Colombia: The situation of human rights defenders. Interview with Arnaldo Hernández, AFRODES leader at risk without adequate protection
Bogotá, June 19, 2017. Upon returning to his home after attending the funeral of Bernardo Cuero Bravo, the board member of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) who was assassinated this past June 7, 2017, Arnaldo Hernández was informed that unknown subjects had been loitering near his house and asking for him. He also learned of a new pamphlet with death threats against leaders in Malambo, the municipality where Bernardo worked, lived and was murdered. Over the last few weeks, Arnaldo has avoided leaving his house as much as possible, out of fear and for lack of an adequate institutional response that would provide him adequate protection that, just as it was with Bernardo, continues to be denied him. The Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights visited Arnaldo this past June 29 and interviewed him to understand in greater detail his situation and the work that he does.
Arnaldo Hernández is a member of the AFRODES Board of Directors and a representative of the organizations of the displaced Afro-Colombian population in Cartagena. His is also a representative of black communities before the Cartagena District Roundtable for Victims. Regrettably, as in the case of Bernardo, the Colombian state has still not provided him the adequate protective measures to guarantee his right to life and personal integrity and that will allow him to practice his leadership activities in forcibly-displaced Afro-Colombian communities.
The Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights: We know that you face a risk situation like that faced by Bernardo, which is directly related to your leadership activities. Could you begin by telling us a little about that leadership work?
Arnaldo Hernández: I’ve been a board member of AFRODES since the year 2000, when I was displaced to Cartagena. My forced arrival in Cartagena is part of a long line of threats and attacks that go back to the time when I began as a social leader. From 1984 to 1999, I was a union leader in Turbo, from where I had to leave. I arrived a Montes de Maria and there too, in the year 2000, I was a victim of an attack, causing me to be displaced again. Currently, as representative of AFRODES in Cartagena and the Caribbean region, and as representative of black communities before the Cartagena District Roundtable for Victims, I work to support advocacy, training and management actions on projects by the displaced Afro-Colombian population in the region. In the Bolívar Department, I work with twenty-seven organizations linked to AFRODES’ work. In the specific case of Cartagena, the eleven organizational processes we accompany bring together thousands of displaced Afro-Colombians that today live in the city’s most marginalized communities, such as Nelson Mandela, Olaya, Pozón and Faldas de Popa.
Race and Equality: Why does this work to support these communities and organizations bring a risk, especially now that the country finds itself in the implementation stage of the Peace Accords with the FARC?
AH: In the case of the Bolívar Department, like in many regions where our communities live, the peace signing has not meant that the threats and violence stop. Bear in mind, in this region, paramilitary groups continue to control the territory, especially everything related to the narco-trafficking business. This happens in many municipalities and other parts of Bolívar where our communities are, in Montes de Maria, Maria la Baja, El Carmen, Malagana and Sincerin, but also in the urban areas of Cartagena.
When we as AFRODES go to these communities to educate them about their rights, we are still accused of coming to “revolutionize the community.” Obviously, what these armed groups are looking to do is to maintain control over narco-trafficking and the local drug trade, and to recruit our young people. Anyone who denounces these situations and helps to empower the community becomes a military target. This is exactly what happened to Bernardo. It was not, as the National Protection Unit is saying, that he had an argument with some neighbor. Like Bernardo, I and other AFRODES leaders risk our lives daily when we support communities in their denouncements and advocacy processes. This risk situation is worsened by the actions of many institutions and public workers that there to protect us, but that sometimes contribute to our stigmatization. A civil servant even accused me of being a FARC guerrilla for having been part of a group that led a peaceful occupation of the Cartagena Victims’ Unit, something we had to do as a way to denounce the systematic failure of the government to fulfill its obligations to the people.
Race & Equality: We understand that on several occasions you have denounced the threats you have recently received and, like in Bernardo’s case, you’ve requested protective measures from the National Protection Unit.
AH: Neither for the risk situation that I face today, nor in previous occasions in which my family and I have been victims of attacks, threats and other rights violations, has that government provided me the necessary measures. One risk assessment on my situation even concluded that I faced “extraordinary risk.” And do you know that they gave me? A bulletproof vest and a cell phone without enough credit. Right now, as for government measures, the vest is all I have. Last December, again I was the victim of threats, attacks and harassment. Just recently, coming back from burying my colleague Bernado, I find new threats against my life and personal integrity. I’ve lodged complaints before the proper institutions, but I’ve yet to receive a satisfactory response from the government.
Race & Equality: What would be the protection measures that you and other AFRODES leaders need?
AH: What we need is the same protective framework that other social leaders facing the same situation have. A vest and a phone are not enough. To move freely, we need bodyguards and a vehicle. It is the only way to continue our work accompanying and representing the communities. In my case, to be able to continue my work with the communities in Bolivar and other Caribbean departments, I also need resources to relocate to Cartagena. The latest incidents that I’ve faced in Santa Catalina, the municipality where I live, demonstrate the vulnerable situation I find myself in. Collective protection measures needed by our organizations and communities must also be considered. The situation faced by colleagues from the organizational processes in Malambo because of Bernardo’s death, or that of the organizations of AFRODES Cali, who have recently received new threats, is very unfortunate.
Arnaldo’s case is not an isolated one. Other AFRODES leaders face a similar situation, and the Colombian government continues to fail to provide them adequate protection measures. In the case of AFRODES’ vice-president, Erlendy Cuero Bravo, beneficiary of the Precautionary Measure No. 658-16 of 2016, the government has still not provided her with protective measures. The Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights reiterates the priority that should be given by the Colombian government to compliance with this precautionary measure and the provision of adequate collective measures for Arnaldo and other AFRODES leaders who continue to be at risk.