Walter Agredo is a member of the Political Prisoners’ Solidarity Committee Foundation (Fundación Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos – FCSPP), and is one of the human rights defenders that PBI have had the privilege of accompanying. He plays a key role in rebuilding the social fabric, something which many Colombian men and women have been calling for since the signing of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC-EP. He does this in a modest way, as rebuilding the social fabric can only be achieved through collective effort. Walter is one of those people that shine a light into the darkest corners of the conflict, bringing respect for human dignity to the most desolate of situations, which is a kind of justice that even the best of us often ignore. He has enough exciting stories and memories to fill more than one novel, is a clear thinker and has a passion for his admirable work.
Walter is the kind of person who cannot go unnoticed, no matter where he is. It is impossible not to notice his presence, because of the many qualities that he has and that he brings with him, wherever he may be. Of all the different qualities that Walter is able to bring to the spaces he shares with PBI, without a doubt the most noteworthy are his love of political resistance and justice and his skills as an orator. However, we would be selling him short if we didn’t also mention the flow of energy, passion and love of life that are so apparent in his daily work in the FCSPP. And spending time with someone like that teaches you something fundamental: human rights work is much more than formality and legal issues; it is the genuine attempt to bring dignity to life; for yourself and many others. There are constant invisible barriers, which limit and stigmatise those who dare to do this work in a country which even today shows rates of violence that are eclipsing the benefits of the Peace Agreement which made Colombia famous in 2016.
I meet Walter in a café in the city of Santiago de Cali. I am wearing my PBI jacket to make myself visible, because of his precarious situation as a threatened defender; work which is infinitely complex but completely necessary. Walter tells me that he received the latest threat just one day earlier. These threats are arriving all the time now without a pause. I remember that we spoke just two weeks ago about another threat he had received containing his full name. The threats are like drops of rain during a monsoon: relentless, muddying everything in their path, and with an unpredictable capacity for destruction. He tells me that he has already filed an official complaint. That is why a number of officials from the police intelligence agency (SIJIN) and the Procurator General’s Office have visited the offices of the FCSPP branch in the Valle del Cauca department. Unthinkingly, across the distance that separates us, I say “that’s good, isn’t it?” To which he replies: “It’s always the same. Then we never hear from them again until the next threat arrives”.
I try to make the impossible effort of understanding the ins and outs of the daily reality not only for Walter, but also for many others who like him have decided to support the reconstruction of a country submerged in over 50 years of internal conflict by working on human rights. I feel frustrated when I think about how his work is not only unpaid, he is also attacked for doing it. It is important to understand that international law not only seeks to protect individual rights, but also those that affect us all, regardless of the difference between borders, cultures, languages or gender; rights which aim to respect our humanity. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the crimes against these rights affect everyone, it is Walter and others like him who have become targets for all the different sides of the conflict.
This phenomenon sharply contrasts with the reality for other sectors of Colombian society. Walter tells me that during the football world cup, one of the players received a threat after Colombia’s first match. A short time afterwards, the State already knew the whereabouts of the people who had allegedly sent the violent missive: “anyone might think I would have to be a footballer, celebrity or actor for the threats I’ve been getting since 2008 to be investigated”. In Walter’s case, after more than ten years of continuous threats, no-one has been indicted or arrested for the silent torture he faces as a member of the Solidarity Committee. Instead there is total impunity, as though carrying out this kind of violence against someone, submitting them to inhumane punishment, is something that we can simply make light of or not take seriously.
There is no doubt that receiving threats since 2008 can, and indeed does, have terrible after-effects for a person and their life. Walter openly tells me this: “those who have been murdered are dead, which is terrible; but being threatened brings endless terror”. It is also extremely difficult to imagine the devastation that this practice brings to the lives of ordinary citizens who are not part of the armed conflict and are merely carrying out legitimate work defending human rights.
