On September 4, Colombian police seized four human rights observers, accused them of breaking the law and organizing protests, paraded them on national television, and finally released them. One of the observers, Pat (pseudonym used to avoid reprisals), is a Minnesotan – the others are from Italy, Spain and the United States. All of them work with the International Peace Observatory (IPO). They are all marked now, targets in a country where human rights activists are an increasingly endangered group.
International observers are usually safer than Colombia’s internally displaced persons, indigenous communities, teachers, union leaders, journalists or human rights workers. Military and paramilitary soldiers violate human rights, kidnap and even kill with impunity. In just the past few weeks, a university professor was taken from his home in Bogotá by several armed men and shot to death, a human rights leader in the Valle de Cauca department was kidnapped and remains missing, riot police attacked an anti-war march with tear gas and water cannons, the army attacked a mining town, soldiers killed a local resident in the Arenal municipality … the list goes on and on.
On September 7, an Amnesty International report criticized the Colombian government for giving a “green light” to attacks on human rights activists. According to the report, “The official strategy against human rights campaigners seems to be three folded: government authorities publicly question their legitimacy, mount unfounded legal processes and fail to bring to justice those who commit the attacks, even when evidence is widely available.”
Pat, our local connection to this global issue, graduated from high school in northern Minnesota and then attended Macalester College in St. Paul, graduating in 1992. Pat’s parents, John and Lyn, are committed to human rights and involved in many local and global justice and peace organizations. Pat fell in love with Latin culture after an AFS year in Spain, a college semester in Ecuador and visits to Mexico. Returning to the Twin Cities, Pat managed a bookstore for a time, but eventually took a job as an interpreter in Colombia. Through the years, Pat’s commitment to Colombia and to the Colombian people has grown, during years lived in Minnesota as well as years in Colombia.
The four IPO observers consider their arrest “a diversion by the authorities to take attention away from internally displaced persons and the violence the state was planning to commit against this civilian population.” Far from organizing the protest, the four arrived after police had surrounded the 300 internally displaced persons, and watched as police gassed and beat the men, women and children.
An IPO observer reported: “I myself saw police ripping children from their parents and striking indiscriminately against a defenseless population. … In the end, when over 100 persons were locked up in the city jail, three ambulances were needed to transport the gravely wounded. One man was disappeared for two days – he eventually ‘re-appeared’ in a small town in the outskirts of Bogotá. … There were hundreds of riot police, an obvious disproportionate measure in and of itself. The authorities simply refused to address the legitimate needs of the internally displaced population to such basic rights as housing, food, health, and education.”
The three hundred protesters are victims of Colombia’s hidden war, a war usually unseen or perhaps simply ignored by the rest of the world. Like the “low-intensity” wars in Central America during the 1980s, Colombia’s war drives people from their homes as it destroys communities. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees reports three million internally displaced persons in Colombia, a population of internal war refugees second only to Sudan.
Despite laws protecting the internal refugees, the Colombian government has failed them. An official report from the Colombian Constitutional Court said 92 percent of the internal refugees lack basic necessities of life, and 23 percent of the children under the age of six are malnourished. Leaders and members of displaced communities are frequent targets of death threats and violence.
Pat’s parents fear that Pat and international co-workers have now become targets for Colombia’s death squads. “One of our concerns,” John says, “is that there be a group of people here in the States ready to advocate with our members of Congress to ask that they contact the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá if there is another incidence of detainment.”
Watch the “Take Action” section on AMERICAS.ORG for alerts in cases involving human rights in Latin America. If you would like to be notified in case of need for action on this particular case, send your email address to email@example.com, with the subject line “For Pat,” and I will forward your contact information to Pat’s parents.