Amid spate of killings, Colombian bodyguards play ‘Superman’ to community leaders

Alberto Pinto scanned the rolling green hills and undulating grass that surround a small cabin in southern Colombia and felt a stab of anxiety.

The placid setting was a security nightmare, providing attackers any number of hideouts and ambush points.

“From here to the entrance anything could happen,” he said, nodding at a narrow dirt road that led from the house to the highway. “If they do come at us, they won’t be saying ‘put your hands up.’ They’ll come at us shooting.”

Pinto, a former soldier, is part of a government program that provides security for thousands of community leaders and human rights defenders in the country. His mission? To protect Nilson Liz Marin, the head of a farmers organization called ANUC in western Colombia.

Despite having survived three murder attempts, Marin, 55, refuses to leave his small secluded home for the relative safety of the city. And Pinto and his partner, Moisés López, have the task of keeping him alive.

That’s a tall order in Colombia, where social leaders like Marin are being murdered at an alarming rate, as warring clans and shadowy actors fight for control of drug routes and the illegal mining trade.

Somos Defensores, a nonprofit that tracks threats to social leaders and human rights activists, says 155 were killed in 2018 — up 44 percent from 2017. The ombudsman’s office says 462 social leaders and human rights defenders were murdered from 2016 through Jan. 31 of this year.

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Nilson Liz Marin is a community leader and advocate for farmers in Cauca, Colombia. After surviving assassination and kidnapping attempts, the government provided him with two bodyguards. Jim Wyss Miami Herald

And while the government provides security to about 7,400 people, not a week seems to go by without news of another activist being killed. It’s a bloodletting that’s threatening the country’s tenuous 2016 peace deal with the hemisphere’s largest guerrilla group and that has become an embarrassment for the administration of President Iván Duque.

Eating empanadas at a roadside restaurant on a recent weekday, Marin’s bodyguards sit at different tables to have a better view of the surroundings — their guns and flak jackets hidden beneath baggy clothes. The precautions seem unnecessary for Marin, a stout man with a quick laugh whose work with the ANUC farming organization — helping finance rural roads, homes and agricultural projects — has made him something of a local hero.

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Alberto Pinto, left, and Moises López, right, are bodyguards for Nilson Liz Marin, center, a community leader and advocate for Colombian farmers. Jim Wyss Miami Herald

But that role also forces him to butt heads with the local power players, including politicians, left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and a growing assortment of gangs. And almost all have tried to have him killed.

“The nature of our work is to defend human rights, so if we have to stand up to the state, we do it. And if we have to stand up to armed groups, we do that also,” Marin said. “When the [guerrillas] were murdering our leaders we stood up to them and said, ‘This can’t go on anymore.’

”His latest foes are illegal miners who are destroying rivers that rural communities rely on.

In 2004, Marin was shot at close range and miraculously survived when the bullet grazed his head. A few years ago, his name appeared on a list in the possession of paramilitary groups of 100 assassination targets. He was No. 3 on the list. In 2013 he was assaulted and tied up in the woods. If he hadn’t managed to break free, he’s convinced he would have disappeared as a kidnap victim or worse.

It was after that last incident that the government’s National Protection Unit assigned him two bodyguards and a car.

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Alberto Pinto, left, and Moises López, right, are bodyguards for Nilson Liz Marin, center, a community leader and advocate for Colombian farmers. Jim Wyss Miami Herald

Marin said he resisted the idea at first, as he considered the government part of the problem — creating policies that made social leaders targets, or turning a blind eye to politically motivated killings.

“I was so distrustful at first,” Marin said of his bodyguards. “I didn’t know if I should even let them into my house. But then you grow used to the idea and they become part of your family. ... Now my wife is jealous because I spend so much time with them.”

The rash of killings is drawing international attention. Last week, Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with President Duque and social leaders to discuss the issue.

Factions of the Colombian government have sometimes accused human rights advocates of being leftists and guerrilla sympathizers, which has made them targets.

Menendez said his message was that “the state shouldn’t consider them the enemy. They are part of the democratic development of the state and I think President Duque recognizes that.”

“We are strong allies of Colombia and the Colombian people,” Menendez added, “but human rights issues and the rights of civil society are also incredibly important to the Senate of the United States.”

Pinto, 48 and burly, has logged thousands of miles and countless hours protecting Marin. On a recent trip to rural Cauca, he kept a pistol in his lap and his eye on the rearview mirror, alert for motorcycles carrying two people — a common configuration for hit squads.

Marin’s work takes them into areas that are controlled by hornets’ nests of bad actors. There are the Aguilas Negras and the Gaitanistas, two groups formed from the ashes of right-wing paramilitary organizations. There’s the National Liberation Army (ELN), and members of the now defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). There’s also a hodgepodge of criminal gangs with no known names but that are just as lethal.

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In the past two weeks around the community of Tambo, where they were driving, there had been 23 murders.

Pinto said he’s come to admire Marin’s commitment to the rural poor. And he feels like he’s part of that mission.

“We leave every day like we’re Superman defending the world against the bad guys,” Pinto said. “And you just hope you make it home at the end of the day.”

The National Protection Unit, or UNP, was created in 1997 in response to the wholesale murder of left-wing politicians. Since then it has expanded to include journalists, human rights advocates, social leaders and others.

Every time a social leader gets killed, the government gets the blame, but the program is working, said UNP Director Pablo Elías González.

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Moises López, left, and Alberto Pinto, background, watch over Nilson Liz Marin right, a community leader and advocate for Colombian farmers. Leaders like Marin are increasingly under attack; 155 were murdered last year in Colombia. Jim Wyss Miami Herald

Of the 7,400 people the program is protecting, 3,500 have the highest level of protection, which includes bodyguards.

“We’ve had 10 attacks on protected people this year and in every case that person has been unharmed, even as some of the bodyguards have been injured,” he said. “We are highly effective. The problem is the unit doesn’t have the capacity to protect all of the social leaders.”

According to the UNP there are about eight million people in the country considered social leaders — providing an infinite list of potential targets — and the program has an annual budget of $300 million.

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For the bodyguards, it’s hard, dangerous work. Many make less than $1,000 a month and are contractors, meaning they have no job security, aren’t eligible for bank loans and miss out on other perks. And the psychological toll of the job is high.

Being alert all day — feeling your pressure spike as you spot a suspicious vehicle or turn a blind corner — is exhausting, said López. “Everywhere I look I see threats.”

“We absorb 100 percent of the stress,” Pinto added. “But at night you go home and turn off the chip in my head and sleep like a baby.”

Marin says he never leaves his house without López and Pinto by his side and has come to rely on the protection.

As he rode in the back seat of a pickup escorted by the two men, he pointed out rolling mountains and picturesque towns that seemed worthy of a postcard, but are sites where murders and massacres have taken place. In one town he pointed out a small basketball court where his 15-year-old son was assassinated. It’s a case that has never been resolved, but which he believes was tied to his work as an activist.

“It’s hard to believe that a place that’s so beautiful could be the setting for so much violence.”