This situation is all too real in a country like Colombia where news of the latest two massacres is still fresh. The first was committed against seven small-scale producers in Argelia (Cauca), and the second against eight people in a bar in Tarra (Catatumbo, Norte de Santander). A country that took to the streets on Friday 6 July, with thousands of people attending public events to mourn the social leaders and human rights defenders killed after the signing of the peace agreements in 2016. The figures are alarming: according to the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, there have been 311 such killings; while the Public Prosecutor’s Office reports 181. In spite of the discrepancy in this data, the figures are high enough to take seriously the capacity of the perpetrators to fulfil their threats and unleash terror all over the country. The reality is that impunity prevails in the face of these events, causing irreparable damage for people attacked by endless pamphlets and phone calls that aim to stop their work and silence any type of collective effort.
In Walter’s words, the worst thing about this context is the “lethargy” in the country. The defender looks uncomfortable as he highlights the fact that not one of the multitude of protests that took place called for an end to the threats. Despite the abandonment and isolation he feels as a person living under threat, Walter continually refers to the desperate situation of others who, like him, suffer this violence in even more complex localities, such as in rural areas. Although I can hardly imagine the intense anxiety he suffers, he is still able to talk about other cases that, from his perspective, “are much worse”.
Walter is currently accompanying some of the 34 cases of small-scale producers, social and political leaders from Nariño and Cauca who are under arrest and imprisoned, accused of being members of the guerrilla. As part of this work, Walter made a statement to the press declaring that the FCSPP: “considers that the social movement and grassroots movements are being persecuted in this country, through falsified evidence and large-scale criminal proceedings”. He is also monitoring the trial in the case of a young female student who was allegedly killed by the army on the road to Buenaventura, in the Valle del Cauca department. He tells me that the trial did not take place until recently, some ten years after such a heinous crime. On that occasion Walter took the girl’s mother to the trial, where she came face to face with her daughter’s alleged murderers. He says that he will never forget her anguish and the way she shook with nerves.
Talking and sharing a few moments with Walter is like a tonic to revitalise dignity; something that we all need, without exception, and which is beyond any border, culture, race, language and/or gender. This meeting would not be the same if it was taking place outside of Colombia, in another place than this one that nourished him and watched him grow. For Walter it is not risky to be here, it is part of his life. In 2013, however, he was exiled to Spain for six months after assailants went three times to his office to kill him. It is fundamental that everyone commits to ending the threats, persecution, political smear campaigns and killings of leaders, so that they are not forced to stop their work, or be condemned to live as outsiders.
Colombia deserves the presence and vitality of defenders like Walter Agredo, and this is even more the case after the Havana Peace Agreement. It is impossible to imagine a place that deserves and needs this effort to bring dignity to human life and land more than Walter’s homeland, Colombia.
Eventually I say goodbye to Walter, telling him that I hope this time is different, that it will be the first time he will get an effective response from the state’s protection mechanism, and the last time he will receive a threat. He says goodbye by telling me about a new song he thinks I might like.
Actualidad RT: Amenazan de muerte a colombiano Carlos Sánchez por la tarjeta roja que le sacaron en el Mundial, 21 June 2018
 El Colombiano: Fiscalía, a punto de hallar responsable de amenaza contra futbolista Carlos Sánchez, 22 June 2018
 Semana: Autoridades confirman hallazgo de siete cuerpos en zona rural de Argelia (Cauca), 3 July 2018
 El Tiempo: Masacre de 8 personas en El Tarra agudiza el conflicto en el Catatumbo, 30 July 2018
 Caracol: Velatón para rechazar los asesinatos de líderes del país, 6 July 2018
 Colombia 2020, El Espectador: Las medidas del Estado para proteger a los líderes sociales, 10 July 2018
Verdad Abierta: https://verdadabierta.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/ACCIO%CC%81N-URGENTE-DETENCIONES-MASIVAS-ABRIL-2018.pdf, 20 April 2018
Caracol Noticias: https://noticias.caracoltv.com/jscroll_view_entity/node/169577/full, 23 April 2018
El Tiempo: http://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/CMS-3665929, 3 August 2007