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article imageIn Colombia, human rights activists live in constant fear

By Héctor Velasco (AFP)     Jul 25, 2018 in World

One day after Luis Dagua last left his farm in Colombia's southwest his body was found, his head shattered with a rock.

He was a 64-year-old farmer and rights activist and left behind four children.

At around the same time, the body of Iber Angulo, an activist for black rights in the region, was found floating in a river.

He had been abducted by an armed group on May 5.

Colombia is in the grip of terror with rights activists the primary targets for violent gangs battling for control of the lucrative drug trafficking trade.

Since the landmark peace deal signed between the government and Marxist guerrillas FARC in December 2016, 326 human rights activists have been killed.

One indigenous, black or peasant rights activist is murdered every three days, and many in the Cauca department where Dagua lived, in which 43 percent of the population are indigenous or black.

Military checkpoints at the entrances to Cauca warn of the dangers lurking in the region, which has accounted for 81 of the 326 murders, according to the Ombudsman's Office.

Juan Carlos Chindicue is amongst those trying to escape a similarly gruesome fate. He's come to the village of Toez, near where Dagua was found, to hide out amongst the indigenous guard -- but they're armed only with sticks.

- 'Phantom of death' -

He left behind his wife in nearby Cali, one of the most violent cities in the world, with almost 50 murders per 100,000 citizens last year.

"There's always been this anxiety, this fear of dying in the streets, in the towns, in the country," Chindicue, who looks after his two children aged six and nine, told AFP.

"Now, the phantom of death has awakened once again."

After taking part in a demonstration aimed at protecting a wetland, Chindicue was threatened by two men on a motorcycle and later his name appeared on a leaflet.

Terror has become an epidemic in Colombia where social and human rights activists and leaders, as well as journalists, receive threats by leaflets, social media, phone calls and SMS messages.

"We don't have as much joy as we used to have, now there's more sadness, tears and despair."

Since seeking protection amongst the indigenous guard, Chindicue says his children have been terrified and never leave his side.

"When I think about this it gives me greater strength to carry on," he added.

Threats have been issued against 35 rights leaders in northern Cauca through leaflets, some of which arrived at their homes or, having been thrown from vehicles, were photographed by passers by and uploaded to social media.

In the case of Dagua, he had received an intimidating phone call in March but wasn't threatened directly.

- Anyone a target -

He belonged to an indigenous peasant movement created 20 years ago during the 50-year-long Marxist insurgency to protect their territory from guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers and the army.

"Here, anyone who speaks out is a target," said a local leader, who requested to remain anonymous.

He questioned the army, which patrols the area but has failed to protect locals.

Indigenous groups here have found themselves caught up in the explosion violence perpetrated by armed gangs fighting over the drug trade.

Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine, much of which is destined for the US market.

What's changed since the end of FARC's 50-year insurgency and the peace deal that turned the former guerrillas into a political party is that various dissident groups have splintered away to continue their armed struggle.

"For many years we knew who was responsible for the strife, so much so that we saw them, chased them and captured them," said Eduin Capaz, human rights co-ordinator for the North Caute Association of Indigenous Councils.

But now, he says "it's much more difficult to pursue and identify" members of the armed groups because "sometimes we don't know who's threatening us."

The indigenous guard keep copies of the threatening leaflets emblazoned with the seals of the various armed gangs. But faced with enemies carrying automatic weapons, they have only brightly coloured sticks with which to defend themselves, and those who seek their protection.

"They only go for the leaders, those who speak out the most, those whose voices speak loudest, those are the ones they look for," said Joseiver Collazos, a 50-year-old farmer who manages one of the indigenous guard posts.

Chindicue is one of those, and so too was Dagua.

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