Families are being shot dead for breaking coronavirus restrictions in rural Colombia as guerrillas enforce a brutal parallel lockdown.
Armed groups, many of them dissidents of the now disbanded Farc militia, are declaring those who break the rules to be military targets in a bid to sow fear and expand their territories while the government turns a blind eye.
"They are trying to reap terror and gain territorial control so that - after this crisis - people in these areas will not report them for drug trafficking, illegal mining, and corruption - the activities they carried out before and will carry out again after coronavirus," Carlos Negret, national human rights Ombudsman, told The Telegraph.
The guerilla groups are killing, taking hostages, and burning vehicles in retribution for violations of their COVID-19 measures, spelled out in pamphlets distributed among terrorised local communities.
“Either you get it right, or you will be among the many deaths of the coming days. You already know the rules – comply or die,” reads a pamphlet by the Jaime Martinez Column, a dissident group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), published 6 May.
On 26 April, members of the Jaime Martinez Column threw a grenade and opened fire into a packed bar. Last week, an entire family were gunned down in the street as they rode a moped after curfew: the father and two daughters, aged 5 years old and nine months old, were killed.
“COVID is not killing us. Armed groups are killing us,” said Hector Marino Carabalí Charrupi, human rights leader in the mountainous Cauca region in the South-East of Colombia, where the majority of attacks are taking place.
Colombia has had 12,300 confirmed cases of coronavirus nationwide, and fewer than 600 have died of the virus in the country. Infections are concentrated in urban centres, and rural areas of Colombia have registered very few cases: the entire Cauca Department has only 35 confirmed infections. Nationwide compulsory isolation measures have been in place since 24 March.
Despite low infection figures, more than 20 communities across the countryside are now subject to 'parallel lockdowns’ run by armed groups, often in places where the Colombian state itself is all but absent. At least ten related murders are already confirmed by the national human rights Ombudsman.
“The national government may have imposed a lockdown but in our communities, there are other ‘governments,’ which impose their own force and their own laws,” Marino said.
The violence is largely committed by Farc dissident groups, but a range of armed actors has begun brutally enforcing coronavirus measures.
Pamphlets with new regulations, updates, and threats are regularly distributed. One pamphlet announces that anyone on the street after dark will be seen as a target, another warns anyone playing bingo or socialising that guerrillas will "hang their f*cking heads like flags". Burnt vehicles are also being left on the side of the road at entrances to towns in warning.
“The fear is palpable here,” said Yefferson Ocoro Mina, community legal counsel for Cerró Teta, a municipality of the Cauca.
The uptick in community violence is just the latest chapter in the region’s embattled history: the Cauca has long been a nexus of illegal activity in Colombia. Guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers exert effective control over large areas, on which coca (the raw material for cocaine) is grown and gold is illegally mined. The region also provides a key trade corridor to the Pacific Coast.
Communities, many of which are indigenous and Afrocolombian, face severe violence: they are trapped between groups fighting for territory and attacked when they organise or resist. Since the start of national lockdown, over 30 community leaders have been murdered by armed groups. Most are killed at home: actors now have the certainty that they will be found there.
With the national government focussed on the health crisis, many fear that rural violence will continue to spiral.
"Local and regional authorities are completely washing their hands of what’s going on, using coronavirus as an excuse not to deal with these groups," said Gimena Sanchez, expert at The Washington Office on Latin America.