The police massacre of civilians on 5 October 2017 in Tumaco, southern Colombia, threatens the peace process and emphasises state failure to comply with the terms of the agreement.

The massacre by security forces of nine peasant farmers in Alto Mira y Frontera, a village in Lorrente in Tumaco (Nariño), on Thursday 5 October represents at least three serious problems for the Colombian peace process. First, it undermines the Havana agreement, particularly Point Four which emphasises voluntary substitution of illicit crops. Second, it raises issues of how security forces violate human rights and the right to protest when they intervene in social demonstrations. And third, it casts doubt on the possibility that the post-conflict will lead to democracy and the elimination of violence, more so when one considers other events taking place in different parts of the country.

Before addressing these issues, we must note that full clarity has still not been established about what happened in the collective territory of Alto Mira y Frontera, inhabited by around 4,000 families whose subsistence mainly depends on coca cultivation.

In a concise statement published that same day, 5 October, by the Ministry of Defence in Bogota, the army and the police claimed that the attack on the civil population was ‘apparently’ committed by the leader of a dissident FARC group who went by the alias ‘Guacho’. They also asserted that the dissidents were forcing the community to protest over eradication. According to the official version, the dissident group launched ‘at least five cylinder bombs at members of the Public Force [police] and the assembled crowd, before attacking demonstrators and the authorities with indiscriminate rifle and machine gun fire’, causing the deaths of four civilians and injuring another 14.

However, the National Coordinator of Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers (Coordinadora Nacional de Cultivadores Coca, Marihuana y Amapola, COCCAM) tells another version based on information from the community present during the incident. In a preliminary report, the organisation says that since 29 September peasant farmers had been protesting against the police deployment of at least 1,000 officers to conduct forced eradication. This saw around 1,000 people form a human circle protecting the crops they depend on for subsistence. But on 5 October, between 10.30am and 11am, the police ‘without warning opened fire indiscriminately upon the population’.

Regarding the Ministry of Defence statement, the COCCAM states that ‘there is no trace of explosive impacts in the zone, and if acts were committed against the police, there has been no report of any injured or dead members of the security forces’.

Furthermore, on 5 October, the Community Council of Pueblo Negro Alto Mira y Frontera, based in San Andrés de Tumaco, reported that the community had expressed several concerns over risks posed to its members by the presence of armed groups which compete for the territory and recruit young people, causing ‘displacement, confinement of hundreds of families and terror in different villages’. It said that ‘during recent weeks, armed groups have been pressuring the community … and seeking to use them as human shields against the intervention of security forces implementing forced eradication’.

Against this confusing atmosphere, a group of civil representatives and experts from the National Commission of Security Guarantees criticised the incident and demanded ‘the intervention of the Office of the Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo), the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights and the UN’s Second Mission, to verify the situation in the zone and accompany the communities affected’. In addition, it supported the creation of a civil Verification Mission to collaborate in the investigation.

On Sunday 8 October, the Office of the Ombudsman released a statement condemning the police’s responsibility for the incident. According to the document, ‘the demonstrators state they were attacked with firearms by members of counternarcotics police. They claim that at the time of the incident, there was no intervention by illegal armed groups (dissidents of the FARC), and that no cylinder bombs or so-called ‘tatuco’ bombs were launched or activated, contradicting the authorities’ reports’. The Ombudsman therefore asked the Public Prosecutor to proceed with a special investigation.

However, the group of experts warned that ‘it is a duty of State to guarantee clarification of the incident and sanction those responsible, and to impede attempts to divert, obstruct or manipulate evidence in the first urgent steps of the investigation, to ensure an adequate chain of custody, the practice of technical tests and the removal of members of apparently-implicated security forces from the crime scene’.

So far, human rights defenders refer to nine dead and over 50 injured in the events at Alto Mira y Frontera. The government says that eight people died.

Forced eradication makes substitution unviable

For César Jerez, national spokesperson of COCCAM, ‘the murder of our comrades in Tumaco is terrible and it demonstrates the government’s monumental non-completion of the substitution agreement’. But furthermore, he adds, this issue is the product of pressure that the United States of America government, headed by President Donald Trump, exercises over the process.

