Sins Of Permission
Torture / IMPUNITY
The bullies and torturers of history always aim to divert the passage of time to their side. Even if the judgement of history sometimes falls heavily on a gravestone, in the land of the living that beats a spell behind bars any day. So it is in Latin America today that such villains and their heirs, harried as they are by people who aim to see justice done however long it takes, have set out to erase with fear all trace of human affection and recollection. In the tortured country of Colombia in particular, a war is now being waged against the defenders of human rights, against anyone prepared to bear witness against abuse. On current trends, its savagery could eventually surpass in extent and excess the original human-rights abuses themselves.
Nydia Bautista was 32 years old when she died in 1987. A year earlier she had been held in illegal detention for three weeks, tortured and released only after signing a prepared statement that she had been well treated. On 30 August she left her house in the Casablanca district of the Colombian capital, Bogotá, to accompany a friend to the bus stop. A group of armed men wearing civilian clothes bundled her into a vehicle. She has never been seen again. Subsequent investigations revealed that she had been taken to a ranch. A corpse found in Guayatebal and exhumed in 1990 was shown by forensic tests to be that of Nydia. She had been tortured and killed with a single bullet to the head.
What made her case a particularly dangerous one to pursue was that Nydia was a member of the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19), one of Colombia’s most active guerrilla groups. There has been, according to Amnesty International, a ‘systematic campaign’ in Colombia to label human-rights defenders as synonymous with ‘guerrillas’ and ‘subversives’. In February 1999 paramilitary forces used this reasoning in a bid to ‘purge’ human-rights organizations of ‘guerrilla infiltrators’. So anyone who showed any interest in the fate of Nydia was liable to receive the same kind of treatment as her.
Her family, and particularly her sister Yanette, did not necessarily share her political convictions. But they saw no reason to accept her summary execution, or to submit to intimidation. ‘If I were to allow fear to rule my life, I would be unable to live it at all,’ says Yanette. ‘There are many, many people like me in Colombia.’
Yanette became a prominent member of the Colombian Association of the Relatives of the Detained/Disappeared (ASFADDES). Partly as a result of their work, in 1990 Sergeant Bernardo Garzón confessed that his ‘Charry Solano’ battalion of the Colombia Army had been responsible for the killing of Nydia. He gave accurate details of the location of her body.
Eventually, in July 1995, Hernando Valencia Villa, Procurator-Delegate for the Defence of Human Rights, called for the dismissal of Brigadier-General Alvaro Hernán Velandia Hurtado, who had ‘the responsibility, the authority and the opportunity to prevent this crime against humanity from taking place’. Later that year the then President of Colombia, Ernesto Samper, dismissed the general – the first time in Colombian history that a serving general had been dismissed for human-rights violations. Three soldiers were arrested and charged with direct responsibility for the killing of Nydia.
Progress of a kind, you might think. But for Yanette the story had only just begun. The threats and harassment intensified. ‘It was,’ she says, ‘no longer just possible but absolutely certain that we would be killed.’ Together with several members of her family she fled the country – Alvaro Hernán Valencia Villa, the Procurator-Delegate, had done so already.
Meanwhile, General Velandia refused to accept any personal responsibility for the killing of Nydia and set about getting his dismissal from the army reversed. He received a military decoration and had his cause raised in the Colombian Congress, accompanied by documents claiming that human-rights organizations were part of a ‘judicial war’ designed ‘to discredit military criminal justice and the Colombian State internationally’. In 1996 his case was passed from civil to military courts, despite a ruling by the Constitutional Court (supported by the UN) that human-rights cases were beyond the competence of military courts. As a result, the anonymity of witnesses was compromised and they too began to receive threats. Bernardo Garzón retracted his evidence. The cases against the three soldiers became ‘time-expired’ and they were released.
In 1997 the military court exonerated General Velandia, who became a ‘legal adviser’ to CONVIVIR (which translates as ‘Live Together’), an association of rural vigilante groups supplying local ‘intelligence’ to the army. Military officials have now begun to contact Yanette and her family directly. They want to exhume Nydia’s remains once more and conduct DNA tests, which the family rejects on the grounds of the military’s lack of standing or impartiality in the case.
On the face of it, the Colombian Government seems to be doing its level best to counteract abuse, as well as the impunity that nourishes it. In December 1998 the newly elected President Andrés Pastrana pledged to protect human-rights defenders when he presented his government’s policy to the UN in New York. But within weeks, in January 1999, four members of a human-rights organization in the city of Medellín had been abducted. By May 2000 at least 25 human-rights workers had been killed, a similar number had narrowly escaped attempts on their lives and many more had received death threats.
The 2000 Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regrets ‘the persistence of omissive and permissive attitudes and the direct and indirect aiding and abetting of paramilitarism, aggravated by the absence of any effective policy to combat it’ in Colombia. The vast majority of the abuses are carried out by gunmen and paramilitaries acting on behalf – or with the connivance – of the security forces.
Half-hearted steps have been taken to protect individual human-rights defenders – some have bodyguards, bullet-proof jackets, surveillance cameras and bomb-proof doors to their offices. But Amnesty International believes that ‘government efforts do not match the magnitude of the problem... rarely have pledges been followed through with effective measures to tackle the problem at its core by conducting proper investigations.’
You might expect Yanette to have identified her own personal villains – individual politicians, soldiers, gunmen. After all, why else should she try to bring the killers of her sister Nydia to justice? But that, she says, is not the point. ‘Why has the culture of impunity grown in my country? How does it get established anywhere?’ she asks. ‘Because of indifference. The indifference of people in general, of society at large. If the Colombian people resolved together to bring it to an end, then the culture of impunity would vanish immediately.’
Her view reflects the recent history of Latin America. Through the years of military repression in the 1970s and 1980s it was the ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ in Argentina, Chile and elsewhere who kept memory and resistance alive. They reminded us that the bonds of human affection are stronger and more durable than those of torture, repression and fear. It’s a simple truth that involves everyone and – more to the point – motivates an increasing number of groups around the world.
Yanette Bautista got to know many of these groups in her role as President of FEDEFAM, the federation of families of the disappeared in Latin America, who have inspired so many others. Similar groups now exist in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, South Africa, South Korea, Kashmir, Indonesia, Algeria, El Salvador – places where torture and abuse have left a terrible mark on many thousands of lives. Though the price Yanette has paid for the part she has played may seem terribly high, she and others like her are paying it on behalf of us all. Repayment will be in full only when the killers of her sister are behind bars – and the culture of impunity has been buried in the grave of history, where it belongs.