“The fight is like this,” said Gloria with resignation, sadness and hopefulness. Behind her big and sincere smile there is a world hard to imagine. This short, thin, and athletic woman is the partner of Henry Diaz, who vanished on 18 April 2012.
Henry is a well-known campesino leader, a member of the Mesa Departamental de OrganizacionesSociales, Campesinas, Afrodescendientes e Indígenas del Putumayo [Departmental Council of Social, Farmers, Afro-descendant and Indigenous Organizations of the Putumayo], and leader of the social and political movement Marcha Patriótica. He was one of the people that promoted the work of the Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (CPDH) [Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights] in the Putumayo department. The CPDH has handled Henry’s disappearance case. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures to protect the campesino leader in June 2012, asking the Colombian government to “take the necessary measures to determine Henry’s status and whereabouts”. Unfortunately, little has been heard since.
In order to meet Gloria, we ventured into a two hour motorcycle trip on a dirt road from Puerto Asís, commercial centre of the department of Putumayo, to Teteyé, constantly passing oil trailers, an image of today’s Putumayo, which ranks sixth place in the extraction of crude oil in Colombia. Confronting the exploration and exploitation of oil in the region was one of Henry Díaz and the Mesa Departamental‘s actions, reported Diego Martínez, the CPDH’s lawyer, whom PBI accompanied on this trip. He added that what Putumayo farmers question is the lack of prior consultation with the indigenous communities in regards to the implementation of projects from oil companies. The two most important issues are the impact on the environment due to chemical waste that companies pour into rivers, and that profits are not socially or economically reinvested in the area, as there are high levels of poverty and unemployment in the department.
When Diego Martínez is not talking, Gloria tells me about her life as a farmer in Putumayo. She lives with three of her four children in the far reaches of Colombia, on the border with Ecuador. After over a year, she is tired of talking about her missing husband; she prefers to talk about her participation in several social marches in Putumayo. With a proud smile, she narrates how she walked for two days along other people from the area in order to attend the peace march in Puerto Asís last April.
Henry’s disappearance is not an isolated case, Diego Martínez told me during our trip, adding that the Putumayo is one of the regions with the highest rate of forced disappearances. “It is a common practice to trigger silence and terror.” According to the National Registry of Disappeared Persons, in the charge of the National Institute of Legal Medicine and the Commission on Missing Persons, 841 cases of forced disappearances were reported from 1990 to January 2011 in Putumayo. By August 31, 2012 the National Institute of Legal Medicine had recorded 18,638 victims of forced disappearance throughout Colombia.
Strengthening and accompanying of the Mesa Departamental de Organizaciones Sociales is the focus of the CPDH’s work in the area. To Diego, this is a key component because the Mesa constitutes an important civic movement in the reconstruction of Putumayo’s social fabric. During the 90s, the armed conflict erased the social movement, but now there is a revival that could someday become strong, emphasizes the lawyer.
Moreover, Diego Martínez and some of his CPDH colleagues are protected by precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights due to the threats, accusations and harassment they have received since 2009. Traveling without international support through rural areas in Putumayo would be impossible for Diego, this being the reason PBI travels with him.
Diego hopes that Henry is still alive. What Gloria wants the most is the truth, because she wants to move on with her life.