‘The United States government is pressuring to solely emphasise forceful measures and even on returning to aerial fumigations with glyphosate. There are interests of people who have grown rich on the contracts of Plan Colombia and the supposed fight against drugs through fumigation and eradication. This pressure obliges the Colombia government to improvise, to act with negligence, and to choose violence as a supposed way of addressing the problem of illicit crops’, declares Jerez.

The community leader concludes that the strategy of forced eradication will make the agreement over substitution unviable. According to him, ‘the government is failing to fulfil substitution programmes and this is justifying the same forms of eradication, which demonstrates cynicism by the government as you cannot combine substitution – which is of structural character – with forceful measures and actions that violate human rights’.

The Community Board of Pueblo Negro Alto Mira y Frontera warned in its statement that, despite the African-descendant community’s insistence to implement the National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops, this has had a ‘pachyderm-like rhythm, while forced eradication advances at full speed in different villages in our territory, demonstrating an enormous contradiction with the agreements contained in the peace accord between the government and the FARC-EP’. This serious issue ‘has fed anxiety, uncertainty and distrust among many members of the Community Board’.

This situation, insists Jerez, led to the government’s serious error and to excessive force used during the eradication strategy. As such, the COCCAM spokesperson requests ‘an exhaustive investigation and for the public officials responsible for these murders to face judicial courts’.

The continuation of violence threatens peace

For Diego Herrera Duque, president of the Popular Training Institute (Instituto Popular de Capacitación, IPC), ‘the massacre of peasant farmers in Tumaco is deplorable at a time when we speak of peace, of negotiated political solution and civil pathway, and not forms of violence. It is society’s alternative way of settling conflict’.

According to Herrera Duque, the gradual manner that Colombian peasant farmers are stigmatised and criminalised as responsible for the increase in illicit crops is critical. And, in this sense, the actions of the police in Tumaco send a very bad message.

The sociologist and social investigator, Max Yuri Gil, insists that the most important thing now is the implementation of a commission to clarify the truth about what happened. He warns that ‘it would be terrible if the police is confirmed as responsible for the massacre, but it’d be even worse if it turns out they tried to cover up their responsibility. To demonstrate institutional responsibility, this must be punished with utmost severity’.

That’s why the sociologist expresses concern around the way that the police, generally, acts against the right to protest. He sees parallels with the violent repression currently experienced by Catalan citizens in Spain during the independence referendum. Although the contexts are different, the question arises: what are the limits of police action in a democratic society?

‘I believe that in neither of the two cases, in Spain or Colombia, are there questions over the existence of the police force, nor its role as guardians in a State of law, or of minimal norms of coexistence. But this in no way means it can do anything carte blanche’, explains Max Yuri.

To conclude, Diego Herrera suggests that the Tumaco massacre is ‘an event which generates a very hostile atmosphere and reiterates that in Colombia peasant farmers are the most vulnerable sector regarding any peaceful alternative or the risks contained within the present agreement with the FARC or the eventual agreement with the ELN [National Liberation Army, Colombia’s ongoing and unresolved guerrilla insurgency]. Therefore, dark forces and the dirty war can focus on the peasant population and justify these kinds of state actions on the basis of stigmatisation’.

The outlook is worrying when other events in the country are considered, such as the advance of paramilitary groups, the murder of FARC members undergoing reintegration processes, and the systematic aggressions and murders of social leaders and human rights defenders; the most recent incident was the paramilitary killing at the weekend of indigenous leader Ezquivel Manyoma of the Pueblo Embera Dobida in the community of Dabeiba Queracito, in the municipality of Medio Baudó, department of Chocó.

The role of the mainstream media

According to Max Yuri, a key issue is the mainstream media’s role in covering the massacre, ‘because I can’t help noticing the differential treatment of victims and victimisers. If ELN guerrillas or FARC dissidents had committed this act, the media would dedicate 24 hours a day to covering it, we would already know the identities of the victims, their family histories, the full impact on their lives. But the silence and euphemisms around what’s happened stand out: unclear incidents, issues to be established, victims of violence… I truthfully believe that we face a massacre committed by institutional authorities and it is clear to me that we must demand the truth about what occurred’.

Translation by Alborada. 

This article was originally published in Prensa Rural. To read the original Spanish-language version of this article, click here.