By Camilo Pardo Quintero, EL ESPECTADOR, August 26, 2021

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

With pamphlets, WhatsApp messages, and emails, different armed actors have been stalking social leaders and signers of the Peace Agreement in Tolima. These activities have increased since last July 20 and, according to the victims, the competent authorities have done little to defend their lives.

The central mountain range, which crosses Tolima from north to south, shows signs that make you afraid that the armed violence has come back to stay here for an indefinite length of time. People that live in municipalities like Ambalema (northeast), Rioblanco (southwest), or Espinal (east) feel as they did in the years when the guerrillas and the paramilitaries carried out their own laws there, which left horrors and terrible memories people now seem to be reliving.

In contrast to the weaponized mentality in other parts of the country during the post-conflict, in Tolima it got confusing to understand whether there were patterns or ways of operating that were directed by any specific group of people. In just the last seven weeks there have been threats and killings of more than 30 people, including signers of the Peace Agreement, community leaders, teachers, campesinos, indigenous people, and young spokespersons from different parts of the Tolima territory, according to data from local social organizations like Fedecolpaz.

Even though there are those who say that the escalation in the attacks against leaders and human rights defenders started with the National Strike, which began on April 28, 2021, there are other voices from the territory that insist that the massacre in Herrera, in the rural part of Rioblanco, where three people were murdered last August 3, was the Pandora’s box for the FARC dissidents, remaining paramilitary organizations, and even armed criminals that were increasing their delinquent acts, to the detriment of their victims’ peace of mind.

Maryluz Buscué, a defender of human rights and Director of the Incoldes Social Foundation, an organization that promotes social leadership in the Province of Tolima, is one of the leaders that attributes the unrest and fear experienced in the Province to “neoparamilitaries”.

She told COLOMBIA 2020 that right now “some people are operating that call themselves ‘Anticommunist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia’ (AAC). They are threatening colleagues, leaders of different social organizations in places like Ambalema and in the rural part of Ibagué, just to mention a few of the places, with pamphlets that call for killing them if they don’t get out of the territory, or they even use emails. On July 20, those intimidations got worse and they warned in those papers that they had profiled the people that were seen to have taken part in the events of the National Strike. From within, we feel that we are in a humanitarian emergency such as we had not seen for quite a while.”

Biscué’s complaint is the first one on this paramilitary organization since May 13, 2020, the date when, by reports percolating from neighbors in the town (vereda) of Los Pastos, in the district (corregimiento) of Coello Cocora (Ibagué), the Police and troops from Battalion 18 of the Army raided a house where they found five people alleged to be members of that group. They were all from Caquetá; they captured them and seized weapons like 16 caliber shotguns, items alluding to the AAC, computers and cell phones with information about various citizens, including social leaders and signers of the Peace Agreement. They had been using the information for extortion.

“We still don’t know for sure if they were behind what happened on July 20. The Police are thinking that’s possible, as there were several threats made by the dissidents. We would like to have specific answers soon, because from that day on they became enraged against five of our colleagues and their lives are constantly at risk,” said Maryluz Biscué.

Hunting down the signers of the Peace Agreement and also community leaders

Hernando Guerrero Torres, a former FARC combatant who was killed on April 25 in the Municipality of Dolores, has been the only signer of the Peace Agreement killed in Tolima so far in 2021. Nevertheless, there are constant hidden threats, so the majority of the people that are reincorporated prefer to keep silent.

This “tense calm” is what Jair[1], a signer of the Peace Agreement, calls the first half of this year. It makes him think that because these recent weeks have been in such turmoil, at levels he had not imagined before during his reincorporation. Up until last month, he lived in eastern Tolima, but he fled from there just a little more than 20 days ago, because of threats from the Ismael Ruiz front of the dissidents of the now-defunct FARC.

The former combatant, who asked that his identity not be revealed, told this newspaper that in his particular case, he has been receiving threats from the self-proclaimed Águilas Negras ever since 2018; and that now in 2021, the sources of the intimidations alternate between the dissidents and other criminal gangs.

“Places like Espinal (which has in effect now a restriction on riding double on motorbikes) or Guamo have recently turned into new encampments of paramilitaries. The ones that call themselves Anticommunist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia are also seen around here and even around Ibagué. The Ismael Ruiz dissidents are all around northeast Tolima. All of those fronts have sent threats on WhatsApp to social and community leaders and former combatants, in which they don’t stop calling us military objectives. Normally all of those messages have been sent to the legal representatives of the organizations. Sadly, very few people want to take care of us, because the huge psychological impact and the anxiety caused by those actions means that in Tolima there are no substantial channels for dialog after the security councils, and that’s how they continue the stigmatization about us,” reiterated Jair.

Carmen[2], being reincorporated in Icononzo, has not been the target of intimidations, but she insisted that she has heard dozens of her comrades and social leaders say that the Ismael Ruiz dissidents are the ones that send the threats in the southern part of the province, while paramilitary groups and unidentified gangs do the same in the north.

“From what they’ve told me, I know that the dissidents that support the ‘Second Marquetalía’ have been behind the crimes and threats perpetrated recently in the southern part of Tolima. The authorities themselves have the same theory; they think that they are the ones responsible for the massacre in Rioblanco at the beginning of this month,” she asserted.

As far as the outlook for the social leaders in the province, the statistics obtained by the Institute for Study of Development and Peace (Indepaz in Spanish) show that three of them have been killed so far this year, in the municipalities of Ataco, Chaparral and Herveo.

In that last place there is an ongoing alert, which has extended to the municipalities of Purificación and Espinal, where there have been nine selective murders as of the date of publication of this item since last July 26. Those events aren’t even counted among murdered leaders, because the respective investigations have not been completed by the competent authorities.

Going back to southern Tolima, the Mayor of Rioblanco, Elizabet Barbosa, commented a few weeks ago that she is aware of “pamphlets sent by the dissidents where they say they will be doing ‘social cleansing’ and selective murders of the defenders that get themselves involved in ideas like the construction of peace.” But she simply added that it’s in the hands of the Battalion to guarantee the safety of the people that have been threatened.

While Carlos Alfonsin, a community leader in the southern part of the province commented that the threats to the people that defend human rights are so far out of control of the authorities that, in some cases, they say that all they can do is to prioritize the municipalities. “Now the local media are paying more attention to what’s going on in places like Prado, Fresno, or Purificación, while in the south, you don’t get much help from the government,” he concluded.

Stigmatization by the authorities?

Maryluz Biscué is afraid that their complaints, besides not being listened to at the national level, are just not part of the sociopolitical agenda of the local authorities. Or, in the alternative, they are being stigmatized by those authorities.

According to her, ever since last year, their organization has taken a number of lists of requests for assistance to the Mayor’s Office in Ibagué, especially to the Secretary of Government. It looks to her as if they were “brushed off there; there was no door open to dialog.”

“Former Secretary Carlos Sarmiento Ortega, when we mentioned the threats made against us at the time of the National Strike, didn’t defend us at all. Rather, he made public statements to the effect that many of us were being financed by the ELN. That’s false, and it puts us in danger; the stigmatization makes us into cannon fodder for those that want to kill us, and the Secretary himself has not denied that,” complained Biscué.

As of the date of publication of this article, Sr. Carlos Sarmiento Ortega has not responded to telephone calls made by this newspaper.

[1] Jaír is not his real name. He asked the interviewer not to use his real name.

[2] Carmen is not her real name, as she also requested that her real name not be revealed.

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