WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas


The Washington Office on Latin America was founded in 1974 by a coalition of civil society and religious leaders with the objective of promoting respect for human rights, democracy and social and economic justice as definitive elements of U.S. policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean.  WOLA facilitates dialogue between governmental and nongovernmental actors, monitors the impact of policies and programs of governments and international organizations, and promotes alternatives through reporting, education, training and advocacy.

Selected WOLA accomplishments

  • Helped draft the 1975 Harkin amendment which first prohibited US military aid to governments that abuse human rights.
  • Sponsored among the first US delegations to monitor elections in Latin America, to Bolivia in 1978 and Honduras in 1981.
  • Published the first systematic report on human rights abuses committed by the Nicaraguan "contras" in 1983.
  • In 1989, published a report on El Salvador that was key in convincing US policy-makers that peace negotiations could succeed.
  • In the early 1990s, published the first reports on the need for democratic police reform in post-conflict societies in Central America.
  • In 1997, wrote the first draft of what eventually became the legislation that ended the ban on sales of food and medicine to Cuba.
  • Convened and led a coalition of more than forty religious, human rights, development, Latino and labor organizations that carried out a remarkable campaign to help shape the US response to the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in Central America.
  • Helped secure passage of the 1999 Leahy Law, which requires the vetting of soldiers and officers to ensure that human rights abusers do not receive US military training.
  • Between 1996 and 2004, provided training and accompaniment in political advocacy for 1,800 individuals from more than 300 organizations throughout Central America.
  • In 2002, with the National Security Archive and the Democracy Coalition Project, successfully campaigned for the declassification of some 500 U.S. government documents for the Peruvian Truth Commission.
  • In 2002, exposed the existence of a 1,000-person expeditionary force of Bolivian soldiers trained and funded by the US to carry out anti-drug operations outside of the normal structure of the Bolivian military. Information we provided on its abuses led to the unit's disbanding that summer.
  • In 2004, published a groundbreaking study of the impact of US drug policy on human rights and democracy in Latin America. The book, which was released in Spanish and English, was followed by a multi-year advocacy plan to promote alternative policies.
  • In February 2005, organized "Voices from the Field: Local Initiatives and New Research on Youth Gang Violence in Central America." Four Central Americans who participated in this conference formed the Central American Coalition for the Prevention of Violence which now is our principal regional partner in the gangs work.
  • Helped secured the 2005 invitation from the Mexican government and funding from the US government for the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team to undertake forensic investigations (including DNA testing) in order to identify the remains of as many as 75 unknown female murder victims in Juárez and Chihuahua, as well as those victims whose families have doubts about the results of prior forensic testing.
  • Participated in a 2005/2006 regional research project facilitated by the ITAM in Mexico bringing together new research on gangs in Central America, Mexico and the US.
  • In 2007, worked in coalition with other human rights groups to successfully shift the balance of US aid to Colombia away from military aid toward economic development.
  • In August 2007, after five years of hard and often disappointing work, played an instrumental role in lobbying the Guatemalan Congress to approve the establishment of an international commission, known as CICIG, to investigate illegal armed groups in that country. WOLA worked closely with counterpart organizations in Guatemala in this effort, which led to creation of the commission by the government of Guatemala and the United Nations. CICIG is being closely watched throughout Latin America as an innovative approach to investigating impunity.