SANTANDER de QUILICHAO, COLOMBIA – In June, Clemencia Carabali received her first death threat this year. She was in her office planning workshops for the local community, when an unknown man called her personal phone and told her she had until 5 p.m. that day to leave the territory, or be killed. Then he hung up.
The call might have been enough to make some people flee, but the sturdy Carabali stayed put. The human rights defender has long been working with Afro-descendent communities in the north of Cauca, a department along Colombia’s Pacific coast. She teaches them about their rights, and how to legally defend and reclaim territories that were violently taken from them during the country’s five-decade civil war.
“We’re trying to plant a small seed so that something changes,” Carabali tells me in an interview at her office in July. “If we don’t do it for ourselves, nobody will do it for us.”
But her decision to stay in Cauca doesn’t mean she’s not afraid. Her voice drops when she speaks about the phone call, and she is not allowed to tell details about two other death threats she has received since then, both of which are currently under police investigation.
“It’s really hard . . . because we know that this is a sign of the hard times that are coming,” she says, staring into the distance.
These kinds of threats are taken very seriously in Colombia, where it is becoming increasingly dangerous to be a human rights advocate. Since the government and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, signed a historic peace agreement in 2016, ending more than a half century of war, at least 340 social leaders have been assassinated. Among those killed are human rights advocates, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, local politicians, leftist professors, and journalists.
One of the most recent documented cases is a leader among the indigenous Nasa people, Holmes Alberto Niscue, a longtime advocate for indigenous land rights. He was killed by three gunshot wounds to the head in front of his home in Tumaco, in the department of Nariño, only 200 meters from a local police station. Afro-Colombian leader and avid defender of natural resources Luis Alberto Rivas Gómez was also killed by hired gunmen near his home in the department of Antioquia in August.
The assassinations have caused alarm among the international community, with everyone from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations denouncing the killings and demanding that the Colombian government do more to protect human rights workers, including strengthening its justice system.
Even the United States, long a close ally of Colombia and its largest contributor of both humanitarian aid and military funding, has spoken out about the abuse. During the last session of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review, U.S. State Department official Huda Ibrahim told Colombian officials that the United States was “concerned” about these threats to human rights workers and the high rate of impunity for their murders. She also recommended that Colombia promptly hold guilty parties accountable and intensify their investigations around these cases.