It was with great fanfare that the Colombian government signed a peace deal in 2016 with rebel fighters, heralding a new beginning for the South American country after decades of war and conflict.
But peace has proved elusive amid rising bloodshed, a spike in killings of civil rights leaders and former guerrillas by paramilitaries and criminal groups and the slow pace of reconciliation.
Almost three years after the peace deal was signed, Colombian-Canadians will take to the streets on Friday as part of a global effort to draw attention to the situation in their homeland.
“People outside of Colombia think everything is OK after the peace agreement, but it’s not,” said Sandra Cordero, a union activist who sought political asylum in Canada in 2002 after she and her family received death threats from paramilitaries in Bogota over her advocacy work. “People continue to be displaced and murdered. The only power we have is speaking out.”
Raul Burbano of Common Frontiers, an international labour and human rights advocacy group, said Canada’s 100,000-strong Colombian-Canadian community was ecstatic when the peace accord was signed, but is now disappointed by the delay in land redistribution to people displaced by the conflict and the slow pace with which a truth commission is working to seek out facts about the killings committed during the war.
“Colombia has had a history of peace agreements that failed and we don’t want history to repeat,” said Burbano, whose group is among the organizers of the Walk for Peace and Life in Toronto, one of 180 cities around the world staging the International Day of Mobilization, including Montreal and Ottawa.
The 2016 agreement ended Colombia’s 50-year guerrilla war which left more than 220,000 dead and countless missing and displaced. As part of the peace deal, the guerrilla group — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or FARC-EP — was disarmed and demobilized.
According to a report by the United Nations Security Council in June, the overall progress of the implementation of the accord has been “mixed” and the country remains polarized.
Despite efforts in reintegrating former guerrillas and implementing development programs in conflict-plagued areas, parts of Colombia are still wracked with violence as groups fight for control in a postwar vacuum, it said.
The report also raised alarm over the killing of social and community leaders and former FARC-EP members, saying illicit economies, including drugs and illegal mining, remain a source of violence in the country and a threat to the peace process.
“The challenge of protecting communities affected by the conflict, social leaders and former FARC-EP members lies in establishing a comprehensive and effective state presence in these remote and historically neglected areas,” noted the report. “While that is a long-term challenge that successive administrations have failed to meet, it cannot be postponed and must now be tackled with urgency.”
Since the signing of the peace accord, the United Nations has officially verified 123 killings of former combatants and at least 230 social leaders and human rights defenders.
Colombian officials said President Ivan Duque Marquez’s government is committed to the peace pact process and made progress in rural development and reintegration of former guerrilla members. More than 500 projects are already underway and 1,000 families have so far benefited from proper land registry.
Despite the efforts, Colombian ambassador to Canada Federico Hoyos said there are still challenges from some sectors of the FARC-EP who still engage in violence and illegal activities. His government, he said, condemns all attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders.
“Every loss of life is a tragedy,” Hoyos told the Star in an email. “The stabilization policy entails deep and complex reforms at all levels and, consequently, many aspects of the stabilization will not be visible overnight. The negotiation of the agreement took more than four years, and President Duque’s mandate is just wrapping up its first year. These transformations take time, but we are on the right track.”
Craig Damian Smith, associate director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, has interviewed recent Colombian refugees who arrived in Canada as part of a larger study about irregular migration from the United States.
“From what we’re hearing, the peace agreement is poorly implemented and has no or little effect on their quality of life. There appears to be no political will behind it,” said Smith, who specializes in migration and displacement.
Luis Alberto Mata of Toronto’s Colombia Action Solidarity Alliance said no one expected complex conflicts would be fixed overnight, but says the government has changed some of the terms of the accord unilaterally and has taken no real steps to implement it.
“We want to build peace and social justice. It starts by respecting the right to live. We want to call on the international community to support this wonderful dream,” said Mata, a former journalist, who fled to Canada in 2002 with his lawyer wife and son after receiving repeated threats from paramilitary forces. “The one thing we can’t lose now is hope.”
According to Canada’s refugee board, the number of Colombian refugee claimants tripled to 2,582 last year from 820 in 2016, with another 671 seeking asylum in the first three months of 2019 alone.
Friday’s peace walk will start at 6 p.m. at Matt Cohen Park near Spadina Ave. and Bloor St. W.
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Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung