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Human Rights Defenders
Of all the risky jobs one could have in Colombia during the Plan Colombia years, working as a non-governmental human rights defender has been one of the most dangerous.
Initially, those who denounced human rights abuse—even prominent national figures—were subject to assassination and threats from AUC paramilitaries or others with right-wing and military ties. Murdered human rights leaders included lawyers like Jesus María Valle, Mario Calderón, Elsa Alvarado, and Eduardo Umaña; academics like Jesús Bejarano and Alfredo Correa de Andréis, indigenous leaders like Kimy Pernía Domicó and Freddy Arias, and innumerable others, including thousands of labor-union members. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, threats forced many of the country’s most prominent human rights leaders into exile.
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Later, particularly after the AUC negotiated demobilization terms with the Colombian government, the greatest danger shifted to human rights defenders working outside of major cities. Those working to help people recover stolen land in these areas face the most intense risk today.
The non-governmental group Somos Defensores has documented threats and attacks against human rights defenders since 2010. Before then, data are less systematic. But we know today that between 50 and 80 defenders have died or disappeared each year since 2011, and the problem is not easing.
With U.S. assistance, Colombia’s Interior Ministry has developed a capable National Protection Unit, compared to other Latin American states with similar patterns of threats against defenders. Still, this agency has been hampered by budgetary, managerial, and even corruption challenges. Meanwhile, Colombia’s judicial authorities have still never successfully prosecuted anyone for issuing death threats, which continue to arrive at defenders’ offices, homes, e-mail inboxes, and cellphones on a constant basis.
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