POPAYÁN, Colombia—The dead were found by local farmers just after dawn. Six bodies lying in a scrubby woodland beside fields sown with palm fruit and avocado. Their hands bound behind them. Showing signs of torture. Some shot, others garrotted. All had had the pads of their fingers cut away so they could not be taken for prints.
That was on Friday, Aug. 21, in the Tambo municipality of the southern region called Cauca. The day before the dead were found, a group of heavily armed men had ordered local villagers to assemble and asked for those six victims by name. Then they had marched them out into the woods at gunpoint.
“We are waiting on the official investigation to tell us who killed them,” Tambo mayor Carlos Vela told The Daily Beast by phone. “There is great insecurity here now, just as there is in all of Colombia.”
Vela said only one of the men was a local resident, while the other five were from Cauca’s capital of Popayán, a few hours travel over rugged dirt roads to the northeast from Tambo.
“We are living in fear here now,” Vela said. “The community is terrified of what might happen now. Of who could be killed next.”
The first killings occurred on Aug. 11, in the city of Cali, when five teenage boys were hacked to death with machetes. Since then there have been at least nine other massacres that have claimed a total of 48 lives, most recently on Aug. 28, when three more people, including a minor, were slain in Medellin. The incidents have been recorded across the southern swath of the country, from western Nariño state, on the Pacific coast, to the state of Arauca on the eastern frontier with Venezuela.
August may have been the sourest month, but the rest of 2020 hasn’t been so sweet. In total there have been 48 massacres this year that claimed the lives of more than 192 people. In that same time frame more than 100 social leaders and human rights defenders have been killed in targeted murders, according to Amnesty International.
All of which raises the question: What’s driving all this killing? Some Colombian media outlets have blamed the carnage on “COVID Death Squads” that allegedly hunt down individuals who violate quarantine. It’s true that the cartels have threatened lethal reprisals for breaching coronavirus guidelines, and August’s rising death toll from massacres has coincided with a spike in coronavirus cases as Colombia has become one of the world’s per capita leaders for fatality rates at 43.1 deaths per million people.
However, critics of the far-right regime of President Iván Duque—who remains a close ally of the Trump administration—have suggested an alternative explanation. They say the rash of massacres could be tied to growing territorial disputes between crime groups, as well as the gradual weakening of the 2016 peace accords aimed at ending the nation’s long-running civil war.
So let’s dig in to separate fact from fiction.
“Quarantine or Die”
When the pandemic first set in, and the Duque regime imposed a nationwide lockdown, guerrilla forces and organized crime groups were quick to enforce quarantine measures in rural areas—often with threats of deadly force if citizens disobeyed.
“The spread of COVID-19 is a major hindrance to criminal groups simply because it is bad for business,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, in an interview with The Daily Beast. Restrictions on movement and commerce disrupt supply and demand chains, giving traffickers a powerful motive to end local outbreaks of the pandemic swiftly.
“Criminal networks are also fearful about losing key personnel to the virus. As a result, they have imposed more severe restrictions than the government, including the threat of ‘quarantine or die,’” Vigil said.
Insurgencies like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC], the Army of National Liberation [ELN] and drug cartels like the Gulf Clan post flyers and send out messages on social media warning residents to stay indoors or face deadly consequences.
“The guerrillas stand out on the village soccer pitch and watch us all the time. Everyone who comes and goes. They say if we don’t do as they say, they’ll kill us,” said Aida Piamba, 62, who lives in the village of El Salero, which lies between Tambo and Popayán in Cauca.
Dr. Ariel Ávila, a political scientist with Colombia’s National University, said crime groups have been the de facto authorities in remote, government-neglected regions for generations, and that the pandemic has only highlighted their control.
“In communities where there is a high presence of criminal structures and illegal armed groups, they regulate everything. For example, drinking hours, shopping times, who can enter the territory and who can’t,” Ávila said. “In the case of COVID, the armed groups are afraid that this disease will infect them and the communities they control, and end up killing their troops. So they put out severe restrictions.”
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Colombia’s armed groups have shown themselves willing to make good on those threats, killing at least 10 people for curfew violations or for complaining to authorities. Some media reports have put that number as high as 30 deaths, although some of those claims remain disputed.
On Aug. 15, eight people were killed during a party attended by more than 50 revelers in a rural region of Nariño state. The victims’ families insist the young people were executed for breaking quarantine, but other eyewitnesses said the attackers who stormed the farmhouse where the party was held asked for the men by name—just as they did in Tambo—indicating it could have been a feud between crime groups or a drug-related hit.
