Deadly Numbers

By Rodrigo Uprimny[1]

El Espectador, August 2, 2019

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

In the speech he made on July 20, President Duque condemned the murders of social leaders and he committed to “rooting out” this tragedy, which is good. But he stated that his government had reduced those killings by 35%, thanks to his “Well-Timed Plan of Action” (PAO in Spanish). That is a thesis that is unsustainable.

That claim by Duque comes from a report by his Human Rights Counsel, Francisco Barbosa, which has circulated in different versions, with the same idea: there has been a significant reduction in crimes against social leaders during the Duque administration, a reduction that can be attributed to the PAO.

Barbosa compares the number of crimes against social leaders between August of 2017 and July of 2018 (Santos administration) and between August of 2018 and July of 2019  (Duque administration). He concludes that, since in the Santos period there were 105 homicides, while in the Duque period there were 68, that there had been a reduction of more than 35% during the Duque administration, a reduction that should be attributed to the PAO.

Barbosa bases his number on the reports from the Colombia Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Oacnudh) which is a serious and independent entity, so that makes the report look solid. But, as the critics such as Colombia Check have shown, Barbosa commits at least four monumental errors.

First, the report ignores other sources that have arrived at different results, results concluding that the situation in the Duque government is just as bad or even worse than in the Santos government, which was very bad. Some of those sources are official, such as the Public Defender, or serious research centers, such as FIP (Ideas for Peace Foundation) or Cerac (Conflict Analysis Resource Center). Barbosa could dispute those other sources, but he cannot simply ignore them, especially because we are confronting a phenomenon that is significantly under-reported. International experts such as Patrick Ball recommend that data should not be based on a single source, but rather data from different sources should be used, with methods like the so-called capture and recapture, as Dejusticia did in 2017.

Second, Barbosa distorts the methodology used by Oacnudh, because he does not clarify that the figure for the Duque period is provisional. Oacnudh distinguishes between cases that are documented or verified and cases still under investigation. Oacnudh reported that up to June 7 there had been 26 documented murders of social leaders in 2019 and another 50 under investigation. Barbosa’s thesis remains in limbo, because the figure for the Duque period might be worse than the figure for the Santos period if the majority of the cases still being investigated turn out to be confirmed.

Third, the periods analyzed by Barbosa are not comparable, because in the Santos months there were three elections (Congress and two Presidential rounds) while during the Duque months there were none. Every serious analyst knows that in our violent democracy, those kinds of crimes usually increase in election periods and that’s probably the reason that the first part of 2018 was so terrible.

Finally, and as a complement to the previous reason, the eventual reduction in murders of social leaders (which is not very clear) cannot be attributed to PAO, because not only is he comparing periods that are not comparable, but also, Barbosa confuses correlation with causation and does not demonstrate why the PAO was so effective.

That one single social leader is murdered is unacceptable. Because of that it’s terrible to even be discussing these numbers. But this debate is necessary because Barbosa’s errors not only kill the conclusions of his own report, but they also involve the deaths of real people, since they put the Duque government in the position of basing its actions on a mistaken diagnosis of the magnitude and the dynamic of this terrible slaughter. These numbers and these errors are literally deadly.

[1] Professor Rodrigo Uprimny is a lawyer, and a professor emeritus at the National University of Colombia. He has served as a magistrate and is co-founder and now a member of the Board of Directors of Dejusticia, a Colombian research and advocacy organization.

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