Colombians take to streets to protest activist slayings

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Colombia Activist Killings

People perform during a protest march against the murders of social leaders, in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, July 26, 2019. Colombians took to the streets to call for an end to a wave of killings of leftist activists in the wake of the nation's peace deal. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Thousands of Colombians took to the streets Friday night to call for an end to an alarming wave of killings of leftist activists in the wake of the nation's peace deal.

In major cities and small towns, demonstrators dressed in white and held signs that read: "Without leaders there can be no peace" and "No more bloodshed."

The slayings have left a dark stain on Colombia's efforts to put a half century of bloody armed conflict behind it.

At least 462 activists have been killed since the government's signing in 2016 of a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation's largest rebel group, according to Colombia's ombudsman's office. Hundreds more have received death threats, and in a nation long beset by impunity only a small fraction of the perpetrators have been identified or apprehended.

The vast majority of victims hail from traditionally neglected rural areas where drug traffickers, wildcat miners and illegal armed groups — including dissident vestiges of the FARC and rebels from the National Liberation Army — run rampant with little interference from the state.

President Iván Duque decided at the last minute to support the demonstrations against the wishes of some in his conservative Democratic Center Party, which opposed the peace deal.

"We all are the echoes of a single voice because we all reject violence against social leaders," Duque said in a speech from the coastal city of Cartagena.

According to the United Nations, at least 51 activists were killed in the first four months of 2019, putting the country on track to surpass the 115 assassinations registered last year.

Secretary-General António Guterres said in a recent report that he regrets the "polarization and division" in Colombia over elements of the peace deal. The U.N. chief also expressed "deep concern" that the U.N. mission in Colombia has verified 123 killings of former combatants since the peace deal's signing.