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Luis Alberto Ortíz was preparing for a new life.
As a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), he had spent his entire adulthood engaged in armed conflict against the Colombian state. Following the 2016 peace agreement between the FARC and the government of Juan Manuel Santos, Ortíz, like thousands of other rank-and-file FARC guerrillas, was to disarm and reintegrate into civil society under the terms of the deal.
Except Luis Alberto Ortíz will not make that journey.
On April 16, the 29-year-old father was shot dead in the southern department of Narino, the first FARC guerrilla to be murdered in the post-conflict era. In a statement, the FARC said that ‘this homicide appears to have been perpetrated by the criminal known in the zone as Renol, [a] narco-paramilitary who acts throughout Tumaco [capital of Narino] and who is responsible for threats and homicides against social and popular movements.’ Renol was arrested soon after.
Ortiz’s murder is one in a series of cases which have thrown the spotlight on the issue of post-conflict security for former FARC members and those close to them. While Colombia’s conflict may be over – officially, at least – the recent killings have stoked fears of a dirty war being waged against sectors of civil society. Since the peace agreement was signed last November, over fifty social leaders have been murdered. This continues conflict patterns of violence against those perceived to oppose dominant interests in the country.
While the victims have been mostly civilians, FARC members now also appear to be at risk. Nine days after Ortiz’s murder, another FARC guerrilla, José Yatacue, was killed in Toribio, Cauca. The alleged culprit, known as El Zarco, had apparently targeted Yatacue while the guerrilla was visiting family. In late May, a FARC guerrilla was murdered in Caquetá.
The families of FARC members have also been attacked. The day before Yatacue’s murder, three family members of a FARC guerrilla called Carlos were killed in Tarazá, Antioquia. Among the dead was a 14-year-old girl. In another case, two brothers, Dalmiro and Anselmo Cárdenas Victoria, were abducted, tortured and killed in the department of Chocó. Their brother Robinson was a FARC political prisoner at the Chiquinquirá prison near Bogota. He has since been released.
Certain characteristics are shared by the killings. First, the victims appear to have been deliberately targeted for their association with the FARC. Second, the murders all occurred in regions heavily affected by the conflict and where the state is traditionally weak. The resulting power vacuums have been filled either by guerrilla organizations such as the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) or by neo-paramilitary gangs. It is these latter groups which many people suspect are behind the recent murders, as opponents of Colombia’s peace process employ violent methods aimed at disrupting its implementation.
In an interview with Telesur, FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, alias Timochenko, spoke out against the killings and reaffirmed the FARC’s commitment to the peace process. ‘What does one’s family have to do with anything? As an element of pressure and an attempt to affect our moral, it’s something they are not going to achieve,’ he said.
With the FARC due to enter electoral politics later this year, the killings have evoked memories of past atrocities. Following the 1984 peace agreement, a new left-wing political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), was formed by the FARC, the Communist Party and other sectors on the Colombian left. It wasn’t long before the UP’s modest electoral advances elicited a brutal response from its enemies.
In what is often described in Colombia as a ‘political genocide’, thousands of UP members, including two presidential candidates, were murdered by right-wing paramilitaries and state security forces in the late 1980s and 1990s. This repression convinced the FARC of the unviability of electoral politics as a means of achieving change and contributed majorly to a sharp escalation in conflict during subsequent years.
Terms of the 2016 agreement relating to political participation are designed to prevent any similar reoccurrence afflicting new political actors in Colombia. In contrast to the 1980s, there is broader support for the peace process across the political spectrum, including – critically – within a military which was central to instigating the violence of previous decades. However, with the agreement implicit that the state is responsible for post-conflict security, the government must implement mechanisms to ensure the safety of demobilized FARC members once they reintegrate into civil society.
The Santos administration, meanwhile, denies the FARC is being targeted, with government officials blaming the murders of political activists on criminal gangs. This situates such killings outside the realm of political, or conflict, violence. Vice-President Oscar Naranjo said that the government ‘will not permit that these acts return as a constant feature. We are fully committed to establishing the individuals responsible.’
The government’s ability to provide post-conflict security will go a long way towards determining whether peace becomes the reality for all Colombians. If it fails to do so, violence will continue to plague large parts of the country and its citizens.
Nick MacWilliam is an independent journalist and co-editor of Alborada magazine. Follow him @NickMacWilliam