Students filled the Salisbury-Young room Friday to hear about the atrocities committed by government-supported paramilitary groups, who have kidnapped thousands of Colombians since the 1960s. Colombian human rights activist Javier Enrique Barrera Santa spearheaded the discussion with contributions from Amnesty International (AI) Urgent Action Coordinator Mary Beth Goring.
“It’s very important for me to be able to speak to students themselves,” Barrera Santa said. “Students have been important in showing solidarity and support for students who are disappeared in Mexico, and I want to point out that in Colombia we also have a lot of disappeared people, including students.”
Barrera Santa’s talk centered on the thousands of Colombians taken by right-wing paramilitary groups within the country. These groups abduct people who they claim pose a threat to the order and stability of the nation, and many them even receive support from the Colombian government.
Barrera Santa leads the Medellín branch of the Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared (ASFADDES), an organization that raises awareness about these kidnapped Colombians and provides support groups for their families. Santa’s goals are to help families understand their rights, search for their disappeared family members, get reparations and answers and help families find the bodies of the deceased.
Barrera Santa made it his life’s mission to help families of kidnapped persons after his brother, Oscar Leonel Barrera, was taken by paramilitary groups in 1998. He said working with ASFADDES has also helped him recover from his brother’s death.
“For myself, this is a process of grief work and healing,” Barrera Santa said. “It’s an internal drive to help other people who went through the same thing that my family went through.”
Students also heard from Goring, whose objective is to support victims of these paramilitary groups and pressure the government to take action. She leads a letter-writing campaign to express support for the release of prisoners of conscience—people imprisoned for their religion, sexual orientation, race, political views or non-violent expression of their beliefs—and advocate for the defense and protection of people under threat.
“The overall effect [of AI] is that it creates so much pressure on the government that they will often release prisoners to make themselves look good,” Goring said.
Goring was the impetus for Barrera Santa’s speech at Occidental. She contacted Occidental’s Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) program when she found out that Barrera Santa would be touring the United States. She reached out to professor Carina Miller, who teaches Human Rights in Latin American through Literature and Film. Miller and fellow DWA professor Laura Herbert then invited Berrera Santa and Goring to speak to their respective classes and other interested students.
Miller supported the talk because she believes that the situation in Colombia is too often often overlooked in American news outlets.
“It is a country that has suffered, and still suffers, horrible levels of violence from a variety of sources including guerrillas, the army, drug traffickers, paramilitary groups and other criminal groups,” Miller said. “We don’t hear much about this, perhaps because of traditionally friendly U.S.-Colombian relations.”
Students agreed that hearing Barrera Santa speak was an eye-opening experience.
“I liked how honest it was,” Lily Goldfarb (first-year) said. “[Barrera Santa] highlighted the brutal realities of Columbia then and now. It changes your whole perspective on a situation when you are able to put a very human face to an event.”