I just read that Ricardo Alberto Sierra, a lawyer in Medellín who was helping Colombians to seek justice against Colombian paramilitary groups, was assassinated on Monday in front of several members of his family. This blog post is dedicated to Mr. Sierra and the courageous people – lawyers, activists, and victims alike – who continue to face intimidation and violence in Colombia as a result of their efforts to bring to light the atrocities committed by paramilitaries during the country’s long civil war.
I didn’t know Mr. Sierra personally, but I know lawyers in Colombia who do similar work. Mr. Sierra had worked with the Public Defense System for the Judicial Representation of Victims since 2007, and represented people whose family members were killed by the AUC, the principal paramilitary group in Colombia from 1997 to 2004. These victims of violence are participating in the Justicia y Paz (“Justice and Peace”) process, an initiative by which paramilitaries agree to lay down their arms, make full confessions of their crimes, and pay reparations to their victims in exchanged for reduced penal sentences. With Mr. Sierra’s assistance, Colombians were able to stand up and seek the truth – they could present testimony and evidence to the tribunals, ask questions of the defendants, and seek compensation for their injuries.
For people across Colombia who were traumatized and frightened into silence for so long, Justicia y Paz promises to provide a platform from which to tell their own stories and learn what happened to their loved ones. But as the murder of Mr. Sierra shows, the threat is still very much present. Today, we in the US tend to hear much about how the security situation in Colombia is drastically improved, except in isolated pockets of the country. This may or may not be true, but human rights defenders, social activists and trade unionists in Colombia are still threatened and/or killed at an alarming rate.
Moreover, among those who want to confront the past, it’s not just the lawyers who are at risk. The decision of a victim to seek representation and name names requires courage and faith, as it may expose her to tormentors who in many cases still live in the same community. Marco Simons and I, together with our co-counsel, were in Colombia just last week meeting with human rights lawyers and some of the plaintiffs in ERI’s case against Chiquita. Chiquita financed the Elmer Cardenás Bloc of the AUC – one of the paramilitary subdivisions whose victims Mr. Sierra was assisting – and in return benefited from the AUC’s murderous mission to suppress labor demands and gain control over the countryside in the banana-growing region of Urabá. (You can see why I’m so chilled by this news – we left Medellín just one day before the murder.) Even though the Chiquita case is against a US company and does not seek to hold paramilitaries responsible, the plaintiffs are proceeding under pseudonyms for their own protection, and many of them fear dire consequences if they divulge details about what happened to their families.
I can’t stop thinking about the plight – and the courage – of so many victims of paramilitary violence in Colombia, as well as their defenders. One of the things that struck me about my trip to Medellín was that its plazas and boulevards seem shockingly placid and charming, especially when you think about the things that have happened there in the past twenty years. The assassination of Mr. Sierra reminds us that for those who would seek justice for human rights abuses, the menace of violence still lurks just below the surface.