06 July 2018: On the 3rd of July, most Colombians were celebrating a stunning performance from their national team at the football World Cup. Yet at the same time, several assassinations and massacres were happening in different regions across Colombia, and a horrific audio recording was being shared across civil society. Whilst many Colombians will remember this day as the day we were defeated by England in the World Cup, this article calls for Colombia to denounce violence on this day and every day, and protect its social leaders and peacebuilders by raising awareness of the risks they are facing by serving their communities.

Violence continues during the World Cup

As people watched the football match unfold, a short audio clip no longer than 3 minutes was being shared on different social platforms. The clip was a conversation between a man and a woman, a teacher from a small municipality called San Pablo, in the south of Bolívar province. In the clip, the woman is being threatened, and told to “pick up her belongings” and leave town if she wants to stay alive. The woman explains “I’m only a teacher working in a small school, I’m not causing any harm.” The man insists that she must leave the region, otherwise he will kill her, as “in this region we kill whoever we want to”. Even when the woman describes the suffering she has experienced as a victim of war and violence, the man is indifferent, telling her that he will tell her superiors that they will have to pick up her body if she does not get out from town soon. You can feel her fear even though she tries to sound calm and strong in front of her aggressor. It may sound like something from a horror movie, yet sadly the clip was not fake news. It was a real conversation between a paramilitary leader from San Pablo, and a teacher called Deyanira Ballestas who was being threatened. As this article is being written, the fate of Deyanira remains unknown; and the audio clip she was heard in sheds light on the intimidation and the incitement of terror being carried out by paramilitary groups.

Since 2016, when the peace agreement between FARC and the government was signed, 282 social leaders have been murdered

The same day the audio was released, more violence was perpetrated across Colombia: the massacre of seven people in Argelia, Cauca[1], the killing of a female social leader from Chocó, and the shooting of another social leader in Atlántico province. In the last instance, this took place while he was watching the football match England Vs Colombia at home[2]. What we do know for sure is that during 2018, 98 social leaders, peacebuilders and human rights defenders have been killed and political leaders have talked about 19 social leaders killed during the last eight days[3]. Since 2016, when the peace agreement between FARC and the government was signed, 282 social leaders have been murdered[4].

A group forgotten by all

When social leaders are supporting land restitution processes that benefit victims of armed conflict, the voluntary substitution of illicit crops and the promoting the implementation of the peace agreement, it’s easy to see why they are often the targets of illegal armed groups or criminal organisations[5]. The Colombian government may have recognised security and protection as being one of the biggest challenges Colombia is facing; yet state presence is still not limited, and investigations about the crimes against social leaders and human rights defenders are not conclusive. There is also a lack of political will to establish who is responsible for those crimes and to identify any sort of pattern to their occurrence[6].

Being a social leader in Colombia is a nightmare, that is for sure. Not because of the fact they may be killed at any time, or because they must deal with the sort of phone calls Deyanira experienced on a daily basis, but because citizens are totally indifferent to those murders. Many feel that the people in Colombia do not care at all about the key role social leaders plays in the most vulnerable regions of the country; there is no sense of respect for their sacrifice and their work. Most disappointingly, most people believe social leaders are being killed because they are interfering on issues that are not their business, and they are upsetting the wrong people. With this logic, the numbers of social leaders killed will continue to increase. The government in Colombia is about to change and under the new government, social leaders’ protection and security has not been identified as an issue at all, not during the campaign and not now: on the 3rdof July the focus of the social media activity of the incoming political party was about the football match; not a word was said about the social leaders killed nor the disturbing audio clip.

Being a social leader in Colombia is a nightmare, that is for sure

International and civil society organisations, as well as the international community represented by the United Nations, may be aware of this critical situation that is seeing Colombia lose its social leaders[7], yet making the life of our social leaders matter to the whole of society remains a challenge. By today, thousands of Colombians using social media will probably know that Deyanira´s life is under threat, although not many people will do anything about it. If by tomorrow it is reported that Deyanira has been killed, many people will look the other way.

A cry for change

This article hopes to be a shout, a cry, an exclamation to people around the world, to encourage Colombia to protect its social leaders and peacebuilders by raising awareness of the risks they are facing in Colombia every single day because wider society is not protecting them. We cannot talk about peacebuilding unless society cares about its past and cares about its present, and the fate of those who work for their communities and their rights. It is useless to insist on a peaceful society if people still believe it is normal for some people to die if they think or act differently, or if they were upsetting the wrong people. We need the support of global peacebuilders to defeat and denounce violence against our social leaders, and to tackle the indifference with the rest of our society to respond to these unfortunate events. Hopefully through mobilisation, articles like this one and by making a lot of noise, we can change the end of this horror story and somehow, save the lives of Deyanira and those like her.


