POPAYÁN, Colombia—There was still one day to go before Halloween when the latest horror show started here in a troubled province called Cauca. Just before dawn on Oct. 30, six men wearing balaclavas and carrying assault rifles turned their motorcycles down the long dirt path that led to the homestead of community president Álvaro Narváez.
The men surrounded the house on the outskirts of the small village called Vado and opened fire without warning. Narváez’s daughter and sister were killed outright. His son-in-law made it out the back door, but he didn’t get far, as the young man’s bullet-riddled corpse was found just a hundred yards away. Narváez’s 7-year-old grandson, whom we’ll call Camilo, survived by using the old horror movie trope of hiding in a cupboard.
It was a trick he’d had to use before. On April 29, exactly six months before, the Narváez family home had been the scene of another massacre with a similar M.O. That time the ambush had claimed the lives of Narváez himself—as well as his wife, son, and granddaughter—while Camilo cowered in a closet. The last surviving member of the Narváez clan, he has now been taken in by neighbors from the village.
"This is a terrifying tragedy, and it shows how oppressed the people are, how they live in fear all the time," said Elizabeth Piamba, another community president in Cauca who has received threats for her activism. "Anyone who takes a stand now is at the mercy of the bacrim [bandit-criminals]."
“[S]uch a massacre has never been seen in the region throughout the history of the armed conflict,” reported the national paper El Espectador, referring to Bogota's long-running civil war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC], which ostensibly ended in 2016.
Far-right President Iván Duque, who opposes the peace accords with FARC, declined to visit Cauca, which remains one of the most dangerous regions in the country. But in the wake of the Vado killings he did issue a statement, saying in part that “preliminary investigations are aimed at illegal, armed, drug-trafficking groups.”
Unfortunately, the murder of community figureheads like Narváez —who had been president of Vado for the last four years—has become all too common of late. Like a clichéd film franchise that keeps coming back with more sequels nobody wants to see.
According to the NGO Indepaz, there were 194 murders of social leaders and human rights defenders through August of this year. Going back to 2016, when the FARC peace accords were first signed, the number of slain activists climbs to at least 1000.
Cauca province, sadly, tops both tallies.
So what’s behind all these killings? The simple answer, the answer Duque peddled when the Narváez family was wiped out, is armed groups that seek to control territory in which they make and smuggle dope. But critics also say the actions Duque has taken to undermine the peace accords—actions aided and abetted by the Trump administration—have led directly to the deadly spike in assaults against activists of all stripes over the last four years.
Let’s start with the armed groups. More than 70 percent of the total activist murders since 2016 have taken place in rural regions that are home to indigenous and campesino (small farmer) communities—remote swaths of the country that are also coveted by the narcos.
Colombia is the world’s largest producer of coca leaves, which is the main ingredient in cocaine, as well as a major source for marijuana and poppies for opium and heroin. All of which have to be grown, processed, and shipped through the lush countryside for export.
That means competition for control over hinterland production zones and trafficking corridors is fierce. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Edwin Capaz, an indigenous human rights activist, cites a dozen drug-fueled outfits operating in Cauca. The list includes leftist guerrillas, right-wing paracos [paramilitaries], and apolitical criminal actors like Mexico’s fearsome Sinaloa Cartel, formerly run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
These organizations use terror tactics to keep communities under control, often communicating their demands by distributing intimidating flyers. But lately they’ve also gone high-tech.
“In the last two years we’ve seen the pamphlets stop being printed documents that we found in our homes or on our roads, and switch to a digital format. That’s how we now see them, by WhatsApp chains and other social networks,” Capaz said. “They not only threaten us, but also claim responsibility after the murders.”
At the top of the underworld food chain in Colombia sits the so-called Ex-FARC Mafia. That is, dissident members of the guerrilla force who have turned their backs on the historic peace deal that was supposed to have brought an end to more than 50 years of conflict.
“More ex-FARC members are regrouping because only a small portion of the 2016 peace accord has been implemented and they are very dissatisfied,” Mike Vigil, the former DEA Chief of International Operations, told The Daily Beast. “They are beginning to go back to the only lucrative business they know: the cocaine trade.”