The latter conclusion is the same one reached by Tambo’s Mayor Vela, regarding the massacre in his municipality. Tambo is a major production site for coca leaves, which are the raw ingredients for cocaine—and Vela said this month’s executions were likely related to competition in the drug trade, as opposed to COVID vigilantism.
“The most likely scenario is that it was a territorial dispute between trafficking groups,” Vela said.
Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, a Colombia expert with the Washington Office on Latin America [WOLA], said she doubted lockdown enforcement was behind any of the recent multi-victim slayings in Colombia, calling such that tack a “convenient narrative for Duque.”
“While I don’t doubt that criminal groups are using COVID as an excuse to further their aims, I do doubt this is the real reason behind such massacres,” Sanchez-Garzoli said, and explained it was more likely “that armed groups [want] to make a point that they are the ones in charge [of drug production zones].
Vigil agreed with that assessment, saying that escalating competition among cartels and insurgents “is a more logical reason for the horrific massacres, because controlling coca cultivation areas and drug routes is more important to them than enforcing quarantine measures.”
For his part, Ávila confirmed the various killings were “independent of each other” in motive, connected only by “the degradation of war” between competing factions involved in turf struggles.
However, there could be a more indirect connection between the pandemic and the wave of killings. Closed international borders and shuttered shipping routes for narcotics have caused the coca market to crater, leading to a steep drop in cocaine prices. That in turn could be pushing the more powerful traffickers to control larger swaths of the coca crop, to offset their slumping profits with higher volume.
“Falling coca prices is intensifying competition and violence between criminal groups because it is providing a great opportunity for the winner to take all,” said former DEA agent Vigil.
The drop in coca revenues is also forcing criminal groups to diversify their portfolio, Vigil said. “They are not only fighting for control of the drug trade, but also for other enterprises such as illegal gold mining, and extortion,” leaving “innocent people caught in the crossfire.”
“An Uptick in Savagery”
Multiple observers told The Daily Beast that the increase in massacres and growing insecurity in rural regions within Colombia is tied directly to the Duque regime’s failure to honor the government’s historic 2016 peace agreement with the FARC.
“Colombian president Iván Duque and his party have been obstructionists to the peace process with the FARC, which has revived the violence,” said Vigil, who added that a total breakdown of the armistice would be “a disaster for Colombia.”
“All Duque wants to do is blame the peace process for more drug trafficking,” said political scientist Ávila, because that allows him to ignore “the deterioration of security and explosion of criminal groups” that have occurred since he took office.
Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, won the Nobel Peace Prize for putting an end to Bogota’s 50-year civil war against the leftist FARC. But Duque came to office vowing to scrap many of those measures—such as rural development and coca-crop substitution programs—and so far, in two years as president, he’s made good on those promises.
On Duque’s watch, members of the FARC who surrendered in good faith have been assassinated at an alarming rate, with more than 200 killed since 2016. Colombian security forces under Duque have also been charged with crimes like child-rape and extrajudicial killings in areas formerly controlled by the rebels. That has caused some guerrillas to take up arms again and return to the jungle, including the Nueva Marquetalia Front, which now operates in Cauca and has been linked to the recent murders in Tambo.
Recruitment by ELN is on the rise and dissidents of the FARC are going back to war, since such groups “don’t see a serious effort by the state to demobilize them,” said Sanchez-Garzoli of WOLA. She also indicated that Duque felt enabled to back such “hardline security measures” due to his close alliance with the Trump administration. (Washington has already earmarked almost $450 million in military aid to Colombia in 2020, despite concerns in Congress about war crimes and other abuses.)
Meanwhile, other crime groups have risen up to fill the vacuum left by the FARC, which used to control cocaine production and distribution in most of Colombia, according to Vigil.
“The FARC left large voids, especially in rural areas, and now criminal networks are violently competing for this lucrative territory resulting in an uptick in savagery,” he said.
Sanchez-Garzoli said the majority of massacres have occurred in areas suffering from “extreme marginalization... where the peace accord implementation is a priority and most urgently needed due to historic and chronic state abandonment.”
Vigil, who as a DEA agent was stationed for years in Colombia, also called on Bogota to “develop a strong presence in the areas now controlled by criminal elements. It must fill the vacuum [and] work to eliminate the conditions,” like poverty and a lack of educational opportunities, ”which cause the ongoing structural violence.”
As for Mayor Vela, in Tambo, he had an even simpler plea.
“We are humble people,” he said. “All we want is to know when we can get on with our lives in peace.”