It is useless to insist on a peaceful society if people still believe it is normal for some people to die if they think or act differently









Bryan on July 8, 2018, 9:32 p.m.

Having lived in Colombia for 4 years, the title of this article is a question I often found myself asking. The overwhelming majority of Colombians are offended at its mere suggestion, though, and this is, in fact, a good part of the problem. This piece is the most honest addressing of this question that I have yet to see in print by a Colombian author. Well-said.

Walter Conger on July 8, 2018, 10:36 p.m.

Amazing article. After 15 years of visiting Colombia, and 5 of living here, I am sorry to say that I really don't think Colombians care about much of anything other than themselves and their family and gente conocido...from their rudeness, bad manners, denials, excuses, and quick willingness to argue and even fight over things they disagree with, I am seriously considering leaving my adopted country. From the absurd difficulties and obstacles in daily life – the insane “public transportation system,” the virtual enslavement and abuse of workers by the moneyed-class, the unreasonable wait-times in lines everywhere just to pay bills, the unprecedented corruption in politics and business, the annoying/crazy-making sound systems to advertise restaurants, markets, vendors in the street – you name it – Colombians just seem to expect just about any sh*t they have to deal with; the usually explanation/excuse is “It’s always been that way.” And that attitude right there is why I think Colombia remains stuck in the past, with very little hope *or even desire*, for a better life. The futbol issue brings up a very interesting sociopolitical discussion, not limited to Colombians. Sociologists and philosophers – usually described as “leftist” – have, for many years described the shallow, impersonal distractions of the commercialized and sexualized “modern society” that permit the oligarchs, billionaires, and monsters (like Trump) to continue to exploit, rob, and lie to “the people.” It was a late Roman observer that summarized how games, jingoism, and self-interest allowed them to be virtually robbed at every level of their lives – “give them bread and circuses”: “A phrase used by a Roman writer to deplore the declining heroism of Romans after the Roman Republic ceased to exist and the Roman Empire began: “Two things only the people anxiously desire — bread and circuses.” The government kept the Roman populace happy by distributing free food and staging huge spectacles. And it’s the exact, same dynanmic today, with corporate sports, adoration of “celebrities,” and governmental manipulation of the people’s emotions and fantasies of “being the best.” “America is the greatest country in the world,” is a good example. “We won! We’re the best team in the world,” is another. “We” didn’t win anything; millionaire athletes won a stupid game, and the population goes ape-sh*t, as if “they” had anything to do with that. Futbol and other organized sports in other parts of the world allow the “powers-that-be” to continually exploit “the people.” Screams, cries, and fights about “we won!” are like narcotics to the “common man.” False pride, jingoism, even racism are stoked by those in authority to numb the average citizen into complacency while their countries are virtually raped for the benefit of those in power – the adinerados. It is inhuman, disgusting, all-pervasive, and Orwellian.

Torbjörn Aste on July 10, 2018, 8:44 p.m.

Thank you for sharing this and at the same time make Colombias problematic situation comprehensible without being to negative. I myself is from Sweden and I have been to Colombia 12 times since 2008! Actually I was in Colombia the first time 1970 as a sailor, but it was a different time! Anyway what you say so so strongly put the finger or I would say the whole fist on the problematic situation in Colombia. But somehow I love this country, but sometimes I am reminded of the reality like when I read your article! Thank you for sharing it!

More from the blog

There has been a rise in violence in Kashmir, amid claims of a growing acceptance of these killings in the public psyche. This article seeks to shed light on the roots of the violence, one of which stems from an increase in recruitment of young people into militant groups. The author describes young people in Kashmir as a tinder box, with the potential both for violence, and for sparking movements to peace. Their actions carry the possibility of provoking conflict, but also the means to turn against it. Read more »

25 September 2018

Peace Direct is looking for organisations that would be interested in participating in a Peace Exchange in Kismayo which will take place from 10-12 December 2018. Read more »

17 October 2018

In this quarterly edition, Local Peacebuilding Experts from Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia, India (Kashmir), Lebanon, Pakistan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen provide their latest analysis of conflict in their areas - and what it means for peacebuilders. Read more »

21 December 2018

More from the blog