Jodie Martire: Staring Down The Death Squads


In the struggle for human rights, there are iconic figures like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

But there is a much larger group — the mostly anonymous army of human rights defenders — working for a dream many will never see. For them, public recognition is often no more than a posthumous paragraph in an Amnesty International report.

In many abusive and lawless states, there are foreigners now sharing some of the mental torture of human rights work. These are the volunteers who accompany frontline workers. The purpose of these sponsored accompaniments is to keep these endangered workers in the frontline and out of the firing line.

‘We are here to allow them to do their work and act as witnesses to the outside world,’ says Jodie Martire about her time as an unarmed protective escort in Colombia with Peace Brigades International (PBI). ‘We are putting pressure on the Colombian Government to remind them of its human rights responsibilities to protect its citizens.’

Sounds simple enough. But Jodie’s presence on the ground across four urban and rural locations was just one node in an international network that seeks to apply pressure in several directions and at many levels. Information collected finds its way to the main PBI offices in Europe and Washington, whose campaigners activate their high-level political contacts with ties to offending governments.

PBI engages only legal entities such as government and military officials. It works alongside people whose work puts them at risk. It tries to ‘disarm’ those with ill-intent with a highly visible presence backed by a global network of advocates.

‘[Rights abusers] have to make smarter political choices,’ Martire explains. ‘We are increasing the political costs of their actions. It gives [accompanied organisations]more space to work with safety.’

The current Colombian Government of President Alvaro Uribe Velez will not deign to give the armed conflict in that country the status of ‘civil war’, rather, it characterises the two main guerrilla forces it faces as ‘terrorist threats’.

Terror is indeed what all armed groups, legal and illegal, have brought to their victims in Colombia, the vast majority of whom are the rural poor living in areas controlled by either guerrilla groups, like FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas), or state-sponsored paramilitaries, most notably AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia). Human Rights Watch has set the cumulative total of internal refugees at 3.7 million in a country of 45 million, a figure eclipsed only by Sudan.

Those who suffer most from human rights abuses, Martire says, are either targeted as leaders or they simply live in an area controlled by opposing armed groups. They are regarded not as victims, but as part of the enemy.

Martire worked with a lawyers’ group, Corporacion Juri­dica Libertad (Corporation for Judicial Freedom), which has handed to the UN over 100 cases of extra-judicial execution, where, the Corporation alleges, members of the military killed farmers, some of whom were later presented as guerrillas, dressed in guerrilla uniforms and holding weapons.

Colombia is a country with a very long history of political violence. While the post-WWII period known as La Violencia was an internal struggle between Liberal and Conservative oligarchs, the 1960s saw rural rebellions and the birth of the armed communist group known as FARC, while an explosive fusion of Christian liberation theology and Marxism produced the guerrilla priests of ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional).

Both groups sustain their control of territory and populations through attacks on infrastructure, extortion, robbery, kidnapping for ransom, the profits of drug trafficking and military assault on unarmed communities.

Some analysts see paramilitary death squads as a rational choice by so-called ‘comprador’ regimes in the face of mass unrest caused by guerrilla armies in societies built around agricultural export growth. But Colombia’s was a special kind of export growth, based on narco-capital.

Druglords colluded with state security forces against insurgents. In the 1980s, they set up ‘communist-free zones’ in central Colombia and terrorised the countryside with the blessing of the army.

An unfunny irony since the 1980s is that Colombia’s narcotrafico economy has realised a version of the neo-liberal dream: a demand-driven ‘Latin American controlled, export-oriented industry, with proven global competitiveness,’ in the words of Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells in his 1999 book End of Millenium. Colombia’s addiction to narco-capital, Castells believes, means it is deeply integrated into the global criminal economy through strategic alliances with criminal networks in Russia, America and Italy.

In the 1980s, when the Colombian Government decided to co-operate with US extradition of drug bosses, the biggest druglord in the country, Pablo Escobar turned his hired guns against the State. The collusion and corruption that had made the elimination of political moderates possible came back to haunt the government. Forty judges and lawyers were killed in Colombia each year between 1979 and 1991. Many more emigrated or just took bribes. Many police officers were similarly corrupted or murdered.

Having long acted with impunity and covered their backs by subcontracting terror in exchange for impunity, state agencies are now under pressure to protect vulnerable communities and the human rights advocates who defend them. Ironically, this has made such frontline defenders even more of a target for those with most to lose from prosecutions.

Once in office, President Uribe convened talks with paramilitary commanders and launched a demobilisation program in 2003. It urges paramilitary troops to disarm and admit their crimes in exchange for reduced sentences, limitations on future prosecutions and economic benefits.

‘The organisations we work with say that the structures haven’t changed,’ says Martire. ‘There’s been a great number of denunciations about the continued presence of paramilitary troops, either the formation of new groups or groups that have continued to operate. There are many communiques that state that people demobilised several times, or young street people were rounded up and forced to demobilise.’

There are strict rules for victims wanting to take part in prosecutions of perpetrators, who must make full confessions before being entitled to benefits. However, joining prosecutions still carrys great risk. Last January, Yolanda Izquierdo was shot dead while gathering evidence for a claim to regain land seized by paramilitaries from more than 800 families.

Equally perilous has been the attempt by some rural groups to break the cycle of violence and victimhood by declaring their communities neutral. The people of San Jose de Apartado, already displaced, found themselves in a highly strategic zone in the northwest of the country. Not only was there a lot of guerrilla and paramilitary activity but they also inhabited an area where the Government is negotiating a gas pipeline from Venezuela to the Pacific.

‘They’ve decided not to feed any armed actor, legal or illegal. They don’t give them water, don’t let them stay, or pass information,’ Martire explains. ‘They separate themselves from the conflict. Instead of always being the victims of these armed actors and fighting against them, they’ve said, ‘this is our position and we want our right to our land to farm.’

Jodie Martire’s most exhilarating moment came in her final assignment, accompanying the head of the Movement of Victims of State Crimes. On this trip, Ivan Cepeda, with Martire in tow, attended a Senate committee hearing in an area where it was alleged the local mayor had conspired with the state and paramilitaries. Cepeda’s Movement had helped collect incriminating testimonies which formed the basis of a speech he delivered to the hearing in front of army top brass, senators, victims and the accused mayor.

‘That was the most scary moment of my entire 15 months in Colombia,’ Martire recalls. ‘I wasn’t scared for me, I was really scared for Ivan because of what he was saying straight to this man’s face in front of 1000 people. It was so exhilarating because if we hadn’t been there accompanying him both before and afterward he wouldn’t have felt safe.’

‘This is exactly what I went there to do; I went there to make sure that people like him can say things like that.’

Steve Sharp is director of Telinga Media, a media and communications consultancy business based in Sydney.