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The situation of human rights defenders in Latin America remained of grave concern in 2012. The use of violence against HRDs was the most dramatic trend. Journalists, trade unionists, environmental and land rights defenders faced significant threats and were targeted with violent attacks throughout the region. Indigenous peoples’ rights defenders, women’s rights defenders and LGBTI rights defenders were amongst those most vulnerable.
Although this violence occurs in a context, in many countries, in which there has been an overall breakdown in security, human rights defenders remain specifically targeted from a variety of sources – government, militia, criminal groups, transnational narco-trafficking groups and corporate-hired thugs.
In August, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruled that “[States party] must establish processes of free, prior and informed consultation before initiating any projects that could affect either the territories of indigenous peoples and communities or other rights essential for their survival”.
Vast mineral and natural resources have continued to attract mining companies and extractive industries which have had a marked effect on the landscape in which people working on indigenous peoples’ rights, the environment and access to land are operating. Heightened scrutiny of mining activities has led to increased social protest and opposition. Government forces and, increasingly, private security companies have deployed violent tactics against those defending affected communities.
In 2012, Front Line Defenders reported on the killing of ten human rights defenders and their family members in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. In Brazil, four HRDs were killed in April, June and August: Raimundo Alves Borges made formal complaints concerning illegal activities associated with the buying and selling of land; Almir Nogueira de Amorim and João Luiz Telles Penetra were members of the Association of Sea Men; human rights lawyer Diego Luiz Berbare Bandeira filed complaints for abuses committed by civil and military police, prison directors and other authorities. In Colombia, Manuel Ruíz, who advocated for the return of land to displaced communities in Curvaradó y Jiguamiandó, was murdered in March together with his son. Among the massive numbers of those murdered in Honduras, Manuel Díaz Mazariegos was killed in September, just two days after the assassination of Antonio Trejo Cabrera, legal representative of a peasants’ movement. In Mexico, Regina Martínez Pérez, a journalist reporting on drug cartels and the links between organised criminal groups and government officials, was beaten and strangled to death in April. The cases Front Line Defenders reported on represent only a fraction of the total number of those killed in the region because of their involvement in human rights.
Those surviving assassination attempts faced physical and psychological trauma not just from the attacks but also due to the impunity enjoyed by the aggressors. HRDs suffered attempted killings in Guatemala, Honduras and Venezuela. In Honduras, Gonzalo Cruz was shot at by police agents in January, and Juan Vásquez and Sotero Chavarría were shot in June as they returned from a meeting on a land conflict involving an indigenous community. In Venezuela Victor Martínez survived an assassination attempt outside his home, in the same place his son was gunned down two years before. Other physical attacks were reported in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Disappearances were reported in Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico. Mexican HRD José Enrique Morales Montaño was kidnapped by four masked men in a truck, while on his way to a meeting with a group of textile workers in the city of Puebla in central Mexico. He was held for 17 hours, a gun was put to his head several times and his life and the lives of his colleagues were threatened.
Fabricated criminal charges remained common in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru. In Peru, a HRD working on forced evictions was falsely accused of aggravated violence against a public official before being eventually acquitted. The criminalisation of HRDs is an attempt not just to silence their work but also to undermine their credibility within the community. Likewise, public smear campaigns by local media and politicians are used to delegitimise the work of HRDs. Front Line Defenders also reported on other cases of smear campaigns in Argentina, Guatemala and Mexico and on arbitrary arrests in Colombia, Cuba, Mexico and Peru.
The homes and offices of HRDs continue to be vulnerable to break-ins and attacks in attempts to steal sensitive information and valuable equipment, and to disrupt their work. Break-ins and theft of material were reported in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and El Salvador. Death threats, intimidation and harassment were the most common way of warning human rights defenders that their work has ‘crossed the line’ and will not be tolerated. Front Line Defenders received reports on multiple cases of threats and intimidation in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela.
Governments throughout the region failed to provide adequate protection to those who work to defend human rights, and must address this situation. Protection programmes for HRDs at risk exist in Brazil and Colombia, although both face a variety of challenges in meeting the needs of HRDs. A positive development in 2012 was the adoption in Mexico, in April, of a law establishing a protection mechanism for human rights defenders and journalists at risk. The law provides the necessary legal framework for the cooperation between different relevant government bodies, and provides for the participation of civil society organisations in its implementation, including with regards to risk assessment and decision-making. However, eights months after the adoption of the law, the government has yet to adopt the regulations and protocols required to make the mechanism operational.
Furthermore, despite all these instances of threats and physical attacks, impunity in the region remains strikingly high. The lack of accountability not only allows perpetrators to escape unpunished, it also sends a signal that human rights defenders can be targeted without consequence and that violence is tolerated.
Venezuela: Defamation campaign against human rights defender Mr Humberto Prado Sifontes and arbitrary detention of Mr Inti Rodriguez
Cuba: Second raid and siege at home of human rights defenders Mr Jorge Luís García Pérez and Ms Yris Pérez Aguilera
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- Centro de Accion Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH) (Guatemala)
- Centro de Derechos Humanos (Mexico)
- Corporación de Promoción y Defensa de los Derechos del Pueblo (CODEPU) (Chile)
- Conselho Indigenista Missionario (CIMI) (Brazil)
- Fundacion de Avuda Social de las Iglesias Cristianas (FASIC) (Chile)
- Fundacion Regional de Asesoria en Derechos Humanos (INREDH) (Ecuador)
- Gabinete de Assessoria Jurídica ás Organizações Populares (GAJOP) (Brazil)
- Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais RJ (Brazil)
- Instituto Latinoamericano de Servicios Legales Alternativos (ILSA) (Colombia)
- Justica Global (Brazil)
- Liga Mexicana por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (LIMEDDH)
- Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) (Brazil)
- Movimento Nacional de Direitos Humanos (MNDH) (Brazil)
- Coalition Nationale pour les Droits des Haitiens
- Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) (Argentina)
- American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (USA)
- Coalition of Immokalee Workers (USA)
- Jackson Advocate (USA)
- Kensington Welfare Rights Union (USA)
- Lynne Stewart (USA)