VILLETA – A social media death threat aimed at an 11-year-old environmental activist has roused outrage in Colombia, a nation where attacks on social leaders are common and threats are taken seriously.
Colombian officials said they are investigating the death threat against Francisco Vera and President Ivan Duque recently promised in a television appearance that his government would find “the bandits” behind the Twitter message.
For his part, the boy says he will continue to lead environmental campaigns and urged other young people to use social media to “support causes they believe in.”
Vera, who has drawn comparisons to teenage Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, got together with six friends from school about two years ago and marched to the main park in his hometown of Villeta carrying cardboard signs and chanting slogans about climate change, under the supervision of his grandmother.
His Guardians for Life group now has at least 11 chapters and more than 200 members across Colombia. It planted hundreds of trees last year and petitioned Colombia’s government to ban single-use plastics. He spoke before the country's congress last year.
On Jan. 15, the boy received a gruesome, profanely worded death threat from a Twitter account using a false name in response to a video he posted urging Duque to improve internet access for children studying from home during the pandemic.
Such threats have weight in Colombia. The United Nations says that at least 53 community leaders were murdered in the South American country last year and it is examining reports of an additional 80 such slayings. The nation is struggling to achieve peace following decades of guerrilla conflict and clashes involving drug gangs and paramilitary groups.
Twitter suspended the threatening account and the boy received hundreds of messages of support, including a letter that was hand-delivered by United Nations officials. Signed by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, it congratulated Francisco for his work on behalf of the environment.
At home in Villeta, a small town surrounded by mountains, Francisco said he welcomes “constructive criticism” and is trying to ignore the threat as well as messages in which critics accuse him of being an instrument of leftist politicians.
He said his group of young activists will campaign against the introduction of oil fracking technology in Colombia and will also keep up pressure on politicians to ban single-use plastics. Last year, the group collected 24,000 signatures in an online petition for such a ban.
His mother, Ana Maria Manzanares, said she hopes the threat is nothing more than a cruel joke.
She said a town official suggested shutting down her son’s social media account, but she prefers to let him decide whether to stop campaigning.
“I want him to be aware that he is doing something that is very valuable,“ Manzanares said. “And that it is possible for him and thousands of children around the world to change things.”
“Adults should not be the only ones who discuss big topics” he said. “Children need to have a voice, too, because people who are making choices today will be gone soon and we will have to deal with the consequences.”
While the sixth grader said he enjoys watching congressional debates on television, he's also got more typical interests: playing video games, taking his dog Pinky for walks and swimming in a neighborhood pool. In his room, Francisco keeps a box full of Lego bricks, taekwondo belts of different colors and a collection of Nerf guns that he shows off to visitors with a grin.
“I’m a pacifist,” he said as he reloaded one one of the toy guns. “But I’m also a boy.”