“Human rights defenders are at risk, because we are raising our voices, because we are denouncing these crimes, because we are exposing the collusion between organized crime, the police and some politicians that are damaging the life of our society.”
Abel Barrera Hernández, director of the Tlachinollan Mountain Human Rights Center (CDHM), based in Tlapa, Guerrero, Mexico.
Q: Why are people who stand up for human rights at risk from companies, organized crime and extremist political groups, and what can be done to protect them?
Why are defenders at risk and what can be done? Human rights defenders are at risk because we are accompanying the people in cities or in the countryside who have organized to defend their rights. For example in Mexico, mothers and fathers are demanding the live presentation of children disappeared in Ayotzinapa, and thousands of families have had their children torn from their homes and now know nothing. So now we are joining with them, and this is a risk because of the violence in the streets.
Worst of all is that authorities are not acting properly to punish those responsible, to find the whereabouts of those that have disappeared. Corruption and impunity is eating away at our institutions. That is why human rights defenders are at risk, because we are raising our voices, because we are denouncing these crimes, because we are exposing the collusion between organized crime, the police and some politicians that are damaging the life of our society. And, on the other hand, we believe that public opinion, international solidarity and cooperation agencies can become a great eye that can shine on this darkness. With their presence, their solidarity, their support, and by embracing the cause of justice, they can contribute enormously so that there is more justice in this world.
Q: Why is it important to understand how power structures and gender and race discrimination shape this threat?
The situation of violence in this country causes indigenous women, and women in general, to suffer more cruelly at the hands of authorities. We can see how our country is falling apart because of this lack of justice. But above all, we can see that actions are most violent against the poorest, most unprotected people in our country.
There are more than 15 million indigenous people in this country, and yet they are not visible. Because they speak a different language, have a different worldview; they are excluded from our political system. They are denied their rights. And women, especially indigenous women, are unprotected. Their own communities, spouses and authorities do not recognize the rights of women. Not to mention at a national level, at a political level, where there is systematic violence against women. Their struggle is stigmatized and their rights are trampled on.
And I believe that in this sense, in our country the pain is stronger, deeper and more intense among indigenous women, women from the countryside and the city, indigenous peoples. That is why it is so important to stand on the side of those who suffer the most. That is why it is important to give greater visibility and, above all, strength and presence, to these agents of change and agents of hope.
Q: What changes could be made by human rights activists and movements – and the protection groups and donors who support them – to make more effective their approaches to protecting against threats and violence from non-state actors?
How to improve approaches that seek to protect human rights defenders from threats? Well, in the first place we must keep insisting, which is what families are doing, insisting on their demands to authorities. We must first demand that institutions work. We need a restructuring, a renewal of our institutions. Our institutions have turned their back on citizens. They are not serving the citizenry. Institutions must, above all, rid themselves of corruption. It is necessary to make fundamental changes in the way rights are protected. This is at an institutional level, and it is a great challenge. The justice and security systems must really work. People must feel protected.
And obviously, organizations, movements and communities must develop their own methods for protection, self-care, bonding and building networks of solidarity, because there are state actors and non-state actors who are threatening. We must analyze this scenario, but above all, we must build our strength within the society so that we can be a counterweight, with its organized civil society and communities organized with their own security mechanisms, with the help of international solidarity. We also need international cooperation entities to join in the struggle, because human rights are an issue for all of us.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?
I just want to tell you that the people who live there, in the mountain of Guerrero, we are people with a very big heart. But that big heart is bleeding for lack of basic rights, food and education. That big heart is also full of hope, but it is in pain. How can you help diminish the intensity of this pain? How can you help heal this pain, remove this suffering, but above all help us to achieve equality, justice and peace in this world? Because the men and women of that mountain, we are men and women of peace. We are men and women who look for the future to embrace us all.