I filmed Bautista when she gave that speech, and again when her family members hovered over her casket. For the past four years, I have been following the Indigenous movement Bautista belonged to in Colombia’s Cauca department while making a documentary about their nonviolent community defense force, the Indigenous Guardians. Cauca is a hotbed of the country’s 56-year armed conflict. When I first arrived in the summer of 2016, the Colombian government was finalizing a historic peace accord with the FARC rebel group after four years of painstaking negotiation. Everyone I interviewed expressed cautious optimism that the generations-long violence engulfing their communities might finally end. Instead, it only transformed.
Colombians narrowly struck down the peace deal in a public referendum vote a month before Donald Trump was elected president. In both countries, the far right’s rhetoric of fear and division triumphed. Subsequent revisions to the agreement, implementation failures and retaliatory violence against former combatants drove thousands of Colombians to rearm. The guerrillas splintered into dissident factions and new armed groups emerged, with rebels, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers all seeking to fill the power vacuum the FARC left behind. Since then, targeted killings have exploded. Leaders from predominantly rural, minority communities are bearing the brunt of a new wave of violence for organizing to defend their rights and their land. The promise of peace failed them.
Now, almost every person I am documenting has death threats against them. I have to hide in the backseat of vehicles to reach their villages, and as we ascend the mountains, the driver rolls down the windows for insurgent groups monitoring who comes in and out. Last year, the Nasa Indigenous people recorded 66 killings of members of their community in the area where I am working, northern Cauca. Two more murders occurred there recently during a single day, while I was writing this column.
It’s clear that the Biden administration must step in to protect communities in Colombia and resuscitate the country’s peace process. After the inauguration, a coalition of Indigenous, Black and farmer organizations addressed a letter to President Biden and Vice President Harris pleading for U.S. support. They seek help to carry out the agreements established in the 2016 accord, revive peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a different rebel group, and initiate talks with others — as well as facilitate rural development programs.
President Biden has a moral obligation to answer their calling. According to Bogota-based peace research institute Indepaz, at least 1,000 of social leaders have been assassinated since the signing of the peace deal — 195 last year. So far, 2021 is on track to meet or exceed last year’s death toll.
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has urged the Colombian government to intervene in this epidemic of killings, but without stronger international pressure, the right-wing administration of President IvánDuque, whose party opposed the peace process since its inception, will let the situation continue to deteriorate. The United States must hold it accountable.
It could do that by designating a special U.S. envoy for peace, securing congressional funding to implement programs in the accord and establishing a formal system to monitor its progress. The United States should also facilitate rural development programs in many parts of Colombia, where the state provides little more than armed forces fueling conflict.
Biden has an opportunity to depart from the U.S. legacy in Colombia of grossly financing militarization and aggressive counternarcotics efforts, which have demonstrably failed: Colombia is producing more of the raw ingredient for cocaine than ever before, and the bloodshed continues. During his time as a member of Congress, Biden entrenched those strategies in 2002 through his role in fortifying Plan Colombia, a $9.9 billion aid package, more than 70 percent of which funded Colombian security forces while they carried out egregious human rights violations. Biden touted his contributions to the controversial plan in an October column published in one of the country’s most prominent newspapers, El Tiempo; the column did not mention the word “peace” once.
To cement its commitment to human rights in the region, the Biden administration must instead support the grass-roots movements that are both suffering the most from the conflict’s current iteration and leading some of the most effective, internationally recognized efforts against it. Solutions to the violence lie in community organizing and structural reforms, not military might.
Peace will be built from the ground up, and that is what Colombians such as Cristina Bautista deserve.