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Illustration by Security Management

Guerrilla Fighters Enforce COVID-19 Restrictions in Colombia

Armed groups in Colombia are taking advantage of pandemic-related curfews to impose new levels of control throughout the region, violently enforcing some of the world’s strictest lockdown measures, The Washington Post reports. The measures are wide-ranging, and include curfews, movement restrictions, limits on opening days and hours for shops, and banning access to communities for foreigners or people from other communities.

In the southwest city of Tumaco, guerrillas posted pamphlets calling all curfew violators “military targets.” Even medical personnel are not exempt: a medical transport responding to a call after curfew in early May was set on fire, and its driver and patient were both killed.

“Human rights groups, community leaders, and government officials say a toxic slate of leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and drug cartels are using the outbreak to consolidate control over parts of a country still reeling from the aftermath of five decades of armed conflict,” according to The Washington Post. “The increasingly violent competition shows the power of the pandemic to deepen preexisting societal challenges and loosen the grip of government in fragile states.”

So far, Colombia has reported more than 204,000 coronavirus infections and nearly 7,000 deaths, and while the government remains focused on the outbreak, the armed groups’ measures expand their control over roads and communities essential for narcotrafficking and illegal mining, and they reinforce the groups’ influence and standing in those territories.

Human Rights Watch reported earlier in July that armed groups had imposed coronavirus lockdown in 11 of Colombia’s 32 states. In at least nine of those states, the groups have used or threatened violence to enforce compliance.

Guerrilla fighters and drug cartels in Colombia are not the only groups seeking to capitalize on the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, the Taliban dispatched health teams to outlying Afghanistan provinces to provide aid and assist with quarantine measures. In Mexico, drug cartels are offering aid packages of food and supplies to local communities as a form of “narco-philanthropy,” according to the BBC. And gangs in Brazil and El Salvador are also enforcing curfews.

“In some cases, the government just isn’t coming to help, so this is a chance for nonstate armed groups to appear to be the responsible, accountable actor,” Sarah Parkinson, an assistant professor of political science and international studies at Johns Hopkins University, told The Washington Post. “In other cases, it’s concern for their own members. And in others, it’s an attempt to use a piece of evidence in their own propaganda war.”