Yessika Hoyos Morales, a 29-year-old human rights lawyer in Colombia, works against all odds for justice. Here she discusses current negotiations between her country?s ambitious leader, President Juan Manuel Santos, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a political insurgency group.
Besides convincing the FARC rebels to surrender weapons after five decades of resistance, the government of Colombia must deal with paramilitary groups, an illegal drug trade, and indigenous land rights in a country where more than four million civilians have been internally displaced.
For citizens in this tumultuous democracy who have stood up to social inequities without the use of guns, the results have been lethal. Yessika Morales’s father, Jorge Dario Hoyos Franco, an experienced and respected labor leader, is among the hundreds who have been brutally silenced, his murderer still at large. “The stigmatization against human rights defenders is very strong,” Morales says. “We are always identified as terrorists, allies of guerrillas, and corrupt. This is also true of trade union leaders. Colombia is the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist. In 2011, 35 trade unionists were assassinated and 13 more have been killed this year.”
Morales and her younger sister grew up in a politically active home in Fusagasuga, a town 64 km from the country’s capital, Bogota. Morales’s mother taught school and was involved with her union. Her father was a leader in Colombia’s trade union movement. He was assassinated in 2001, when she was seventeen years old.
“Like most,” she says, “the crime was committed with impunity. Colombia is not interested in arresting the intellectual authors either—those who directed these violations. Some who commit crimes may be charged, but not those who are behind it. This sends a strong message that people can kill with impunity. It is a climate of violence.”
Two “hired” men, part of the illegal paramilitary forces, repeatedly shot Morales’s father as he was leaving his home. Officials dismissed the murder as a crime of passion—not a political assassination. For Morales’s devastated family, this meant dealing with not only loss, but a false accusation too.
Then Morales, her widowed mother, and younger sister began receiving anonymous threats. They re-located to Bogota but the threats continued and they had to move several more times.
Despite these traumas, Morales pursued post-secondary education. In law school she began working with the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a law firm specializing in labor rights. She stayed on after graduation and is part of the firm’s legal team handling her father’s murder case.
Morales is also a founder of a group representing children of victims of assassinations and torture. “Sons and Daughters Against Impunity and for the Memory of the Fallen” has members from Colombia, as well as Argentina, Chile, and other Latin America countries.
She received a human rights award in 2009 from the United States’ top labor group, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). She returned to the States in 2012, calling attention to the killing of nearly 3,000 trade union leaders in Colombia in the last twenty years. “We are a generation that saw these crimes perpetrated against our parents,” she told a group of American trade unionists. “The government of Columbia wants them to disappear, with the killers unprosecuted.”
Could the current peace talks lead to closure for victims’ families?
“The issue of justice is still not clear in the peace talks,” Morales says. “Moreover, we have to take into account that the crime committed against my father, like the crimes against others, was perpetrated by members of the government’s army. There is a fear that these criminals will get away with impunity because these crimes were committed with the approval of military penal laws, which give the military impunity.”
Colombia’s current peace negotiations began last November, with Cuba and Norway as guarantors. President Santos has set a one-year deadline and knows he must make important concessions if he does not want to fail, as other administrations have in the past.
He faces a rebel group who will push for political reform and protection for members wanting to re-enter civilian life. While the FARC may once have held the moral high ground, their Marxist ideals have been compromised by involvement in the illegal cocaine trade. Their forces have also been severely weakened under Santos’s regime, helped by the United States, which aids security forces with nearly $700 million annually.
Still, this largest and oldest rebel group in Latin America appears unstoppable. Their tactics include kidnapping politicians, police officers, and soldiers in pressing for an exchange of imprisoned rebels. In late January of this year, the FARC rebels kidnapped two police patrolmen. They also attacked oil and mining facilities, including two pipelines and a coal rail line.
“The peace talks have started under a situation of armed confrontation,” Morales says. “This implies that events such as the kidnapping of members of the security forces occur, as well as the continued bombing by members of the military of the FARC guerrillas. Obviously it is stressful that talks are being held while the conflict is raging, without both parties agreeing to a ceasefire. However, it is important that these talks go ahead, as it is clear that the only way to reach a successful conclusion is a negotiated settlement.”
“There are five points on the agenda,” Morales says, “rural development, election guarantees (candidates in the past have been assassinated), the laying down of arms by FARC, the drug problem, and justice and truth for the victims of crimes.”
“We are clear that the rule of law has to be considered. The simple act of signing a peace agreement doesn’t mean these issues are resolved. Crimes have been committed directly by the government and military and paramilitary. Has the government directed the military or the military directed the government? Civilian society has to demand a purge of these leaders who are responsible.”
