Killing With Impunity, Every Three Days
May 30, 2018
Tom Laffay, Emily Wright, and Daniel Bustos
“We made this film because no one, particularly the US media, seemed to care,” Tom Laffay told The Atlantic. Laffay, a filmmaker and journalist based in Bogotá, is referring to the parlous situation in Colombia, where social leaders and community organizers are routinely assassinated with impunity. “The rate is now at one killing every three days,” Laffay said.
“What is unusual isn’t the assassinations per se, as we’ve long been normalized to violence here,” said Daniel Bustos, who co-directed the documentary They’re Killing Us, premiering on The Atlantic today, with Laffay and Emily Wright. “Rather, it was the systematic pattern of victims that emerged: all men and women that had been fighting for the rights of their communities.”
The murders are the fallout of a peace accord signed in September 2016 between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The hope was that the deal would bring about the end of a violent 60-year civil war that killed a quarter-of-a-million Colombians and internally displaced more than six million. During the conflict, FARC, a Marxist rebel group, fought the longest-running armed insurgency in the Western Hemisphere. It controlled 170,000 acres of coca in the country, which produced 50% of the world’s cocaine, yielding a profit of $600 million annually.
Following the terms of the agreement, FARC has demobilized and disassembled into camps across Colombia over the past two years. The onus was on the Colombian government to fill the power vacuum. It dropped the ball.
“The territories FARC controlled are left with no authorities,” said Wright. “The Colombian state never had a presence in many of those areas. And so in Cauca [in the Colombian countryside] alone, there are a reported 12 different armed groups now operating, mainly as narco-trafficking organizations.”
“It’s the social leaders and human and environmental rights defenders whose shoulders the burden of building peace rests upon,” added Laffay.
Over the course of a year, Laffay, Wright, and Bustos filmed They’re Killing Us in Northern Cauca. The filmmakers followed local activists, many of them from indigenous communities, as they sought to peaceably fill FARC’s void.
“Because the government is absent, we’ve had to make our own government,” says Hector Marino, the leader of an Afro-descendent community, in the film. “Our objective? To control and protect our communities.” As a result of his efforts, Marino claims he has “appeared in pamphlets with photos offering 4 million pesos for my head.”
“I’ve been the victim of three assassination attempts,” says Feliciano Valencia, an Indigenous Nasa social leader and land activist, in the film. “They killed my brother-in-law while he was resting at home. My cousin was on his motorcycle. He was stopped and they executed him.”
The more than 150 assassinations that have been reported thus far are presumed to have been carried out by armed gangs and dissident rebels seeking to control the territory for the purposes of illegal mining and coca farming. “Activists defending those land rights are often seen simply as a threat to economic interests,” Wright explained. “The situation was—and is—devastating.”
“It’s a nightmare,” said Bustos.
“In this country, fear works,” says Diana Sanchez, the director of Somos Defensores, an organization monitoring persecution and assassination of human rights defenders, in the documentary. “When people see themselves on a death pamphlet, they say, ‘Okay, I’m keeping quiet now.’ The majority of these cases—80-90%—will not be investigated. They will go unpunished….The deaths are affecting the lower class, and the lower class doesn’t count to the owners of this country.”
As the Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez wrote in his haunting novel about the country’s drug wars, The Sound of Things Falling: “What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over.”
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Author: Emily Buder
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A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.