BOGOTA – Land disputes and the power vacuum existing after the demobilization of the FARC guerrillas is putting the public and social leaders at risk in Colombia’s southern Cordoba province, where last week a young mother was murdered in front of her nine-year-old son.
The victim, Maria del Pilar Hurtado Montaño, a 34-year-old mother of five, was shot to death by unknown gunmen on a street in the poor municipality of Tierralta, in southern Cordoba, where – just as in the nearby towns of Montelibano and Puerto Libertador, the civilian population is constantly at risk because of the presence of assorted illegal armed groups.
According to an alert issued last November by the Ombudsman’s Office, at least 22,132 peasants and indigenous people living in rural areas of those three municipalities are at the mercy of the Gaitanista Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), the heirs of the paramilitary groups who are in conflict with dissidents from the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Cordoba Gov. Sandra Devia told reporters that Hurtado’s killing “could be linked” to a revenge murder ordered by a local leader of the Clan del Golfo, the largest criminal group in Colombia.
The director of the Cordobexia Social Foundation, Andres Chica, told EFE that the murdered woman “did not belong to a peasant social organization but she was a leader within the community on the matter of the invasion of a property owned by the father of (Tierralta) Mayor” Fabio Otero.
A few hours after the killing, the local city hall issued a statement saying that Hurtado was not a social leader and had not been threatened by the Black Eagles, another paramilitary group.
“Paramilitary control of the Black Eagles and the AGC remains alive in Tierralta given the blind eye of local authorities, police and the military,” said the director of Cordobexia, which had denounced Hurtado’s killing.
Hurtado had moved to Tierralta from Puerto Tejada in southwestern Cauca province more than 10 years ago seeking a better life, and on Sunday morning her casket was returned to her hometown.
Despite the nationwide indignation over the crime expressed on the social networks, Hurtado’s wake was only sparsely attended at the home of her mother, Juana Montaño, where just two relatives were present, EFE learned.
Her funeral is scheduled for Monday.
According to Chica, whether or not Hurtado was a social leader, “she was a part of the process of invading the land” of the mayor’s family and her murder could be linked to that.
“This has led to a systematic series of threats and murders. With Maria del Pilar, four people have been murdered by criminals who came to their houses and killed them,” he said.
The fight over land, which is at the root of Colombia’s armed conflict, is not new in southern Cordoba, where for decades paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug traffickers have been locked in bloody strife that had left a trail of death.
The new situation that has social leaders in the crosshairs originates with “the laying down of arms by the FARC and the creation of a power vacuum that has been exploited by the AGC to exercise hegemonic power over the public, the territory and the illicit economies” in the area, the Ombudsman’s Office said.
Amid this growing hostility among illegal armed groups in the region, “the risks for social, ethnic (and) community ... leaders, and human rights defenders is being aggravated.”
The bloodshed is being repeated in several parts of Colombia and a study by the NGO Peace and Development Studies Institute (Indepaz) and the Marcha Patriotica political movement found that more than 700 social leaders and 135 former FARC guerrillas have been murdered since 2016, the year when the rebel group signed a comprehensive peace pact with the government putting an end to more than 50 years of armed conflict – a conflict that does not seem to be disappearing.