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Human Rights Defenders in Colombia Killed at Alarming Rate

FILE - Demonstrators light candles during a candlelight vigil for slain activists in Bogota, Colombia, July 6, 2018.

The U.N. human rights office says it is alarmed at the number of human rights defenders who were killed in Colombia last year.

Human rights monitors have confirmed 107 activists were killed in 2019, but they say they are in the process of verifying 13 additional cases which, if confirmed, would bring the death toll to 120.

They say the danger is continuing, noting that at least 10 activists reportedly have been killed during the first 13 days of this year. Human rights spokeswoman Marta Hurtado says the majority of killings happen in impoverished, rural areas where criminal groups and armed groups operate.

"The single most targeted group was human rights defenders advocating on behalf of community-based and specific ethnic groups such as indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians," Hurtado said. "The killings of female human rights defenders increased by almost 50 percent in 2019 compared to 2018."

Other factors contributing to the spate of killings are linked to the government's peace agreement with the country's main rebel group, the FARC, in September 2016. Hurtado says criminal groups and armed groups have taken over the illicit economies in areas vacated by the FARC.

The government’s usual response to control violent situations is to send military troops, without tackling the structural causes behind the violence and discontent, according to Hurtado.

"One answer should be to increase the military presence to control and to secure the area," she said. "But, as well, tackling the chronic levels of poverty, the lack of the presence of the State providing basic services and other structural services that are not provided."

The U.N. human rights office is urging the Colombian government to make a strenuous effort to prevent attacks against human rights defenders, to investigate each and every case, and to prosecute those responsible for the violations.