“Of the 1,151 municipalities in Colombia, only 66 have not registered forced disappearances”: Erik Arellana

From 30 August 1987, the day that changed Erik Arellana Bautista’s life forever, and then became one of the most well-known activists against forced disappearance in Colombia, and of the impacts of this crime, as he is the son of Nydia Erika Bautista. Since his adolescence he has campaigned against this crime, using art and activism, adding his voice to the thousands of people in Colombia who are searching for their loved ones and for the truth about what happened to them.

Erik and a group of friends recently published the “still unfinished and invisible story”: Map of forced disappearance in Colombia. This work compiles maps and stories from different times and different areas of the country when people have been victims of forced disappearance, and cross-references different official data related to this crime. In Colombia there are officially more than 80,000 people who have been disappeared, and according to what Erik tells us “we suppose that for each reported case there is one more that has not been reported for fear of the repercussions”.In the current context of the search for truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition, this project aims to offer elements to social organisations and victims, so that they can keep analysing, raising awareness and demonstrating ways in which forced disappearance has been used as a systematic tool to sow terror throughout the country.

We talk to Erik so that he can tell is a bit more about his work.

“The work has different perspectives: an ethical, humanistic view that puts the perspective of the victims above any other discourse because we have been victims and because the other members of the team have been accompanying victims”

Erik bis_blog

Laura: Your work as an artist and activist shows a strong commitment kinked to your personal family history. Could you tell us a bit about that and some of the human rights work you have done?

Erik It all started in my teens. When my mother was disappeared I joined the Association of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees (Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos – ASFADDES) and that was a period of growth for me, I met some really committed women. After we found the remains of my mother in 1990, I was 16 years old and decided to get some academic training that would allow me to support the work of ASFADDES and so I studied radio and television. After that first training I went on to study journalism so that I could communicate to the world what family members live through and the socio-political violence I was experiencing. Later, I studied literature, my true vocation, at the National University of Colombia. In the month of May 1997, while I was studying there, two CINEP investigators, Elsa Alvarado and Mario Calderón were murdered and several human rights organisations discovered that there was a plot to kill human rights defenders and several death squads were present in Bogotá, with the arrival of the paramilitarism. I was the fourth name on the death list. I received direct protection from Peace Brigades International (PBI) and three days later I was forced to leave the country.

Kites in the Sky

During that first exile, far from the direct violence, I became interested in art and I had the opportunity to attend the Kassel art school in Germany and I started working with documentary film as my first tool. My first films were mainly about Colombian exiles in Europe, then I returned to Colombia to make a documentary aiming to reconstruct that story of ASFADDES, its origins, and the case of the Palace of Justice, about the impact of the political repression at that time when there were around 2,000 victims of forced disappearance in Colombia. In the following years I dedicated my time to making several documentaries about this and also some artistic works that were my first most poetic mappings of the city, in which I named the streets of Bogotá after disappeared persons. Then I returned to Colombia to make a documentary with the Nasa indigenous community in Cauca, when I was once again threatened and I had to leave the country again. I studied visual communication at the Bauhaus School of Art in Eastern Germany. And in 2006, when I finished my master’s degree, I came back to live in Colombia and began a series of works with artistic collectives, where we tried to bring the reality of rural and small-scale farming communities to the city, as well as offering training in art, expression and human rights in communities such as Dabeiba, San José de Apartadó, in the Magdalena Medio and in Cimitarra, with indigenous communities. My work has always been very committed, very educational, and that has been the meaning of my work as an intellectual, social and political co-responsibility. It has been an exploration of languages, of approaches to Colombian reality, and also an attempt to raise awareness not only within Colombia but also with the international community about this enormous human drama.

Nydia Erika Bautista

What does forced disappearance represent in Colombia both in the past and the present?

The crime of enforced disappearance contains several crimes. Not only does it involve abduction, torture, murder and concealment of a body, but it also has family, social and political impacts that cause terror. It is a kind of prolonged psychological torture because it leaves no answers, and so the uncertainty has a permanent impact over time, insofar as there is no justice. The levels of impunity in our country are very high and there is no social awareness that it is not a crime directed against a single person but against a community and against society in general. These impacts also continue to exist over time.

This is a serious issue in a country that is supposedly democratic. In the dictatorships in Argentina there was talk of 30 thousand people being victims of forced disappearances and here we have three times that amount, and we are in a democracy. We wonder what kind of democracy this is. Also, this is not a crime from the past, it continues to be carried out in both rural areas and cities, it is a crime in which there are no witnesses, no evidence, no bodies, no perpetrator, and this is an incentive to the perpetrators because it is not investigated, there are no exemplary convictions and so it continues to be committed.

The search for truth and justice for family members has been a determining factor to progress being made in cases of forced disappearance. Can you tell us a bit about this?

 As I was saying, I was very young when I started working on this and when I started to join the social movement, and I saw how many years it took in collective crimes for the perpetrators to be found and punished. Huge occurrences, such as in 1985 in front of the Palace of Justice, were never tried in Colombia, the case had to reach the Inter-American Court of Human Rights before the government reacted and began to search, identify and return the bodies to their relatives.

