Protecting Against Threats

“Organizations that protect human rights defenders must adapt to this situation. We must understand that our job is not to put defenders that are attacked in glass bubbles, but to help them do their work more effectively.”

Claudia Samayoa, the general coordinator for the Protection of Unit of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala, known as UDEFEGUA.


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?

Human rights defenders, whether they work individually or collectively in the Mesoamerican region, are currently under attack from corporations, organized crime and illegal armed groups, because most defenders challenge the power structure, which is exclusionary. So, if I come in to report, or to ask a mayor for information on how he is spending his budget, I may discover that the mayor is actually laundering money for organized crime structures. And suddenly an organized crime squad attacks me, who naively thought that everything was going to be okay.

And that is because of the way the region has been broken down, with state actors that have co-opted, joined forces or are a structural part of organized crime structures. And some companies, particularly from the extractive industry, join forces with them to extract riches, which is ultimately their shared interest.

Q: Why is it important to understand how power structures and gender and race discrimination shape this threat?

In order to protect human rights defenders in this new, very complex context, we must analyze who is the defender and what kind of community he or she belongs to. And we must take up an old practice, from the 1970s and 80s: to thoroughly comprehend whom we are facing. We must break the silence that surrounds organized crime. We must accept that we are terrified of them, but we must also recognize that our adversary has its weaknesses, as did other adversaries we faced in the past.

And we can only do this together, because this is a globalized world and organized crime is transnational, because usually the extractive companies that order assassinations and attacks are also transnational, and this way we can find weaknesses in these powerful actors. Something else that we must do is gradually get to know the collectives, indigenous communities, and grassroots organizations that achieve change, and we must understand that change is not achieved as individuals.

So solidarity must be extended to the whole group, to all human rights defenders. This is a more effective way to help human rights defenders to continue their work, which in many cases is the defense of the jungles that provide the world with oxygen, and provide the world with water.

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?

The violence experienced by people in the Mesoamerican region, caused by companies and organized crime as well as corrupt state and non state sectors, has become more complex and has grown exponentially as it has combined with the problems caused by historical racism, patriarchy and class relations in our region.

In our region, the processes of democratization were superficial adornments, and never caused any real changes in structural problems. This is why many human rights defenders, most of the defenders who try to claim their right of access to water and to the oxygen we all breathe, are very poor, mostly indigenous, and mostly women. Every day they must face violence linked to their condition, and when they are targeted politically, attackers dial up the violence related to their gender or condition.

That is why we have insisted that women defenders, LGBTI advocates who are attacked suffer from a violence that, although it is just as grave as an attack on a woman or member of the LGBTI community, is particularly serious for the defender of human rights because it is being used intentionally. The same goes for indigenous people and poor people.

In the face of this complicated situation, where one never knows the difference between the state, organized crime and corporations, a series of changes have also been made to respond to the complexity of aggressions. Part of the changes is at a community level: networks for protection are built not only as spaces for solidarity, but also as spaces to strengthen the struggle. So, as more communities face aggression because companies such as Barrick Gold want to start operating on their territories, by joining together they can face them more effectively.

Organizations that protect human rights defenders must adapt to this situation. We must understand that our job is not to put defenders that are attacked in glass bubbles, but to help them do their work more effectively. This is where community defense mechanisms must combine with donor strategies, and donors must understand that they must support movements and organization in their process and that not all progress can be measured in logical frameworks, by filling in charts with “what was achieved in three months”.

Many times you can save a human rights defender in an hour, as was the case of Miriam Miranda, who was being held by the police and released an hour later due to a Twitter campaign. Or it can simply take months, and you must relocate the human rights defender together with his or her family. Much progress has already been made. Protection services and donors now understand that human rights defenders are not just individuals but their families as well, and that they must protect themselves as a group. They also understand that we must keep looking to these types of alternatives that enable the struggle to produce effective results, and that we must not consider the human rights defender a victim, but rather an agent of change.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

If you are a human rights defender in Mesoamerica, the first thing you will face is a stigmatization and disinformation campaign. Throughout the region, it is believed that those who defend human rights are people who are conflicted, anti-development, communists, terrorists, or even members of organized crime. You must overcome this, and as you become more effective in the organization, in your collective work within the organization, you will begin to receive threats: death threats, rape threats for women, etc. And you must protect yourself and learn how to analyze your environment so that these threats do not come as a surprise, and document them well so that you can prove that you’re being threatened. Unfortunately, threats and harassment are not the only aggressions faced by human rights defenders in the region. The region has three (Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico) of the four countries where there are most murders of human rights defenders (the fourth is Colombia). So the challenge is also to mourn comrades who are killed, but also to continue working in the face of the possibility of murder, criminalization and unjustified jail, such as that of political prisoners.