In 2001, hundreds of paramilitary soldiers arrived in the Naya region of Colombia, killing more than thirty people and forcibly displacing thousands more. In the years following this horrific massacre, community leader Alexander Quintero brought together the indigenous, campesino, and Afro-Colombian communities who had been affected to push for truth, justice and reparations. Alex, who received many death threats, would say, “If it costs me my life to make sure that there is justice for what happened in Naya, I am going to do it.” On May 23, 2010, his prophesy came true when he was shot dead as he was walking home with his family. Now the communities are left without their “defender” to move their case forward and his family is left without a father.
Alex’s story is not an isolated incident, but is echoed by the experiences of human rights defenders around Colombia who regularly face threats, attacks, disappearances, and assassinations because of their work. This past December, I participated in an international mission to Colombia to investigate the threats to human rights defenders, and what we learned was shocking.
Colombian human rights activists, defensores or “defenders” as they call themselves, take huge risks for speaking out. Fifty-four defenders were murdered in Colombia from July 2010 to May 2011. Whenever a community objects to the way their territory is being used, especially by mining companies and other extractive industries, then death threats, and worse, follow. Whenever a family member seeks justice for the death or disappearance of their loved one, they face threats and attacks as well. Women human rights defenders are threatened with sexual violence or attacks against their children.
We found that the vast majority of attacks against defenders, including such serious crimes as the murder of Alex Quintero, remain unpunished and uninvestigated. Our team was struck by the way in which many government authorities simply denied the existence of the paramilitary groups whose names appeared on the death threats. If they “don’t exist,” why do people keep dying?
Many regional and local government officials continue to publicly stigmatize human rights leaders. In many regions we heard disturbing reports of the army and police distributing pamphlets and airing radio ads that call on specific communities and individuals to “demobilize,” thus labeling them insurgents and putting them at serious risk of violence from various armed groups. Despite some efforts by the Santos Administration to improve the rhetoric regarding defenders, national government officials have still been discrediting victims who are seeking justice for crimes like massacres by branding them as “opportunists” and even offering money for information on “false victims.” Those struggling for justice in Colombia need our support now more than ever.
Get the full story about what’s happening in Colombia by reading my blog post today and then get ready for action!
We’ll be back to you soon with more information and ways you can get involved in the movement to support these brave defenders, their families, and their communities.