In that first period I discovered not only the negligence on the part of the judges who did not investigate, but also the apathy of society and the responsibility of Presidents, because as family-member organisations we sent 12 bills to the Congress of the Republic so that the crime of forced disappearance would be classified as a crime in Colombia. Disappearances began to be systematically practiced; it is said that it has been happening since the 70’s (the National Historical Memory Centre says that there have been forced disappearances since 1958) and it was not until the year 2000 that forced disappearance was considered a crime within our country. And that was achieved thanks to the insistence of family members and accompanying organisations.


Several of the family members suffered reprisals and had to go into exile, many others were disappeared, as was the case of ASFADDES members Claudia Monsalve and Ángel Quintero. After the law was passed, we had to do a lot of work related to political advocacy, reporting, training other relatives, legal and psychological accompaniment, all from the lived experience of the family members who were positioning the issue and trying to elevate it to be heard by international bodies; promoting the ratification of the convention against enforced disappearances, the creation of the Commission to Search for Disappeared Persons, an urgent search mechanism. After the creation of the victims’ law the Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation and other organisations campaigned so that people are not forced to declare a presumed death instead of a disappearance, so that relatives of disappeared missing persons can receive humanitarian aid.

Because of the negligence of the Commission to Search for Disappeared Persons, we asked for the creation of the Unit to Search for Disappeared Persons. This has been the fruit of intense persistence. You see 80-year-old women on the marches, who started campaigning in the 70’s and 80’s against this crime. For the most part, it is women who have been carrying out this work, and the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice and Reparation have recognised that it is thanks to these women that we know that there are disappeared persons, convictions have been obtained, we know how to treat this issue and accompany a case. Everything has been thanks to these women who left their homes to report what was happening.

Not Alive Nor Dead: Disappeared

Can you tell us something about your Map of Forced Disappearance in Colombia?

This is a collective project with the organisation Human Rights Everywhere. We initially began to create a web page, which we wanted to leave as a repository of the experiences of both testimonies and works of art around forced disappearance, and the existing documentation on the subject, in addition to the analysis we were doing of the four existing official and state sources of information, none of which agree on the number of disappeared persons. We wanted to show these inconsistencies on the part of the Colombian state using cartography, which showed us the different figures as a map, trying to identify what had happened historically with forced disappearances in the country.

The work has different perspectives: an ethical, humanistic view that puts the perspective of the victims above any other discourse because we have been victims and because the other members of the team have been accompanying victims. Fidel Mingorance (co-coordinator of the project) worked in Peace Brigades International for a long time accompanying family members in Antioquia as well as Ángel Quintero. The human impact this phenomenon affected him greatly. Paco, the editor of the book, is a journalist who has accompanied people and victims in regions of Colombia and is an analyst of the Colombian conflict.

Fidel Mingorance (right) is a geographer and was a PBI volunteer from 1999 to 2003, mainly in the Medellín office where he accompanied Ángel Quintero (on the picture). Ángel is a victim of forced disappearance since October 6, 2000. In this photo he is next to Angel’s daughter, Adriana, who, along with her family, had to go into exile after the numerous threats they received in their work searching for their father and other family members also victims of enforced disappearances.

We decided to look at the causes and consequences of the phenomenon of forced disappearance at the geopolitical level, to look at what we also consider to be a phenomenon of territorial control, which has economic implications. We worked on the idea of ​​impunity because it seems important to highlight the way in which the phenomenon of disappearance has grown so much, when those responsible have not been punished, given that 99.5% of cases remain in impunity.

We have also discovered in this research work that of the 1,151 municipalities in Colombia, only 66 have not registered forced disappearances, which shows us that it is a phenomenon throughout the country. For us it was also important to historically recognise the victims and their perspective, which is why we also talk about how the first family organisations were formed, what their scope was both at the level of political advocacy and to position the issue of forced disappearances and the mechanisms of repression and censorship and impunity for family members.

The book is free to download at https://colombia.desaparicionforzada.com/ and soon we will deliver the report to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP).

Finally, what support do you think the international community has offered and can continue to offer in relation to this crime in Colombia?

I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to say that it is thanks to PBI that myself and my family are still alive. Thanks to the international community we were able to position the issue of enforced disappearances before international criminal courts and do advocacy work before the United Nations, at the political level. Thanks to the international community, organisations were also able to access training, economic and political support to continue reporting and doing their job. There are lots of reasons to thank the international community in terms of reporting, and there have been moments in which we have been able to raise awareness, but there has also been a counter effect after the signing of the Peace Agreements, because people in the outside world believe that the country has calmed down after the agreements were signed, and this is not true. The number of leaders, environmentalists and people from the political opposition who have been murdered is huge; but repression and stigmatisation of social movements also continues to exist; there are people who have not been killed but are constantly harassed and threatened. This is an alert to tell them to pay attention again because the situation has not improved: on the contrary we are extremely unprotected.

Erik during the commemoration of the 30st anniversary of the forced disappearance of his mother, Nydia Erika Bautista

Laura Carrasco

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