped spraying coca fields with herbicide, and instead implemented a program to pay farmers to substitute other, legal, crops. But that program reached just 30 per cent of its goal last year, and has not come to this valley at all. Mr. Capaz, the Indigenous leader, said the new actors are competing for control of the drug businesses, and of transport corridors that cut through territory belonging to his people and other First Nations communities.

It’s almost enough to make his people nostalgic for the FARC, he said. “These ones, they’re more unpredictable, reckless and more violent. They respect nothing.”

But their targets are clear: The Indigenous councils are seen as an obstacle to their profits, he said, and so are any individuals who speak out. Eighteen Nasa leaders have received death threats so far this year, he said. (If Mr. Ul was warned, he did not tell his family.) Conflict among the new armed actors themselves, and between them and the state, has caused a new wave of displacement – one of the main sources of suffering during the war.

Rossana Mejia, an Afro-Colombian activist, has received death threats for her work trying to stop gas fracking and mining on her community’s land. She says the peace deal has been best for the companies who want to extract resources from their territory.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

Rossana Mejia, 44, has received so many death threats that she struggles to recount them in order. She is a prominent representative of the Afro-Colombian community, campaigning for territorial recognition for the land around the town of Caloto that her ancestors worked as slaves, and that pits her against a range of interests. During the war, the guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries both threatened her, she said, each accusing her of collaborating with the enemy. She was an active champion of the peace deal – but since its signing, the threats are even more frequent, she said.

They have come by e-mail, by phone and on pamphlets, distributed in the streets, that warned her to stop her activism. They come from the ELN, from paramilitaries, and from people whose affiliation she could not discern. One was delivered by a burly man in a mask with a huge butterfly tattooed on his bicep. He burst into her house, where she was sitting with her then-five-year-old son, put a gun to her head and said, “I don’t know why you don’t stay quiet and I don’t know why I didn’t get the order to kill you.” She shuddered at the recollection, adding, “I know the risks of doing this work but I didn’t know how it would feel in that moment – in that moment you don’t think like a leader, you think like a woman and a mother.”

For years, Ms. Mejia has led her community in opposition to gold mining and sugar plantations. Now, they are opposing a plan for gas fracking. She said she has come to feel that the peace deal was ultimately intended as a way to open up Colombia to international business interests. After the first threats, the government gave her a bulletproof vest (that didn’t fit) and a cellphone (that never had a signal) as part of its national security plan for targeted leaders. Recently, she was assigned a diffident bodyguard. But she no longer has any belief that she will be safer in the era of peace – the same economic interests that are putting pressure on her community have the explicit backing of the state, she said.

“There are more people who know and are asking for their rights now,” she said. “But also, there are more actors for whom they are a problem.”

Ms. Mejia stands outside the home of one of her sons with family members.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Rivera, the peace commissioner, said the government is working on several fronts to improve security in Caloto and other former FARC-controlled areas. There are peace talks with the ELN, which are proceeding fitfully, but about which he said he is “cautiously optimistic.” There are also programs to build up local institutions and to expand the crop-substitution program that is paying farmers to switch to growing coffee or vanilla or other, legal, plants instead of coca and marijuana – which will weaken the hold of narco-traffickers.

“I can assure you, the way we dismantled the biggest drug cartels in the world, the Medellin cartel, the Cali cartel, the way we dismantled the paramilitary groups, the way we have solved the problem of FARC, we are going to solve this problem as well,” he said. He acknowledged that this is cold comfort for a family such as Marcos Ul’s. “But we have the capability and we have the political will to be successful against these threats.”

Mr. Capaz said the approach of Mr. Rivera and his colleagues is doomed to fail because it’s backward. “The government acted as if peace was something they could come and deliver to us – instead of using the existing, very strong social structures to try to fill the gaps,” he said. The government views the army as the only substitute force, and has ignored organizations such as the Indigenous Guard – of which Mr. Capaz is part, and in which Marcos Ul also served – even though the Guard has better intelligence and more credibility locally, he said. “The wrong way to the fill gap was with the military. People don’t trust the military either.”

Manuel Ul has no faith in the soldiers or police, who were just down the road when his cousin was shot. “Security is going to have to come from our own communities, from one another,” he said. “Because it’s never going to come from the state.”

The night after she buried her husband, Mr. Ul’s widow was lying in bed when she heard an eruption of barking from the family dogs. Someone pounded on her front door. “I thought, maybe now they’ve come for me as well,” recalled Ms. Tenoric. She didn’t answer, and eventually the yard fell quiet again. But still she lies awake at night, she said, frightened, yet not even sure whom it is she fears.

Elvia Tenoric, Marcos Ul’s widow, wonders who the next target will be, among her family and neighbours.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail