Peasant politics, criminal persecution and authoritarianism in Colombia



The irregular arrest of three renowned leaders of the agrarian social movements in Colombia needs to be analysed as a counter-reaction against the recent wave of contentious politics in the countryside. It also points to increasing authoritarianism in Colombian politics.

On December 15th and 16th 2020, three well-known defenders of Colombian land and human rights, Robert Daza from CIMA (Comité de Integración del Macizo Colombiano), Teófilo Acuña (Mesa de Interlocución del Sur de Bolívar), and Adelso Gallo from ASONALCA (Asociación Nacional Campesina José Antonio Galán Zorro), were arrested in three different locations in Colombia by the Attorney General’s Office and the Colombian Police.  The leaders and their organizations are all members of CNA (Coordinador Nacional Agrario), one of the largest peasant umbrella organizations in Colombia. They have been accused of rebellion and will face a criminal trial in which their responsibility will be determined.

The irregular arrests were rapidly repudiated by leaders of social movements’, human rights activists and popular and democratic political forces. The opposition block in the Colombian parliament stated that the arrests are “actions of criminalization against defenders of peasants’ rights”. The arrested leaders are spokespersons of CNA in the dialogues with the national government following the 2013 Agrarian Strike (see below). The arbitrary arrest of Daza, Acuña and Gallo requires a broader analysis of the recent dynamics in agrarian struggles in Colombia, namely a peak in rural protests, a national-level political realignment of peasant movements, and the consolidation of authoritarianism in Colombian politics since 2018 (the year when the far-right regained power with the election as president of Iván Duque, Uribe’s candidate).

According to the research centre CINEP (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular), Colombia experienced the highest number of protests and mobilizations ever in 2013. Protests, demonstrations, marches and rallies spread throughout the country in numbers that exceeded the ones of the 1977 national general strike. The Agrarian Strike (Paro Agrario) was the most crucial mobilization of 2013. Through August and September, five massive demonstrations paralyzed Bogotá, while coordinated protests took place in 30 of the country’s 32 departments. These actions were fiercely repressed by the public authorities through widespread human rights violations against protesters. Most of the protests were led by agrarian movements, but the participation and solidarity of other social forces were felt throughout. The 2013 Agrarian Strike marked a national-level realignment of agrarian social movements in Colombia, with the emergence of a common political platform with a composite list of demands, under the banner of Cumbre Agraria, Campesina, Étnica y Popular’. The platform included organizations of indigenous peoples, people of African descent and peasants’ organizations with diverse political orientations.

One of the major achievements of the Cumbre is the articulation of diverse, even slightly incompatible demands, into one single document. Their demands included (but were not limited to):

  • A moratorium on large-scale mining and oil concessions, and the protection of artisanal mining;
  • Land restitution and redistributive land reform, and the protection of ancestral territories of indigenous and afro-descendant rural communities;
  • Subsidized farm inputs and the promotion of agroecology;
  • Greater access to credit for small-scale producers;
  • The protection and promotion of social and political rights in the countryside; and
  • Territorial planning from below and the protection of rights of rural women.

Moreover, the Cumbre was notable for its influence on the peace negotiations between the government and the former FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo) guerrilla which culminated with the Peace Agreement in 2016. The agreement, which led to the demobilization of the guerrilla, included an ambitious ‘Comprehensive Rural Reform’ as one of its central pillars. Together, Cumbre Agraria and the Colombian Peace Process confirmed the centrality of agrarian struggles in the national political scene.

The political realignment of rural social movements in Colombia under the Cumbre Agraria is taking place amid the global land and resource rush. Historically, peasant mobilizations in Colombia have ebbed and flowed alongside the uneven development of capitalist agriculture and of natural resource extraction. Although land redistribution and access to public lands have remained key demands, their meanings and objectives have transformed over time. In the 1920s and 1930s, peasants’ land claims reflected attempts to gain a share of the wealth produced through their labour, particularly during the coffee bonanza. However, current land demands relate to the protection of peasant agriculture, autonomy, self-determination, cultural identity, environmental protection and food sovereignty. But despite their claims for autonomy, current agrarian movements are not searching to isolate themselves from the rest of society and economy. On the contrary, they reaffirm their role as both food producers and stalwarts of democratic politics in the national sphere.

The current national-level realignment of peasant organizations is the result of a historical process that started with the collapse in the 1970s of ANUC (Asociación Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos), an umbrella organization that succeeded in unifying the struggle across the country. This collapse was brought about by internal disputes among its constituency and growing contradictions with external actors like the government and the leftist insurgencies. ANUC’s crisis was compounded by the consolidation of an antagonist block formed by cattle-ranchers, landlords and agrarian capitalists that were at times assisted by emerging paramilitary forces. As a result of these processes, ANUC lost its capacity to mobilize the peasantry and most importantly, to represent their interests as a class project in the national arena. In the decade following the ANUC collapse, peasant movements emerged in different regions. During the 1990s, military action intensified in the countryside leading to a human rights crisis that was evident in massive waves of forced displacement. Different expressions of the political organization of the peasantry emerged to confront this development. These new organizations called for regional strikes, mobilizations and other forms of resistance. However, unlike the ANUC, the new movements did not have the support of the public authorities.

One of these emerging organizations was CIMA (where one of the detainees this week – Robert Daza – is a spokesperson). In 1993, CIMA stage a very successful protest in defence of the peasants of the southern Andes region. In Arauca, a department located in eastern plains of the country, Adelso Gallo (a former ANUC activist, also detained this week), engaged with the construction of a regional-level peasant movement and founded ASONALCA. These organizations started gaining more recognition during the 1990s and together in 1997 formed the CNA, the umbrella organization of which all three arrested leaders are members. To a large extent, contemporary peasant organizations reflect the reformulation of local and regional struggles for political recognition and land redistribution that grew to confront the environment of terror and the intensification of armed actions against the peasantry during the escalation of the internal armed conflict (1998-2010).

In past years, peasant activists have actively engaged with state authorities in multiple ways, combining institutional strategies and direct action. In addition to the 2013 Agrarian Strike and subsequent mobilizations, peasant movements have promoted popular consultations (which are recognized by law in Colombia) as a tool for confronting mining and oil concessions in areas of peasant agriculture and where environmental protection is needed. They have also appealed to the courts to defend their interests. In 2016, Robert Daza spoke on behalf of the plaintiffs in a public hearing convened by Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of the law that created the ZIDRES (Interest Zones for Rural, Social and Economic Development). The ZIDRES enabled concessions over public lands to private interests under certain circumstances. Furthermore, as one of the members of La Via Campesina in Colombia, CNA has repeatedly demanded the Colombian government to endorse the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Peasantry and other People Working in Rural Areas.

The recent wave of peasant politics has not remained uncontested by antagonists. Besides forms of institutionalized violence, such as the criminal prosecution suffered by organizers and activists of the agrarian movements or the physical repression against popular protests, social movement activists also commonly face threats and lethal violence by illegal armed forces. Peasant movements are now being targeted with a deadly articulation of both forms of repression. The intimidation of popular organizations has increased in recent years amid widespread violence against social movement leaders, human rights activists and political opponents engaged with defending the Peace Agreement, the enforcement of the land restitution policy, and the protection of land and environmental rights. According to INDEPAZ (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz), 293 social activists were murdered in Colombia, including Marco Rivadeneira. Rivadeneira, also a CNA spokesperson demanding the enforcement of the Peace Agreement-related illicit-crops substitution programme, was murdered in Putumayo during the first weeks of the national lockdown introduced to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The criminalization of peasant leaders is perhaps the clearest evidence of the authoritarian turn of the current Colombian government. Arbitrary arrests are a regretful re-editing of the outdated Cold-War tactics of the Colombian state, that of stoking the fabricated suspicion that social movement leaders are agents of insurgent forces. Ironically, despite their commitment to defend human rights, these leaders themselves face arbitrary accusations of rebellion today. Another recent case is that of Milena Quiroz (Mesa de Interlocución del Sur de Bolívar, the same organization that Teófilo Acuña, one of the detainees, is a member), a peasant leader falsely accused of rebellion in 2017 who spent six months under arrest. Upon recovering, her freedom was the target of an armed attack.

The judicial harassment of leaders of agrarian social movements undermines the exercise of democracy in Colombia and the mobilization of popular forces and reveals the authoritarian character of the Colombian government. To express their solidarity with the arrested leaders and the Colombian agrarian movements, citizens, scholars and activists from different countries prepared a letter addressed to the Colombian authorities demanding the protection of their fundamental rights. (You can join this initiative by signing the petition here.) Interest groups are also addressing letters to the Colombian embassies in their respective countries, demanding freedom of the arrested leaders.

As Adelso Gallo expressed after his arrest, this is nothing but another attempt to silence the voice of the Colombian people and their leaders, and this will not stop struggles for social justice and human rights to keep moving forward.

UPDATE: In the evening of December 21st, a court in Pasto, Colombia, ruled that the evidence provided by the Attorney’s Office was inadequate and thus the three arrest peasant leaders should be immediately released. However, the criminal trial will continue. Furthermore, the Court guarded the rights of those defending the activists, who claimed to be harassed and intimidated by security forces in recent days. The peasant movements in Colombia celebrated this legal victory.

Sergio Coronado is a PhD Candidate in Social and Political Science at the FU-Berlin and is also a member of the Collective of Agrarian Scholar Activists from the South. Twitter: @sergiocoronadod