“Nydia Erika Bautista” Foundation
The “Nydia Erika Bautista” Foundation (FNEB) was created in exile after the Bautista family had to leave the country due to threats in 1997. The organization has managed to place the problem of the enforced disappearance of more than eighty thousand people as a result of the armed conflict on the national agenda, and has promoted national legislation on the subject. It works for the effective implementation of search mechanisms for missing persons and the guarantee of the rights of family members, with a special focus on the empowerment of women as promoters of a Colombia in peace and without missing persons.
First organization to fight enforced disappearance
FNEB was created in 1999 in exile in Germany, after ten years of fighting against enforced disappearances during the Colombian armed conflict and, in particular, for justice in the case of Nydia Erika Bautista.1 In 1982, economist and sociologist Bautista joined the now-defunct 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril, M-19), a social-democratic urban guerrilla that combined armed struggle with social work.2 Five years later, Bautista was disappeared in what would later be confirmed to be a joint operation of Brigades III and XX of the National Army. There are indications that she suffered torture and sexual violence during her captivity before being executed, and her body was left in a cemetery in Guayabetal (department of Cundinamarca) as an “unnamed person”.3
From the day of her disappearance, for Nydia Erika’s sister Yanette began the long journey to seek clarification of the crime and punishment of those responsible. In an interview with PBI (2015), Yanette recalls: “I was the Executive Secretary of a multinational company and at that moment I decided to change my life, take off my high heels and put on my running shoes, and go out to look for Nydia and search for justice, and that’s what I do to this day.”4
This fight for truth and justice has not been without risks. As investigations of the case progressed, threats, persecutions, and constant illegal surveillance also increased, so much so that in 1997 Yanette and other family members had to leave the country for years. From Germany, Nydia Erika’s sister continued to carry out activities for the disappeared and their families in Colombia and other countries. Given the large number of families who came to Yanette to seek help, the family decided to create the Foundation, as an organization of relatives for relatives.
FNEB was the first Colombian organization to address the issue of enforced disappearance. Since 2007, the organization has resumed its work in the country.5
Army officers go free
Despite all the evidence and national and international calls for legal entities to act, the condemnation of the Colombian State by the UN Human Rights Council (1995) and its request for a thorough investigation, to this day no justice has been done in the case. The officers and non-commissioned officers of the III and XX Brigades who coordinated the crime remain free and the criminal process was closed in 2006.6
In her tireless efforts to achieve justice, Yanette Bautista has been a pioneer in the fight against enforced disappearance in Colombia. Despite the magnitude of the events – the National Centre for Historical Memory reported 80.000 victims of this atrocity as of August 20187 – this problem has been kept invisible to the public eye for decades. The insistence of Bautista and FNEB contributed to the inclusion of enforced disappearances as a rallying cause for the human rights movement and has helped to put this issue on the State agenda, pushing the Colombian State to finally recognize it as a crime in 2000, when a law against enforced disappearance was issued.8
Working to protect victims and search for justice
FNEB takes an integral and participatory approach, from the perspective of the victims, to the protection of the rights of relatives affected by enforced disappearance. Their accompaniment tries to address all the impacts of this crime.
The families of the disappeared are headed mostly by women, who face serious mental health damage as well as the “invisibility, stigmatization and historical indolence of the State and society, which re-victimizes them”, according to the organisation. They are left defenceless at a legal, social and humanitarian level and generally have very little knowledge about their rights.9 This situation has not changed since the signing of the Peace Agreement between the Government and the FARC guerrillas in 2016, as forced disappearances continue to occur.
Today in Colombia, there are tens of thousands of relatives who have been searching for their loved ones for more than ten, twenty, thirty, and even forty years, without any response. FNEB helps them in their search and in achieving the legal investigation and punishment of those responsible. In its work it prioritises cases of victims of enforced disappearance at the hands of State agents and paramilitaries, with a small percentage of disappearances committed by the guerrillas. The Foundation provides legal support to numerous victims before the responsible authorities and ordinary as well as before transitional justice entities that were created as a result of the peace agreements.10
FNEB also conducts participatory research, which takes the perspectives and needs of victims as a starting point, as well as activities for awareness raising, advocacy and dissemination. An integral component of the organisation’s strategies is the promotion of the rights and dignity of family members, especially women. To this day, family members who struggle to clarify facts of enforced disappearance continue to be the target of stigmatization, threats, harassment and persecution. Through training and leadership building activities, FNEB contributes to the empowerment of women victims as promoters of a Colombia without missing persons.
