“Twenty four years after Nydia Erika disappeared, disappearances continue to take place”

Interview with Andrea Bautista, Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation

Andrea Torres Bautista is the legal coordinator for Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation. In the coming months, Andrea will travel to Spain to tell the Foundation’s story, and the story of how her aunt Nydia Erika was disappeared; and above all about the Foundation’s work for the victims of forced disappearance and in supporting their relatives.

PBI: Who was Nydia Erika Bautista and how was she disappeared?

ANDREA TORRES: Nydia Erika Bautista was the eldest of six, and daughter of Alfonso and Domi, a humble couple from here in Bogota, who studied at the National University; whilst studying at university she joined the guerrilla group ‘M19’, which was a left-wing subversive group that existed at the time, and which used to do a lot of social work, especially with poor communities. In those days Nydia Erika would build schools in the southern neighbourhoods of Bogota, and help children and indigenous people, always with that social sense of working for the less fortunate, it was her passion.

Nydia Erika disappeared on 30 August 1987. That day her son, Eric, and I were taking our first communion and being baptised, and so we had a family gathering, we were all awaiting it and so happy that she was joining us. She had decided to come to Bogota and unfortunately in the hours of the afternoon while we were celebrating, she was approached by several armed men and forced to get into a Jeep, which was later identified as a vehicle belonging to the 20th Brigade’s now decommissioned Charry Solano Battalion, from here in Bogota. Since that day we have heard nothing about her, we lost all news of her whereabouts and with time we established that those responsible were the Colombian military.

PBI: How has the legal process about the case of Nydia Bautista’s disappearance been, from then until now?

AT: Ever since Nydia Erika was disappeared, the family, and especially my mother, Yaneth Bautista, dedicated her entire life to searching for her, to search for justice, to demand that the State investigate and identify those responsible, and during that battle, she was able to get the Colombian Commission of Jurists to take on Nydia Erika’s case. Their representation of the family has made it possible to uncover a lot of evidence of responsibility of high ranking members of the Colombian army, including General Alvaro Hernan Velandia Hurtado. This person was put on trial by the Colombian authorities, but unfortunately because of technical issues it was some years later, and after Nydia Erika’s cadaver was found with visible signs of torture and presumably sexual violence, because she was found without underwear, when, as it was the day of a first communion, she would obviously be wearing underwear.

These people’s identity was proven, but the authorities in charge decided to close the cases against them. So after the case was closed, the process’ activity was absolutely nil.

Andrea Torres
Andrea Torres

We had to leave also because of threats we received from members of the armed forces, and me and my mother Yaneth Bautista were in exile for about six years. I am the first to return and since I returned I have graduated as a lawyer, and I have decided to take on the case of my aunt Nydia Erika Bautista in the face of the scale of impunity that confronts us and because absolutely nothing has moved forward since the case against those responsible was closed.

As the Bautista family knows, these people, the members of the military, are the ones responsible and no-one else, and so we have taken on the case. I’ve been working on it for about five years, and last year, on the 23rd anniversary of Nydia’s disappearance, we presented an action for review, to reopen the investigation against the members of the military who had the cases against them closed.

PBI: In the context of the legal process, what do you think about access to justice in Colombia?

AT: I think that Nydia Erika Bautista’s case is an example, precisely because of how sophisticated the impunity surrounding it has been this whole time. I think that in Colombia and especially with the crime of forced disappearance, impunity is very sophisticated. We have so many laws, norms, we have ratified international conventions, we have many tools that if they were used as they are meant to be, well, not only would the crime not be repeated, but what is also certain is that twenty three, twenty four years after Nydia Erika disappeared, disappearances continue to take place and access to justice for the victims is absolutely zero.

If they don’t go knocking on doors, dedicating their lives to that struggle, to demand, to investigate, because they themselves have to become investigators, to stop being housewives and be also investigators, lawyers, and be so many things for the cases to move forward, for their loved ones to have a place, a name so that no-one forgets them and so that the State gives even a minimal response. So access to justice is very frustrating, we continue waiting, searching and it is an initiative by the families, not a duty that the State has taken on as its obligation to tell us what happened, why she was taken and who took her.

PBI: How was the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation created and what does it do?

