Colombian cartels killing those who don't obey their Covid-19 lockdowns

By Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá

Drug cartels and rebel groups are imposing their own bloody coronavirus lockdowns across Colombia – and killing those who do not obey, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

At least eight civilians have been murdered by the armed groups, some of them holdovers from Colombia’s half-century civil war, which are using Whatsapp chats and pamphlets to warn citizens of the lockdowns in the rural areas where they operate.

In Tumaco, an impoverished and violent port city on the Pacific coast, residents are banned by gangs from fishing, limiting their ability to earn money and food. A 5pm curfew – far stricter than the measures imposed by the government – is also forcing street vendors inside.

Across the country, violent gangs are stopping people from leaving their homes at all, even when sick, according to humanitarian workers cited in the report. In two provinces, Cauca and Guaviare, armed groups have torched the motorcycles of those of those who ignored their restrictions.

“They have shut down transport between villages, and when someone is suspected to have Covid-19 they are told to leave the region or they will be killed,” one community leader in Colombia’s southern Putumayo province told the Guardian, on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “And people have no choice but to obey because they never see the government here.”

On 8 June, Edison León Pérez, a community leader and activist, was murdered in the Putumayo town of San Miguel by La Mafia, a drug trafficking gang with ties to rightwing paramilitarism, days after he called on local authorities to address the gang’s lockdown orders.

Like much of South America, Colombia is bracing for the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on 6 March, medical authorities have confirmed 159,898 cases, with 5,625 deaths. Cases regularly climb by over 5,000 a day.

The government has imposed lockdowns, both nationwide and locally, but they have never been as strict as those decreed by armed groups, and the consequences for breaking them nowhere near as grave.

Colombia was supposed to be turning a chapter on such violence. A historic peace accord signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), then South America’s largest rebel group, in 2016 formally ended over five decades of civil war that killed more than 260,000 people and forced 7 million to flee their homes. But that has not translated to peace on the ground.

At least 271 community leaders have been killed since the peace deal was implemented in early 2017, while armed groups continue to jostle over territory the Farc left behind.

Some of the armed groups are dissident Farc fighters who refused to hand in their guns; others belong to smaller rebel armies and rightwing paramilitary militias. All make their money in part from the cocaine trade.

HRW called on the government of Iván Duque to do more to protect those at the mercy of myriad armed groups during the lockdown.

“Draconian ‘punishments’ imposed by armed groups to prevent the spread of Covid-19 mean that people in remote and impoverished communities across Colombia risk being attacked and even killed if they leave their homes,” José Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s America’s director, said in a statement on Wednesday morning. “The government should urgently ramp up its efforts to protect these communities, ensuring they have adequate food and water, and protect their health from the effects of Covid-19.”