Encounters with Human Rights Defenders
Jorge Hernán Palacio Salazar
Attorney, Banco de Datos de Derechos Humanos y Violencia Política, Quindío Department
Portrait: Verónica Giraldo Canal, 2012.
August 29, 2012
In 1984, while I was studying social sciences at the University of Quindío, in the city of Armenia, I developed with my peers activities for the defense of the land where my ancestors had been settlers and founders. Transnational corporations were acting there as they pleased. They planted foreign species of conifers on vast tracts of land that belonged to farmers, and sanctions were imposed on those who objected. The conifers destroyed the ecosystems, the eucalyptus dried up and destroyed the wetlands, and the pines killed native species without the communities being able to do anything. There were also shocking cases in the Cauca Department, where armed men attacked the Nasa Indigenous People, cutting the scalp of their leaders to force them to let the conifer culture in. This is what transnational corporations came to in Colombia: to threaten communities and expel them from their lands in order to exploit it. This is how the protection of the environment led me to work in human rights.
I enrolled in law at La Gran Colombia University, in Bogotá, and attended a Human Rights School sponsored by the European Union. Today, I am attorney for the Banco de Datos de Derechos Humanos y Violencia Política, which is part of the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (CINEP). We compile data on human rights violations, especially cases of extrajudicial executions, torture and forced disappearances. Lately, I have specialized in working with communities of artisanal miners who resist mining megaprojects. I work with Aboriginal and Afro-Colombian communities too, helping them gain access to health care, to their land and to avoid being involved in any armed conflict. Finally, I also work with rural communities and for the collective rights of urban communities.
In 2008, we created an association of human rights defenders in the Quindío Department. In retaliation, a criminal organization threatened us with phone calls, electronic documents and written pamphlets. The threats were generally received by a colleague of mine, but I was also targeted and they said that we should stop our activities since we were causing trouble in the department. These threats were directly linked to our work of data collection and in denouncing extrajudicial executions committed by the State, also known as “falsos positivos.” [This expression refers to the killing of civilians by State agents, which are later officially recorded as members of the guerrilla killed in combat.] This dismantled our work, supported by the Office of the Public Defender, and many colleagues abandoned us out of terror. As a result, I had to give up research and investigation in some sectors of the department, and had to be more careful of whom I worked with. We became less visible in our actions and focused instead on compiling data and information without ever publicly denouncing violations in the newspapers or social networks. We managed to set up meetings with the authorities, but to this day the prosecutor’s investigation has not yielded any results.
The number of threats we receive has decreased over the past years, but we have also decreased our own level of complaints. As soon as the corporations feel that their financial interests are at stake, the threats start again. For example, we feel pressure from the transnational mining companies to discredit us in the national press and to convince the population that we are nothing but an obstacle to development. In our minds, the assassination of Father Restrepo, in Marmato in 2011, sent a clear message: “Keep in mind that this could happen to you.” We know that this is the modus operandi of the State and these organizations. This forces us to seek international organizations that can make public statements in our place.
Skilfully, the current government misrepresents information to deviate our complaints, and to exclude us from public debates. Rather than using brutal methods like ordering assassinations to paramilitary groups, the government prevents the media from publishing our complaints and discredits us. Another limitation that we face is economic: no one pays me for the human rights work and the research that I do. My income comes from my other contracts as a lawyer. We work selflessly, for love of the cause, and yet this clearly limits us. We need a lot of support to the organizations that help us daily, the CINEP and the CCAJAR [Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo], but never will the government support that kind of work.
Working with the victims is also extremely difficult, because most ignore their rights and are in precarious financial predicaments that were created by the Colombian government itself. As a consequence, victims are more interested in living with dignity than in searching for truth and justice. Those who lost a son, for example, will rather receive financial aid in order to purchase a home and live in peace rather than lose another son while searching for justice. Many families tells us, “Let us be, we don’t even want to file a complaint,” because they fear that the army, the police or other armed groups might attack them. For a human rights defender, these are extremely difficult conditions to work with.
However, I have a clear idea of my historical role in society. What the State and the armed groups are doing is simply unacceptable. A lot of people say: “Someone has to do this kind of work, but not me.” Well, I am that someone, because the necessary resources have been invested in my training and because I am able to do it. When the rights of others are violated, I feel as if it were mine that were violated, those of my children to have a better future, those of society in general. This is what gives me strength. I have suffered defeats and setbacks, but never did I think of stopping what I am doing. Only a very severe threat against my family could stop me. Otherwise, I will continue as long as I am physically able of doing so.