AT: The Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation was started with an award that Yaneth Bautista was given for her fight for the disappeared, not just in Colombia but in various countries. It is an award granted by people in Germany, with a economic prize, and what she decided to do because of the great number of families of disappeared people who come to Yaneth Bautista for help, is to start a foundation, a foundation of the relatives of the disappeared, which makes it different to other NGOs that accompany cases of forced disappearances.

There, we’re all relatives, from the person to looks after the front door to the lawyers, even the director; we are family members of the disappeared and we dedicate ourselves to providing holistic, interdisciplinary accompaniment, because we try to cover all these spaces and these voids that forced disappearances leave, because it is a crime of plural offences, which affects multiple rights. So there are many voids left, people need a psychologist, they need a social worker, they need a lawyer, they need forensic advice for the exhumations, so many disciplines are needed to accompany a family member and for them to be able to continue their search for truth and justice.

PBI: What is your evaluation of women human rights defenders, and what challenges and difficulties do they face?

AT: It’s a very difficult role for women defenders, especially in the case of forced disappearance. It does seem a bit more special because it is almost always the women who stay behind to look for their loved ones; almost always the person disappeared is the husband, the brother, the father and the woman is left the part of searching for truth, justice, to find a loved one, to demand answers from the State is very, very difficult.

I have a memory from when I was very young, after Nydia Erika Bautista disappeared, when I was nine years old, of my mother being persecuted the whole time, absolutely all the time, during the whole of history of my life, I have seen her persecuted and people trying to hurt her just because she is asking why Nydia Erika was taken, who took her and for them to be condemned, and punished.

So it has been my life’s history, watching my family flee many different places, of Nydia Erika’s son too, who recently two years ago was forced to leave because he was threatened, and so the history of the women and in general of the families of the victims is very difficult when they assume the role of human rights defenders and there are no answers from the State and no effective protection for them to carry out such important work that they do.

PBI: What advances have there been in the search for the victims of disappearances, for justice, and the work around memory?

AT: I feel that yes, there have been many advances. One looks back thirty years and compared to now, yes there are many, but I think it is more a result of the fight by families of the victims themselves. They built the laws with their fingernails, without being lawyers, starting with their needs, their dreams and their longing for such a terrible series of crimes never to be repeated. In terms of memory, memory has always been like a byword for the relatives of the disappeared, for people not to forget the disappeared, because they are there, they had a family, they had a father, a mother, a name. So it is always about vindicating this, and I think that now it is seen as a little more important, and the work on memory is what we have gained, the result of so many relatives of the disappeared for so many years.

PBI: Andrea, you are going to Spain this year, what’s the purpose of your trip?

AT: The purpose of the trip is to share the latest investigation by the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation which shows that forced disappearances continue to take place, perhaps in a different context and perhaps with other people responsible, but they continue to happen and it is precisely to bring to light this impunity that is so sophisticated that not even the norms that were created internally, nor the conventions that were ratified internationally have been able to stop this abuse.

We especially want to show the situation of disappeared women, we have undertaken an investigation that shows how these aggressions against women operate, how the effects of forced disappearance are different when the victims are women and also because we are also part of the framework of the Convention on forced disappearance. The Colombian State has this year to present a report on how it is working on forced disappearances. We are building a counter-report in which we say what is really happening in practice and in real life for the families.

PBI: What part has PBI had in the years the Foundation has been in existence, and what do you think that it can bring from here forward?

AT: I think that my mother Yaneth Bautista is one of the first women to be accompanied by Peace Brigades, which enabled her to stay on in the country for many years before going into exile.  Now for the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation, with how difficult the security situation has really been, it has always been the support, the organisation that comes to our help first when we have one of these problems, to accompany us, and I think that for us, it is much more effective than even the bodyguards provided by the Colombian State, for them to see you alongside us, accompanying us, and all the systems like the office daily rounds, the visits, we think that it provides a lot for us to keep doing our work.

Also in terms of bringing to light certain issues, in some countries in Europe, the tour we are doing is supported by Peace Brigades and I think that highlighting certain issues and once again talking about forced disappearances with the international community is very gratifying and necessary for putting back on the agenda the important issue of forced disappearances.

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