Colombian news outlet Semana reported that the Narváez family was executed by FARC dissidents, apparently because community president Álvarez had resisted coca cultivation, extortion, recruitment and trafficking by ex-FARC members in and around his village. After the social-leader patriarch was killed, the local ex-FARC commander was arrested for the crime. Thus leading to the second massacre, after that same commander—who goes by the alias “Rene”—escaped from prison in September and sought revenge.
“Such groups dominate by making examples of persons who defy them so that they can better control the rest of the population,” said Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America [WOLA].
Crop substitution programs to replace coca, such as what the Narváez family had advocated for, are a key tenet of the armistice agreement signed by Duque’s predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos. But Duque has failed to fund or enact those programs.
In the Narvaez case, the survivors of the first massacre feared for their safety after Comandante René's escape, and had reached out to both law enforcement and journalists to plead for protection.
"It's like in [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez's novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The family begged for help but nobody did anything. In that way, it's actually the state that's responsible for their deaths," said community leader Piamba.
“Sadly, most social leaders killed are working to implement different aspects of the peace accord. By killing them you are killing peace efforts that are vital to Colombia’s democracy,” Sanchez-Garzoli said.
Mysterious Murders of Peace Accord Signees
Not all the killings of social leaders are linked to resisting the drug trade. Néstor Rosanía, director of the Center for the Study of Security and Peace, has identified several other categories of victims as well.
Some of them are land-rights activists attempting to invoke the peace process’s restitution programs for impoverished indigenous and campesino communities.
“Those who are most against restitution are paramilitaries who [are] allied with the ranchers who stole those lands in the first place,” Rosanía said.
Others commonly targeted for assassination are environmentalists who oppose mining and energy projects and “leaders who have made complaints about human rights violations or about corruption by state agents,” he said.
“What they all have in common is that they are doing something that is defying the interests of illegal armed groups, bringing attention to a problem, or potentially getting the justice system [involved], said WOLA’s Sanchez-Garzoli.
Another common type of victim are demobilized members of the FARC who signed the peace process and subsequently organized a political party. More than 150 signees have been murdered since 2016, according to Rosanía, though it remains unclear exactly who is behind that wave of killings.
“This is the great question. Who can they be? Who would be interested in sabotaging everything that has to do with the issue of the peace process?” Rosanía said.
President Donald Trump has dismissed Colombia’s peace deal as mere appeasement, a sop to what he calls “narco-terrorists.” Trump has also vowed support for Duque’s government, which Transparency International now rates as the “most corrupt in the world.”
Both Trump and Duque claim to be drug war hardliners. Yet their hamfisted policies have led to an explosion of coca production in the last few years, even as Trump has demanded draconian military policies and aerial eradication with glyphosate, a deadly carcinogen.
“The blatant disapproval of the FARC peace agreement by both Trump and Duque has turned their counter drug strategy in Colombia on its head,” said the DEA’s Vigil.
In addition to ignoring land reform, widespread crop substitution policies, and the ethnic rights and development packages meant to improve the lives of minorities—all of which were included in the agreed-upon accords—Duque has also sought to demonize those who resist his efforts to dismantle the peace process.
“[He] has stigmatized protestors and attempted to link them to illegal armed groups. By doing this, the Duque government essentially is saying that the protests and civic activities are illegitimate. This places a target on the heads of activists who want to make Colombia a more just society,” said Sanchez-Garzoli.
“The government sees the opposition and social protest as the internal enemy,” said Rosanía, who called the regime’s attempt to vilify those on the left a “very old strategy” in Colombia.
He also named the most important factor for curbing the power of rogue crime groups in rural areas as development.
“What is needed is the presence of businessmen, legal economies, infrastructure, the possibility of education, of health, employment and so on,” Rosanía said.
But if Trump has been an enabler to a government infamous for killing protesters, spying on foreign correspondents and local journalists, and raping indigenous children, the recent U.S. election might offer a ray of hope. That’s because the Obama-Biden administration had backed the Colombian armistice and even petitioned the U.S. Congress to help fund it.
“Biden will definitely do a better job than Trump [has with Colombia],” Vigil said, “because he understands diplomacy and bilateral cooperation rather than just caustic bullying.”