Morales says that civilians have expectations and are hopeful about the peace talks. She believes they must also have a voice. “People are organizing in different spaces to discuss the proposed ideas,” she says. “There was a debate on land reform and the conclusions were given to the negotiators.”
“I see the future with hope that the peace dialogue will prevail,” Morales adds, “where it is possible to think and act without risking being murdered, where the result of the dialogue is the truth of what had happened—not only the truth of what the FARC guerrillas did, but also the truth regarding the state terrorism by the military, and that there is a dismantling of the terrorism infrastructure of the state and a clean-up of the security agencies.”
Encircling Bogota are dirt roads lined with shacks made of scraps of wood and iron sheets. This “circle of misery” is a relatively safe haven for hundreds of internal refugees. Paramilitaries have been paid to create enough fear to drive many of them from their land. Transnational corporations and the local elite stand to gain from access to these emptied regions and are among the groups accused of funding the paramilitaries.
“During the talks,” Morales says, “one of the first topics debated was precisely the land issue because most of the land that the peasants abandoned is now in the hands of the multinationals. The indigenous lands are a very important topic in the negotiations.”
A key motivator for the government, however, is to improve the climate for foreign investors. Their neo-liberal agenda also involves privatizing public institutions, including schools and hospitals. With only four percent of Colombia’s workers in unions, (compared to about 31 percent in Canada) the country has the least unionized workforce in South America. Colombia has substantial oil reserves and is a major producer of gold, silver, emeralds, platinum, and coal. So the burning question is: Who benefits from this wealth?
“When Pacific Rubiales, an oil drilling company, came to the province of Meta, the workers formed a union,” Morales says. “Every worker was fired after the union was formed. The workers organized because their situation was difficult and salaries were extremely low compared to Canadians doing the same work. The conditions were bad too in regard to housing. There were large demonstrations to demand labor rights be respected. Yet, the company had a huge publicity campaign saying how great they are to workers.”
“We have free trade agreements with Canada and the United States,” Morales also points out, “but there is no protection of basic labor rights [in Colombia] and this is taken advantage of with low labor costs as well as preventing union organizing.”
Morales describes the multinational companies as “powerful, economic monsters.” Gold mines such as Glencore are threatening our water sources,” she says. “We have committees fighting against this.”
Morales came to Ottawa to lobby Canada’s parliamentarians to turn down the free trade agreement in May 2009. She was hosted by the United Steelworkers Union. “If Canada ratifies the free trade agreement it will give a message to Colombians and to the whole international community that Canada supports a government that violates human rights,” she told a Toronto Star journalist.
When the agreement was ratified, despite opposition, a human rights clause was added. Morales and other Colombians have been asking Canadians to hold their MPs to the terms of the clause. Morales praises the involvement of Canadian activists, who are, she believes, vital to the Colombian peoples’ well-being.
“International solidarity is not just money—it is love and commitment to humanity,” she insists. “It can never be seen as charity. We need [Canada’s] international solidarity. Thanks to your efforts, many lives have been saved. The situation of human rights is known world-wide because of your support. We still require your accompaniment.”
To date, Morales and the CCAJAR legal team have successfully proved that the motive for Morales’ father’s murder concerned his labor, social, and political activities, not for “reasons of passion.”
In 2007, the two hired gunmen and a non-commissioned police officer were convicted as direct perpetrators of the murder. However, the police officer was convicted “in absentia” and appears in the Registry Office as deceased since May 2006. This means a dead man was sentenced to 40 years of prison.
The whole truth has yet to be revealed. Crucially, the instigator of the crime has not been arrested. Morales and the legal team will continue working on the case until all responsible parties are brought to justice. Meanwhile, various elected and non-elected government officials and members of the military are under investigation for their links to illegal paramilitary groups. The Colombian government’s chief intelligence and security service is also implicated in illegal activity against trade unionists and human rights leaders, including the law firm where Morales is employed.
If these current peace negotiations lead to the demobilization of the FARC and agreement is reached on issues of land justice and illegal paramilitary actions, Colombians can expect a significant reduction of violence. An opportunity arises for all citizens to participate through democratic institutions and other non-violent forums.
“My hope is that human rights are respected,” Morales says, “that young people do not lose their fathers and mothers, that indigenous people stay on their land and peasants are able to cultivate the land. My hope is that life dominates over death—because now, in Colombia, it is the opposite.”
Janet Nicol is a high school teacher in Vancouver. She thanks Yom Shamash and Co-Development Canada for their contributions to this project.