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World

In Colombia, Criminal Gangs Muscle Into Areas Once Controlled By Guerrillas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to Colombia. The government signed a peace treaty last month with Marxist guerrillas that formally ended 52 years of fighting. It did not stop all the bloodshed, though. Criminal gangs are now muscling into areas once controlled by the guerrillas. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In the mountains of western Colombia, Nasa Indian guards operate a roadblock. The guards are unarmed volunteers who question everyone who wants to enter their territory. The Nasa are nervous because several of their leaders have recently been shot dead. One of the guards, Jose Camayo, says he was attacked while riding home on his motorcycle.

JOSE CAMAYO: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "The bullets missed me, but they hit my briefcase and the seat of my motorcycle," he says. So far this year, more than 70 Indian leaders, human rights activists, social workers and leftist politicians have been killed. That's according to the Bogota think tank Ideas for Peace. Experts say many of these killings could be a byproduct of Colombia's new peace accord.

It calls for the Marxist rebel group known as the FARC to get out of the illegal drug trade, disarm and form a political party. But now drug trafficking gangs are moving into regions like the Nasa reservation that lie near fields of marijuana, coca and opium poppies once controlled by the FARC rebels.

CAMAYO: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Camayo says he and other Nasa guards have come under fire because the narcos view them as obstacles to doing business. But there could be something else going on. Some think right-wing factions are organizing armed gangs to sabotage the FARC's new political party and disrupt land reform and other policies mandated by the peace accords.

GERARDO BARONA: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: So says Gerardo Barona. He belongs to Marcha Patriotica, a left-wing group allied with the FARC. Dozens of Marcha Patriotica activists have been killed this year.

BARONA: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Barona says, "we have denounced these killings, but the authorities don't do anything." The violence calls to mind how right-wing interests opposed an earlier peace process. In the 1980s, death squads killed more than 2,000 members of a political party linked to the FARC. That helped derail peace talks back then. At a news conference before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize this month, President Juan Manuel Santos downplayed such comparisons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: The conditions in Colombia or very different from what happened 20, 30 years ago. So we are very much on top of that.

OTIS: Such assurances mean little to the activists under threat. Here in the village of Palo, not far from the Nasa reservation, some of them hold a meeting to discuss the danger. One of the speakers, Manuel Rodriguez, says his 33-year-old son was shot dead last month. The murder has yet to be solved. But Rodriguez says his son was a member of the pro-guerilla Marcha Patriotica.

MANUEL RODRIGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "There are groups that do not want peace in Colombia," Rodriguez says, "that's why there are threats. That's why people are dying." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Palo, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.