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Defending Human Rights in Colombia is a Deadly Job

by Moira Birss

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid,” Jorge tells me. “Your right to freedom disappears – you have to limit your movements and activities.”

I would be afraid, too; Jorge and I sit talking after I have spent a good ten minutes trying to convince his bodyguard to let me see him. But I don’t mind the hoops I had to jump through – I actually would have been happy to undergo a bit more security, perhaps a metal detector or something more intimidating. After all, in a country like Colombia, where human rights defenders are targeted by both the judicial system and paramilitary actors, Jorge Molano is a walking target.

Jorge has worked as a human rights defender for over 22 years, inspired by his father who was killed for his own human rights activism. Jorge currently serves as counsel or legal adviser for several high-profile cases that implicate high-level government and military officials, including the 2005 massacre in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, in which eight people, including three children, were killed and beheaded. He also works on several cases of extrajudicial executions in which the army killed civilians then dressed their corpses in guerrilla attire in exchange for rewards. In addition to this enormous and important labor, Jorge supports the work of other human rights defenders by serving as legal counsel for organizations such as La Corporación Servicios Profesionales Comunitarios SEMBRAR (the Community Service Professionals Corporation) and FEDAGROMISBOL, the agriculture and mining union in the Sur de Bolivar department.

Despite his usually jolly personality, Jorge’s face momentarily darkens. “My family has been affected,” he tells me. So grave is his concern that he recently sent his two young daughters to live with family members out of the country. “They look to attack your weakest flanks: your family,” he explains with a sigh.

Unfortunately, Jorge’s case is not unique; in fact, it is all too common. In early March 2009, for example, Lina Paola Malagon, a lawyer with the renowned human rights organization and legal collective Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), received faxed death threats signed by a well-known paramilitary organization. The threat pronounced her a “military objective” for her work with CCJ and in support of trade unionists killed for their organizing work.

As Jorge explains, “there is a systemic persecution of human rights defenders in order to guarantee impunity – terrorism needs impunity. The closing-off of space for criticism, scrutiny and condemnations is very worrisome. Whoever does this kind of work will be subject to persecution, [in the form of] attacks or judicializaciones (trumped-up charges).”

Though Jorge has not yet been subjected to judicializaciones, many of his counterparts have. In such instances, charges based upon questionable military intelligence or coerced testimony from ex-combatants are brought against human rights defenders. Demobilized guerrilla fighters, for example, may be offered reduced sentences in exchange for testimony against a targeted human rights defender. Or military intelligence documents are leaked to the press containing uncorroborated accusations linking human rights organizations to guerrilla groups. In such cases, the targeted human rights defenders are detained and therefore unable to continue their work, or they are publicly stigmatized and subject to threats – and sometimes killed – by paramilitary groups.

Public accusations made by President Uribe himself or his advisors against human rights defenders, opposition politicians, and journalists of alliances with guerrilla groups have also put many in grave danger. Colombia, with its decades-long history of politically motivated armed conflict, is a country in which being the target of such accusations may well result in a bullet to the head.

In recent days Jorge and his partner Diana have been tailed and intimidated by unidentified men. The many strange noises he hears on the phone line and calls that inexplicably go dead lead him to believe that his phone is tapped, a well-founded suspicion given that Jorge was among the many human rights defenders subjected to government surveillance in recent years. “This is happening because of the work that I do,” he explains. “The cases I am working on implicate functionaries and advisors of the Uribe administration.”

Human rights defenders have not been the only victims of the government tailing. In mid-February of last year the weekly news magazine Semana revealed that the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), Colombia’s domestic intelligence agency that answers directly to the President’s office, had for many years conducted illegal surveillance against Supreme Court justices, journalists, and others who criticize government policy. Documents uncovered in the investigation revealed that a secret group within the DAS – known as the G3 – was responsible for carrying out a systematic policy of political surveillance and even sabotage. The stated mission of the G3 included surveillance of “people and organizations opposing government policies in order to restrict or neutralize their activities.” The report clearly shows that the purpose of the surveillance went much further than information gathering; it was intended to sabotage and criminalize legitimate activities.

When the scandal broke, the government tried to claim that it was a “mafia” or criminal ring that had conducted the spying. Jorge, however, refutes such a claim.

“This happened under the watch of four of the DAS’ five directors. Actually, now they are saying it is still happening, so that is five out of five directors, appointed by Uribe, who have run a department that has carried out this surveillance. You can’t say that it isn’t an order from the Casa de Nariño (the Colombian equivalent to the White House). You can’t say they are isolated cases when it keeps happening.”

The sad irony is that the very same office doing the spying is also responsible for providing security for those under threat, like Jorge. In September 2008, recognizing his vulnerability due to the delicate nature of his work, Jorge asked the DAS for a security review. The results showed Jorge’s risk level to be “extraordinary.” In March of this year he was given a security detail of an armored car and one bodyguard. The newest incidents have not led to an increase in his security detail, however.

“On December 1st we issued the denunciation. On December 2nd we went to get gas for the [armored] car, and they told us that they wouldn’t give us gas, that we could come back on the 15th. What good does it do me if it has no gas?” Jorge asks. He then requested flights in order to travel to two upcoming court hearings, and was told that he would have to travel by land – in an armored car without gas, apparently.

Despite the constant hurdles and persecution, Jorge has not given up on his work. He says the support he receives from the human rights community keeps him going.

“The chain of solidarity – the calls, the calls to action [in response to the recent threats] – have given me strength to keep fighting,” he explains. “You feel that there’s nothing else to do but keep going. I couldn’t do anything else besides defend human rights. I don’t know how to be anything else.”

About the Author
Moira Birss works in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, though she considers San Francisco, California home and plans to return there some day. Since graduating from the University of Michigan, she has worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting environmental protection. Moira’s articles have appeared on Alternet, In These Times, and CommonDreams. She blogs at

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