April 7 marks the first anniversary of the loss of our dear colleagues and the heart of our Latin America program: Ana Paula Hernández and Sally O’Neill. They were killed in an automobile accident in Guatemala, along with the Fund’s longtime driver, Daniel Tuc, and Ana Velásquez, a member of the indigenous rights group Consejo Wuxtaj.
One year later, their legacies have inspired a dedicated fund to advance groundbreaking human rights initiatives and provide critical protection to activists facing intimidation and violence.
The loss of Ana Paula and Sally has been profoundly felt at the Fund and among the activists we support in the region, as well as throughout the broader human rights and social justice movements in Mexico and Central America.
While Ana Paula and Sally both brought deep expertise and extensive experience to the Fund, they were extraordinary in how they deftly built and strengthened relationships, forging invaluable connections among frontline activists and communities.
I’m filled with a mix of emotions as I reflect on Ana Paula and Sally’s lives and legacies. I still and will always mourn their loss, but more and more I find myself smiling as I remember Sally’s infectious laugh, Ana Paula’s wicked sense of humor, and the great joy they brought to their work. Because of these two remarkable, brave, and committed human rights advocates, the Fund’s Latin America program is strong, and people are living safer lives. We must continue the fight for justice in their honor.
After their passing, the Fund established the Ana Paula Hernández and Sally O’Neill Memorial Fund for Human Rights Defenders in Latin America. Both women believed ardently in the power of activists and communities to fight injustice, promote equality, and ensure the dignified treatment of all people, and this fund enables community leaders in Latin America to advance all of these endeavors.
A wide range of individuals, family foundations, and the Fund’s foundation partners generously contributed, and I am personally grateful to every one who has given. The memorial fund has enabled us to move more than $500,000 into the hands of courageous activists over the past year.
The Hernández O’Neill Memorial Fund is keeping Ana Paula’s and Sally’s spirit alive by providing critical protection to activists at risk, propelling new projects forward, and supporting several victories, including:
- Urgent support for human rights defenders under threat, including those facing violent attacks and trumped-up legal charges in retribution for their activism.
When Guatemala’s president tried to consolidate power in early 2019 by undoing years of institutional reform, many of you contributed to an emergency fund spearheaded by Ana Paula and Sally to support the work and safety of local activists. In the same spirit, the memorial fund has enabled legal defense in Honduras, where 84 journalists have been murdered since 2001, and facilitated the temporary relocation of an activist working to protect media workers who document human rights abuses. The fund also enabled legal aid to more than 90 women human rights defenders that are facing criminal charges as a result of their work.
- The development of new, community-based approaches to ensuring the safety and security of human rights defenders.
The memorial fund is driving a project to provide communications training, internet access, and solar-powered radios to a network of young activists in rural Guatemala where the military has a history of abuse and sexual assault. This will help establish a funnel for circulating information to isolated communities around human rights, and if needed, document violations and take legal action.
- Campaigns by indigenous and farming communities to defend rights to land and natural resources on which they depend for their livelihoods.
In Honduras. the memorial fund is supporting the work of an organization defending environmental activists facing criminalization. A recent win was secured by the group when charges were dropped against 10 of 11 indigenous farmers criminalized for protesting corporate-led development projects that threaten to destroy their communities’ land and natural resources. The final case is ongoing.
- Groundbreaking work by human rights defenders to promote justice and accountability for gross human rights violations.
The memorial fund is promoting the work of organizations seeking accountability from those who retaliate against human rights defenders protecting land rights and the environment. In November, seven of the eight people charged in the assassination of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres were convicted. While the intellectual authors of Berta’s murder remain at large, this case is an historic step as convictions are rare throughout the region.
- Dedicated support for women human rights defenders, who face distinct challenges to their security and well-being.
In Mexico, the memorial fund has helped strengthen the security of a collective of women providing legal aid to indigenous peoples living without running water for more than 800 days. This includes a series of security workshops and implementation of new security measures, as well as psychosocial support for two women who received specific threats.
Even though they’re no longer with us, I continue to learn from Ana Paula and Sally’s work and be inspired by their example. Even in the darkest times, they worked with a fierce commitment while lifting up everyone around them.
Their memories fill me with purpose—particularly as we navigate the current COVID-19 pandemic and work to support the activists and communities Ana Paula and Sally loved so much in facing this latest challenge. Already, these groups are mobilizing to ensure that governments and others in power do not abuse the measures enacted in the context of the pandemic to disenfranchise vulnerable people.
On April 7, staff of the Fund will take the day to be with loved ones and remember these two amazing women. Then, with their memories close to our hearts, we will press forward in providing activists with what they need to continue the fight for justice, dignity, and equality.