Addressing enforced disappearance to promote peace
According to FNEB, raising public awareness among State actors and within civil society about the damages caused by enforced disappearances and the importance of searching for victims, building historical memory of the facts, and achieving fair reparation and guarantees of non-repetition, are all paths towards peace and democracy in the country.11
The Foundation has been a protagonist in achieving that the issue of enforced disappearance be included in the 2016 peace agreement, as well as in its implementation. As one of the civil society representatives whose contributions were taken into account by the FARC and Government peace negotiators, the organisation had an impact on Point 5 of the Final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace12, which includes the search for loved ones who disappeared during the armed conflict, clarification of the truth of what happened, and reparation of the damage caused to people, groups and entire territories due to enforced disappearance.13
“The signing of the peace accords gives us hope. We place our bets on peace, saying yes to peace, to no more missing persons in Colombia,” says Yanette Baustista, “So that our children and young people have the right to go out onto the streets without fear of being disappeared, and if they are disappeared, they have the right to come back alive, as they were taken from us alive.”14
Today, the organization dedicates itself to documenting hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances that occurred during the armed conflict in different regions of the country. The accounts of the events are included in reports submitted to the Commission for the Clarification of Truth (CEV), the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) and the Search Unit for Presumed Disappeared Persons (UBPD).15 This colossal work includes the systematization of testimonies and declarations of victims, witnesses and the perpetrators of the crimes, as well as organising the legal files and the treatment that has been given to these cases to achieve truth and justice.
Women, from victims to political actors
A specific focus of the Foundation are cases of enforced disappearances of girls and women in the armed conflict and as a result of socio-political violence in the country, in which signs of gender violence have been identified.
Through its publications and advocacy, FNEB wants to draw attention to the differential impacts that enforced disappearances have left on the lives, bodies and rights of female victims and of the women who seek missing relatives. In 2015, the organization published a study documenting cases of women who have disappeared since the 1980s, including that of Nydia Erika Bautista.16 The study sheds light on this specific form of forced disappearance that has been hidden in the history of the Colombian conflict.
In its work with victims of enforced disappearance, the organization prioritises a gender-based approach, aimed at meeting the specific needs of women. For Bautista, the importance of this differential perspective resides among other things in its political component: “We also promote the gender-based approach to convert women from objects of violence into political actors through empowerment.” Although it’s true that women as survivors of enforced disappearance are disproportionately hit by the impacts of this problem, they are also the most resilient. In Yanette Bautista’s experience, “it’s a particular characteristic of women to engage in actions of resistance and resilience against forced disappearances. We’re tougher, with higher pain thresholds, when facing the perpetrators. We are turning this strength of ours into struggle.”17
FNEB currently accompanies several local and regional organisations led by women. It supports “Tell to Live” (“Narrar para vivir”), the network of women who are victims and survivors of violence committed during the armed conflict in the Montes de María region, which has joined forces with FNEB to address enforced disappearance.18 In the department of Bolívar and the Caribbean Coast, the Foundation works with “Woman Follow My Steps” (“Mujer sigue mis pasos”), an organization of female victims of sexual violence19, and in Buenaventura with Mothers for Life (“Madres para la vida”), an organisation made up of mothers, wives and daughters of victims of homicide crimes and crimes against humanity, such as enforced disappearance, in various neighbourhoods of this port city on the Pacific Coast.20
Several of the leaders who run these organizations are at high risk as their activities are hampered by threats and harassments. Some have had to move to safer places to live and continue their work.21
Search for missing persons with an ethnic focus
Recently, FNEB has started working on the search for missing persons with an ethnic focus. It’s the first organisation in Colombia, and possibly in Latin America, to have carried out research with a specific focus on Afro-descendant and indigenous populations.
