On Friday May 11, four gunmen shot at Colombian Senator Alexander Lopez Maya’s security detail in Cali, prompting the senator’s bodyguards to return fire. Fortunately, Senator Lopez, a former trade unionist and a champion for labor rights, human rights, and anti-corruption efforts, was unscathed. Although the perpetrators of the crime fled the scene, their message was clear—stop advocating for Colombia’s disenfranchised, ethnic, poor and working class people.
The attack came after Senator Lopez called for accountability and fiscal transparency in the government’s commitments to the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee. Last year, citizens of Buenaventura, Colombia’s most important port city, held a 22-day protest demanding that the government improve access to potable water, security, infrastructure, and adequate health services. As part of an agreement reached between the government and the protest’s leaders, the Colombian government pledged to create a COP$1.5 billion (US$342 million) autonomous fund to fulfill the commitments it made with the people of Buenaventura.
As of yet, President Santos’ outgoing administration has not obtained an international loan to uphold this project, nor taken other necessary steps to create and regulate the fund. Senator Lopez, who has long fought for the rights of Buenaventura’s Afro-Colombian community and for the port city’s labor unions, organized a session to take stock of the agreement and prevent further irregularities.
The attack against Senator Lopez was vile and cowardly. The assassination attempt follows a series of efforts to discredit the leaders of the Buenaventura Civic Strike, such as falsehoods published on social media targeting Afro-Colombian community leader Victor Vidal. Notably, the attack against Lopez took place the same day that employees at the Buenaventura Ombudsman’s Office received death threats. As evidenced by the recent assassination of Don Temis, one of the civic strike’s organizers, the threats and attacks against labor and human rights activists could very well escalate to murder.
Colombia’s National Protection Unit (UNP) and National Police responded to the attack against Lopez by releasing press release that same day, stating that Lopez had not experienced an assassination attempt but an attempt at armed robbery. Such a claim is hardly believable given the context of Lopez’s work and the fact that an investigation into what happened could not have occurred so quickly. Perhaps Senator Lopez put it best when he said, “In 30 years they have not been able to find the culprits and reasons behind most political killings, but in my case they know it’s a robbery just hours later.”
Another major problem is how Colombia’s National Protection Unit, which is responsible for offering protection to civilians and politicians under the risk of political violence immediately shuns responsibility when scrutinized by the media and tries to put the blame on the victims. The National Protection Union previously did this with the murder of Bernardo Cuero of the Afro-Colombian community association AFRODES. Perhaps in this case the National Protection Unit wants to shift attention away from the fact that they did not provide Senator Lopez with the additional security measures its own risk analysis team recommended.
Last week, Colombia had its Universal Periodic Review in Geneva and the results were grim. While Colombia’s historic peace agreement formally ended over 50 years of civil conflict, social leaders continue to be targeted by illicit armed groups, with over 100 leaders killed the past year. Colombia must follow through on this recommendation made by the U.S. delegation to the United Nations: promptly hold accountable those responsible for attacks on human rights defenders and members of vulnerable groups.