Author: Angelika Albaladejo
On February 18, 2016, the United States Institute of Peace, the Latin America Working Group, and the Washington Office on Latin America hosted four winners of Diakonia’s 2015 National Prize for the Defense of Human Rights in Colombia for a discussion of “the challenges they and their fellow advocates face in their regions, and the role of human rights defenders in building sustainable peace in Colombia.”
The prize for collective process of the year was awarded to Women Walking for Truth (Mujeres Caminando por la Verdad) a resistance group based out of Commune 13 of Medellín, Colombia.
Luz Elena Galeano Laverde represented the Women Walking for Truth during the February 2016 visit to Washington DC. Luz Elena describes the group as a mechanism for resistance, finding the truth, and unearthing justice. Women Walking for Truth emerged after Operation Orion in 2002, during which civilians from Commune 13 in Medellín were disappeared, allegedly by Colombian security forces and paramilitary groups. The members of the Women Walking for Truth joined together to find their missing loved ones, including Luz Elena whose husband was disappeared in 2008. These women fight for the establishment of truth, justice and reparation of victims and have proposed mechanisms for restorative justice as a way to seek peace.
This is a transcription of Luz Elena’s powerful statement during the Colombia Peace Forum on February 18 as translated through simultaneous interpretation and transcribed by James Mesiti, LAWG’s Spring 2016 Colombia intern:
|Good afternoon ladies & gentlemen my name is Luz Elena from Commune 13 in Medellin in La Escombrera. First of all, I would like to thank Diakonia for awarding me the National Prize for the Defense of Human Rights, I represent the Women Walking or Truth. I would also like to thank WOLA for their invitation and the Latin America Working Group for being here today and also for supporting us.
In Commune 13 we have been suffering from the armed conflict since 2001 when our territory was taken over by the guerillas. In 2002 we had Operation Mariscal. On May 21, there many arbitrary arrests, forced displacements, massacres, and children and youth recruiting. The famous Operation Orion on October 17 is the one that really marked us because that is when most of the massacres took place. This operation was lead by former President Uribe, General Montoya, Leonardo Gallego and the 4th Brigade military group. The army and the public forces were the ones that invaded our homes and were pointing at young people who had nothing to do with the war. They were taken from their homes, they were murdered, killed and many of them disappeared. This absurd war lasted several days and had really marked us.
Given the situation, a group of women started coming together to denounce everything that had happened in Commune 13. We have been fighting for more than thirteen long years. We have been fighting for justice, for comprehensive reparation, and for the guarantee of non-repetition.
We have focused mainly on forced disappearances. There are two places called La Escombreras. One of them is a gigantic mountain of rubble. Today, it is more or less 25 floors high and there are more than three hundred bodies buried there. They say that there are no resources to begin digging in the rubble and recover our beloved relatives and people. The community has been denouncing this situation since 2001 when the disappearances started happening. Everything that we have heard so far is that the government cannot do anything, that the government cannot do anything to find these bodies. We created an inter-institutional roundtable in 2013 to meet with municipal and local authorities to talk about forced disappearances in Commune 13. There were some resources available but not to start digging.
There is a smaller place called La Niñera in San Javier but they do not allow victims to actively participate here. Only the government can be there and other people from NGOs. In 2014 it was actually possible for some of the victims to be involved actively and to be able to talk about our own proposals. In 2015 the digging began on August 5. Based on the justice and peace law there was a demobilized person identified, and he identified three areas. In the first one there was 50-60 people that he had personally killed. We were very sad because we had been denouncing how there had been people buried in surrounding areas of Commune 13, La Escombreras, and around the country obviously but our voices had not been heard.
Throughout all of these years victims have suffered a great deal both emotionally as well as mentally and physically. Fifteen people have died waiting for the truth to learn about what had happened to their loved relatives.
When the digging started they could not find any human remains, they found animal remains. They also found bags of milk from 1985. But what was happening is the following; the victims were witnessing the process and we saw how the terrain was being handled. When the excavation started these bags of milk from 1985 were on top of the terrain which was not where they were supposed to be which was much deeper. We are asking for a preliminary investigation and establish the location of victims and ask why the terrain had been moved. They need to know what people were the ones to take our relatives to be buried in this area in La Escombrera and that were later removed.
In terms of the upcoming excavations, we are engaged in other conversations to have this preliminary investigation that I mentioned and to continue with a comprehensive search plan that the victims developed. There is a national movement of government victims that is involved in this. We want to make sure that what we want to do is stand there. They are telling us that another comprehensive plan has to be developed. We are going to improve the one that is already in place and if it needs to be extended we will. It can be used as a role model for all of the disappeared people in Colombia.
In terms of the peace accord, I believe if the voices of the victims are not heard, we will not have a solid peace process – mainly because of the importance of clarifying or finding the truth. If we cannot learn what happened, by whom, and why, we would be in the dark. I do not think it would be fair because it was the government who acted against us. And now we are seeing demobilized people who are receiving benefits and guilty military personnel who are not receiving long prison sentences. I do think that going to prison is the best punishment for them. We do not need half of the truth we need the whole truth about what happened in our commune and in our city.
With regards to Plan Colombia, I think it was the worst thing that could have happened to Colombia. The United States gave money to the war and to kill our relatives and our friends. It was the worst thing that could have happened to us. That is why now that the anniversary of Plan Colombia is being celebrated, we cannot celebrate anything. That money [from the United States] should not be given to the government, it should be given to the victims and to the displaced for education. It should be invested in education for those whose rights have been violated.
–Luz Elena Galeano Laverde
Watch the full event “Colombia: Human Rights Defenders Building Sustainable Peace”
Vea el evento “Colombia: Defensores y Defensoras Construyendo una Paz Sostenible”