According to data from the National Victims Unit, of the persons registered as disappeared in the country until 2016, more than 2.000 are indigenous people and almost 7.000 are Afro-descendants. Experts agree that in ethnic populations, forced disappearance has generated multiple violations and parallel affectations to their rights such as physical, spiritual and psychological integrity, belonging to a community and cultural identity.22
For this reason, FNEB has been insisting that the new Search Unit for Persons Presumed Missing created by the Peace Accord include a differential ethnic approach. Ethnic populations in the country have historically been discriminated against and investigations and searches for missing persons are no exception. According to Yanette Bautista, “it’s a dramatic situation, because if the search for family members has been difficult for white or mixed-race persons, it does not compare with the negligence and inefficiency faced by Afro or indigenous victims.”23
In 2019, the organisation began an exchange of experiences between indigenous peoples of Guatemala and Colombia, facilitated here in Colombia by FNEB, to promote the reconstruction of the social fabric and the recovery of the indigenous worldview in relation to enforced disappearance. In the future, exhumations in indigenous territories are expected to be carried out with this ethnic focus.24
At the level of strategic litigation, the organisation has managed to ensure that the San Marcelino Reserve in the Putumayo department, where nearly a hundred families of the Kichwa indigenous ethnic group live, was declared a “notorious case”, that is, of great importance.25 This action meant that the Superior Court of Putumayo ordered the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the National Ombudsman to document and receive all the denouncements of enforced disappearance, extrajudicial execution and rape. The responsible authorities have never received these cases before, leaving them in total impunity and the relatives, defenceless and abandoned.
Leadership school for victims’ empowerment
FNEB conducts workshops to train and raise awareness among victims of enforced disappearances, mostly women, and social leaders who work on this issue. In the so-called Leadership School, which is held in the different regions where the Foundation is present, training is offered on topics such as gender violence during the conflict and victims’ rights. Participants in the Leadership School also collect life stories from communities affected by enforced disappearances in order to build historic memory.
For FNEB, this is a tool for empowerment, which helps the victims to no longer be objects of violence, but rather to become active promotors of strategies to cope with the damages caused and to demand justice and the restitution of their rights.26 The School encourages the people that have been trained to share their experiences and knowledge in their communities.
FNEB’s directives have precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) since 1997. Currently, the Foundation has protection schemes granted by the National Protection Unit (UNP), for its legal coordinator and its director, Yanette Bautista.
Threats and attacks
Since Yanette Bautista took part in the first delegation of victims to participate in the peace negotiations in Havana (2014) until today, the organization’s level of risk has sharply increased. FNEB members have been victims of accusations, threats, theft of information and other security incidents.
In a public debate in September 2014, senator and former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez falsely accused Yanette Bautista of being part of the ELN guerrilla27 – an accusation which, in a country with high rates of violence against human rights defenders, involves great risks. Other security incidents include emails and pamphlets in which the organisation was declared a military target, signed by the Capital Block of the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras), as well as surveillance and persecution of individual members of the organization.
These threats often have a clear undertone of gender violence. For example, in a call received in June 2015 by Andrea Torres Bautista, coordinator of the legal area, an unknown man warned her “we’re going to kill you (…), but first we’ll rape you so you’ll respect men”.28
Recently there has been an increase in security incidents. In January 2019, a man attacked and damaged the facade of the Foundation’s headquarters in Bogotá, a fact that, according to international organisations which denounced the events publicly and to the Colombian government, was politically motivated and related to FNEB’s human rights defence work.29 Yanette Bautista predicts that risks may become even more acute in the short and medium term, due to the judicial processes that the organisation is leading to clarify events of forced disappearance at the hands of paramilitaries and State agents.30
Awards and recognition
In 1999, Yanette Bautista received the Catholic University of Eichstatt (Germany) Shalom Award as well as the Human Rights Award from Amnesty International Germany, both of them in recognition of her work for the detained and disappeared in Latin America.
In 2012, the Foundation received the “Antonio Nariño” Franco-German Human Rights Award, for their work to empower relatives of the victims of enforced disappearance and to the claim the right to truth and justice as a contribution to peace building.
Finally, in 2020 FNEB was selected as a finalist for the National Award for the Defence of Human Rights from the Swedish organisation Diakonia, in the category “Collective process of the year”.
We have been accompanying FNEB occasionally from 2007 and in full since 2016.