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11 years old, “Colombia’s Greta Thunberg” receives death threats

. Feb 07, 2021
francisco vera environmentalist Francisco Vera

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg gained worldwide fame in 2018 when she organized a strike outside the seat of national parliament in Stockholm at age 15, inspiring a worldwide protest movement to fight environmental injustices. Besides riling up prominent climate change deniers such as ex-U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Miss. Thunberg helped to inspire a generation of young voices to speak up against the destruction of the planet. One such follower is Francisco Vera, an 11-year-old boy from the town of Villeta, northwest of the Colombian capital Bogotá.

</p> <p>In 2019, Francisco founded an environmental group called the Guardians of Life, organizing marches around his village with his school friends. The group now has over 200 members across three countries.</p> <p>And even with over 54,000 coronavirus deaths in his home country, Francisco has not let the pandemic put a stop to his activism. Wearing a facemask bearing the slogan &#8220;Boys and girls have the right to free speech. We are the present,” Francisco is keen to continue his environmental projects during 2021, including his push to end single-use plastics in Colombia.</p> <p>But the pandemic is not the only hurdle to Francisco&#8217;s cause. Living in the country with the highest number of assassinations of environmental and human rights activists in Latin America, the 11-year-old school student has begun receiving death threats.</p> <p>While young Francisco has, on occasion, been criticized and mocked on social media for his activism, the escalation of threats have become a concern to his mother, Ana Maria Manzanares.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;It&#8217;s a difficult situation, but I&#8217;m confident that my son can stay focused on what he likes to do and put this behind him,&#8221; Mrs. Manzanares <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-55803205">told the BBC</a>.</p> <p>The case has drawn the attention of authorities in Colombia and abroad. President Iván Duque personally promised Francisco that the Colombian police will do everything in its power to catch whoever has been issuing threats against his life.&nbsp;</p> <p>In January, Francisco received a hand-written letter from the United Nations, signed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who praised his “passion to protect” the environment.&nbsp;</p> <h2>During the pandemic, an epidemic of violence</h2> <p>According to Bogotá-based NGO Indepaz, <a href="http://www.indepaz.org.co/lideres/">310 environmental and human rights activists were murdered</a> in Colombia in 2020. This violence typically occurs in far-flung, rural areas of the country, such as the southwestern department of Cauca, where former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group are seeking to start over as social activists after the controversial 2016 peace agreement.&nbsp;</p> <p>These regions have become lawless, with former FARC combatants warring with far-right paramilitary groups and facing <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/07/20/controversial-role-armed-military-forces-colombia/">the repression of the Armed Forces</a>.</p> <p>Indeed, Colombia&#8217;s violence problem is not restricted to activists. The year 2020 was one of the bloodiest in the country&#8217;s recent history, with more than 90 massacres.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to Sebastián Ronderos, a political scientist from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, this overspill of violence is a direct result of the 2016 peace process.&nbsp;</p> <p>“With its armed structure and influence, the FARC occupied a space where the state was absent. When the conflict ended in 2016, that structure faded away, creating a power vacuum. Over time, this vacuum started to be disputed by rural leaders and local activists, against militias, paramilitaries, and mercenaries,” the expert tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>And this violence has continued during the Covid-19 pandemic, as official and unofficial authorities overlap in their enforcement of isolation measures.</p> <p>In September, transgender woman Juliana Giraldo was shot dead at a military curfew checkpoint in the southwestern city of Miranda. Ms. Giraldo’s partner told investigators that soldiers shot at the car after Ms. Giraldo performed a U-turn, realizing that she had forgotten her identity card at home. A spokesman for the military said the death was &#8220;accidental.&#8221;</p> <p>At the end of 2020, up to 10 people were disappeared or killed in different regions across Colombia. In many cases, authorities believe these crimes were connected to the use of violence to impose social distancing measures, <a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/10/01/explaining-brazil-podcast-protection-becomes-repression/">which has been seen in other Latin American countries</a>. The UN has opened <a href="https://news.un.org/es/story/2020/12/1485602">an investigation</a> into the wave of killings.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Ronderos is pessimistic about the country&#8217;s immediate future. “The peace agreement was fulfilled, but former guerrillas members continue to die, and social activists continue to fight against the territorial expansion of elites. It is a problem that is far from ending.”

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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